Saturday, 28 May 2011

Stargate Universe - how to build a strong climax

Well, I have to say that this series has lifted off for me in the last five or six episodes of Series One, building towards a terrific cliff-hanger climax. I now have to wait for Series Two to find out how it resolves. So, how to build such a climax, whether in a novel or film/TV?

First, there are (at least) two types of stories, single-track and multi-track. In novel form these are usually called single protagonist and multi-protagonist. Think Die Hard where our redoutable hero has to battle against the odds, which are forever climbing until the final showdown. This is the classic formula for a blockbuster, whether novel or movie – by the end, it all comes down to the hero, alone, wounded, resources exhausted, fighting against insurmountable odds. If you’re really mean to your character, you throw in bad weather, or at least make it night time.

But hang on a minute, what about Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, 150 million books sold and who-knows how many millions from the movies? Frodo doesn’t do it by himself. There is the entire fellowship of the ring, and at the climax, it is him, Samwise and ultimately Smeagle who destroy the ring. Is this just an exception to the rule?

Single-track blockbusters are okay, but you have to suspend disbelief, because we know that in real life no one is that lucky, and real bullets have a knack of finding anyone’s flesh – they’re just not that picky. Sometimes the single protagonist formula works better, like in the recent film Source Code, because we know he’s pretty much dead already.

Stories which follow several plot strands that gradually come together are more like real life. To me this is where contemporary writing and TV work best. In a thriller or SF book/series/movie, when the stakes are high, people can get killed because there are enough primary characters to survive, and it’s not just the single-episode guys in red uniforms that get wasted (a la Star Trek Original Series). Even when the main characters aren’t sacrificed (so far including Stargate Universe – soaps are more cautious about chopping characters whom sectors of the audience may have bonded with), parallel story strands converging to a climax seem more realistic, and can be more powerful, because we see the pieces coming together, and we have bonded with several characters in these plotlines heading towards each other like two runaway trains on a collision course. To me the best example of this was star Trek’s Deep Space Nine, where the last ten episodes or so are unputdownable.

Instead of a single instrument solo, think ‘orchestra’.

Of course it is much harder to write such stories or scripts, because there are multiple points of view, and the strands have to be carefully woven together – characters in one strand don’t necessarily know what is going on in the other(s), and getting the timing to work, right down to the wire, can be difficult (I had to do some major timing revisions in the last ten chapters of The Eden Paradox to synchronize events and actions down to the same hour on two distant planets).

Length can also be an issue for such a novel, since more fleshed out ‘leading characters’ usually means a longer book – not such a problem with soap operas. For example, for my novel, several agents and publishers suggested splitting the novel into two (it’s around 413 pages depending on the format). But I couldn’t, because the different plot strands (called ‘arcs’) only intersect at the finale, and I didn’t want to cheat the reader by stopping somewhere arbitrary and then say: ‘read the next book to find out what happens…’

A style I use, after David Brin, and also other SF greats including Iain Banks (State of the Art) and Stephen Baxter (Coalescent), is alternating chapters. That means chapter one follows Micah (on Earth), chapter two Blake (on his way to Eden), chapter three Micah, etc. Only in the last six chapters do these escalating strands collide with a vengeance. And yes, a few principal characters get killed. In the sequel (in press) Eden’s Trial, by Part Two it gets up to four major story strands. However, this style tends to work only if the chapters are relatively short – otherwise the reader is going to lose track, and lose interest.
What does this multi-character trend say about us as a society?

A thousand years ago, stories were fables, full of Gods and miracles, greet deeds and wars. No special character development compared to today. A hundred years ago or so Romanticism ushered in the contemporary novel, single protagonist, getting into interior monologue so we could see inside the character’s head, sharing his/her thoughts and passions. Multiple developed characters and intersecting plots seems to be a natural evolution in a world where we are more or less all networked, separated by a few clicks on a computer, or thumb presses on a smart-phone. An unwritten theme of multi-protagonist novels is that no single character is all-important. This sounds more democratic to me.

Maybe the phrase ‘everyone has a novel inside them’ has passed its sell-by date.
How about: ‘everyone belongs in a novel somewhere.’

We all matter. There are no uninteresting characters, only badly-written ones.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

How to overcome a galactic barrier

What defines the edge of a galaxy? Is it just a dropping off of star density? What if our galaxy has a sheath, a barrier like the skin of an amoeba? Although galaxies are slowly flying apart in our universe, they can in principle collide. But there might be another reason for a galactic barrier, one made, rather than being of natural origin: defence against invaders.

