Showing posts with label science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science. 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!

Tuesday, November 20

Rejection Enhances Creativity

Science: Feeling Rejected Can Help Us Access Our Creativity

A couple of days ago I wrote about how science was beginning to understand the creative process. It turns out that when you're in creative mode (for instance, when you're writing a first draft) you shouldn't edit yourself. Write whatever comes to mind and clean it up later. (See: The Nature of Creativity: Science And Writing: Don't Edit Yourself)

Rejection Enhances Creativity

Today I came across the result of a series of experiments designed to measure the effect of rejection on creativity. The researchers concluded:
While it is never a comfortable experience, the feelings of rejection can actually help us access our more creative selves. ... Moreover, we can enhance that [creative] ability by changing the way we respond to rejection. Instead of dwelling too much on the pain of being turned down or turned aside, consider the freedom you now have to explore new possibilities and less mainstream options. (How Rejection Breeds Creativity, David Burkus)
It seems that subjects who felt rejected did better of tasks requiring creative thought than subjects who felt included.

So mail off your novel, your shorts stories. If they get accepted, great! If they don't, you'll become even MORE creative. Win-win!

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Other articles you might like:
- How Often Should A Writer Blog? Answer: It Depends On Your Goals
- Donald Maass Talks About How To Make Your Readers CARE About Your Characters On The First Page
- How To Design A Great Looking Book Cover

Photo credit: "Stopped Watch" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, November 17

The Nature of Creativity: Science And Writing: Don't Edit Yourself

The Nature of Creativity: Science And Writing: Don't Edit Yourself

Sometimes characters refuse to do what you want. You finish your outline, complete with a heartwarming theme and everything looks great. Then you sit down to write and ... Nothing. Your characters refuse to cooperate almost as though they had wills of their own. Damn them.

Other times it's as though your characters are acting in a play you didn't write. They do wonderful and interesting things, unexpected things. All you have to do is write down the story unfolding in your mind.

I've had both these experiences, as I'm sure you have, and we all prefer the second type. Especially during NaNoWriMo when we don't have a lot of time to coax characters to play nice.

The point is ... yes, there is one! ... that our characters often behave, for better or worse, as though they have a will of their own.

Science Is Beginning To Understand Creative Processes

Recently Science has shed some light on this phenomenon and, in the process, revealed two things I believe are of special interest to writers:

1) When characters act as though they have wills of their own, they kinda do.

2) All things being equal, it's probably better to pants your first draft.

Let's take each of these in turn:

1) Pants Your First Draft

Neuroscientists Siyuan Liu and Allen Braun recently put rappers inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine and asked them to freestyle. (That's one sentence I never thought I'd write!) Why? Because they're trying to understand the creative process.

Specifically, Liu and Braun were wondering whether the areas of the brain which regulate its own activity would be MORE active or LESS active when a subject was engaged in creative pursuits. It turns out they're less active, far less active.

What does that mean? Braun says, “We think what we see is a relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural de-focused attention and uncensored processes to occur that might be the hallmark of creativity.” [1]

In other words, stepping back, being uncritical--just letting it happen--is what creativity is all about.

What does this mean for writers? All things considered, try to pants your first draft. 

You can still have an outline, but don't let it get in the way of your creative flow. Just let it happen. If you have to throw out your outline, do it! After your first draft is done, or even after you've finished writing for the day, you can go back to your outline and adjust it as needed.

2) Your Characters REALLY DO Have Wills Of Their Own ... At Least It Seems That way

Liu and Braun think that decreased activity in certain areas of the brain, those involved in self-regulation, could explain why artists sometimes have the sensation of their performance having “occurred outside of conscious awareness”. For instance, those rare times when it seems your story is unfolding of its own accord and all you have to do is write it down.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if science could give us tips on how to make this happen more often?

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NaNoWriMo Update: I have 31,010 words and am shooting to get up to 33k tonight. I'm starting to feel we're nearing the end. Yea!! :-)

Other articles you might like:

- Pixar Luminary Andrew Stanton's TED Talk: Make Your Reader Care
- Time Management For Writers: Nanny For Chrome
- Tucker Max's Advice: Become Your Own Publisher And Triple Your Royalties


1) Brain Scans of Rappers Shed Light on Creativity, Daniel Cressey and Nature magazine. Thanks to The Passive Voice Blog for a link to this article.

Photo credit: "shadows on the wall" by AlicePopkorn under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.