Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: sci-fi

Just how all of us want to dress in Texas summer.

Today, we are going to talk about a problem that plagues sci-fi and fantasy more than any other genre—over fascination with gizmos, widgets, world-building and magic at the expense of the core story and bigger theme. What makes science fiction or fantasy fiction great? What makes it endure for generations? Let’s take a look-see…

Great Stories are about Heroes

All great stories are about people. Fiction is a window into our souls. Stories are a safe place to watch conflict and learn how heroes resolve that conflict. Heroes are not normal people. If our heroes are normal people then that is called “bad fiction.” Heroes are normal people who (eventually) do extraordinary things. They keep going even after (it seems) that all is lost.

But what makes a real hero?

A hero must be relatable.

He/she needs to be relatable so we can connect. We have to see some aspect of ourselves in the protagonist. This is the element that will pull readers into the story and not let go until the end. Perfect characters are not relatable, ergo dull as dirt.

A good hero also has room to grow. 

This is also known as character arc, and it is vital for great stories. Lack of a character arc is one of the reasons that movies based off video games are often less satisfying. Video game heroes are fully actualized on Day One, ergo boring (Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft). The real heroes, the ones that make us dance on the edges of our seats? They begin as unformed clay that we know is going to get a serious pounding. But, once the fires of adversity harden this character? Watch out.

A good hero, if pitted against the Big Boss Troublemaker in scene one should be toast.

If Frodo of the Shire started scene two of the movie at the foot of Mount Doom, he would have been, well *shrugs* doomed. It is the journey that creates the hero. Frodo goes from being a naive fool to a hardened warrior willing to embrace a suicide mission to make the world safe and right, and that is why we stand and cheer.

Gizmos & Magic Does Not a Story Make

One of the biggest mistakes I see in fantasy and science fiction is the writer gets too fascinated with gizmos, magic and world-building. Yes, all of these elements are important, but they are not the core. Icing is awesome and butter cream icing is super awesome, but if it is smeared over canned dog food, we don’t want to eat it. We don’t care how thick you layer that butter cream icing. No matter how many sprinkles you add. No matter how many beautiful roses made of icing, we still don’t want to eat dog food.

Make sure the core story is there. Great stories are a Stake Sandwich. All stories have two layers of objectives with stakes sandwiched in between.

Core Story Problem (Outer Journey)-–What is the core problem your protagonist must resolve before the story ends?

Drop Ring of Power into Mt. Doom.

Stakes–What will happen if your protagonist fails to become a hero? The more that’s at risk, the better the story and the higher you can ratchet the tension.

Naive halfling (Hobbit) who’s never been away from home (out of the Shire) must drop Ring of Power into a volcano in the heart of enemy territory before the forces of evil (Sauron) can use the ring to enslave and destroy protagonist’s known world, including family and friends (Middle Earth).

Core Character Problem—How must your protagonist change in order to defeat the Big Boss Troublemaker?

Naive insecure halfling (Hobbit) must harden into warrior-hero who is willing to do anything to destroy evil.

Note the halfling shows that Frodo has a physical disadvantage (to go with a couple of emotional disadvantages). He is not physically who we would think of when the word “hero” is used. Not only is he small in stature, but he is small in how he views himself. First, he is childlike and naive, which is why he nearly ends up minced meat at The Prancing Pony. 

Warriors don’t just trust anyone and they don’t hang out with friends who have warrants out for their arrest for stealing salad fixings. Frodo, also, doesn’t see himself as a warrior, let alone a hero and yet that is exactly the transformation that takes place.

Movie One—Naive Hobbit transforms into Apprentice Warrior Hobbit

Movie Two—Apprentice Warrior Hobbit transforms into Warrior Hobbit

Movie Three—Warrior Hobbit transforms into Hero Hobbit

As the story arc progresses, so does the character arc until the journey has hardened Frodo enough to be willing to lay down his life to save the world at the end. Yes, there is a lot of magic and world-building and wild creatures but they never overshadow this fundamental core, the journey of a boy to a hero.

