I just finished reading “The Martian”, by Andy Weir.
Great book. GREAT book. Must read. Go buy it or check it out from the library.
FWIW, the book adds some depth and explanations to what you see in the movie. One big change that actually makes the book more scientific than the movie (thank goodness).
And this is the point.
In a story, you have to have conflict and obstacles. If the story is just “Hero wants treasure, and finds it. The End” no one is going to enjoy it. So you add in an obstacle, like a monster.
“Hero wants treasure, finds it, but has to kill a monster to get it. He kills the monster easily. The End” is not much better.
A good story has lots of obstacles that the hero must overcome in a believable manner. If overcoming the problems is too easy, the protagonist is a boring Marty Stu/Mary Sue.
To make a good story, the protagonist has to struggle, and has to learn something.
This is one of the weaknesses of game-based stories: “You can almost hear the dice rolling.” The main characters have battles, but it’s just swing and miss until the bad guys collapse.
One of the biggest challenges to writing is creating obstacles that seem realistic to the readers, that aren’t overcome too easily, and that don’t make trivial tasks seem difficult just to add drama.
In science fiction and fantasy, you are introducing concepts that break the rules of current reality. That makes it even more difficult to create a coherent, believable system of obstacles.
“The Martian” is so good *because* the author researched everything, did all the math, and ensured that every obstacle and every solution were as close to real-life as possible.
This is probably why it got a movie treatment, as well.
It’s Science Fiction, but only barely. It’s the hardest of hard science fiction, but without getting too caught up in numbers, or the author showing off how much he knows.
Everything that happens to Mark is realistic, and every solution he comes up with is realistic, as well. That adds to the greatness of the story.
Now, that doesn’t mean every story should be hard science fiction. Not at all. It just means that if you avoid hard science fiction to avoid sticky problems of math, you create a different set of problems for yourself.
There is no good or bad choice in this. But awareness by the author of what your goal is, and what is needed from you to reach the goal, is key.
I’m now reading “Artemis” by the same author.
Good book so far. Hard SF, again. And the better for it.
The other day I shared that I think the Left, and particularly the US Left, are politically children. This isn’t a political post…I bring it up as an introduction: I identify them as immature because they are only concerned with some power giving them what they want, without costs or trade-offs.
This is from my assumption that with maturity comes wisdom. Chesterton’s Fence is a good example of how a mature mindset plays out in real life. The more times you’ve been around the sun, the more times you’ve seen well-meaning policy changes founder on reality, due to unintended consequences or short-term thinking. After all, we haven’t needed this fence within the last 10 years or so of memory in the person wanting to tear it down…it is only the aged that realize the fence was established to prevent or ameliorate a once-every-twenty-years event.
Game of Thrones includes the warnings of wisdom in its repeated reminder that “Winter is coming.” Most of the people battling for power and control had lived their whole lives in one of Westeros’ sometimes decades-long summers.
We are creatures of experience, and we doubt our parents. We consider them moribund, hopelessly behind the times, and clueless about the way the world works now. This is one of the themes of Generation Ships, or even of interstellar colonies in which civilization collapse: the parents have stories of Old Earth, and the Old Ways, and technology, but the children consider them fairy tales and society devolves to a lower level of civilization in ignorance.
So there is a a good story topic, if you want: We haven’t had a new Generation Ship story in generations, I don’t think. Except instead of writing how children dismiss the stories of their parents and civilization devolves, you could write a story of what the on-ship society does to prevent the devolution of technology and civilization. Instead of what goes wrong in a cautionary tale, explore the obstacles and propose solutions. There is still a good story in the drama of overcoming obstacles to retain civilization, and of the people who live through it.
The reason I have been thinking about “generation” ships, however, is because the pace of counter-aging research appears to be picking up. I think this is because Moore’s Law means computing power has advanced to the point that we can actually begin to control for all the variables in the aging process. We can actually track the degradation of cell functioning, and how the decline of one cell, or one tissue, or one system, impacts and affects others. The human body is so complex, and so the aging process is so complex, it makes sense that the computing power of 10 years ago might still be inadequate.
In any case, there are reports that some researchers are already conducting trials on counter-aging of pets, like dogs. Researchers already have a better grasp of how telomere length impacts aging, and the problems of artificially lengthening the telomeres. We have enough modern data to know how exercise and learning help preserve and retain youthful health so that fewer years are spent in mental and physical decline…this is important, because with lifespan extension, you want an increase in enjoyable years, not an increase in years spent in a nursing home, or attached to a machine. Even a few years ago, researchers discovered that you can extend both life and functional youth by at least a decade with just a combination of two substances that clear out senescent cells, which prevent aging damage to nearby cells. Of the two substances, one is cheap (you can get sufficient quantities by eating a spoonful of capers every day), and the other is rare enough to cost $50k/dose (which I think is every month). Obviously, the goal is to reduce the cost of the second substance to a realistic number. And even aside from that, there is some compelling evidence that simply getting transfusions of young blood can help delay aging…but I’m not sure if it can actually reverse it (can it cause hair gone gray to begin to recolor? Doubtful.)
As I like to say, I originally thought that aging, and thus most disease (which if often aging-related, as body systems that prevent disease break down), and even natural death would be fully solved in my grandchildren’s lifetime. Then I began to think my children might have a shot at it. Now I believe that if I keep myself in good shape, staying as mentally and physically young as I can, they will conquer aging in my lifetime.
