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 the environment in which the story is set. The background of the story must contribute to the protagonist's struggle.

Some writers begin planning a story by constructing a plot, then putting in characters, background and conflict as necessary. For example, they start with a basic idea, such as, What would happen if the least intelligent people of the world had larger and larger families, while the most intelligent had fewer and fewer children? The answer turned into Cyril M. Kornbluth's classic, "The Marching Morons," one of the best novelettes ever written in the science fiction genre. I may be entirely wrong, but it seems to me that Kornbluth got the basic idea first, worked out a plot to suit the idea, and then peopled the story with the characters, background and conflicts that it needed.

On the other hand, it is possible to get the germ of a story idea from any point of the compass and build the story from that starting place. Asimov's "Nightfall" began with the background of a planet where night comes only once each thousand years. "Sepulcher" began with the idea of a work of art so perfectly executed that all who see it see something specific to their own life. "Crisis of the Month" began as a grumble about the way the news media seem constantly to seek out anxiety-producing stories.

Many science fiction short stories begin with an idea about a gimmick: an invention, a problem, an exotic new background. Then the writer works out the characters and plot to showcase the idea. Thus we get a steady succession of what are called "gimmick stories": brilliant protagonist runs into impossible problem and solves it with brilliant invention or deduction or improvisation or whatnot. Gimmick stories can be fun to read, but they seldom leave a lasting impression. They are like eating popcorn: It tastes good at the time, but there's very little lasting value.

There have been so many gimmick stories in science fiction that both readers and editors have become very critical of them. Unless the story has a truly surprising twist to it, the science fiction audience will probably figure out the ending well ahead of time, and thus the story's suspense value is ruined.

The stories that last, the stories that really stay in the readers' minds, are usually stories that have a strong interplay between a very sympathetically drawn protagonist and a powerful, overwhelming problem. The writer's task is to make the reader care about the protagonist. Tie him to a chair and put a bomb at his feet; then make certain that the bomb's clock ticks loudly.

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