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Sunday, 6 May 2012

When to slow down the action


A lot of science fiction and fantasy movies these days, e.g. The Avengers, Locked Down, Thor, etc. are pure ‘action movies’. They survive on fantastic special effects, and comic-strip-speed events – the audience races along from one action scene to the next. They are low on ‘plot’ – the usual stakes being world survival – and character development is kept to a minimum, the favourite character being the one with the wittiest lines (usually Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man).

Books cannot be like this (though comic strips can), because we read books over  a longer period, and our interest has to be sustained by what the characters feel, and the special effects are limited by those we can imagine and how vividly the author can write.

But a lot of science fiction readers (myself included) do like to read action-based or thriller scifi. So, how to increase the intensity of the reading experience when the author does not have computer graphic imagery (CGI) at his or her disposal?

The Lost Fleet series (e.g. Dauntless) by Jack Campbell is a good example of action-based Scifi. It is a series of space battles to save the human race. But the main character Black Jack Geary has a lot of internal conflict going on. Campbell uses the gaps in between the battle scenes, explained by the amount of time it takes for the enemy to find Geary’s (lost) fleet, to let these conflicted emotions emerge. It slows down the action, with character development occurring before battle, and his actions in the battle reflecting that character development, so it makes sense.

In my own first book, The Eden Paradox, probably the scene most readers comment on is the ‘ghoster’ section. A ghoster is a genetically modified weapon left on board a ship as a stowaway, to destroy the four-crew ship before it can reach Eden. I could have written this episode as a single section, but instead I split it into four parts:

Realising something is aboard
Encountering the ghoster
Battling the ghoster
The ‘acid on the cake’

Each of these is a chapter in itself (I write fairly short, bite-sized chapters), and is interspersed with a chapter based on Earth, away from the ship Ulysses – this in itself increases tension and suspense, since the reader has to wait to find out what happens.

It would have been easy (and boring) to have had the crew realise there was a ghoster aboard, and say, “Let’s go kill it,” have a battle scene where they nearly get killed, but then they kill it. That could work in a film because of the images that could be conjured up, and because it’s easier to ‘suspend disbelief’ for a couple of hours than several weeks, but like I said, in a book it would read a bit flat. So instead, when they first realize it might be a ghoster, I have the crew in denial. The commander (Blake) actually verbally attacks the science officer (Pierre), practically accusing him of sabotage. This delays the action, increases the character depth (and has the reader wondering if there is some deeper issue between Blake and Pierre – there is), and makes the action more interesting during the battle scene when Blake’s life will depend on Pierre.

Here is an excerpt from when Zack and Pierre first encounter the ghoster inside a compartment at the rear of the Ulysses.

Shoulder-to-shoulder inside the airlock chamber, Zack heard Pierre’s ragged breathing across the intercom.
Pierre checked the dials. "Fully pressurised inside the compartment."
Zack chewed his lip, peering through the small porthole into the darkness beyond. "Time to check on our guest." He opened the inner door to the fourth compartment. As it swung open, the light spilled in from behind them, revealing the outlines of a room ten meters deep crammed with cylinders, boxes, and crates, all strapped down. It looked just like it had done twelve hours ago when he’d checked it over. The lattice of harnesses resembled a giant spider web laid over the contents of the compartment. He stared towards the far wall, behind which the dark matter engines lay, adding to his unease.
They each took one pace into the compartment and clipped their lanyard karabiners onto hull eyeholes. Zack’s gaze swept the room, but he didn’t use the flashlight attached to his left wrist. If there was anything in here, he didn’t feel like lighting himself up. Pierre’s rifle sighting beam flashed upward to the escape hatch which was their Plan B – the ghoster-overboard plan, as Kat had christened it.
"Zack, I don’t see anything." Pierre took a step forward.
"Wait." Zack squinted through the semi-darkness towards the crate at the far end of the chamber housing the neutralino detonator. It was one of two, the other used to start the dark matter ignition after Saturn, enabling them to get up enough speed to engage the warp shell. This one was for the return journey. Something was behind the crate. His eyes tracked to the left, knowing from theory and experience that unaided night vision worked best if you looked slightly off target. He saw it. His head recoiled inside his helmet.
"Kat," he said, voice taut. "Tell me what you see through the internal cameras" He still hadn’t aimed his flashlight, instead straining his eyes towards the location of the detonator. Her reply came through, rendered grainier than usual by the voice-com transmitter.
"Not much. I need more light."
When Pierre went to shine his flashlight on the crate, Zack gripped his forearm.
            "Don’t." He was sure now, though he had a hard time accepting it.
Blake’s voice cut in from outside. "Report."
Zack let Pierre reply, while he began to think of tactics to outmanoeuvre what he believed was crouching just behind the detonator. He still had his hand on Pierre’s arm, and felt Pierre’s body jerk.
            "Sir, it… my God!" Pierre’s breathing accelerated, bordering on hyper-ventilation. Then he exhaled deeply.
Zack removed his arm. Good – remember your training, because if you don’t we’ll be dead a lot faster.
            Pierre’s voice was edgy. "I can see a human head, but… it has no eyes."    
Blake didn’t respond. Zack could only imagine how he was reacting; it was Kurana Bay all over again. He couldn’t remember unholstering his pulse pistol, but it was in his hand. He ramped it up to maximum. He spoke in a steady tone. "Don’t move, Pierre. Get ready to fire." He took a deep breath, as he did before any close-quarter battle. His palms sweated inside his gloves. He gripped the pistol harder.
            "Skipper," he said, "it’s a ghoster alright, fully awake. Lock us down, seal us in. We’re going to Plan B."


