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.
“Story” is about what happens internally, not externally. Not fully grasping the importance of this is what tanks countless novels. We don’t [read a] story simply to watch the events unfold; we come to experience them through the protagonist’s eyes, as she struggles with what to do next. This is what mesmerizes us: it’s what we’re curious about, it’s what gives us the inside information we’re hungry for.
First, I seem to be good at offending people with my opinions, and that wasn’t my intent. What seems to have come across is me saying “These types of stories, including Pulp Rev, are bad stories.”
In fact, my point was that I used to see them as bad stories, but I’ve come to realize that they are actually good stories that just don’t do it for me. And that’s okay.
Second, I actually *like* Campbellian SF. I can’t say “Campbell did nothing wrong,” because a quick glance at his wikipedia entry shows that later in life, he got into pseudoscience and alienated many of his best writers.
But I like his demand that writers write an alien that thinks as well as a human, but differently than a human. And I guess I also kind of agree with his insistence that writers “rise above the mire of Pulp,” except that I really don’t think I’m quite as dismissive of Pulp as Campbell was.
I mean (third), if I thought Pulp is an inferior story form, I should be able to prove it by churning out tons of pulp stories. But I recognize I can’t, because Pulp is written better than Campbell (or the literati in general of the time) gives it credit for.
I can’t write anything that matches A Princess of Mars, but I don’t want to. I didn’t really like the first few Barsoom novels. The change is now I recognize those are good stories, I just don’t like them.
The first Barsoom story I actually enjoyed was Chessmen of Mars. It explored a little bit of human nature in several aspects, including someone breaking away from a coercive society, the problem of fame/desirability in a woman and how it impacts romantic pursuit of her.
When I read Conan or John Carter stories, I don’t have any urge to write like that.
But, again, this doesn’t make them bad.
A good example is REH’s “The Frost Giant’s Daughter.” It is filled with lush descriptions. You feel Conan’s desire and determination. You feel the chill. But ultimately, nothing happens in the story.
Nothing really happens in “The Queen of the Black Coast,” either. I mean, a bunch of stuff does happen, but it’s like a SitCom: after everything happens, Conan ends up where he started before he met Belit, and hasn’t really learned anything.
In most Conan stories, the only thing Conan “learns” is confirmation of his cynicism toward civilization, that so-called barbarians have more honor and are thus more trustworthy than the machinations and deceptions of sophisticated city dwellers.
But those both have been criticized as not being as well-plotted as “The Black Stranger.” But even there, while it is a well-written story, I’m left somewhat unmoved. There’s a lot of action, there is clearly a plot, but ultimately, nothing is learned and Conan doesn’t grow in any perceptible way.
So what *do* I like?
I guess I like Campbellian fiction. In contrast to the people who say Hard SF is garbage, say that Campbell ruined SF, or those who say nothing written after 1980 (or was it 1970? Or 1960? I don’t remember) is any good, I *like* quite a bit of 1980s SF and Fantasy. There’s a lot of Leftist garbage influencing SF&F in the 60s and 70s…no one hates Heinlein’s later works (including Stranger in a Strange Land) more than I do.
But I see that as the fault of those writers who lost the science as they wrote social science fiction.
I am still moved by Haldeman’s “The Forever War,” and consider it one of my favorite books. There is a great deal of wise insight into the human experience. I also really appreciate many of Haldeman’s short stories, particularly those collected in “Dealing in Futures.” But I don’t like many of his other works, because of the influence of Leftist ideology on his writing.
But that’s okay. I don’t reject The Forever War because I dislike most of the rest of his writing. I just point to The Forever War as a great book, because there is insight and chaaracter growth. (although, at heart, it is more of a Milieu story than a Character story).
The key point is: I’m re-reading “Cyteen,” and while I’m enjoying the crap out of it and reading slowly so I can digest every nuance, I’m also somewhat inwardly seething because I *want* to write like that, and I don’t think I can, I’m afraid I never will be able to, and I don’t even know how to work towards making a half-way decent attempt.
And in trying to explain, I’ve probably offended other people. I apologize unreservedly.
I’m just trying to understand my own likes and dislikes, and thinking out loud, in hopes that it helps other people understand themselves better.
I originally was going to write about how I am committed to the primacy of Story. I crave a story, not spectacle. I don’t like Hollywood much anymore because they are filming blockbuster movies that can sell well overseas, and explosions don’t need translation. I don’t like TV very much because they seem to be focused on “shipping” (focused on the relationships of the characters just for the sake of relationships). I haven’t been able to get much into PulpRev because as much as I want to support it, too many of the stories seem to be merely wish fulfillment: the main character succeeds because they are heroes…because it is much easier to succeed on paper than in real life.
So what *do* I like?
My original answer was “I like a *story*,” but then I realized people who want a relationship story, or a hero story, etc., also just like “a story,” so I had to dig deeper.
I realized I like character stories.
I like stories that show some insight into human nature, that help me to understand something important about life that will help me be happier or more successful.
I want stories that show us humans acting naturally and normally, and at the right time, decide to do something heroic but out of character…and yet, with all the groundwork of the reasons for the out-of-character decision firmly and clearly established, so that it is both believable and inspiring. Like “Star Wars” works as a movie for me almost 90% due to Han Solo appearing to ruin Darth Vader’s day and ensure Luke’s success.
A Pulp Rev story most likely wouldn’t have Han, it would just have Luke doing Marty Stu things until he blows up the Death Star because he can fly better than anyone else.
A modern television show would explore Leia’s relationship with every male in the series, including some of the robots, and probably retcon Luke into being gay C3P0 and keep adding complications until the series was cancelled with none of the major issues being answered.
