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.


  1. One great thing about Stargate Universe is how it is unwilling to define a character in strict black and white, good guy vs. bad guy, terms. In real life, people are a mixture of good and bad. And life is messy and complicated. I loved how SU reflected this through a more realistic prism. And I'm sad that the show got cancelled just as season two made it clear that things were getting good!

  2. Jennifer - I couldn't agree more. SGU went further than most with a character set who were all flawed, so we moved on from 'Star Trek' stereotype goodies and baddies. At least I haven't yet finished Season Two, so some more episodes to look forward to...


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