Story lessons from The Rise Of Skywalker

The art of telling stories is complex, and there is always more to learn. As I read books or watch films, I’m always on the lookout for tips and ideas, seeking to learn how good stories work and why other stories leave me unimpressed.

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I went to see the latest Star Wars film recently, and while it was enjoyable enough as an escape for a couple of hours, the overall story didn’t excite me too much. I also didn’t feel it totally succeeded in closing the whole Star Wars nine-film epic story in a satisfying way.

When I analysed why this might be, I came up with a number of lessons for my own writing.

Lesson One: Actions should have consequences

There was one moment in The Rise Of Skywalker where I was genuinely excited for the direction the story was taking. Rey attempts to rescue a friend, but while using the Force she ends up destroying the craft she believes him to be on.

Kylo Ren has been trying to get Rey to join the dark side, and so far she’s resisted. But with a moment when her own mastery of the Force comes into question, and when ‘good’ use of the Force has such a negative outcome, surely Rey will start to doubt. This, I felt, was going to be the start of her descent toward possibly turning to the dark side.

But this wasn’t to be. In the very next scene, we (and Rey) learn that her friend was on a different craft. Her failure to use the Force ‘correctly’ has no consequence (at least, for her), and she carries on as if nothing has happened.

The problem goes deeper, though. If the choices a character makes has no bearing on their success or failure, then they’re just along for the ride. And if nothing they do really matters, why should I care about them?

Second lesson: Story events must come from somewhere

There’s a well-known saying‌—‌plot twists should be surprising yet inevitable. They should shock us in the moment, but in hindsight it should be clear that this was the only way events could be played out. Think of the reveal in The Sixth Sense, and how it seems obvious on second viewing.

The Rise Of Skywalker fails in this right from the start, by suddenly mentioning that Palantine is not only alive and well, but also behind everything that happened over the two previous films. This reveal hasn’t been foreshadowed in these films, and his death seemed pretty definitive at the end of Return Of The Jedi.

It feels like a cheap move, or an attempt to pander to fans by bringing back an old character. Through the lens of story, it doesn’t work.

Just as actions must have consequences, events too must have origins. Otherwise, the story becomes nothing more than a bunch of stuff that happens.

Third lesson: The ending of a story is for tying everything together, not for introducing new characters and ideas.

There are some interesting ideas in The Rise Of Skywalker. We get insights into Poe’s back-story, and are introduced to a new (to us) character from his past. Also, we learn that Finn is not the only stormtrooper to have defected.

But this is the final chapter in a longer story. There isn’t the time orspace to develop these ideas, and ultimately they mean nothing. They feel tacked-on.

Maybe they serves some minor plot-point, or were an easy way to move the story on‌—‌but a well-told story would have found some other way of doing this. The ending should build on what has come before, not introduce new ideas and characters in order to work.

Lesson Four (the big one!): Have a vision for the whole story

The original Star Wars trilogy had a clear over-riding story (and I’ve written about this before, in this post), as did the prequel trilogy. But these latest three films, the sequel trilogy?

As one story, they’re a mess‌—‌and the reason for this seems to come down to a lack of clear direction. When JJ Abrams made The Force Awakens, it seems like he had some idea of where things were going, introducing plenty of open loops. But in The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson took things in his own direction (and, by all accounts, actively reversed many events set up in the previous film.) So in The Rise Of Skywalker, Abrams had to weave together a whole array of disparate plots.

Whatever he did, he was always going to disappoint people‌—‌fans of Johnson’s direction would accuse him of trying to undo, rewrite or ignore the previous film, while fans of his first film of the trilogy would moan about how Johnson derailed the whole thing, forcing Abrams’ hand too much.

A story should build. Yes, it will probably go through twists and turns‌—‌but eventually, these will be resolved in a way that (in hindsight at least) makes sense. Again, a story is not just a bunch of stuff that happens, but a coherent whole.

This is true of individual stories (books, films etc), but also true of a series. The seeds of the eventual ending should be sown early on, and the final chapter (episode) should build on everything that has come before.


So, four reasons why The Rise Of Skywalker left me underwhelmed, as both its own story and the final chapter in a series. And (more importantly) four lessons that I can take into my own writing.

Can’t stand cliffhangers, but love open loops

Cliffhangers annoy me. When I read a book, I expect a full story. If I reach the end, and it stops with the hero in mortal danger, I feel cheated. I feel that either the writer hasn’t figured out the ending yet, or they’re using a very cynical marketing ploy to encourage me to buy more books.

This makes me less likely to continue. Unless the story really grabbed me, I won’t get any more in the series.

But open loops are different. If I reach the end of a complete story, but there’s an odd niggling question that hasn’t been answered, I’m intrigued. I’m satisfied that the story is finished, but I still want to know more. And with books like this, I’m far more likely to continue with the rest of the series.