Most Sci-Fi focuses on events and species inside our galaxy, but a few consider aliens from a different galaxy (Andromeda being the popular choice). Different galaxies conjure up the possibility of aliens being even more alien than 'normal', and the prospect of invasion by a race from another galaxy conjures up a pretty potent foe, since anyone who could actually traverse the unimaginable distances between galaxies is going to be seriously advanced.

In my story Galactic Barrier I focus on this scenario. The story was originally a chapter in Eden's Trial (in press, the sequel to The Eden Paradox), and concerns an attack on the barrier as viewed by an intelligence drone, Dapsilon. We see through his 'eyes' all the defences mounted to repel the invaders. He can't see how they will get through, but also knows they wouldn't have travelled a million years without knowing how to break through. The stand-alone story is actually a precursor to the final part of the trilogy, Eden's Revenge, which concerns humanity's role in an inter-galactic battle way over our heads.

In the story I also speculate on what lies between galaxies (because we don't really know). Well, to give you an inkling, as Dapsilon notes in the story, 'Nature might abhor a vacuum, but it is terrified of the void.'

The original version of this story was a bit too tekkie/'hard SF' according to my readers, without enough 'emotional engagement' (because the main characters were drones - no humans in this one). So I did something a little unorthodox - I made it also a love story. For those who have already read The Eden Paradox and are waiting for Eden's Trial, you'll find references to the Q'Roth, the galactic levels of intelligence, and the enigmatic Hohash, key to the whole trilogy...

P.S. Thanks to editor Sand Pilarski at Piker Press for the cool image she attached to the story.

(see 'Stories' on this website).

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Source Code - Slipstreaming into Sci-Fi

Saw the film Source Code recently - refreshing to see a low-tech SF film which delivers on suspense, tension and a good ending. In brief, a soldier finds himself jumping repeatedly back in time to the same train which is always bombed. He has to find the bomber, but each time he has only eight minutes on he train. Moreover, the military controlling his time jumps are clearly lying to him, but about what?

I was reminded oddly enough of Groundhog Day, because during the timeslips his character gradually morphs from being desperate to being more agreeable. This got me thinking about the whole genre, and how it varies on its 'accessibility'. For example, I like reading Peter F Hamilton, and a few like him, but can't help feeling I could occasionally use a degree in astrophysics. Iain Banks has a pretty dense SF context (called the Culture), but he usually manages to make it seem commonplace. This is incidentally the trick of a good SF writer, because people in the future (or parallel universes) will of course take things for granted that we would find stupefying - like an I-Phone or a memory stick would have been seen as SF a mere twenty years ago.

Oddly enough (again) it can be more difficult to write near-term Sci-Fi (e.g. within a hundred years) than to write about a civilization four or five hundred years in the future, because the reader can extrapolate a few decades into the future, and so scrutinizes the 'milieu' more than five hundred years, when the reader can accept at face vale that we co-habit with aliens and teleport rather that taking the metro. In my Ebook, The Eden Paradox, it took a long time to stop writing in a self-fascinated way about my own SF projections (Optron, nodes, etc.) and treat them as if they were just the latest cell-phone. It helps with what is known in the writing trade as the reader's 'suspension of disbelief'. If that 'spell' is broken, the reader puts the book down and usually does not pick it up again.

Back to the point. I believe Sci-Fi can have a much larger audience than it does, both in reading audiences and TV/film media. Source Code does not require any scientific knowledge, there are no space-ships or aliens, and its suspension of disbelief is maintained right to the end (even when it becomes what is known as Slipstream Science Fiction). It makes the viewer think 'what if...?'. That is what good SF does, it makes us think about new possibilities, what could be, and so can affect the way we think about our everyday lives, and all the little decisions which actually frame our lives (our personal 'narrative'). So, if you really hate SF, watch Groundhog Day again and you'll get the same message, but if not, give Source Code a shot.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Stargate Universe - Science fiction TV series as soaps

I've started watching Stargate Universe (SGU), which promises to be somewhere between Stargate and Battlestar Galactica. I'm only halfway through Season 1, but can't help making a few observations about SF series for TV. First, they usually take at least a season to get their act together. I have no idea why this is. Some don't survive past the first season. Sometimes this is a good thing - if you ever watched Crusader, the wooden and entirely predictable spin-off from Babylon Five, you'll know what I mean. But others, like Firefly, saddened me when they closed, as although the basic premise was a bit ropey (Space opera meets the Wild West), it was a lot of fun and the characters were interesting, dammit! Even classics like Start Trek Next Generation got off to a wobbly start, and I tend to think of Babylon Five as starting with Bruce Boxleitner, though of course it didn't. Start Trek Deep Space Nine had a brilliant start, then limped along for the next two seasons before the Dominion arrived and it really got going, and by the last three seasons was simply unmissable. Battlestar Galactica got off to a ferocious start, but then - partly courtesy of the writer's strike in the US - seemed to lose it completely in the last two seasons. Farscape was also a wobbler to begin with but picked up pretty fast, only to lose out at the end as its storyline drifted and the plots became too self-indulgent. Still I miss it though.