I *hope* it will end up as the ability to select the age you you want (and I would probably choose late 30s…just before presbyopia set in), but even if it just ends up at only being able to slow aging to the point that we have extra decades, I have made it my goal to live to age 130, with enough health and vigor to enjoy it.
But what would that do to society?
Tolkien’s elves live for centuries. He then posited a lower birth rate, or else elves would have choked the world with their numbers, and I think that is probably correct.
Larry Niven had boosterspice in his stories, and it was the key to one of his plots, in that a woman was concealing her advanced age as part of a scam, and had to “pretend” to trip…Niven assumed that with age and experience would come grace that would arise from greater experience on how to avoid things like tripping. [shrug]. I guess I can understand that, from the standpoint that kids are clumsy…we even call teenagers or young adults coltish, in that they aren’t yet accustomed to new height after a growth spurt.
Some vampire stories certainly try to display the increased knowledge vampires have from centuries of experience on the earth.
But for the most part, I am not really impressed with the maturity shown by most of the long lifespan individuals in most science fiction stories.
This is a problem for writers: how do you write beyond yourself? Can you only write at your own intelligence? Meaning, how can you write a genius character if you aren’t a genius yourself? I think this is easier than it sounds: most of intelligence is speed. The more intelligent you are, the fewer repetitions you need to learn and understand something, the more quickly you learn when and where you can take mental shortcuts, etc. Intelligence doesn’t always mean insight that leads to wisdom. So you can write a brilliant character merely by thinking things through, and having the character able to make leaps of logic or grasp things immediately, that other people would need more time to get.
But maturity….that’s another problem.
Some maturity issues are easy to see and understand. Obviously, children want immediate gratification, so you can write a mature character by having them delay gratification, see the long view.
I know I’ve matured quite a bit since age 25. But I also think I’ve matured quite a bit in just the last few years. I understand so many more things about my wife, about relationships, and about male/female differences in just the last five years, and I’m over 50. So what insights will I have when I’m closing in on 100? Can I imagine those?
One aspect of maturity is because you’ve seen it all before, you have more patience in frustrating situations. On the other hand, with age comes an “I’m too old for this crap.” impatience. I’d argue the first is mature, the second is merely advanced age immaturity, but that’s an aspect worth considering more deeply yourself. But I do think if we had leaders with three centuries of experience, there would be an increased willingness to let things play out on their own, to not see urgency in most crises, because intervention too often makes things worse.
The vampire stories posit that with age comes an understand of human nature that makes it easier to manipulate people. That might be true.
But I’d counter an inability to remember immature mindsets seems to come along often with maturity. The adults cannot remember the angst and worries of youth. The elderly don’t have the interest in keeping up with fashion, and trends, and fashionable thinking. It is possible to keep tabs on modern thought, but is it possible to do so well enough to be master manipulators? Without seeming out of touch? I’m not sure.
In any case, this is the science fiction topic you could tackle: if/when humans no longer *must* die (although accident, murder, suicide, and some illnesses will still result in death), how does it change society? Do people suicide when they get bored? Do we finally have the longevity to make terraforming Mars and colonization of interstellar systems possible (imagine a “generation ship” that takes two centuries to reach a Alpha Centauri, crewed/populated with people who fully expect to make the return trip within their lifetime). Do the aged withdraw from society as they grow bored with the immaturity of the young? Does the birth rate plummet? Or does colonization of the moon, Mars, Jupiter’s moons, and interstellar systems create enough room that we have a population explosion? Do the elderly ensconce themselves as leaders, guiding all of society with their greater knowledge? Do the young now chafe at the reduced chance of earning key roles, since no one ages out of a prominent position anymore? Or do they win key positions in corporations and government due to youthful exuberance and innovation?
If nothing in society changes except for everyone alive suddenly having a realistic chance to live for 500 years or more, what happens? There are a hundred different story possibilities to explore right there.
Go do it. I want to read some good stories that explore this issue, that will help us be prepared for it when it eventually happens.
I’m still struggling with the implications of “Story Genius”, as detailed here, here, and here.
For instance, blog proprietor PC Bushi responded to the last post with:
You had me until you said entertainment should not be the goal of a story. Strikes me that this is like saying enjoyment should not be the goal of a meal. Different meals and types of food aim at fulfilling different goals, just as different stories and types of writing do.
I wasn’t trying to say a story should not be entertaining, or even that a good story cannot just be nothing more than entertaining. My point was that if you are going to go to all the trouble to write an entertaining story, why not *also* make it compelling by adding in emotiona and character development? If you are going to read a story, won’t you be more entertained if you are more deeply invested in the protagonist’s struggles? Story Genius shows you how to get that.
The only thing is, the more I consider the book, the less certain I am that this is the only way to make a story more compelling.
I mean, I’m fully converted to the idea. It works. I can tell that it works by analyzing a bunch of successful movies, books, and television shows. I have also discovered there are a bunch of other successful movies, books, and television shows that are not centered on the crisis of a protagonist’s misbeliefs.
For instance, Star Wars is undeniably a great story. Luke *does* start out with a misbelief that adventure is a grand, fun thing, and preferable to boredom on a backwater planet.
This is a misbelief. In short order, he is nearly killed by Tusken Raiders, his adopted parents are brutally murdered, and his new mentor that promised to teach him a whole new set of skills, is cut down while he watches.