Star Wars did this. The Death Star was destroyed, but Darth Vader still lived‌—‌the villain had been defeated, but not vanquished. The Empire Strikes Back had a more sombre ending, with more loops left open, but (apart from Han Solo, encased in carbonite), the characters all survived, ready for the next part of their fight against the Empire.

JumperSeries_SeanPlattDavidWrightSean Platt and David Wright’s Jumper series (at least, over the first few books) is another great example of open loops to drive a series. It begins with Jumper, the story of someone who wakes up each day in someone else’s body. They do what they can to minimise harming the people whose bodies they inhabit. But these hosts are all connected, and the main character is forced to make difficult choices to protect his hosts.

It’s an intriguing premise, reminiscent of Quantum Leap without feeling derivative. The book’s an enjoyable read, and tells a complete story‌—‌and then, we get the epilogue.

It feels like it’s going to tie up a few loose ends. But instead, the writers drop their bombshell. [Spoiler alert] There is more than one jumper.

This great little twist immediately builds interest in the second book, Karma Police.

The second book follows a similar pattern‌—‌the main character waking in different host bodies, being forced to solve a particular problem. But again, the writers open another loop. The main character talks to another jumper, and learns things that give rise to more questions than they answer.

It’s only once we’re through the first half of the series that the pattern breaks, and the final three books are more of a continuation of the same story rather than individual stories with hints of a larger overall arc. But by this time, the reader is hooked (at least, I was), invested enough in the overarching story that the individual tales don’t matter as much.

This is a hard trick to pull off, and I’m not convinced that Platt and Wright fully succeed‌—‌the last book felt too rushed, and I would’ve liked them to explore some of the ideas a little more. It was still good, but didn’t quite live up to the promise of earlier books. But, in the authors’ defence, they do push themselves with their writing, and even if the story isn’t totally successful there’s still a great deal to be enjoyed in these books.

And at least this series feels like it was planned out fully, something that unfortunately can’t be said all series.

I used to love watching The X-Files. The stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes were fun, but the development of the larger story (the ‘mythology’) was what kept me watching‌—‌at least, over the first few series. But by about series four, this larger story became more ridiculous. Rules that had been set up in earlier episodes were ignored, and it felt like the story was being changed as it went along. No, it was worse than that‌—‌it felt like the larger story hadn’t been thought through properly. It felt as if the writers were making it up as they went along.

You might argue that this is what writers do anyway. Fiction is make-believe, so all stories are made up. There are many popular authors, including Stephen King, who start writing with only a vague idea where the story will end up, discovering the details as they write.

But however a story is first written, it is always edited. Things are changed so that the story has a more satisfying arc.

And this is where I feel some series, such as The X-Files, fall down.

Planning a story take time and effort, a good story even more so. To develop a satisfying series, each book has to be planned, but so too does the overall story.

Of course, most series aren’t written in one go (although it is becoming more common, in independent publishing, to hold off releasing books until at least the first three in a series are completed). George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire is still unfinished, and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel Of Time, initially only conceived as a six-book series, eventually stretched to fourteen, with the final few being written by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death. It’s hard to see how these series could have been planned out in their entirety in any detail.

This can make writing later books in a series harder‌—‌all those open loops have to be closed, and done so in a way that feels natural. Also, stuff in later books shouldn’t contradict what happened earlier. Yes, it is possible to change earlier books and produce new editions (which Tolkien did with The Hobbit, once he understood how it complemented the larger story of The Lord Of The Rings), but this is time-consuming, and disappoints readers of the original versions.

YesterdaysGone_SeanPlattDavidWrightWriting a series is hard‌—‌which makes ones that work even more impressive. So maybe I should be a bit more forgiving about cliff-hangers. After all, I enjoyed Platt & Wright’s first foray into fiction, the serialised Tomorrow’s Gone, where every ‘episode’ ended on a cliffhanger.

But Tomorrow’s Gone was structurally based on old TV shows, with episodes that formed seasons, and the complete story told over six seasons. They started with a very ‘throw everything out there’ idea, trusting themselves to bring the story together later. But (I believe) the final three seasons were planned in advance, so even though each episode ended on a cliffhanger, the writers knew exactly where the story was going.

I didn’t read Tomorrow’s Gone until it was finished, until I could devour the whole thing. I think reading it episode by episode, having to wait to find out what happened next, would’ve frustrated me. And maybe that’s why binge-watching is becoming so popular, and why some people hold off watching a series until at least a couple of seasons are available.

Cliffhangers can work, but the resolution can’t be held off too long. The excitement wears thin, and then we forget what happened, and instead remain with the dissatisfaction of having an unfinished story. I’m wary of reading a first book in any series now, and I’ll often check reviews to discover if it’s a complete story.

So don’t give me cliffhangers. Give me a story that keeps me reading. Show me that you can tell a satisfying tale. But sprinkle in a few open loops. Make me question some of the stuff happening just off the page. That way, you’ll keep me reading and buying more books.