So back to SGU. What I notice is that there is too much heavy-handed effort to get the viewer to empathise with the characters. They keep breaking down and crying, sacrificing themselves, telling complete strangers their deepest fears and feelings. It all feels staged, so I end up rooting for the nastier characters!

The point is, people who watch SF series are interested in the SF - technology, aliens and alien worlds, alternative timelines, space-ships, cool effects, etc., not only the characters. Just putting people in a SF ship does not make it SF - there needs to be more, much more, to inspire our imaginations. That's what we're looking out for. Really good SF, like DS9, had great SF and great characters, and that's what made it a huge success (Voyager, too, for that matter). The tech was good, and there were characters we cared for. In that sense it did become SF soap, and you could forgive the odd dodgy or cheesy episode because the next one would be back on track, and everyone has bad days anyway. If the characters seem like friends, you forgive them. But if you've just met someone, and they start pouring their heart out to you, do you think: great, a real friend! Really?

Incidentally, for me, where Battlestar Galactica (the recent one) tripped up - aside from its slight steampunk feel and irritating camera-play - is that the characters kept mutating, good becoming bad and vice versa, sometimes more than once - as a viewer I ended up not caring for them at all.

So, Hollywood dreams of making SF series which will run for 7-9 seasons, and pay dividends for the next decades in re-runs, syndication, and DVDs. So - don't be in a rush to make us like these people, and spend some more time on the SF. At least some of the characters in SGU are nicely flawed, and the episode I just watched had - despite several crying sessions again! - a distorted timeline and a punchy ending that made me immediately check the next episode.
There is hope...

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Harry Bingham's Guide to Getting Published

I've seen Harry present a couple of times at the York Writer's Festival, and he has an impressive handle on the whole publishing industry. So I bought his book. I was surprised that its full title was The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook Guide to Getting Published, because the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook is the prestigious resource (UK) authors are meant to have at their disposal when they are searching for agents, publishers, or magazines to publish in. Even though it's the same publisher (A&C Black), it seemed a bit presumptuous.

It isn't. It's shot up to number two in my 'must-have' list of books as an author, and number one by a long way on how the industry works. Whereas the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook tells you where to find agents and publishers, that is rarely enough. It's the 'what and where', but little on the 'why and the how', and Harry's book also excels in the 'what to do and what not to do'

But above all it explains a lot about the industry, why it is the way it is - it unravels the plot and the characters that make up this strange and sometimes unpenetrable (and occasionally annoying) world to many would-be or existing authors.

In brief, it has seven main chapters:

1. Getting ready (the reader's motivations, expectations, readiness for publication)
2. Planet Agent (who and why they are, how to approach them, what pisses them off)
3. How the book trade works (the market forces, why it is like it is, and how it got to be that way, including some bad decisions along the way)
4. Getting your book deal (offers, auctions, royalties, retail prices unpacked, and the contract)
5. Towards production (how to work with publishers, time-frames, what you can insist on, what you can't, and some bad news about cover design)
6. Publication (marketing, publicity, launching your novel)
7. Life after publication (small publishers, self-publishing - sharks and reasonable half-way houses, getting on with the second book).

For me the best were 3, 4 and 7, but each author will find something useful and of interest here.

The book is peppered with vignettes from authors, agents, publishers, and bloggers which bring a lot of colour and three dimensions to the book. It tells it as it is, and gives as much (if not more) space to the less-ambitious authors as to the big names.

My only hope is that in a few years, when the ebook market has stabilized a little more, Harry will bring out a second edition.

Book: Harry Bingham, The Writers and Artists' Yearbook Guide to Getting Published, A&C Black, London, 2010, ISBN 978 1 408 12895 4

[For a more light-hearted look at pitfalls in the industry, see 'Writerholics Anonymous' under 'Stories' on this website]
© Barry Kirwan |
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