HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION: Lesson 6: “Let’s talk about Structure”

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Welcome to our ongoing series of tips on how to write Science Fiction. I’m not sure that I have anything of any merit to teach you, but I am arrogant enough to try. I’m not a professional writer. Anything I say here should be taken as the braying of a jackass, and not as authoritative advice. I’m just saying what’s worked for me.

Feel free to ask questions or make comments below. If something requires expansion or explanation, or just rambling wise-ass comments, I’ll be happy to do it.

LESSON # 6: Let’s talk about Structure

Lets talk about structure a little bit today. Ordinarily I tend to talk about more conceptual things - the difference between “Ideas” and “Stories,” listening to your intuition, that sort of thing, but this will be a bit more nuts-and-bolts.

What is the best way to *tell* your story? There’s no solid answer for that. There are a number of structures one can use, and the best way to get your tale across can depend on what kind of tale you want to tell. It also largely depends on your temperament, and what, if any, emotional impact you’re trying to get across in the telling.

Most of us, when we start writing, tend to use the straight-ahead linear narrative: “Billy got up in the morning, ate breakfast, got dressed, went to school, threw up on the teacher, came home, got cleaned up, went to the bed, blah blah blah.” There’s nothing wrong with that, in that it’s the way real life works - from A to B to C. Time is, after all, a progression from the dinosaurs on down through history to president Obama. (who will presumably take us back to the time of the dinosaurs, and then we all start over again.) It’s naturalistic. Aristotle would approve.

Of course Aristotle was a hack, so let’s ignore him: the linear narrative is entirely acceptable, and I use it myself quite a bit. However, most of us tend to be a bit long winded when we start writing - I’m guilty of that, too - and this, coupled with a simple A-to-B story tends to bore your audience. So: Rule one: when you use this technique, cut out as much of the transitional material as possible. This makes it brisker, and more interesting. For instance, the example above: can be trimmed down to “Billy threw up on the teacher, then went home.” That’s half as long, and twice as interesting. It frees up a lot of time and energy for other elements of the story. It’s brisk, not ponderous.

What’s that you say? You’re a 19th century Russian author in prison and can’t limit yourself? don’t get too worried about this: be as longwinded as you like, but bear in mind that half of what you write will be chopped out in the editing, so don’t get too attached to it.

When going into a story, it’s best to have a beginning, middle and end in mind. A surprising number of us don’t do this. We start randomly, ramble along for a while, and then - bang - it’s over. There’s no middle and “The Beginning” is merely where we started typing, not where the story actually begins. This is unacceptable. People are reading your stuff, and you owe them an actual story for their time, not just a bunch of stuff that happens, and then doesn’t happen.

For my purposes, it’s best to have three specific scenes in mind when telling a story: the one you start out with, the game-changer in the middle, and the one you finish on. That way you start and end solidly, and you have something memorable en rout. You may want to write these three scenes independently before you put ‘em together in a story. Then the act of *writing* the story is merely a transition between these three bits. That’s not how I do it generally, but other writers do, and it works well for them.

A story needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. You can tell the story in reverse, beginning with the conclusion and working your way back to the start. This is a simple device, but tricky because your story stops being about the conclusion. Rather, it becomes a kind of detective story in which your readers are discovering the events that led to that conclusion. In these stories, the inceptive event is the important thing, and it needs to be far, far, far more poignant than it would be in a more conventional narrative.

Want an example? In a normal story, Hitler does a bunch of stuff, goes mad, kills himself, the end. In a Z-to-A story, Hitler kills himself at the outset, and then we see the events that made him a monster removed one by one until he’s just a messed up little bastard with no father, and no implication that he’ll become the greatest mass murder of all time. The first example is a simple biography, the second is a tragedy: the cute, wiggly little baby inside the demon. Both are valid ways to tell a story, but if your bad guy is just supposed to be bad, go A-to-Z. If you intend to humanize the devil, then go Z-to-A.

I like to use the parallel narrative. Ever notice how movies cut back and forth between two locations, or between the present and a series of flashbacks or flash forwards? I like to apply that same technique to my stories. Let’s say my story is a linear narrative that runs A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R S, T, U V, W, X, Y, Z, with A, obviously, being the beginning, L\M being the middle, and Z being the conclusion. Rather than telling it that way, I scramble it up like this: M, A, N, B, O, C, P, D, Q, E, R, F, S, G, T, H, U, I, V, J, W, K, X, L, Y, Z.

See what I did there? We start with the middle, jump to the beginning, and ping-pong back and forth until we hit the end. The story follows two tracks, with track 1 (M-Z) telling us what happened, and track 2 (A-L) telling us how we got in this situation to begin with. Conversely, you can have A-L tell us how we got here, and M-Z being all actioney explosiony stuff leading to it’s conclusion. You can also break it up into three narratives (A, H, P, B, I, Q, etc) but I find for short stories that’s a bit too much, a bit too rarified. It works great in novels, however.