A Modern Hollywood movies would probably just skip all the stuff on the Death Star as being too complicated and too slow, and replace it with more footage of the Death Star blowing up planets with a few more failed attack runs by various planet defenses.
But Star Wars is good because we care about Luke from where he starts and what he goes through. Han is quippy and dashing, but selfish…a foil to Luke’s youthful idealism and heroism. That’s all Han is: a cynical human, more human than Luke, and just to make Luke all the more heroic. The Death Star commando raid is necessary to establish all sorts of things about both Luke’s and Han’s character.
And in the end, they only succeed because Han makes an unselfish decision for the first time in probably decades.
That’s what I love to read. That’s what I want to write.
But it takes time, patience, effort, and skill. And I don’t have the time to develop the skill to craft that good of a story. At least, that’s how it seems right now.
I want to write a novel I can be proud of. I think if I write it, it will sell. But I’m to the point where I don’t care if it sells. I just want to write a *great* character story.
Julia sank wearily down into the deep cushions of the staff lounge couch. The TV was on, set to some new reality show where politicians cooked meals for celebrities, but Julia hardly noticed. She was still processing.
A grueling, 36 hour labor. Normally a C-section would have been in order, but the patient refused to be cut. And at the end of it all…
Her eyes flicked up to the door. She could still hear the baby crying, though she knew it was just in her head. The Repose Room was soundproof.
Shaking her head as if to expel such thoughts, she looked down at the coffee table. The various sections of Today’s USA were scattered across its surface. The top-most, “Health and Living,” prominently displayed an article titled “New Healthcare Law Protects the Most Vulnerable.” Her eyes scanned the text; apparently it was a story about how the newly expanded universal healthcare system would greatly improve the lives of underpaid journalists.
Julia heaved a heavy sigh and buried her face in her hands. She had known that remaining in perinatal medicine would eventually test who she was. She just hadn’t expected it to happen so soon. Not here. Not at St. Agnes.
But they had allowed it to happen. Jennifer and the doctor spoke for a few minutes, in private, with the patient. And then the baby was wheeled out to the Repose Room.
Julia imagined her own daughter lying in the darkness, alone, left to expire. It was too much. The shock and confusion were gone, replaced by anger and determination.
She pulled herself up and hurried out of the staff room.
Kathy was leaning against the wall next to the Repose Room and nursing a cup of coffee while fiddling with her phone. The healthcare liaison looked up at Julia’s approach and smiled plastically.
“Hi, Julie. Are you okay?”
“No. Nothing about this is okay.”
Kathy reached for Julia’s arm, halting her entrance. She lowered her voice to a hush.
“Look, I know this is difficult. But we have to respect the mother’s choice.”
Julia shook off the restraining hand and entered the room. It was complete dark inside. The baby was no longer crying, but Julia could hear a soft whimpering. She paused as the door closed behind her and Kathy’s surprised exclamation was cut off.
She reached for her phone and unlocked the screen, using the light to look around the bare room. A sink and cabinet fixture was set against the wall – the same one found in nearly every modern examination room. In the corner opposite her stood the bassinet, mounted atop a sterile, steel cart. The baby lay swaddled inside.
As she stepped toward the infant, the door opened behind her and in stepped Kathy, accompanied by Jennifer, the shift supervisor.
“Julie, what are you doing? You shouldn’t be in here,” the senior nurse admonished softly, frowning. She reached into a pocket and drew out her own phone to further illuminate the dark room. Her other arm cradled a clipboard – clearly she had been interrupted while doing important paperwork.
“This isn’t right, Jen. We can’t do this.”
Jennifer’s face softened. It was Kathy who replied.
“It was Mrs. Peters’ decision after speaking with Dr. Danton. Even Mr. Peters agreed. It’s her right. Come on now, everything is going to be all right. Let’s just…leave it alone.”
“Not it, Kathy. Her. You want to let her die!” Julia had difficulty controlling her voice now, and the baby started to whimper loudly.
“It’s not up to me,” Kathy answered. “And it’s not up to you. The infant simply isn’t viable.”
“What the hell do you mean she isn’t viable? She’s laying there right now, breathing on her own. Alive.”
Jennifer cut in. “What Kathy means is the baby can’t survive on her own, without state resources. You know that. She’d have to be put up, and that’s expensive. And there will be no legal parents to put up climate credits…I don’t like it any more than you do, but there’s nothing we can do.”
“For God’s sake, she’s perfectly healthy, Jen!” Julia was practically shouting.
Kathy answered “It’s an unfortunate rarity, but post-birth abor-”
“Don’t call it that,” Julia snapped. “We’re letting a healthy baby die. And for what? Why? Why are they doing this?”
Jennifer and Kathy exchanged an uncomfortable glance and the former answered “Her eyes.”
“What? What about her eyes?” Julia asked.
“The Peters ordered blue eyes, but the baby’s are brown. It’s not what they paid for. Mrs. Peters said that she always wanted a daughter with blue eyes and blond hair, like a doll. She said that…that having to raise a botched child would be too traumatic for her,” Jennifer muttered.
Julia shook her head in disbelief. They were all silent for a moment.
“I’m taking her,” she said finally.
Jennifer’s eyes widened in surprise. Kathy looked scandalized.
“You can’t do that, Julie. It’s illegal!” the liaison exclaimed.
“Think about this,” cautioned the supervisor. “They’ll fire you. Hell, you’ll probably go to jail.”
“I don’t care,” replied Julia. “I can’t do nothing.”
Kathy glared angrily at her, looked meaningfully at Jennifer, and then exited the Repose Room quickly.
“All right,” said Jennifer. “But you’d better hurry. No doubt Kathy has gone for security.” Jennifer, too, stepped out.
Julia switched off her phone and flicked on the room’s fluorescent light. The baby girl squinted and began once again to cry.
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!