If you haven’t already realized, much of this blog will comprise of resources for creators of genre fiction. There will be a heavy emphasis on science fiction, because that’s where my background is rooted, but I hope that at least some of the resources that I intend to make available will be more generally useful. If you want to know how to shoot your character without killing him or how long different types of forensics tests take to work, for example, then stay tuned.
But I’m going to start by discussing what I consider to be the really big issues in mixing fact and fiction, especially in science fiction.
Cards on the table first
I need to start with an admission. I’m going to spend a lot of time of time in this article and others talking about writing, but I will be doing so primarily on the basis of my experiences as a consumer of media rather than an author. I have certainly tried writing stuff and I’m happy to make some of it available for people to look at, if they want to, but I’m not a published author.
I am writing this blog because I still believe that I have a lot to offer to you, the author. I have spent my whole life reading about spaceships and dragons, and, very occasionally, dragons in spaceships, and I have a technical background that gives me some insight into the reality of these things.
But more importantly, I am the kind of freakish person who enjoys thinking about the deeply weird stuff. I spend a lot of time thinking about how the ostensibly nonsensical could be made to work, and how to do that in as cinematic a way as possible.
I am hoping that this weirdness is, against all probability, of value to some specific subset of other people.
All of that doesn’t change the fact that writing is hard. I have written enough, I think, to appreciate that clichés and faults often occur as a result of mechanical issues, and that some of these are extremely difficult and time consuming for any writer to resolve, sometimes beyond the actual value of doing so.
So as I am about to reel off a list of common problems that I often see when I read a science fiction book or watch a film, I understand that magically making those problems go away is not a small task for the author. But, I do not believe that this is ever going to diminish the value of at least recognizing those issues.
I’m going to start with a couple of more general issues that crop up a lot with science fiction, and then start addressing the issues with fitting the science on in there.
If you don’t read it, don’t write it
I really don’t want this to come across as mean spirited.
Science Fiction, as with most genre fiction has an awful lot of established tropes and conventions. It has a lot of recurring themes and no shortage of tediously overused plotlines. If you have not already consumed a prodigious amount of such media then you are going to find writing good science fiction to be an uphill struggle.
Of course, if you just want to write for its own sake, then all of this is no problem at all. But, if you want to sell a book to a publisher and you don’t happen to be a celebrity, then please realize that this may become an issue.
Similarly, working good science into that fiction is going to be easier if you have seen other authors doing it well. You are much more likely to pick up an appreciation for the issues involved in zero-gee combat, for example, by reading about it in a story, or by discussing those stories with other people, than you are to find or read a textbook on the subject. A technical background or an active interest in technology will certainly help too.
And, no, you can’t resolve this by buying the ten volume science fiction “masterpiece collection” from the bookshop and reading half of it, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve never seen one of the damn things with more than a few really great books in it (dead authors who can no longer collect royalty checks, tend to be astonishingly well represented for some reason).
There is something about sci-fi that seems to attract people that want to dabble, and I’ve a horrible suspicion that this has something to do with the notion that science fiction is all about having a single good idea.
Science fiction is not all about having a single good idea
Science fiction has a real love/hate relationship with ideas, it’s probably the genre that can extract the most value from a really good one, but this does not change the fact that a story needs to have more than that.
My own opinion is that, in isolation, a really great idea is actually equivalent about a page of really good dialogue, which is to say, it’s unlikely to have much impact on my overall enjoyment of the story on its own. This shifts a bit with film and television, but not all that much.
This is not to say that ideas are unimportant.
A good hook is always going to be worthwhile, especially when you are selling the story to people (or publishers). A great idea, when explored, can certainly give you a framework to build a great story with.
And ideas breed, once you’ve got a few of them together in the same place, you are likely to find more of them popping up all over the place.
But the ideas won’t write that story for you.
Don’t waste a good idea by turning it into a bad story.
Simply put, almost anything that you create can and will go on to have consequences for the rest of the story, often well beyond the ones that you intend them to have.