The disadvantage of this kind of bifurcated storytelling? It’s a bit harder to write, and in some circumstances it can come across disjointed. You can confuse your audience. A good way to get the hang of this is to write your story in linear fashion, then print each major sequence on a separate sheet of paper. Lay ‘em out on the floor in linear fashion, and then try arranging them in this fashion. Stack ‘em up, and have someone else read them in that order. If they can understand it, then you’ve done a good job, and can smooth it out in the editing. If they can’t, then you need to figure some way of re-arranging it.

The advantages outweigh the disadvantages, however: it lets you start out with something fairly compelling, and then work your way uphill to the conclusion *without* initially risking boring your audience with all the setup stuff. Also, it’s a little more interesting and a little more interactive. Pinging back and forth between the action like that makes the reader a bit more interested in finding out what’s going on. This immediately grabs the readers interest and holds on to it. And there’s something that seems collaborative in not simply telling a story, but rather in telling half a story and trusting the reader will be able to put the pieces together afterwards. It feels like an alliance, you know? It’s more fun, less plodding.

Whether you do that or not, however, it’s important to start a story with something that grabs people. It can be an action sequence (“He tore into the room unleashing a torrent of copper-jacketed death”) or something sexy (“She tore into the room uncinching her robe, which fell as she walked”) or a gag (“What do you get when Mac Bolan enters a room?” “A torrent of copper-jacketed death and women uncinching their robes” “Bwa-ha-ha-ha!”) or something interesting (“He tore into the room and said, ’Most people think that a good cause will justify any war, but I believe a good war will justify any cause,’”) or something offensive (“She tore into the room unleashing , and exclaimed ’in ten years the Penis will be obsolete, except as an object of historical scrutiny.”*) Or it can be a combination of the above: (“He tore into the room and said, ‘most people think that a good cause will justify any war, but I believe that a good war will justify any cause.’ She uncinched her robe and let it slide down from her otherwise-naked body, then said ’in ten years the Penis will be obsolete, except as an object of historical scrutiny.’ She then unleashed a torrent of copper-jacketed death upon him. As he slumped to the ground, his last word were, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ ‘To keep me from cooking him,’ she laughed, ‘It didn’t work.’”)

See? Interesting! Who wouldn’t keep reading after something like that, if only out of morbid curiosity?

In any event, grabbing your audience’s interest with a solid start is of crucial importance.

Finally, let’s talk about what person you want to tell a story in: First (“I went here and did that”), Second (“You go here and do this”), and Third (“She went there and did that.”) Since I’m pretty sure you’re not Italo Calvino, we can just eliminate Second Person right off the bat. No one uses it, and for good reason: it’s really, really, really hard to do, and with very little payoff. (Unless you want to write ‘choose your own adventure’ books, I guess.) That leaves First and Third.

First is generally the easiest for most people. You tell the story as though it happened to you, and then you’re done. Your character only notices things you, yourself would notice, or that are relevant, and any major screwups can be swept under the carpet as a case of the character being “An Unreliable Narrator.” (A, Unreliable Narrator: the sloppy, lazy writer’s best friend!) This style of writing is immediately intimate and engaging. On the down side, voice is a serious problem here. If your characters all sound like *you* whether they’re a man, woman, child, or Quasinorm from the planet Latex IV, then, arguably, they’re not characters, are they? Thus you have to kind of figure out who this person is, and what they like and dislike, and how they think, and what they’d be likely to notice or not notice, and suddenly the process is slower again, and harder. I’ll give you an example: After I wrote “Home Again,” which is first person, I *could not* write a character that didn’t sound like the protagonist. I ended up writing the Bob stories with Republibot 2.0 because Bob Wilson really needed to sound/feel/think differently than Earl Douglas did. It worked.

Third person is generally harder to do: You need to describe the scene, determine how much detail to show or omit, observe people talking rather than be one of the people talking, show what people do, even if it’s something the protagonist didn’t notice. It’s more directorial, like watching a TV show or movie. The advantage is that it’s generally grander in scope, or at least more all-encompassing. You kind of have to show a person’s feelings, not tell about them. This form tends to be a bit more removed from the action, less intimate, but it gives you the opportunity to comment on the action a bit more than a first person story can easily do. It also lends itself to experimental storytelling a bit easier than First does.

Of course the end decision should be based on what suits the kind of story you want to tell best. I told “The Truth About Lions and Lambs” in Third Person because the guy is literally a different character every fifteen minutes or so. I probably *could* have found a way to do that in First Person, but the device would have been more distracting and difficult than the story could have borne. I told “Home Again” in first person because the story is all about the main character discovering the world. We see it through his eyes. I told “Dog Days” in third person because it’s a borderline-preachy story, and it allowed me to be less didactic. I wrote “Bubba’s Burger Barn” because it’s a comedy, and it allowed me to show pratfalls in a way that wouldn‘t have been at all funny if seen from the protagonist‘s point of view. (“Comedy is if a man falls in a manhole. Tragedy is when you fall into a manhole.” - Jackie Mason)

As you’ll recall, a while back I suggested people start out writing short stories. I’d also suggest people start out writing them in first person until you get a little confidence and are more comfortable with your skills, then try the more ambitious stuff.