Great Fantasy and Science Fiction often are about Bigger Themes and Human Questions

Phillip K. Dick was a master at this. Minority Report asks the question about justice versus free will. Justice and freedom are in a reciprocal relationship. As one increases, the other decreases. More justice, less freedom. More freedom, less justice. Yet, in a world of perfect justice, do we actually lose what it means to be human? Do we trade perfect safety for free will?

Blade Runner explores what it fundamentally means to be “human.” At what point could an artificial lifeform be considered sentient/human? What moral imperative should guide us as we make artificial lifeforms more and more intelligent? What duties and obligations do we, their human Creators, hold?

In both of these stories we can see the hero’s journey. In Minority Report, the poster boy for Pre-Crime is the one who will take down Pre-Crime. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. There is a deep and compelling question of free will versus predestination, thus blending in matters of faith.

In Blade Runner, the hunter will become the protector. There is a dramatic irony in that the Replicants are being mercilessly hunted down and terminated for their “lack of empathy.” The story showcases human hubris and the struggle to remember what it means to be human…compassion, care, empathy.

Digging Deeper

When you start out to write your fantasy or science fiction, think of larger questions your story might answer or at least explore. What does it meant to be human (I, Robot)? Can different races work together even after betrayal (Lord of the Rings)?

Are there religious or political themes you can add to your core story (Dune—substitute “petroleum” for “spice.” Explores the idea of “jihad” and the battle between the “religious establishment” {the Bene Gesserit who are in the pocket of the Guild} and the true messiah and holy warriors who will take it all down)?

Who would be the most unlikely hero for this particular story? What can transform him/her? What crucible is perfect to fire out this imperfection?

In the end, what I challenge you to do is to reach below the surface elements. World-building and magic and gadgets are cool, but they are surface. Dig deep into the tender parts of your humanity, and that is where the real treasures are.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi or fantasy stories? Why do you love them? What bigger questions did they probe? I know I listed a handful and I could write a 100 pages on each exploring the deeper stories and themes, but what did you see? What other selections would you add? Do you get frustrated by stories that are all gadgets and no substance? Does it not bother you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of August I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.

 

For the past several weeks we have been exploring structure and why it is important. If you haven’t yet read the prior posts, I advise you do because each post builds on the previous lesson. All lessons are geared to making you guys master plotters. Write cleaner and faster. I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit right now to get writing. All in due time. Today we are going to talk genre and why it is important to pick one.

Understanding what genre you are writing will help guide you when it comes to plotting your novel. How? Each genre has its own set of general rules and expectations. Think of this like stocking your cabinet with spices. If you like to cook Mexican food, then you will want to have a lot of cumin, chili powder and paprika on hand. Like cooking Italian food? Then basil and oregano are staple spices. In cooking we can break rules … but only to a certain point. We can add flavors of other cultures into our dish, but must be wary that if we deviate too far from expectations, or add too many competing flavors, we will have a culinary disaster. Writing is much the same. We must choose a genre, but then can feel free to add flavors of other genres into our work.

Ten years ago, when I first got this brilliant idea to start writing fiction, I didn’t do any planning. I knew zip nada about the craft, and, frankly, was too stupid to know I was that dumb. To make matters worse, I tried to write a novel that everyone would love. It was a romantic-thriller-mystery-comedic-memoir that would appeal to all ages, both men and women and even their pets and houseplants. I am here to help you learn from my mistakes.

I believe there are three kinds of writers. One type of writer is the Born Genre Author. This type of writer knows the genre he wants to write from day one. He is a born horror author or fantasy author, or whatever. This type does not start on a horror novel and then suddenly start thinking that YA is more his stride…or maybe sci-fi…or literary fiction. This author’s laser-focus is a tremendous asset, but tunnel-vision can get him in trouble. The greatest weakness I see with this type of writer is that they often don’t read outside their genre and so their work can lack that je ne sais quoi that makes their writing stand apart from others in their genre. Of course, this is easily remedied if this type of author can make a conscious effort to diversify.