But that misbelief doesn’t come to a crisis. He isn’t forced to abandon his misbelief or face destruction. He just grows through it.
However, his emotional state *is* important to us throughout.
I think Die Hard is a great movie because as McClane is working things out with the terrorists, he’s also sort of working things out with his wife. Maybe his misbelief is that his wife no longer loves him. Or perhaps the misbelief that drives the story is his wife’s, in that she mistakenly believes he loves his job more than her. But it doesn’t drive the story to a crisis, the bad guys do. And the resolution of their relationship is more that he goes through all sorts of pain and danger to save her life, and that has a profound impact on both of them…but they don’t exactly work through it together.
However, their emotional state *is* important to us throughout.
All this being said, as I type this out, I don’t remember the author of “Story Genius” saying this is what you *must* use to write a compelling story. I don’t remember her saying this is the way every story should be written.
And now that I think of it in those terms, I can still fully recommend the book. In fact, I urge you to buy it. I think it still is the best $10 an aspiring-but-struggling writer can spend.
Because my final judgment is:
Writing a short story can be hard. It is too easy to start with enthusiasm and excitement, and still hit a snag that blocks you. It is too easy to paint yourself into a corner. It is too easy to struggle with developing the plot and not being sure your protagonist’s actions make sense.
Writing a novel is even more difficult. You have all the same problems as above, plus you have to layer in subplots. You have to escalate the stakes to maintain interest. You have to develop deeper characters than in a short story. You have to handle more characters, and make them all realistic. All this is too complicated: I can’t hold a novel in my mind. With this book, you don’t have to. It teaches you how to add compelling aspects to your story that grab the reader from the beginning and never lets go, how to develop and mine the protagonists’ backstory for realistic developments, how to layer in complex and interesting subplots, and how to make the reader see through the protagonists’ eyes instead of through the writer’s eyes.
It all works, even if you don’t want to write a story based on misbelief.
But if you want to get a story written and have it be compelling, it’s a great place start.
The implication (mentioned indirectly at least once) of the book is that this process will become second nature as you grow more familiar with it. You could adapt it to other types of stories, but this book intends to tell you about the easiest way to craft an entertaining, compeling, memorable novel. I think it does that.
For example, while Luke *does* have a misbelief about adventure, it doesn’t drive the story. If anything, the story of Star Wars says that Luke’s misbelief was only partial: it *was* fun, exciting, and enjoyable to fight his way off of the most secure enemy station in the history of the galaxy, join with other advanced pilots and, without any training, save the rebels from complete destruction. He is rewarded with fame and gratitude, and might even earn the love of a beautiful princess. Sure, his Aunt & Uncle and Old Ben had to die as part of the process, but they were going to die, eventualy, anyway, right?
The point is, Luke isn’t confronting the conflict his misbelief has created in what he wants and who he thinks he is. It just ends up not being quite so carefree as he hoped.
But we still care about Luke’s emotional reactions to what happens, and *that* drives the story. So what we learn in “Story Genius” still applies. It’s just writing a story in which an apparent misbelief actually turns out to be true.
There are plenty of other exceptions. But these can be your advanced attempts, after you have a few novels under your belt.
Why am I pushing this so hard? Well, I think better when I talk or write. But more importantly, if y’all write more enjoyable, gripping novels, I have better stuff to read. Buy the book, and write great novels!
I’ve been pushing this book lately, and not just on this blog. It has the unwieldy title of “Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)” so from now on, I will just call the book “Story Genius.”
I love the book so much. It forced a paradigm shift on writing that excites me and convinces me I will be a successful writer. It also concisely explained much of the dysfunction we see in society, because so many people are laboring under misbeliefs.
For instance, Socialists are laboring under the misbelief that if they can win total political control of all major government and social institutions, they can transform and perfect society so that everyone is equal (at best) or that no one suffers from need (at worst). There are so many misbeliefs in that assumption. I think homosexual activists have a misbelief that their unhappiness comes from social rejection, so if they can just force society to celebrate their identity in more and more aspects, they will finally be happy. The Right has the misbelief that if they just calmly and clearly explain their views and preferred policies, the Right will win elections, enact conservative legislation, and restore the US’ liberty and exceptionalism. I could go on for days about these misbeliefs, but it is evidence that the book is correct that everyone has misbeliefs.
That’s how it improved my life.
I’ve been mulling on its application to writing for a month now, however. *MUST* every story be a character development story? *MUST* every story start with a misbelief that gets resolved?
I’ve really been considering this question. I’ve re-thought this question in light of “13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” and “A Princess of Mars” and “Coming to America” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jack Reacher novels and even “Game of Thrones”.
My answer is that no, not every story must have a misbelief that causes the main character problems and gets resolved over the course of the story.
But the follow-up questions to that are: Do you want people to enjoy and recommend your story? Do you want to sell your story? Do you want to write *great* stories, or merely write stories?
Heroic action stories can be enjoyable. I don’t think the Jack Reacher stories ever have Jack Reacher holding a major misbelief or learning anything in the course of the story. He’s pretty much unchangeable (except that the author gives him mental abilities needed for the plot that mysteriously don’t exist in other stories where they might have been useful, but the author hadn’t thought them up yet weren’t needed for the plot). The interest in and success of those stories is the author starts with a perplexing situation, so you want to read to find out what is actually happening.