Movies often use flashbacks in order to deepen character or our sympathy for characters, e.g. during a battle when they are giving up, they recall their survival in a concentration camp, and then renew their efforts. In The Eden Paradox I used a ‘retroactive flashback’ which I call the ‘acid on the cake’ (as opposed to the icing on the cake). After the ghoster battle, there is a short flashback to when two of the characters encountered a ghoster once before, in the battle of Kurana Bay during WWIII, and what happened there. Anyone who has read the book will know this chapter, because it deepens Blake’s character, and puts the three foregoing section in a new light (a few readers have told me they wanted to read the book twice, and this plot device is one of the reasons why).

So, the rule for action-based books or thrillers as opposed to action movies is that there has to be strong inner conflict as well as external conflict. However, if you do get a chance to look at The Lost Fleet or my books, or many other Scifi thrillers or technothrillers (like those by Michael Crichton), you’ll realise there’s another rule – don’t dwell too much on inner conflict, and preferably have something interrupt the character’s ruminations. Otherwise it can get too self-indulgent.

Here’s an example. In my second book, Eden’s Trial, Pierre and Kat are marooned on a small ship, running out of air, after their mother-ship has been destroyed. They have sent a distress message via the Hohash, a mirror-like communication device, but don’t have much hope. To slow down the action, Pierre has been reflecting on his life and the lack of love within it so far, although Kat has just given him some hope. They are about to be discovered by a new race, but ‘First Contact’ doesn’t go that well:

