Showing posts with label hugo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hugo. Show all posts

Monday, June 23

Ben Bova On Writing Science Fiction

Ben Bova On Writing Science Fiction

I knew I wanted to read it as soon as I saw the quotation Bova used to start off his book:
"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 all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good 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."
-- Ernest Hemingway
Yes. That.

Hemingway was talking about stories in general. What is science fiction? What makes one book a work of science fiction and another not?

The science must be essential to the story.

Bova defines science fiction this way:
"Science fiction stories are those in which some aspect of future science or high technology is so integral to the story that, if you take away the science or technology, the story collapses."
He uses Mary Shelly's book "Frankenstein" as an example.  It passes the test because "Take the scientific element out of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel and what is left? A failed medical student and not much more."

What is unique to science fiction?

Science fiction has special requirements, special demands. Bova writes:
"Every good science fiction story must present to the reader a world that no one has ever seen before. You cannot take it for granted that the sky is blue, that chairs have legs, or that what goes up must come down. In a good science fiction story the writer is presenting a new world in a fresh universe. In addition to all the other things that a good story must accomplish, a good science fiction tale must present the ground rules and use them consistently without stopping the flow of the narrative."

Ben Bova's Tips For Bringing A Character--And A Story--To Life

Make the protagonist interesting

He (or she) doesn't have to be likeable, but it's difficult to make a character likeable if he (or she) isn't interesting.

Make the stakes both clear and dramatic

Make sure the problem the protagonist encounters is truly dire. If the protagonist doesn't solve the problem then his life should be dramatically affected for the worse. 

For example, if Luke Skywalker (Star Wars IV) didn't destroy the Death Star then he'd be dead, all his friends would be dead, and the resistance would be destroyed. 

Give the protagonist one or two great strengths and one obvious weakness.

For example, take the character of Ender from Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Ender had both compassion and ruthlessness. Which trait was either a strength or a weakness depended on the context. Ender's challenge--one of them--was to strike a balance between the two.

I know this isn't science fiction, but I like using the character of Indiana Jones as an example. Indy was resourceful, that was his great strength. Also, he was fearless. His weakness was that he was too trusting, especially of attractive females. Another of his weaknesses, played for comic effect, was his fear of snakes. 

Give the protagonist a problem that preys upon their weakness.

Bova writes: 
"Once you have decided who your protagonist will be and you know his strengths and weaknesses, hit him where it hurts most! Develop an instinct for the jugular. Give your main character a problem that she cannot solve, and then make it as difficult as possible for her to struggle out of her dilemma."

Emotion A vs emotion B

Your protagonist should have an inward struggle. They should have two opposing goals. Bova uses Hamlet as an example. Hamlet struggled between the desire for revenge upon his uncle, Claudius, and the desire to do no wrong. He writes:
"I want to borrow a marvelous technique from William Foster-Harris, who was a fine teacher of writing at the University of Oklahoma. He hit upon the technique of visualizing story characters’ problems in the form of a simple equation: Emotion A vs. Emotion B. For example, you might depict Hamlet as a case of revenge vs. self-doubt. Think of the characters you have loved best in the stories you have read. Each of them was torn by conflicting emotions, from the Biblical patriarch Abraham’s obedience vs. love, when commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, to the greed vs. loyalty often displayed by my own quixotic character, Sam Gunn.

"Whenever you start to think about a character for a story, even a secondary character, try to sum up his or her essential characteristics in this simple formula. Don’t let the simplicity of this approach fool you. If you can’t capture a character by a straightforward emotion vs. emotion equation, then you haven’t thought out the character well enough to begin writing. Of course, for minor characters this isn’t necessary. But it certainly is vital for the protagonist, and it can be just as important for the secondary characters, too.

"With this approach, you begin to understand that the protagonist’s real problem is inside her head. The basic conflict of the story, the mainspring that drives it onward, is an emotional conflict inside the mind of the protagonist. The other conflicts in the story stem from this source [...]."
Ben Bova won the Hugo six times, wrote and published over 120 stories, was an editor over at Analog and was the editorial director at Omni.

I'll close with how Ben Bova defined a story:
"[...] every story is essentially the description of a character struggling to solve a problem."
So simple, so true, yet it is far from easy to create (or discover) stories that embody that principle.

Good writing!