In “Game of Thrones”, the misbelief is actually on the part of the reader: George R. R. Martin set out to upend several major expectations of the reader, such as Plot Armor and Deaths Mean Something. I think he’s struggling to finish and the books are kind of fizzling out because you can only deny the expected tropes for so long. If he wants to finish, he’ll have to resolve the story, and it’s going to be trope-y as all get out.
So from that perspective, even if you aren’t dealing with a character’s misbelief, you are still using misbelief to make the story more interesting.
That admission aside, I think that while it isn’t *MANDATORY* to use the techniques in “Story Genius” to load your main character down with one or more misbeliefs that are resolved in the course of the story, it still is a good idea to do it.
Because the book has convinced me that the point of stories is to learn from other people’s mistakes. You can be entertained by the story, but entertainment is the bonus, and should not be the goal. We are hardwired to enjoy stories from childhood, but that doesn’t mean we should focus solely on the entertainment aspect. If we only care about entertaining, we might succeed, and the story might sell, but I don’t think it will have much staying power. Sure, it might catch on and become famous, and it might be read for generations, like Edgar Rice Burroughs “A Princess of Mars”. But that’s not the way to bet. That’s not a good model to base your own writing career on. When ERB wrote that book and invented those characters, there was no TV, there were no comic books, there were no smartphones, and even movies had no sound or color. Many people don’t read at all, and we don’t have a unified culture that allows an iconic character like John Carter or Dejah Thoris to capture the imagination of millions. Put another way: there is so much mindless entertainment already out there, it is advisable to do your best to find ways to stand out.
I think “Story Genius” gives you what you need to stand out.
“Story Genius” requires more prep-work, but in the end, it saves you time. It’s right there in the title “(before you waste three years writing 378 pages that go nowhere)”. It keeps you from getting stuck. It demands you consider every development in terms of the character’s misbelief, which provides a motive force for the story, and only then write the scenes…which keeps you from wasting as much time writing unnecessary filler that you’ll cut anyway.
The book helps you to add layers to your story via subplots. If everything ties back to both the misbelief driving the story *and* the visible plot developments, your story will have depth. I thought I might not be able to succeed as a writer because I couldn’t hold an entire novel’s plot in my head. With this book, I don’t have to.
I have a dozen stories that have foundered on the rocks of painting myself into a corner, plot-wise, or not knowing what to do next. Thinking about them in terms of misbeliefs resurrects their viability, because it gives me new ideas of how to make them compelling.
“Story Genius” tells you that the misbelief has reached a crisis in the character’s life. The character has kept the misbelief up until that point because it worked more or less. The misbelief perhaps kept the main character from enjoying life more, or from fulfilling some aspect of life, but it also kept the main character from disaster. But now the misbelief’s impact on the character’s life has come to a head. If the character retains the misbelief, their life will be destroyed. But if they accept life’s lessons and give up the misbelief, their self-image will be destroyed. Everyone thinks they are correct. Giving up a misbelief is not only admitting you were wrong (very hard for anyone to do), it also is admitting that you damaged your own life for years by not realizing it sooner.
People double down on mistakes. That’s how we hold onto misbeliefs. That’s why we hold onto misbeliefs. Only if everything you hold dear is threatened by the misbelief are we forced to actually confront the fact that what we beleived, what we thought kept us safe, was wrong.
Doesn’t that, as a writer, excite you? Wouldn’t you love to be able to write a story with that sort of impact, that level of import? “Story Genius” will show you how, and walk you through it.
If the main reason we like stories is because it allows us to safely learn from other people’s mistakes, then yes: underneath and on top of whatever else your story is, you should include a character development aspect. You should make your main character’s misbelief the driving force behind the story. It will make the story better, and will attract readers.
The only possible downside I can see from this is that it makes it harder to develop a character and setting and write an infinite number of stories in your “franchise”.
Frankly, I don’t see that as a downside. With the possible exception of Lois McMasters-Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, and the actual exception of the Jack Reacher and Matt Helm series, I don’t want or enjoy series focused on one main character. There can only be so many self-image-threatening misbeliefs in one character. Most authors don’t use the same character over and over. They invent new characters, and new settings.
My favorite author, CJ Cherryh, is my favorite writer because she was good at this. She had her universe, but she made new main characters for new stories to reveal different aspects of her universe, and it made it better.
Now she’s written an endless “Foreigner” series and I lost interest after book 6. No one learns anything. The main character is always right. I mean, maybe that’s not completely true, but it’s true enough around book 5 or 6 that I lost interest.
Same with Steven Brust’s Jhereg series. Same with the Miles Vorkosigan series, but only after book 10 or so, and that was because McMasters-Bujold used different viewpoint characters, allowing her to play off of the new characters’ misbeliefs.
Your fans may want an infinite number books with the same main character. I say, don’t give that to them. Make new, fresh characters. Wow them with your ability to create new compelling viewpoint characters, and stun them with your insight into human nature. “Story Genius” shows you how.
Two final thoughts:
No one enjoys message fiction, i.e., “Now I’m going to teach you something I think is true.” I think “Story Genius” helps you avoid that, by letting you put a misbelief into the main character. If I wanted to write something against Socialism (and I will), I would make my main character believe that humans are perfectible if they just have the right rules to follow and the right people in charge. And then I’d show that character how that misbelief will threaten everything they hold dear. Result: a great story that doesn’t seem preachy.