Pierre thought about his parents. His father had sacrificed him to research, and his mother had consented, though she’d been upset about it. For one thing, the genetic tampering had made him sterile, so his line would end with him. He wondered if his father, when he’d been bleeding to death on that conference podium shot by an Alician assassin, had maybe, just for a moment, had an inkling of regret about what he had done to his own son. For the first time in his adult life, Pierre didn’t completely reject the hypothesis.
            The Hohash began pulsing increasingly frequent random shades of colour. He and Kat shielded their eyes from the rainbow light’s intensity.
            “What now?” Kat said.
            Pierre guessed what it was – a response. The flashing stopped, and the Hohash mirror surface turned to a swirling cloud of grey. An indistinct figure appeared in the middle, as if walking towards them. He watched in fascination as it clarified – it reminded him of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, a dog-like creature in a ceremonial head-dress of golds, blues and blacks. As the picture crystallised into vid-screen clarity, they gaped at the figure, who gave the definite impression of staring back at them.
            “Hello?” he tried.
            “No sound, remember?” Kat said.
            He wondered what to do. The creature stared at them, waiting, and Pierre didn’t know how long it would wait. He gestured to the creature, first with his hands, to come towards them, then, seeing no reaction, closed his hands around his throat, as if choking, trying to communicate they were running out of air. The figure disappeared, and the Hohash face re-adjusted to its habitual mirror surface.
            “Well,” Kat said, “not too bad given our extensive experience with first contact situations.”
            Pierre slumped. “Shit! This is hopeless. I’ve always wondered why in all the sci-fi vids the whole universe speaks English, or else there’s a handy universal translator somewhere.”
            “Lazy scriptwriters. Anyway, maybe it understood. Hey, we just found another race. You’re a scientist, you should be ecstatic.”
            He tried to smile. “We could try the sulphur planet again, at least gather some more oxygen.”
            “Maybe we could use the bathroom there. I’ve heard sulphur exfoliates pretty well.”
            He took her hand. “Kat, I’m really glad –”
            The ship jolted hard to one side, and they both sprawled to the far wall. Pierre had the wind knocked out of him, and struggled into a crouching position. Kat had already sprung to her feet when they both heard a loud thunk from above. He looked out through the normally black portal and glimpsed the silver underbelly of a vessel attached to them.
            “Oh fuck!” Kat shouted.
            At first he didn’t realise why she’d said it, until he noticed his feet and ankles were wet. A warm, transparent liquid trickled, then gushed into their craft, jetting through the air vents. Scrambling to his feet, he sloshed his way over to the environmental controls. Kat beat him to it, and slammed her fist down on it, but the console was dead. He stared in disbelief towards the four upper vents, out of arms’ reach, through which the pink water surged.
            “It doesn’t make sense!” he said. The noise of their own personal waterfall made it hard to concentrate.
            “They’re going to bloody drown us,” Kat shouted, as she waded over to the inert Hohash.
            “But why?” Pierre was trying to think, but the fluid was already knee-deep.          “Suits! We need to put the suits on!” she yelled, already tugging the two EVA suits from their holding rack. Pierre grabbed one and tried to don it. With only one leg in, he lost his footing and fell over, so that the liquid poured into his suit, dragging him down. Kat’s hand hauled him up by the collar, and he managed to regain his footing. She already had both legs in hers and zipped it up to her neck, then helped him into his. The fluid was already waist-level. His suit had half-filled with the stuff, which he knew would be a real hazard if he didn’t remain upright.
They both snapped on their helmets moments before the fluid reached their necks. They stared at each other, wide-eyed, as the whole ship flooded to the ceiling, leaving no trace of air. The gushing noise shut off. He heard only his laboured breathing, and the occasional creak from the ship’s hull. He switched on his intercom.
“You okay?”
Her breathing sounded scratchy, but he sensed she was more pissed off than scared. “Bastards! Just when you think it can’t get any worse.”
He nodded inside his helmet. Then he noticed the single red light flashing on the inside of his faceplate. He knew what it meant: his suit’s air cylinder was almost empty. He remembered he hadn’t had time to replenish his suit’s systems since his last sortie on the sulphur planet.
She caught sight of his warning light. “Is that what I think it is?”
He laid his hand on her shoulder. “How’s yours?”
“About twenty minutes. Look, isn’t there some way we can shunt air from my system to yours?”
He shook his head. He saw another red dot flash, meaning his air was almost gone. He had maybe twenty seconds.
“Listen, Kat –”
“Dammit, Pierre, I don’t want to lose you, and I don’t want to watch you asphyxiate in front of me, you got that?”
Pierre stared at her. He thought of the last hour. Any last requests, she’d said. He couldn’t have wished for more. His eyes etched every contour of her face. He sucked in one last breath, feeling the canister’s resistance telling him he was out of time. “You won’t have to, Katrina. This’ll be quicker.”
Pierre raised his hands to his helmet, and flicked open the seals. 

In the third book I’m writing now, Eden’s Revenge, I’m working on a chapter where a new character, Petra, is listening to an argument which is central to the plot, but ‘tunes out’ to her own inner thoughts. This is an unusual plot device, because the reader will not ‘hear’ what the other two are saying, but instead will be drawn into Petra’s own state of mind. This creates its own tension, but the reader will (I hope) end up satisfied because in the coming battle, Petra and her actions are the key to winning, rather than what the two men are arguing over (“isn’t that always the case?” I can hear some of my female friends saying).


The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ampichellis and Waterstones UK.

Eden’s Trial is available on ebook from Amazon, paperback in the Autumn.

The finale of the Eden Trilogy, Eden’s Revenge, will be available in ebook Xmas 2012.

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