Thursday, December 6

Connie Willis And 11 Ways To Write Great Dialogue

Connie Willis On How To Write Great Dialogue

Connie Willis knows her stuff. She's won 11 Hugo Awards, 7 Nebula Awards and been inducted into the Science Fiction Museum and Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

When I read the article Connie Willis on Dialogue it was no surprise that Ms. Willis gave great advise. Here are the highlights:

1. Dialogue & Conversation

Real dialogue would be very difficult to read. I ride the buss a lot and half the time I have no idea what people are talking about. It's a game I play to try and find out.

A: "Did you remember?"
B: "What? Oh. Right. Yea. Before I left."
A: "How did she take it?"
B: (Shrug) "Okay I guess. Oh, don't forget dinner."
A: "Mary?"
B: (Nods)

For all I know, Mary's the main course! (Or perhaps I'm thinking that because I just wrote about what makes a story scary.) The author writes:
[W]ritten dialogue tries to sound like speech, but it’s more coherent.  It’s a suggestion of how speech sounds rather than the real, often incomprehensible, things we say to each other.

2. Better than real life

Good dialogue is idealized speech. Our characters say the things we wish we would have said in real life. They get to be witty and effervescent.

3. Skip The Boring Bits

Don't bother having your characters say hello. Skip to the important bits.
Writers often start dialogue with meaningless greetings or idle, warm-up chit chat.  Part of “distilling” dialogue is starting with the important, plot-relevant speech.

4. Dialogue First, Description Second

Let's say two of your characters are having a conversation. Write it out. Everything. Don't pause to describe the setting, what the characters are thinking, any actions that are occurring, and so on.

That's the first step. The next step is to cut half of it out. Snip, snip. You want to distill the conversation down to its essentials.

5. No Long Speeches

Period. They are dry, and dull and boring.

6. Dialogue With Action

Don't just have your characters standing around talking, have them doing something. Think of the last movie you watched. Actors rarely just stand still, look at each other and talk. They're walking, fighting, making love, whatever, but--generally--they don't just stand around and talk.

7. Using Dialogue To Forshadow

I read somewhere that you want to implant a question in your readers mind with the first sentence of your story. Changes, by Jim Butcher, is a great example:
I answered the phone, and Susan Rodriguez said, "They've taken our daughter".
The question: What daughter? That was how Harry--as well as the reader--learnt he had a child. Excellent hook. (Also, who took the daughter and why did they take her and where is she. That was a magnificent opening line.)

Good dialogue doesn’t ... just give information.  It can hint of information the reader will want to know, particularly at the beginning of the story ....  The characters are talking about something that is clearly meaningful for them, but they aren’t aware of the unseen eavesdropper, the reader, so the conversation can raise a question ....  They’ll keep reading to find out what the characters in the story were talking about.

8. Make Your Characters Angry

Put your characters in a jar and shake it. Make them angry, make them fight and say things, deep cutting things, things they mean--or not. Often we get a peek into what a person is really like when they're angry, what they're prepared to do.

 9. Be Subtle/Show Don't Tell

How many times has a guy walked up to the girl he loves and said, "I love you"? Probably not often. He's scared that she won't feel the same way about him and, besides, most of the guys I know would rather go through dental surgery without anesthetic than talk about their feelings.

A lot of times we tell each other things without saying them. Thinks like: "I love you. I miss you." We communicate it in our tone of voice, in the things we do, or don't do. In pauses and blushes, in stammering and in smiles.

Robert Sawyer gave an excellent workshop on this subject. My notes are here: Robert J. Sawyer: Showing Not Telling.

10. Dialogue: Character Reaction

In life we often gauge the seriousness, or importance, of something that was said by the reactions of people around us. It's the same in dialogue. Have your supporting characters show the importance of what's being said.
Important dialogue is hardly ever important to just the person who is saying it.  We understand the importance of what people are saying by how other characters respond to it.

11. Banter Is The Highest Form of Dialogue

This is how the dictionary defines banter: The playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks. Whenever I think of banter I think of the opening scenes of Pulp Fiction.

Banter is two characters on the top of their games, both saying exactly the right, clever, witty, penetrating comment at exactly the right time.  Banter is like a long rally in an epic tennis match.  The characters are smarter, snappier and funnier than real dialogue.
I'd encourage you all to read the article Connie Willis on Dialogue for yourself, there was a lot I didn't cover. Happy dialoguing! :)

Other articles you might like:
- Writing Horror: What Makes A Story Scary?
- Self Publishing on Amazon: Kindle Direct Publishing
- 19 Ways To Grow Your Twitter Following

Photo credit: "Heated Argument /口角" by Ding Yuin Shan 丁雲山 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.