I haven’t finished my short story, and I haven’t started my novel (waiting to finish the short story). So maybe I’m wrong about all this. I don’t think I am. I’m stuck on some mechanical aspects of the short story (what traps or threats can I put into the underground crypt that will drive and highlight the main character’s viewpoint changes?), so I might just drop it for now and start another short story from scratch using this process. If so, I’ll let you see the results and let you judge if it results in a compelling story.
I can’t remember what thought process lead to this, but I was going to attempt a list of all the movies in which Liam Neeson dies.
It’s been done already, though. Of course it has.
So instead, here are my favorite Neeson deaths, of the ones I’ve seen:
1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Voiced by Liam Neeson, I’m not totally sure if Aslan’s death counts here, since there wasn’t really much (any?) voice work during the scene in question. However, it was probably the most affecting death on the list. Because Aslan is a good lion.
2. Krull: He was almost a no-name character here, but after having seen Krull so many times now, I can more deeply appreciate Kegan’s sacrifice.
Good start, Liam, to the years of deaths to follow.
3. Gangs of New York: Not everyone likes this movie, but I find it quite entertaining. What’s not to like about brutal hand-to-hand gang warfare in the streets of early New York? We don’t get to know Priest Vallon very well, but he’s painted as a good leader, a beloved father, and I guess a decent man (as decent as these street warriors can be?). Good death, Liam.
4. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace: Maybe not a great movie, maybe not a great performance, but when I was younger watching this, Qui Gon’s death was the highlight of the film. Not that I was glad he died, but it was exciting.
5. Batman Begins: I remember this being a pretty good movie, but honestly neither the film nor the Neeson death here were that memorable for me. But there are worse ways to go than in a runaway train crash, right?
6. Excalibur: Off-screen, so not really sure how much this counts. But Gawain was kind of a dick, so serves him right. Awesome flick, for what it’s worth.
7. Schindler’s List: Another off-screen, just mentioned at the end of the film, I believe. Good movie, though.
This morning (establishing a temporal anchor that will be overtaken by events soon), my good friend and compatriot Emily30Red (soon to be known as Kikanshabushi) posted these categorizations on twitter:
No that’s not at all the reason. I am not usually interested in the themes and genre conventions of sci if which are usually about what makes us human, ethical and moral questions raised by technological advAnce and the search for immortality through knowledge and conquer.
Those a pretty good definitions/categorizations as far as they go. She developed them herself from her own readings and analysis, so they are organic and original.
I have a slightly different take, because my set of readings are different, and my analysis comes from a different brain (naturally). For instance, I think Fantasy is also about what makes us human, but from the opposite direction than Science Fiction. To me, they are both speculative fiction because speculative fiction is grouped by the question “What does it mean to be human?”, as explored through “What if humans were in this sort of society, or encountered that scenario of events?”
So with that common starting point for speculative fiction, I divide SF from F thusly:
Science Fiction is about normal people doing great things, and Fantasy is about extraordinary people chasing mundane goals. There are probably lots of holes you can drive through with that formulation (for example, Frodo is nothing special, but achieves a great success through sheer, dogged determination, which fits more under Science Fiction), but I think it works fairly well for a rough starting point to divide the two.
But another difference is the way the fantastical elements are handled.
This is something I’m a stickler about.
Arthur C. Clarke famously ruined everything by saying, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
I say “ruined everything” because he’s not technically wrong: if you can find a previously-unencountered tribe deep in the amazon, and show them some technology, they’ll freak out as if it is magic, because it is beyond their ken. In contrast, a 2-year-old exposed to amazing tech will take it for granted, like the baby that thinks a magazine is a broken iPad:
So his formulation is already of limited utility, unless you happen to have some primitive tribes hanging around. And it ruins everything for writers, because no, significantly-advanced technology is not indistinguishable from magic. To the reader, maybe. But to the writer, they must be handled differently.
And then, I guess you should read the post he was responding to, here. And at this point, maybe the lesson is I repeat myself, because I had forgotten that I had already slagged Clarke for his 3rd Law.
And while you’re at it, might as well read this, too, because I think it captures what my thoughts were on genre early on, before refining the views with challenges.
In fact, you could probably stop there and not miss anything. However, the value in this continuing post (if there is one), is to sum up some of these views, and go deeper into the difference between magic and technology (in my arrogant opinion).
At one point in my running battle with PCBushi, I referred to magic & tech as furniture, as in, the term gun people use to refer to the things that change the appearance of a firearm without changing its function. PCBushi correctly countered that another way to put it is like a skin on an app or character.
At one level, technology and magic are like that. This is particularly true in video games or roleplaying games or superheros. If you blast the bad guy, does it matter whether it is a laser blast or a mana blast? Not really.
Maybe it doesn’t matter much to the reader/audience, either. No one cares what the tech is behind lightsabers in Star Wars, and you can go round and round arguing whether the Force is magic wielded by Space Wizards or psionics, and it doesn’t matter. It’s just a skin for power.
Except as a writer, it does matter. And to the audience, perhaps it should matter, too, because Lucas doesn’t seem to really be clear what they war, and he made a bunch of missteps as a result. From my formulation above, Star Wars got worse when it changed from an ordinary farm boy using the exercise of a talent to defeat an Empire to Space Wizards trying to reunite an estranged family. I.e, a normal person doing great things through effort => special people dealing with normal life problems.
So what makes the difference? How the power is handled.
