Background Checklist

To recapitulate the major points of this chapter 1. Make every background detail work. 2. Don't try to explain how the machinery works just show what it does. 3. Feel free to invent any new devices or scientific discoveries that you can imagine providing they do not contradict what is known about science today. 4. Be thoroughly familiar with the background of your story. 5. Learn the basics of science. 7. The background and the story itself must be internally consistent.

Conflict Checklist

A story is a narrative description of a character struggling to solve a problem. Nothing more, nothing less. Struggle means conflict. 2. In fiction, conflict almost always involves a mental or moral struggle between characters caused by incompatible desires and aims. 3.Physical action is not necessarily conflict. 4. The conflict in a story should be rooted in the mind of the protagonist it is the protagonist's inner turmoil that drives the narrative. 5. The protagonist's inner struggle should...

Plot Checklist

To recapitulate the points of this chapter 1. Plant a time bomb on the first page in the first paragraph, if possible. 2. Each story involves a race against time. That time bomb is set to explode at the climax of the story its ticking should be heard on every page. 3. Every scene must further the plot. Especially in a short story, if a scene does not help move the story forward, take it out. 4. There should be surprises in the story every few pages. New complications and new problems should...

Alternate Antagonists

In some science fiction stories, the antagonist is not a person at all. In Flowers for Algernon, the classic short story by Daniel Keyes that he later expanded into a novel and turned into the movie Charlie, the antagonist is nature itself. Charlie's opponent is the universe, the blind inexorable workings of the laws of physics and chemistry. Even though the antagonist may not be an individual character, the protagonist must have an opponent, and that opponent must work on the basic conflict...

Background Practice

Designing the Ringworld was the fun part. The difficult part would be describing it without losing the reader Larry Niven's novel Ringworld is a modern classic of science fiction. It is set on an artificial world built by alien engineers in the form of a gigantic ring around their star, a ring whose size is roughly equal to the size of the Earth's orbit around the Sun a ring some three hundred million miles in circumference The novel is, in large part, an exploration of this stupendous...

Background Theory

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. Ernest Hemingway In that one short opening sentence Hemingway gives you the background for his magnificent story, The Old Man and the Sea. Read that one sentence and you know who the story is about, where it is set, and what the old man's basic problem is. In Victorian novels, such as Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, it was not unusual for the author to take a...

Building Story Flow

Some writers like to make fairly detailed outlines of their stories, so that they know almost exactly what is going to happen, scene by scene. This makes some sense for longer works such as novels, where the plot can get quite complicated. We will discuss outlining for novels in chapter fifteen. But for the short story, outlines can sometimes be a hindrance rather than a help. If the story is to flow out of the conflict between the two major characters (or the protagonist's conflict with the...

Chains Of Problems And Promises

The solution to one question, you notice, leads to the next question. This forms an interlocking chain of problems. The novelist Manuel Komroff chose another name for this He called it an interlocking chain of promises, because each problem or question that you put before the reader implicitly promises a solution, an answer, something intriguing and exciting to lure the reader onward. Like a Western sheriff following an outlaw's trail, the reader will hunt from one problem to the next, eager to...

Chapter Five Character in Science Fiction

Give him a compulsion and turn him loose Fifteen Miles dealt with three characters, and each of them had a problem. Chet Kinsman was the viewpoint character, of course the protagonist. Everything in the story was seen from his point of view. Without him and his problems, there would have been no story. Notice that Kinsman had problems, plural. That is one major difference between the protagonist of a story and the other characters. Secondary characters can have one fundamental problem to solve....

Conflict Practice

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face You must do the thing which you think you cannot do. Mrs. Roosevelt was not giving advice to writers when she wrote those words, but better advice would be hard to find. As a writer, you must do the thing which you think you cannot do push yourself farther, stretch your writerly muscles, reach for impossible dreams. Also, you must push your characters to do what they think they cannot...

Conflict Theory

The story must be a conflict, and specifically, a conflict between the forces of good and evil within a single person. I have asked that question to hundreds of audiences ranging from students in writing classes to new acquaintances who immediately tell me that they want to be writers. I always ask anyone who expresses a desire to be a writer, What is a story I seldom get the answer I am looking for. Most people, even those who want to spend their lives writing stories, find it extraordinarily...

Creating Sepulcher

Now for some words on the genesis of the story, the background of the creative process that led to Sepulcher. Most of my stories begin in my mind with a concept of the major character, or an intriguing situation that pops into my head and demands to be written about. Sepulcher was different. It began with an idea. For years I had a tiny scrap of paper tucked in my ideas file. It read, Perfect artwork. Everyone sees themselves in it. The idea intrigued me, but the reason that scrap of paper...