Another type of author is like I used to be (and still have to fight). Meet The Dabbler. We love everything and have a hard time making up our minds. We love all kinds of writing, but this lack of focus can hurt our platform and spread us too thinly to be effective. Dabblers also are bad about making the mistake of trying to write a book that is all genres and what they end up with is an unpalatable mess. On the flip-side, though. Dabblers who can finally choose a genre usually are very innovative creatures because they have the knack and ability to draw flavors of other genres into their writing. The trick is getting them to pay attention and focus long enough.

Then there is the third kind of writer, The Profiteer. These writers are in the business for all the wrong reasons, and, because of that, usually never end up finishing, let alone publishing. They are writing for the money and fame and often are genre-hos. They keep a finger in the wind searching for what is currently hot. Vampires? Chick-lit? Whatever is flying off shelves, that is The Profiteer’s  new love. Of course what this writer doesn’t understand is that by the time they finish the novel, land an agent and that book makes it to print, the trends will have changed. But most Profiteers fall by the wayside, so that’s all I will say about them.

Just as nailing the log-line is vital for plotting, we also must be able to classify what genre our novel will be in. Now, understand that some genres are fairly close. Think Mexican Food and Tex Mex. An agent at a later date might, for business reasons, decide to slot a Women’s Fiction into Romance.  Yet, you likely will NEVER see an agent slot a literary fiction as a thriller. They are too different. That is like trying to put enchiladas on the menu at a French restaurant.

Part of why I stress picking a genre is that genres have rules and standards. For example, I had a student drop out of my Warrior Writer Boot Camp because I told her that her hero could not be the Big Boss Troublemaker (main antagonist) in her romance novel. I advised her that the hero could be an antagonistic force, but that she had to choose another person to be the BBT. Why? Because the genre of romance has rules, and guy and gal MUST come together at the end and live happily ever after. This cannot happen if the heroine defeats the hero.  Great love stories generally do not involve the hero being beaten up by a girl. I didn’t make the rules, but I can help a writer understand those rules and thereby increase his/her chances of publication success.

Understanding your genre will help immensely when it comes to plotting. It will also help you get an idea of the word count specific to that genre. I am going to attempt to give a very basic overview of the most popular genres. Please understand that all of these break down into subcategories, but I have provided links to help you learn more so this blog wasn’t 10,000 words long.

Mystery—often begins with the crime as the inciting incident (murder, theft, etc.), and the plot involves the protagonist uncovering the party responsible by the end. The crime has already happened and thus your goal in plotting is to drive toward the Big Boss Battle—the unveiling of the real culprit. Mysteries have a lot more leeway to develop characters simply because, if you choose, they can be slower in pacing because the crime has already happened. Mysteries run roughly  75-100,000 words. Mysteries on the cozy side that are often in a series commonly are shorter. 60,000-ish. I’d recommend that you consult the Mystery Writers of America of more information.

Thriller/Suspense—generally involve trying to stop some bad thing from happening at the end. Thrillers have broad consequences if the protagonist fails—I.e. the terrorists will launch a nuclear weapon and destroy Washington D.C. Suspense novels have smaller/more intimate consequences. I.e. The serial killer will keep butchering young blonde co-eds. It is easy to see how thriller, suspense and mystery are kissing cousins and keep company. The key here is that there is a ticking clock and some disastrous event will happen if the protagonist fails.

So when plotting, all actions are geared to prevention of the horrible thing at the end. Thrillers can run 90-100,000 words (loosely) and sometimes a little longer. Why? Because some thrillers need to do world-building. Most of us have never been on a nuclear sub, so Tom Clancy had to recreate it for us in The Hunt for Red October (Clancy invented a sub-class of thriller known as the techno-thriller).

Pick up the pacing and you can have a Mystery-Suspense. Think Silence of the Lambs. A murder happens at the beginning, and the goal is to uncover the identity of the serial killer Buffalo Bill (mystery), but what makes this mystery-suspense is the presence of a ticking clock. Not only is the body count rising the longer Buffalo Bill remains free, but a senator’s daughter is next on Bill’s butcher block.