Orson Scott Card teaches in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy that magic must have a cost to make it be interesting in your story. I think that’s correct, but I don’t think Card really goes far enough, or explains it well enough. I have the hubris to think I can.
My notion is that fantasy is about great people (special people, uniquely-powered people) doing mundane things. To the extent this is correct, it is an exploration of what it means to be human, because it shows that even great people deal with normal life problems. Magic is part of that, because it is magic that sets them apart, and magic must have limitations and a cost to make the story make sense.
This is because if there are no limitations or costs, everyone will have it, and then what’s the story exploring? A story where everyone had the ability to make wishes come true would probably be a boring story. But a story where only the protagonist (or perhaps, only the antagonist) had this power…now that creates some interesting opportunities for drama.
The counter to this argument is possibly: well, technology has a cost, too. It’s just the cost was paid in development, or in the expense (not everyone can afford body modifications that include hardwired reflexes?). But that counter doesn’t work for me. Televisions provide a communication ability that would be magic to a primitive culture, but what cost is there to the average person in the US? It’s factored into life. US cultural statistics went from Zero Anywhere to how many families have one to how many per family.
So while the difference between fantasy and science fiction settings may just be a skin, technology should be something everyone in your science fiction world should have, pretty much without any significant cost or sacrifice. What makes the story in science fiction, then, is how the main character uses that technology differently to resolve the central problem of the story.
Example, Larry Niven wrote Neutron Star, a story that included an alien-made indestructible spaceship. Magic! Except that anyone with enough money can have one, and so the main character is given one to explore a scientific phenomenon and discover the answer to a mystery. The answer to that mystery is actually an application of a scientific principle regarding gravity and orbital mechanics. Thus, it is a Hard SF story, despite the potentially magic elements.
Magic, in contrast, should have a cost, or a sacrifice, or a limit of some kind. Not just everyone should walk around your story with magic.
So you have to consider the nature of your magic. Is it something anyone can have with enough effort, but to perhaps varying levels of skill? Compare to playing guitar or basketball. Literally anyone of sound/whole body can play guitar or basketball. What makes a basketball or guitar wizard is the years of study put into it…although someone with greater talent may achieve that mastery with less relative effort than someone else with less talent but more drive. And voila! you might have a story right there.
But mostly not. In most fantasy stories, the magic character is just special, and it often isn’t explained. Harry Potter was just a wizard. He had to work to get better at it, but either you had magic or you were a muggle.
The Force started as a talent. Before the family bloodline storyline entered in later, Obi-Wan Kenobi had no reason to think Luke might not be able to do the Force. It was something to be taught, and you could take it as far as the combination of your own talent, teaching, and effort took you. Everyone had some measure of it, but most just didn’t even try to develop it, possibly because most didn’t have the talent or interest to gain any real facility with it. Like guitar.
But then it changed to a power that ran in the family. Because Luke had it, and Leia was his twin sister, she has it, too. As did their dad. As will their kids, if they have it. I haven’t paid much attention to the reboot sequels, but apparently Rey blows up the blood theory…except that she thinks she’s Luke’s kid because of her power with the force, which just tends to reinforce the “ability by blood only” theory, just her parents were a previously-unknown Force-enabled bloodline.
One theory about magic (to the extent there can be something theoretical about something completely unreal and made up) is that magic should be calibrated so the cost/sacrifice is just slightly greater than the the amount of effort it would take to achieve that goal through mundane means. So if you want a million dollars, the magic it takes to get it with a snap of fingers should have a cost/sacrifice just slightly greater than it would take to compete for a good college and complete a difficult major and work the drudgery job for enough years to get that million dollars. The interest would then be why this person wants the money now, instead of putting in the normal effort. What does that say about his character, good or bad? It should always be a slightly higher cost then the mundane path, to balance out the immediacy of the magic. But this is just a theory of a way to balance magic. I don’t know if I read it somewhere (was it Card? I haven’t read that how-to book in over a decade) or if it is my own sense of proportion. But let me know if you try it.
However, that theory aside, this goes back to Emily’s view of Fantasy: what does it do to the Self if you have power beyond that of the people around you? What if you can snap your fingers and have a benefit or a good that would take others years of hard work to achieve, if ever? Character questions are absolutely about self, the corruption of unique power is absolutely a common theme in Fantasy, in contrast to the SF common theme of overcoming due to unique force of will (which is how Beowulf survives in Neutron Star, btw).
So to sum up: magic should provide benefits that allow the avoidance of effort. As such, magic ability should be unique and have a cost, or it will be imbalanced in your story, and probably damage the enjoyment of the reader. The exact same power can appear in science fiction, but the focus is different: the focus is on the unique application of an ability that anyone else could do, but doesn’t; or the focus is on the unique determination of the individual to overcome, in a high-tech world where everyone has pretty much the same physical ability and powers.
The lesson to you is (should be?) that if you are considering including a power or ability in your story, consider whether you want it to be unique or common. If unique, you might want to write it as a fantasy. If common, you might want to write it as a science fiction story. And then further subdivide from there.
You don’t have to do this, of course. But I’d be interested to hear from those who did, and had it work; those who did, and had it not work (and why); those who didn’t start with this decision and eventually realized they were writing the wrong sort of story; and those who didn’t start with this decision and made it work (not just a random/happy accident).
Oh, boy, does it make plotting machine-like. The heart of a good story is a person overcoming obstacles to succeed. Or, if you want to write a cautionary tale, a person failing to overcome obstacles (most likely personal flaws) and failing horribly.