Crisis of the Month

While I crumpled the paper note that someone had slipped into my jacket pocket, Jack Armstrong drummed his fingers on the immaculately gleaming expanse of the pseudomahogany conference table. Well, he said testily, ladies and gentlemen, don't one of you have a possibility An inkling An idea No one spoke. I left the wadded note in my pocket and placed both my hands conspicuously on the table top. Armstrong drummed away in abysmal silence. I guess once he had actually looked like The All-American...

Handling Point Of View

In a short story, it is important to show the entire story through the protagonist's point of view. Viewpoint can shift from one character to another in a novel, if it is absolutely necessary, but within the brief confines of a short story it is best to stick to one viewpoint character and show the entire tale through that character's eyes. Even if you write the story in the third person, put nothing on paper that the protagonist has not experienced firsthand. In a novel, where you may shift...

How to Get Out of the Slushpile

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that a that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you the goo and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer. Well, almost. As far back as I can remember I was writing stories or telling them to friends and family When I was...

Levels Of Conflict

A strong story has many tiers of conflict. First is the inner struggle of the protagonist, emotion vs. emotion. Then this interior struggle is made exterior by focusing on an antagonist who attacks the protagonist precisely at her weakest point. The antagonist amplifies the protagonist's inner struggle, brings it out of her mind and into the outside world. For example, think of the many layers of conflict in the tale of Robin Hood. Interestingly, the Robin Hood stories were originally spoken,...

Making Background Work

All right, then, how does a writer make an effective, fascinating background for a short story without going into excruciating detail Here are a few simple guidelines. 1. Make every background detail work. That is, everything about the background should be important to the story. In a short story you do not have the room, and the reader does not have the time, to rhapsodize over multicolored sunsets on a planet that has six suns. Not unless those gorgeous colors will affect the outcome of the...

Making Characters Live

How do you do this There are two major things to keep in mind. First, remember that every story is essentially the description of a character struggling to solve a problem. Pick your central character with care. The protagonist must be interesting enough, and have a grievous-enough problem, to make the reader care about her. Often the protagonist is called the viewpoint character, because the story is told from that character's point of view. It is the protagonist's story that you are telling,...

Nurturing Plot Surprises

Every plot needs a few surprising twists and turns, of course. But even here it is best to let the characters themselves surprise you, the writer. If you have developed a set of interesting characters, people who are alive in your mind, you will find that they start to do surprising things as you write their story. They will take over their own destinies and stubbornly resist your efforts to bend them to a preconceived plot. The antagonist that you wanted to put in jail will squeeze out of your...

Points Of Decision And Crisis

Every short story should reach this kind of crisis-point. This is where you, the writer, put your protagonist and the reader on the needle-sharp horns of an impossibly painful dilemma. Up to this point, you have carefully convinced the reader that your protagonist is a fine and worthwhile fellow, no matter what his shortcomings and problems may be. If you have done your work well, the reader will be imagining himself as the protagonist. I wanted you to believe that you were Chet Kinsman,...

Review Of The Background Checklist

Let us briefly examine this story, then, in the light of the checklist from chapter six. 1. Make every background detail work. There is not a detail in this story that does not help advance the mood or the character development or the plot. For example, we see at first that Dorn's clothing is tattered, although his soldier's boots are highly polished. Later we learn that his clothing is his soldier's uniform, from which he has torn all the insignia and pockets a physical representation of...

Review Of The Character Checklist

Now, let us go over the points made in chapter three's checklist, in light of what I have said about Fifteen Miles. 1. In a good story the reader forgets where he is and lives in the story the reader wants to be the protagonist. Fifteen Miles is a heavily masculine story. The story has been widely anthologized, which means that many editors have liked it, and many readers have seen it. I suspect that most of those readers are male. That is one of the problems a writer faces Every story choice...

Science fiction stories are those in which some aspect of future science or high technology is so integral to the story

Take the scientific element out of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel and what is left A failed medical student and not much more. You may be surprised to realize that most of the books and magazine stories published under the science fiction rubric fail to meet this criterion. The science fiction category is very broad it includes fantasy, horror, and speculative tales of the future in which science plays little or no part at all. From here on, when I say science...

Sepulcher

Now I am a priest. You may call me Dorn Elverda Apacheta could not help staring at him. She had seen cyborgs before, but this. person seemed more machine than man. She felt a chill ripple of contempt along her veins. How could a human being allow his body to be disfigured so He was not tall Elverda herself stood several centimeters taller than he. His shoulders were quite broad, though his torso thick and solid. The left side of his face was engraved metal, as was the...