Stray implications are anathema to plausibility in science fiction. They don’t tend to result in the kind of specific problems that people complain about, but they absolutely contribute to a subtle unease in your audience that things just don’t just add up. You can’t invent magical technology and wish it away at the end of an episode. You can’t introduce a gadget that could coincidentally end global poverty and then ignore that. You can’t start in motion events that should, logically, result in apocalyptic consequences within three months of the end of the story without addressing that, if not explicitly, then in the structure and tone of your ending.
Or rather, you can do all those things, but it will cost you.
Whenever you invent something, consider the implications, and if you need to address them then do it convincingly.
It doesn’t do anyone any good if it’s still in your head
There is no point working out a complicated explanation that doesn’t make it onto the page. A clever justification will not be accepted if your readers don’t understand it or fail to notice it. A credible explanation that is delivered by allowing a character to make an improbable deductive leap creates its own problems.
Exposition is always going to be hard, and Sci-fi poses unique challenges here, how do you deduce the real motives of an inscrutable alien race?, how can you compress an essay worth of meticulously researched technical details into a single comprehensible paragraph?
If nothing else, if you feel that you can’t effectively communicate an explanation for something, recognizing this lets you consider the damage in advance, or even have your characters acknowledge the issue without resolving it. A “Yeah, I don’t understand that either” or “That’s complicated” from your characters might be better than nothing. If you need to have a character make an amazing deductive leap, maybe consider having him offering a few other theories at the same time.
Resist the temptation to explain things that you don’t need to, unless you are confident you can do it well, world building is important, but it should be solid world building.
Dumbing things down is fine, just remember that reviewers like to look smart
Something that I’ve never seen commented on before, but I tend to notice that logical bloopers tend to be criticized disproportionately in reviews and online discussion, often when they didn’t really seem to have a major impact on the story, or my enjoyment of it. People like to look smart, they like to catch the mistakes, and they might even feel obliged to mention it just to reassure others that they didn’t miss it (especially if they actually absolutely missed it, until their 5 year old niece pointed it out to them).
Perhaps I’m being overly cynical here, but if this is a valid observation then it’s probably an important one.
You can have very soft science without making explicit mistakes, and most of the more notorious ones could have been very easily avoided, or at least mitigated.
Science costs, so learn to budget it
Explanations and justifications will often tend to come at the expense of the story, especially in films or television when every spoken line and second of screen time is enormously valuable. You should recognize this and be actively weighing its value.
Getting technical concepts across effectively is at least as challenging as getting them factually correct, but requires a very different set of skills, ones that aren’t always possessed by the same people who understand the facts.
I’ll be mentioning this in another article, but Richard Feynman’s physics lectures are well worth checking out if you want to see some first class examples of very complicated things being explained very effectively and economically.
Don’t waste time being more correct than you have to be
Some people make a career out of scrupulously researched and meticulously constructed literature, and some people are Michael Bay. I don’t see a problem with either of these things as long as people enjoy the stuff they are making .
It’s generally going to be more productive to make sure that you understand the fundamentals of the topics you explore than delve into things that a total of 3 academics would probably get very excited about if they somehow watched your film by mistake.
Diminishing returns for research into science and technology tend to come along quickly. If you already have solid background knowledge of science, and a history of consuming science fiction, then the amount of time you should be spending researching facts is probably going to be pretty insignificant compared to the time you should spend figuring out what they mean for the story and how to fit them into it. If you don’t have that background then this is one of those places where you are going to find things more difficult, but that’s probably going to be at least as much with regard to judging how much research is enough.
Obviously, some types of story are always going require a lot more knowledge and research than others.
And Finally –
The Rule of Cool
As a rule, people are generally more willing to overlook stupidity that results in explosions (at least, as long as they aren’t personally involved in the exploding).
If your story has a weakness, then there needs to be some payoff to justify it.
There are some mistakes that have become so iconic, that they are probably now mandatory. There are some corners that usually reward you much more for cutting them than leaving them intact. There are some issues that making a choice on now almost involves making an explicit statement, deciding whether or when to have sound in space, for example, is now a serious decision for any cinematographer.
I am going to talk about all these things.
So, do you want to know more, citizen?