I used to think that once I thought of an interesting starting point, that I had a story idea.
But my failure point was always getting to the climax of the book. And I’d read something like CJ Cherryh’s Morgaine Cycle, and see someone go against their demonstrated character to do something heroic, and get ALL THE FEELZ, and I’d wonder how I could ever write something equally surprising-yet-plausible-in-hindsight that could move someone.
So the Plot Machine recommends starting with the climax of the book, and then writing backwards from there, adding in the obstacles, then setting up the problem, then writing the final resolution.
And to heighten the tension to make the climax of the story better, you make sure you have a a false climax where it looks like everything is going to work out, and then everything goes wrong and it looks everything is going to fail. But then the hero resolves their fatal flaw, and succeeds. It makes the story seem worthwhile to read and enjoy and remember.
It makes sense.
But then a friend (who will hopefully be soon joining the blog) pointed out something else in a story idea I was explaining: what is the emotional conflict between the characters I had?
They were in opposition, so of course there was some inherent emotional conflict, but I had described them as friends, so how did the main character feel about winning the conflict?
Boom. That’s a great point. That’s one of the ways you can give your reader ALL the feelz.
I dunno. I claim to have it figured out now, but I have no time/energy to write. So you can take all that with grain of salt. Or we can talk it out in the comment section.
But if nothing else, I thought I’d point out a few books that I’m considering buying next. But I need to finish two stories before I do, because the point will be to make my writing better. If I buy them and read them before writing anything, I’m just finding another excuse to put off writing.
For the most, it was worth what I paid for it. Many of the points it made were obvious to anyone who has done any reading at all, much less writing. Several other points were among the first, and most basic, techniques any writing book will mention.
Since it was free, I didn’t expect much from the book. Even if free, there is still a time cost, and I invested that cost to get some additional insight into how to effectively plot a novel.
One point it made changed my viewpoint, and I think will have a deep and profound impact on my writing.
The book pointed out that while a novel is more complex that a short story, both should follow the Three Act format. In this format, the First Act is setting up all the pieces. The Third Act is resolving all the conflicts and returning all the pieces to their resting places.
The book says the Second Act: *that’s* what makes or breaks a story.
What makes a story good is what obstacles have been placed in the path of the protagonist, and how the protagonist resolves them. These obstacles make a memorable story. This is where most of the action occurs. This is where the protagonist’s character is honed or revealed.
The book when on to explain that, in fact, it is the Second Act that defines your characters. You want to put them through hell to make an interesting story, but they need a *reason* to go through the hell instead of just giving up. They need a *reason* to be in the position to go through that hell.
As such, deciding on the conflict first can make it clear who your character should be. And deciding the conflict first makes it more obvious how to make the resolution more dramatic and effective.
Okay, maybe I’m reaching with this by embracing the book’s suggestion. Maybe it won’t work for you to write the conflict first. Maybe it won’t end up working for me to write the conflict first.
But too many of my stories have foundered when they reached the conflict stage. I had a great beginning. I had a decent ending. I couldn’t get through the middle. Too often, the conflict didn’t match the motivations I established at the beginning. Or the method of overcoming obstacles didn’t match the character I established at the beginning.
You could say that this just because I write poorly, and I’d have a hard time arguing that. On the other hand, I think of a character and a starting point, and think I have a story idea. Perhaps, instead, I should think of the conflict a character is going to go through, and think I have a story idea.
Looking at this from a different direction: I love twisty, complex plotting. I have a “story idea” right now that I want to turn into a twisty, complex plot. So I’ve come up with all my main characters, the universe, the starting motivations, and now I want to add complexity. I can’t really get started on it. I can’t figure out how to put these characters into seemingly no-win situations where they have to dismantle the Destruction Engine piece by piece to avoid their destruction and win the story.
My plan was to start writing and add complexity.
I now think a better idea is to start with a complex, seemingly no-win situation and write backwards, figuring out how the protagonist got into this situation.
For example, I’ve been watching a few Chinese Spy/Suspense television serials.
In one, Protagonist 1 is drawn into the spy world to work for the Chinese Nationalists (who are resisting the Japanese occupation), and from there, gets drawn into being a Communist spy inside the Nationalist organization…because of the temporary partnership to resist the Chinese. His older brother (Protagonist 2) is a collaborator working with the Japanese government…but is actually a Nationalist spy working to undermine the Japanese, and is Protagonist 1’s superior in the National spy organization. At one point, Protagonist 1 is given the order to assassinate his older brother, Protagonist 2, for being too effective as a collaborator. He didn’t know at that point that not only his older brother a Nationalist spy, but the order itself came *from* his older brother (who, having ordered it, knows how to avoid it, but it helps him gain additional credibility with the Japanese). When it is all over, however, Protagonist 1 learns that his older brother is actually his superior in the *Communist* spy ring that’s inside the Nationalist spy ring that’s resisting the Japanese. He’s been acting according to his training and character, but he’s been moved around like a chess piece, based on his older brother knowing him, and being his superior two layers deep.
I don’t think you can build in that sort of complexity as you go. I think you have to start with that incredible situation, and then work backwards, adding layers to the complexity as you move earlier in the story.
