Monday, November 14, 2011

Five Rules For Writing Sci-Fi

by R.S. Mellette

First of all, let me state where I come down on the Sci-Fi/Science Fiction debate.

For those who aren't into the genre, several years ago a movement headed by Science Fiction author Harlan Ellison, took issue with the classification of Sci-Fi. They felt it excluded them from consideration as literature. Fine. Point taken. I'm a firm believer that the X-Men series is one of the greatest examples of pure American Literature you can find. A Connecticut Yankee In King Author's Court is clearly Science Fiction, and no one would ever question the literary worth of Mark Twain.

With respect to the genre of Science Fiction, I proudly state that I write Sci-Fi. Literature be damned. I'd rather write a book that kids sneak into bed at night than one that teachers assign. Given a choice between literary success and sales, I'll take sales every time. Why?—besides, you know, me being able to pay my bills? There is no better review than a working person plunking down their hard-earned cash—or a kid spending his/her allowance—to read my stories.

And Time decides what is and is not literature, not professors, critics, or authors.

So, given that I'm a hack wannabe, let's look at a few rules that apply to Sci-Fi, or Science Fiction even, that might not be an issue with other genres.

  •      Rule Number One: Don't break your own rules. The world that you create will have its own logic and psycho-logic. These may not be as rigid as a map at the beginning of fantasy epics, but once you establish a parameter for your world, you'd best stick to it—or present a plausible, logical, way around the rules. That leads us to:
  •      Rule Number Two: Never invent a gadget or technology that can solve every problem. Sure, Dr. Who's sonic screwdriver can do nearly anything he wants done when he wants it. That "nearly" makes all the difference in the world. Your job as a writer is to create problems for your heroes that are insurmountable. We, the readers, then have the pleasure of seeing how they surmount them. If the heroes have an everything-proof impossible-problem-solver-gadget, then we don't have any fun. Unless the author is Douglas Adams.
  •      Rule Number Three: Escalation of powers. This is a big issue in series writing—be it TV, novels, movies, comics, etc. If, in one episode, your hero fights off a hundred villains singlehandedly, what are you going to do when you need him/her to be captured by a single villain in the next? The answer can be found in:
  •      Rule Number Four: Always have Kryptonite. Your superhero can't be TOO super or s/he becomes an everything-proof impossible-problem-solver. There must be a weakness, and the best of these (I think) are internal, emotional, soft spots.
  •      Rule Number Five: Make it personal. Don't fall into the 1990's Hollywood trap of thinking that special effects and cool stuff is all you need to entertain an audience. Healthy heart scenes beat out eye-candy every time. James Bond's toys are fun, but never as much fun as the way the character uses them. He is cool. His stuff is just stuff.

That should be enough to get the conversation started. What have I left out? What rules apply no matter the genre?


Christopher Hudson said...

Well, I certainly agree with your 'literature vs book that kids sneak in bed at night analogy', but maybe for a different reason ... I want to have as much fun writing a book as the reader does reading it.

Jemi Fraser said...

I hate when I'm reading a sci-fi story and your rule #1 gets broken. Throws me out of the story and frustrates me to the point I often put down the book. Great rules, RS!

RSMellette said...

Fun is one of the keys to entertainment, I think. :)

And thanks, Jemi. I, too, have put down books that break these rules, all while wondering how these people got published.

Matt Sinclair said...

Good rules, RS. I can't disagree with them. Of course, the number one rule is always to entertain, but I think that's a rule of writing, not simply a rule of science fiction.

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