When plotting, there will often be a crime (murder) at the beginning, but the plot involves a rising “body count” and a perpetrator who must be stopped before an even bigger crime can occur (Big Boss Battle). These stories are plot-driven. Characters often do not have enough down-time to make sweeping inner arc changes like in a literary piece.

Pick up the pacing and raise the stakes and you have a Mystery-Thriller. Think Killing Floor by Lee Childs. The book begins with a murder of two unidentified people at a warehouse, but if the killers are not found, what the killers are trying to cover up will have global consequences. And I am not telling you what those consequences are b/c it would ruin the book :D.

When plotting, again, there is often a crime at the beginning with rising stakes, and the protagonist must stop a world-changing event from happening (Big Boss Battle). The focus of your plot will be solving the mystery and stopping the bad guy.

For more information on this genre, consult the International Thriller Writers site.

Romance—Guy and girl have to end up together in the end is the only point I will make on this. Romance is all about making the reader believe that love is good and grand and still exists in this crazy world. The hero cannot be your main antagonist.  Romance, however, is very complex and I cannot do it justice in this short blurb. If you desire to write romance, I highly recommend you go to the Romance Writers of America site for more information and that you join a chapter near you immediately. This is one of the most amazing writing organizations around and a great investment in a successful romance-writing career.

Word count will depend on the type of romance you desire to write. Again, look to RWA for guidance.

Literary Fiction-is character driven. The importance is placed on the inner change, and the plot is the mechanism for driving that change. Literary fiction has more emphasis on prose, symbol and motif. The events that happen must drive an inner transformation.

Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road is a good example. The world has been destroyed and only a few humans have survived. The question isn’t as much whether the man and the boy will survive as much as it is about how they will survive. Will they endure with their humanity in tact? Or will they resort to being animals? Thus, the goal in The Road is less about boy and man completing their journey to the ocean, and more about how they make it. Can they carry the torch of humanity?

When plotting for the literary fiction, one needs to consider plot-points for the inner changes occurring. There need to be cross-roads of choice. One choice ends the story. The character failed to change. The other path leads closer to the end. The darkest moment is when that character faces that inner weakness at its strongest, yet triumphs.

For instance, in The Road, there are multiple times the man and boy face literally starving to death. Will they resort to cannibalism as many other have? Or will they press on and hope? Word count can vary, but you should be safe with 60-85,000 words (The Road was technically a novella).

Fantasy and Science Fiction will involve some degree of world-building and extraordinary events, creatures, locations. In plotting, world-building is an essential additional step. How much world-building is necessary will depend on what sub-class of fantasy or sci-fi you’re writing. Word count will also be affected. The more world-building, the longer your book will be. Some books, especially in high-fantasy can run as long as 150,000 words and are often serialized.

Consult the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for more information.

Horror—This is another genre that breaks down into many sub-classifications and runs the gambit. It can be as simple as a basic Monster in the House story where the protagonist’s main goal is SERE-Survive Evade, Rescue, and Escape. The protag has only one goal…survive. These books tend to be on the shorter side, roughly 60,000 words.

Horror, however can blend with fantasy and require all kinds of complex world-building. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a good example. Stephen King’s horror often relies heavily on the psychological and there is weighty focus on an inner change/arc. For instance, The Shining chronicles Jack’s descent into madness and how his family deals with his change and ultimately tries to escape the very literal Monster in the House.

Horror will most always involve a Monster in the House scenario. It is just that the definitions of “monster” and “house” are mutable. Word count is contingent upon what type of horror you are writing. Again, I recommend you consult the experts, so here is a link to the Horror Writers Association. The Dark Fiction Guild seemed to have a lot of helpful/fascinating links, so you might want to check them out too.