Setting The Plot Ticking

The essence of creating a strong, exciting plot lies in building a powerful time bomb and making certain that the reader can hear its ticking from the very first page even the first paragraph of the story. The three aspects of fiction writing that we have already discussed character, background and conflict must be brought into focus by the plot. The protagonist must have a problem that she must solve. To solve this problem the protagonist will come into conflict with other characters and or...

Simplistic Conflict

The simplest form of conflict is the most obvious action-packed fighting between two characters. This is the heart of the stereotypical western story the good guy in the white hat shoots it out with the bad guy in the black hat. Or they fight it out with fists in the town saloon. This is called horse opera, a justifiably derisive term when such physical action is the only kind of conflict in the story. Science fiction stories have been written along the same lines, and such stories are called...

Story Movement

As the plot develops, the story must move. That is, it must progress from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. In order for the story to move forward, the protagonist must learn things, grow and change. The reader must discover something new and, one hopes, something delightfully interesting or fiendishly frightening on every page. Many new writers (and even some old hands, alas) confuse motion with movement. They whiz the protagonist out of his office, down a conveyer-belt slidewalk,...

The Plan Of This Book

The plan of this book is straightforward. I assume that you want to write publishable fiction, either short stories or novels. I will speak directly to you, just as if we were sitting together in my home discussing craftsmanship face to face. First, we will talk about science fiction, its special requirements, its special satisfactions. The science fiction field is demanding, but it is the best place for new writers to begin their careers. It is vital, exciting, and offers a close and immediate...

The Slushpile

When I was an editor of fiction, every week I received some fifty to a hundred story manuscripts from men and women who had never submitted a piece of fiction before. The manuscripts stacked up on my desk daily and formed what is known in the publishing business as the slushpile. Every new writer starts in the slushpile. Most writers never get out of it. They simply get tired of receiving rejections and eventually quit writing. At both Analog and Omni I personally read all the incoming...

Three Reasons

The three reasons this book concentrates on science fiction story-writing are 1. In today's commercial fiction market, SF is one of the few areas open to new writers, whether they are writing short stories or novels. Mysteries, gothics, romances, and other categories of commercial fiction are much more limited and specialized, especially for the short-story writer, but SF is as wide open as the infinite heavens. SF magazines actively seek new writers, and SF books consistently account for...

Useful Background

One of the biggest problems facing the writer of a science fiction short story is the need to create a background that is convincing without being overpowering. The writer of a contemporary story, or a historical or western or detective story, can take it for granted that the reader is familiar with most of the background details. After all, a table is a table. Modern American readers know what a stagecoach looks like they can easily visualize the glittering chandeliers of Louis XIV's palace at...

What Is Conflict

If you look up the word in a dictionary, you will find several definitions. The one that pertains to writers is clash or divergence of opinions, interests. . . a mental or moral struggle occasioned by incompatible desires, aims, etc. A mental or moral struggle caused by incompatible desires and aims. That is the kind of conflict that makes stories vitally alive. Not merely the mindless, automatic violence of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, but the clash of desires and aims that cannot coexist. Like the...

Character Theory

What is either a picture or a novel that is not character Henry James That is, every fiction story hinges on the writer's handling of the people in the story. In particular, it is the central character, or protagonist, who makes the difference between a good story and a bad one. In fact, you can define a story as the prose description of a character attempting to solve a problem nothing more. And nothing less. In science fiction, the character need not be a human being. Science fiction stories...

Character Checklist

Listed on the following page are the seven major points I have made in this chapter. We will examine them again in chapter five to see how each point was followed in Fifteen Miles. 1. In a good story the reader forgets where he is and lives in the story the reader wants to be the protagonist. 2. The protagonist must be admirable, or at least likable, but he should have at least one glaring weakness that forms the underlying tension that drives the character's behavior. Capture those conflicting...

Giving Strength To Your Plots

For me, as a writer, the best way to build a good plot is to begin with a strong, sympathetic protagonist and put him into action against a similarly strong antagonist. Strong, in this context, does not necessarily mean the jutting jaw, steely eyes and bulging muscles of the typical old-time pulp magazine hero. In a novelette called The Dueling Machine which I later expanded into a novel , my protagonist was a gangling, bumbling young man who could barely walk across a room without getting into...

Plot Theory

Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story. Gordon R. Dickson is not only a fine writer, but also one of the best story doctors I know. Writers take their problem stories to Gordy for advice. He was once asked, What makes a story tick His answer The time bomb that's set to explode on the last page. Every story is a race against time. Something is going to happen and, whether it is good or bad, the characters and events of the story are set up to get to the...