“I don’t really like Fantasy or Science Fiction, but I think I’ll write stories in those genres anyway.”
This month I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. It had been a while since I had written anything, and I felt like it would be a good opportunity to try.
Then life happened…a lot. And, long story short, the only way I’m going to make 50,000 words is if I change direction and write a graphic novel where I draw 50 pictures. Get it? Because a picture is worth a thousand words. Sorry, bad joke.
The good news is that I do have a story, and a mythology. I even have some characters. I’ve done some of the foot work. And, one of the exercises that accomplished this for me is that I pulled from my inner-fanboy.
I’m one of those people, like many of you I presume, that gets overly engaged in stories. I obsess over books, TV series, movies, etc. I’ve done so since I can remember. When I was a kid, it was Dune, Highlander and X-Files. There was also Star Trek and Quantum Leap. Later on, my Lost obsession was borderline clinical. After that there was Fringe, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Right now, it’s Doctor Who.
So, when I decided to come up with a story for NaNoWriMo, I looked back at these obsessions and tried to figure out the “what?” and the “why?” What about these stories engaged me? And, why did they engage me? Ten is a nice round number. Here are ten things that fuel my obsession with a story. Please note that these things are not discrete. They bleed into and interact with each other. So, having only one or two of them wouldn’t work.
- Characters I Care About – This may be considered blasphemy in some circles, but I have trouble getting through some of Asimov’s books because although he creates really interesting worlds and thought experiments, the characters are flat as boards. They’re basically there to explain things, which isn’t good enough. Whereas George R.R. Martin tells a story that spans across an entire world through the intimate points of view of many different characters, who he fleshes out in excruciating detail. I find Asimov’s world fascinating, but I’m heavily invested in Martin’s world. I’ve written about this as it pertain to The Walking Dead.
- Characters Who Care About Each Other – This extends naturally from my previous point. Lead characters should form a family of sorts. Ideally, disliking each other in the beginning and then becoming very close is the way to go (Gimli and Legolas), but it’s not necessary (Sam and Frodo). If we care about the characters and they care about each other we are pulled into their family. I thought that Fringe did this very well. I consider it one of the more undervalued series. You take away all of the science fiction stuff in that series, and it was about a family trying to stay together. I think, ultimately, having too many alternative realities became too confusing for most people to keep with it. I’m not smarter than the people that abandoned the series, but I’m more comfortable being confused (mostly due to practice).
- Characters in Peril – This one follows naturally from my last two points. You have to laugh and cry with the characters. You have to have been through struggles with them. You have to worry about their safety and wellbeing. My favorite character in A Song of Fire and Ice is Arya Stark. I named my daughter after her. When she was in peril I didn’t want to stop reading until she was safe. Breaking Bad used peril really well by setting up some amazingly impossible-to-get-out-of scenarios. Even though he was a bad guy, you wanted to see Walter White win, because you’ve seen him get through so much already. I never got more anxious watching a series than when I watched Breaking Bad.
- Interesting Thought Experiments – Fantasy and Science Fiction allow us to take reality, change some variables and ask “What if?” This is more than just entertainment. This is exploration. I’ve written about this as well. Time travel is particularly interesting to me in storytelling. When characters can travel into the past, you are asking the question “What if the past still exists?” When characters can travel into the future, you are asking the question “What if the future already exists?” And, if they can do both, then you are asking the question, “What if everything is happening at once and we can only perceive it linearly and unidirectionally?” These question lead to more fundamental questions about things like free will and fate. Every story’s mythology had to decide how it wants to handle time travel. Doctor Who has the notion of fixed points that can’t be changed, and variable points that can. Also, the Doctor has stated that paradoxes tend to resolve themselves.
- Interesting Mythologies – When you open a book or watch a movie, you are dropped into a world with a particular history and properties that are often unfamiliar. The story you are being told is one that takes place within this mythology. It is affected by it, and it also illuminates it. If it is heavily fleshed out and is interesting, then the story will be also. X-Files had two types of episodes. It had episodes that could almost be plopped into anywhere in the series. They were isolated stories. Then they had mythology episodes. These episodes allow the viewers to discover more about the underlying mythology of the series. In the case of the X-files, misdirection was often applied. So, you could end up knowing less after one of these episodes and not know it. Either way, because it was interesting, you cared.
- Interesting Story Structure – The story, in its raw form, happens in a linear sequence of cause and effect (baring time travel). The author decides what to tell and when to tell it. And, they can make it interesting. Lost did this very well with flash backs, flash forwards, flash sideways as well as flashes that defy explanation.
- Mystery Boxes– This brings us to the notion of mystery boxes. I recommend this TED talk by J.J. Abrams. Keep giving us a new mystery box to open, and we will stay engaged.
- Making the Fantastic Realistic – Good fantasy and science fiction is like most dreaming. When you’re in it, it makes sense. When you explain it out load, it sounds crazy. I don’t know the secret to this, but I would say making the characters and storyline realistic helps make the fantastic elements realistic. So, apply most of my previous points to this.
- Conscious Altering – Good stories change you. Your mind has had an experience that it hasn’t had before, and experiences change the mind. The more palpable this is for the experiencer the better. One device for this is loose ends, which I have written about. I was always left with a very odd sensation when I watched Twin Peaks. My mind wanted to tie the loose ends when the story didn’t. Keep in mind, that loose ends should be used judiciously. You can make a lot of people mad (think Lost).
- Stories about Me – In the end, the most engaging thing about a story is what it can tell me about myself and my world. Honestly, if you have most of the points above, this one tends to solve itself. Whether a story tries to or not, it contains messages. These messages are something that we take away even when we don’t realized it. Some might say they are the reason for stories.
I apologize that most of my examples have come from TV shows. My fiction reading has suffered. This is something that I plan on remedying. It should be stated, though, that TV shows are actually a great medium. There are so many garbage shows out there that give TV a bad name. However, TV shows allow us to tell enriching stories that can go on for years and only take an hour out of our week (or 50 hours out of a single week if you are Netflixing).
I’d like to hear your thoughts on the items I discussed above? Did I miss anything? Did I get something wrong? Daresay, did I get something right?
I neglected something important. I mentioned the “What?” and the “Why?” Those are actually the easy questions. It’s the “How?” that is the most difficult one. It is resources like Mythic Scribes and The Roundtable Podcast that help us with that every day. Even though my word count is low, I have been observing how online communities of authors are working with and helping each other this month. This is extremely heartening to see. Storytelling is important. Fiction storytelling is important. Humankind needs it and has needed it since its inception. Stories drive us and change us. When I’m obsessed with characters and worlds that don’t technically exist, it’s not because I’m delusional or immature. It’s because I identify with something that I may or may not be able to articulate about the story that I need spiritually, intellectually or emotionally. Story is experiential insight. Stories matter.
Thank you, Storytellers.
Are you a fanboy or fangirl? Which books or series are you obsessed with, and what draws you to them?