Picking a genre is actually quite liberating. Each genre has unique guideposts and expectations, and, once you gain a clear view of these, then plotting becomes far easier and much faster. You will understand the critical elements that must be in place—ticking clock, inner arc, world-building—before you begin. This will save loads of time not only in writing, but in revision. Think of the romance author who makes her hero the main antagonist (BBT). She will try to query, and, since she didn’t know the rules of her genre, will end up having to totally rewrite/trash her story.

Eventually, once you grow in your craft, you will be able to break rules and conventions. But, to break the rules we have to understand them first.

I have done my best to give you guys a general overview of the most popular genres and links to know more. If you have some resources or links that you’d like to add, please put them in the comments section. Also, for the sake of brevity, I didn’t address other genres, like YA or Western. If you have questions or advice, fire away! Any corrections? Additions? Questions? Concerns? Comments? I love hearing from you. What is the biggest hurdle you have to choosing a genre? Do you love your genre? Why? Any advice?

Make sure you tune in for Wednesday’s blog where I continue walking you through blogging for platform :D. What do we blog about to gain a fan base?

Happy writing!

Until next time….

Give yourself the gift of success for the coming year. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books! Enter to win a FREE copy. Check out Author Susan Bischoff’s blog.

Kristen Lamb, Star Trek, What Star Trek Can Teach About Great Writing, What went wrong with the Star Wars Prequels, Kristen Lamb, novel structure, storytelling

Last night I watched the new Star Trek movie directed by J.J. Abrams for the second time. As a writer, stories are my business, so I study them in all forms. Film is a favorite in that it takes far less time and allows me to study the written form in a visual way. I don’t watch movies like most people, much to my husband’s chagrin (he would put tape over my mouth if he could get away with it).

This recent version of Star Trek did very well at the box office and resonated with audiences in a way that other high-budget fast-paced sci-fi movies had failed. Why? I believe Star Trek was a wild success because Abrams adhered to some very fundamental storytelling basics too often forgotten in Hollywood and even in writing.

Yes, movies and novels have more in common than you might think. Today’s blog especially applies to sci-fi and fantasy, but I believe all genres can benefit from these lessons I plucked from the screen last night. Today I will address some of my favorite points, because this movie is such a fantastic tool for understanding great storytelling that I couldn’t possibly address all the lessons in one sitting.

Star Trek proved that imperfect characters resonate with audiences.

Audiences LOVE flawed characters. James T. Kirk was deliciously flawed at the beginning. He was on a road to self-destruction believing he could never stand in the shadow of his father’s greatness. He demonstrated how character strengths of a great leader, when not harnessed properly, are tools of great mischief and mayhem.

Did the plot really serve to change Kirk? Not really. His attributes were very similar, just refocused in a productive way. The inciting incident really just put Kirk on a path that would make better use of his buccaneer ways.

Time and time again I see new writers become far too fascinated with the too-perfect protagonist (been there and got the T-shirt, myself). The problem with the too-perfect protagonist is that audiences find it difficult to relate. While it might seem counterintuitive…

Flawed is often better.

Want an illustration from the fiction world? I believe that Twilight is a great example. Bella was deeply flawed and thus readers could easily slip into her shoes. They, too, could look at Edward and long to know what it would be like to be one of the beautiful people.

I think that is why a lot of movies flop. Who can relate to Angelina Jolie? In Tomb Raider she was fun to watch, but we have absolutely no way of connecting with Lara Croft. She is beautiful, insanely rich and lives a life of adventure. The movies would have done better had the writers/directors done something to make Lara Croft real.

The first movie did well simply because fans of the video game. Yet, audiences couldn’t connect to this super perfect (and not really likable) character, so the second movie bombed big time. And I am not alone in this assessment. Read Save the Cat by the late screenwriting genius Blake Snyder, which is a great book for all writers to read anyway.

Writers. Can we cast über perfect characters? Sure. But we do so at a risk. Perfect characters easily become one-dimensional and boring. As in movies, we need to connect with a reader, and most of us didn’t sit at that table in high school.

Star Trek perfected showing, not telling.

