A few years back, we were having a discussion on the SF Canada listserver about what advice we would give to young folks setting out to write SF. I offered some succinct summaries of what I always told student when I teach this stuff. Karl Johanson, editor of the award-winning Canadian SF magazine, Neo-Opsis, picked up my spilled pearls and put them in Issue 15.
Today they were mentioned in another listserver discussion, so I thought I’d dig them out of the email archive and put them here:
1. You think it’s your story because you’re writing it; in fact, it’s the characters’ story, and you’re just writing it for them. In other words, start with the characters’ situations and needs, and your story will stay centred.
2. If you know what your story’s _about_, at the thematic level, well below plot, you’ll know how it has to end, and you won’t get lost in the plotting. Forex, a love story ends with the lovers united forever or tragicallly separated, a revenge story ends with the hero taking or forsaking revenge, a quest adventure ends with the hero reaching the goal or discovering, through the life-changing events of the journey, that the goal is not the true grail.
3. Conflict is the universal tool of fiction writing. Every story is built around a conflict, posed as a dramatic question and ultimately answered by the climax; every scene is built around a lesser conflict, the answer to which is yes, no, or not yet. Infodumps and lengthy scenic descriptions, as perpetrated by people who think the attraction of a story is its setting or world-building, are just travel writing. Conflict — character vs character, character vs environment, character vs him/herself — is what makes story.
4. Every story begins with an initiating incident. Something happens that is out of the ordinary for the character’s normal situation, no matter how extraordinary that situation might seem to us. From then on, the story is about how the character deals with the conflict that started with that plot point. Smart writers, especially those trying to interest agents and editors in their first saleable work, put that incident on page one and work in the setting and the backstory as the action continually moves forward. In other words, start your story where the story starts. Or in the words of Louis Lamour: have your hero in trouble on page one.
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