In another, the protagonist is just a normal Nationalist officer in what seems to be a National Guard/Reservist unit.. They are getting ready to go to the front line to fight the Japanese. His unit’s commander is out of action while recovering from surgery, and the 2nd-in-command is leading a cabal of the top few officers to surrender and collaborate with the Japanese. The traitor has one week to do it, before the Commander recovers and returns to duty. A junior officer (not the protagonist) discovered this, and formed a group of officers and NCOs to resist (the Iron Fists). The protagonist joins, making 30 in all, and they are set to meet at 9pm on a certain date.
At 8:30pm on that day, the protagonist is getting ready to leave for the meeting when the 2nd-in-command traitor locks the HQ down. He then orders the protagonist to lead the arrest of the 30 cadre members who are mutinying. Meanwhile, the Iron Fist group, lacking two members, decides to start the meeting with the 28 who are present.
The protagonist arrives on the scene, and tries to make noise to alert the Iron Fists inside. It doesn’t work. With no other choice, he leads the charge. But the first thing he does is shoot out the light. With the lights out, he trips a few of the capturing force, throws a bench out the window to help the Iron Fists escape, etc. But it is all for naught, all 28 are captured.
The traitor officer knows two people didn’t arrive, and knows the protagonist did some weird stuff. Plus, there’s another officer who isn’t in his cabal. So he sets the 2nd officer to torture a confession out of the protagonist. The 2nd officer is, of course, the 30th Iron Fist (who was also locked up in the HQ building and couldn’t go to the meeting, and so was spared). He finds out that the protagonist was Iron Fist #29, and vows to help him.
But the issue facing them both is, “Who betrayed the Iron Fists?” All 28 in captivity are executed within a day (to silence them), so Iron Fist #30 begins to suspect the protagonist, despite the protagonist being Iron First #29.
The Traitor officer has two military representatives in custody, one Nationalist and one Communist. He finally decides (for a couple of reasons not worth explaining now) that *they* are the two missing Iron Fists, and so stops worrying about the protagonist and the other officer. Except these two officers aren’t part of his cabal, so he doesn’t completely trust them.
To strengthen his position, he decides to get a hostage: the Commander’s mother. So he sends a team to escort her from her home (a day away) to his location. He puts the protagonist in charge, sets the 2nd officer to watch him, sends one of his cabal officers along to watch them both, and sends along the two military representatives as hostages. They will go near a Japanese stronghold, and the cabal officer will give the Japanese the two military representative hostages to seal the deal that allows the traitor cabal to deliver the entire unit to the Japanese.
So along the way, the protagonist is trying to help the two military representatives escape without letting the other officers know he is doing it. At the same time, Iron Fist #30 officer is trying to help them escape, but not letting the other officers know he is doing it, and doesn’t see the protagonist doing anything to help, which deepens his suspicion that the protagonist betrayed the Iron Fists.
Everything that happens puts the protagonist in a no-win situation. If he does anything to help get the word out, the cabal officer will kill him as a traitor. If he works too hard to follow his orders, the unit will be handed over the Japanese, and he betrays his fellow Iron Fists. But when he helps the military representatives escape, he can only help by throwing some things through the window to them, and pre-positioning some escape aids, which they attribute to Iron Fist #30 who was actually able to make contact with them and tell them he was going to help them escape.
I hope that’s clear. It’s pretty twisty to watch, and hard to explain. Basically, because the protagonist is trying to remain undercover, all his very risky attempts to help get attributed to other officer, so he is still considered a traitor by the people he supports, yet if he is any more overt, the cabal officer will kill him.
Again, I don’t think you could add in this complexity as you go. The best way to write this (I think) is to start with a no-win situation: your protagonist is in a situation where if he acts overtly, he is killed; if he doesn’t act overtly, he betrays his principles. What does he do? He tries to act *covertly*, right? So how can we make those efforts not help? Add in another person who gets credit for it, *and* that person suspects him. Okay, what kind of person would have the freedom to act *and* be in a position to matter in this sort of betrayal drama? A young officer who is the Commander’s favorite, highly principled and motivated.
Then you just add in misunderstandings from there, working backward.
Well, time to see if it works. I’ll report back in a later post, either way.
I’ve got another project in the works and so I lost track of this, but better late than…too late. Glad HP reminded me.
Cirsova #9 and #10 are up on Kickstarter, and the funding project is in its final days. I’m taking this particular opportunity to plug because I’ve got a short story dropping in #9. It’s the tale of a pair of reptilian searchers, who must brave the perils of a dead city in the hope of unearthing ancient weapons and technology to aid their struggling tribe. If that sounds at all interesting to you, and/or if you’re curious about the kind of fiction that oozes from a mind like mine, be sure to get your claws on this.
Now I’m a Cirsova fan (though I’ve made some perhaps harsh remarks about issue #1). I love what Alex is doing in fostering this kind of publication, and I’ve personally bought every issue that’s come out thus far. I admit, I’m behind in the actual reading (that reminds me that I also need to read more of Cirsova contributor Sky Hernstrom’s stuff in light of the praise he’s been drawing). So certainly, I am plugging this Kickstarter because I’ve got a stake in it. But rest assured I’d be buying issues #9 and #10 even were that not the case.
One last note – these issues are already funded and already happening. Backing the Kickstarter just gets you the next two issues and serves to fund the next round of Cirsova issues (should he raise enough cash). So backing doesn’t just mean buying these zines; it means supporting a budding scifi/fantasy publication amidst the decay of a dying industry.