Star Trek did an unsurpassed job of showing, not telling. Yes, they can info-dump in movies. I gutted through Deadline with the late Brittany Murphy and there were convenient camcorder tapes along the way to info dump back story.

There were all kinds of scenes dedicated for the sole purpose of characters discussing a third-party. No, no, no, no, no! Bad writer! Had the screenwriter been in my workshop, he would have gotten zinged. Virtually everything in Star Trek happened real time.

The director didn’t dedicate entire scenes to Spock and Uhura explaining how Kirk was a reckless pain in the tush. Abrams employed scenes that showed Kirk crashing through their lives like a bull in a china shop. There was ONE flashback and it was information critical to understanding the plot.

Star Trek employed parsimony.

One element of showing and not telling is to make the most of your story. Employ setting, symbol and action economy. If a scene can do more than one thing…let it. In the beginning (prologue) Kirk’s mother is pregnant (with him). Bad guys appear, and Dad is left on board as acting captain of the ship.

He must sacrifice to save them all. It is no accident that the director did two things. First, all the battle noises fade away and symphony music rises. Then, the scenes cut from Mom giving birth to Dad giving his life. Birth and death, hope and sacrifice are suddenly in perfect harmony. That was done for a reason. In your novel, do all things on purpose.

Look at your scenes. Can they do more than one task? For some ideas, read my blog Setting—More than Just a Backdrop. Setting can be used for more reasons than to give readers a weather report. Lehane proves my point in Shutter Island (discussed in blog), which is a tremendous example of narrative parsimony.

Star Trek showed character via relativity.

In the beginning we see Kirk as this crazy guy power drinking and zooming around on a crotch rocket. Yet, the director knew he could have a problem. He needed Kirk to be a maverick risk-taker…but he also needed to prove to the audience that his protagonist wasn’t a foolhardy idiot.

No one wants to follow a raging moron with a death wish into battle. The director needed to show us someone who cared deeply about others and who was willing to risk everything for his men.

How did he do this?

There is an early scene where they have to do a space jump (think HALO jump). Kirk and Sulu go with a Red Shirt—which means Red Shirt dude is going to die for those who are not Trekkies. Red Shirt guys always bite it.

The interesting thing is that the Red Shirt guy is hooping and hollering all the way down like some idiot out of a Mountain Dew commercial. Kirk pulls his chute and begs the guy to open his. Red Shirt is too busy being a thrill-seeking idiot and ends up vaporized. Now we the audience can see Kirk takes huge risks, but we also understand that he cares about others and is not stupid.

Star Trek relied on character and story.

This is the single most important lesson for those writing sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal or horror. Tell us a story about people first. Relying on gadgets and gimmicks is not storytelling. There are all kinds of space movies that had far better special effects than the original Star Wars, yet Star Wars endures and will endure to future generations.

Why? Because it told a story about people first. I believe this Star Trek will do the same.

I know I risk making some die-hard fans angry at me, but I never could get through the newest Star Wars trilogy. Why? Because there was so much CGI (computer generated imagery) that I felt like I was trapped at Chuck E. Cheeses and having a bad LSD trip. I felt the computer images were far too distracting.

Star Trek used CGI, but not at the expense of the real focus . . .

The stories about the people.

I edit a lot of writers who want to write YA, fantasy, paranormal, etc. and too often they allow world-building to take over. The reader is so bogged down in gimmick that she cannot see the characters or the story. Frequently there isn’t a story.

World-building is something a writer must employ to assist or accentuate the core conflict. Our goal as writers must be to get a reader to relate and connect. People connect with people, not worlds. Conflict drives stories, not gizmos. Thus, all the magic and myth must be ancillary to the root story. If you have done a good job of plotting, that root story will be very simple and timeless and could take place in Kansas or on Planet Doom.

For those of you who haven’t watched the new Star Trek, I highly recommend it (duh :D) even if you aren’t a fan of sci-fi.

Are there some movies you guys would recommend to help us grow in our craft? Put them in the comments and help us out.

Happy writing!

Until next time…