The villain is the hero of their own story

It’s often been said that what people look for in entertainment is a response to the reality of their lives. When times are good, there’s a greater thirst for stories that provoke thought and challenge. When times are rough, people look to entertainment as an escape.

There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world at the moment. There’s political divides (Trump’s presidency, Brexit), religious conflict, and social unrest. As the world grows smaller with technology, it seems to splinter into an increasing number of factions as people search for belonging.

Maybe this is why superhero films are so popular at the moment. Maybe this is one of those moments when many people want to watch films and read books in order to forget the problems in their daily lives.

But we still desire well-told stories. As much as we want to see things in black-and-white, and dive into stories of good-vs-evil (where we know, from the outset, that good will triumph), we still require some kind of realism‌—‌and this is especially true of our villains. The moustache-twirling baddie, the pure-evil adversary, the antagonist who simply wants to take over or blow up the world‌—‌these seem passe, or one-dimensional. They might be watchable for a while, but they have no real substance. In a shallow comedy a villain like this could work, but not in anything more serious.

Think of some of the great villains in stories, and there will be something that draws us to them, something that holds our interest, something we can relate to. They’re not cardboard-cutouts, but real, rounded characters. Yes, they want to harm others, or take what isn’t theirs, or stand in the way of progress‌—‌but they have their reasons. They are driven by understandable motivations, even though we can see that their reasoning is flawed.

There’s a phrase that springs to mind here‌—‌everyone is the hero of their own story.

MichaelDouglas_FallingDownI can recall watching the Michael Douglas film Falling Down when it first came out on video (yes, I’m old enough to remember video tapes). There’s a brilliant moment at the end, when Douglas’ character, D-Fens, is facing the police officer, a gun trained on him. His brow furrows, and he says, disbelievingly, “I’m the bad guy?”

It’s a fantastic moment, because we’ve been following D-Fens throughout the film. We’ve seen and understood his frustrations, and even as his actions have become worse his justifications still make some kind of sense. We’ve travelled with him, and even though he’s not an easy character to warm to, we’re still on his side. We believe that things will turn out for the best, that he’ll somehow redeem himself‌—‌until this confrontation. This is when it all comes home. D-Fens is the villain, even though he couldn’t see it for himself.

The best villains are driven by deep, relatable motivations, even when their actions are unacceptable. Think of Hans Gruber in Die Hard. When John McLane’s wife calls him ‘nothing but a common thief’, his controlled expression slips for a moment. He rounds on her, stating that he is ‘an exceptional thief’.

In this, his actions become more understandable. He’s not driven simply to steal, but to steal in style. Criminality (or robbery) might be his career of choice, but he wants to be the best at it. He’s like Rocky, pushing to become the best he can be. He’s like so many artists, fighting to produce their best possible work. He’s like doctors who strive to learn more, or lawyers who want to be well-respected for their work. His drive could be something to admire, had his sphere of work not been so anti-social.

Seeing what drives a character, be they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, instantly makes that character more interesting‌—‌and also helps propel the story on. At the moment, I’m slowly working my way through the Dune books, and I’m finding it fascinating how Herbert lets the reader in on so much of what his characters are thinking. We know the plots everyone is forming, and we know many of their secrets‌—‌and there is justification for all of them. At times, Herbert is able to blur the line between ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’‌—‌the characters are all simply trying to make their way through tricky situations, with an aim to survive at the end.

George RR Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire books do this, too. His narrative follows so many characters, and there is a constantly shifting tableau of conflicts and alignments. An ally can become an enemy, and an enemy can become an ally. Some characters might be ‘purer of heart’ than others, but all are real, dealing with internal conflicts, and simply doing whatever they feel they must do.

So we have stories with clear villains whose motivations we can understand, and stories where a cast of characters have shifting alliances. But there are also stories where the ‘villain’ is the protagonist. Think of Tony Soprano, or Michael Corleone. We find many of their actions despicable, but because we get to know their inner turmoils, and because we get to understand why they do what they do, we become invested in their struggles. These are both men doing what they feel is necessary to protect and provide for their families, and that in itself is an honourable thing, even if we recoil at their methods. And there is a depth to both characters that makes us believe they could change. Tony Soprano has his doubts, and there’s that glimmer of hope that he might somehow redeem himself. Michael Corleone’s arc is a downward slope, but because we saw his good side at the start of the story, we have to believe that it is possible for him to rise up again.

There is a flip-side of this, too‌—‌heroes don’t always do good things. In Die Hard, Sgt Powell tells John McClane that he shot a child some years ago. In The Lord Of The Rings, Boromir can’t resist the urge to own the ring‌—‌and at the end Frodo is unable to relinquish the ring. But this is good storytelling, because perfect heroes are boring to watch. We’re drawn to a character like House not only because of his brilliant mind, but also because he’s such a flawed character.

I could give more examples, but this should be enough. Heroes don’t always do the right thing, and villains have strong motivations behind their actions. Hero and villain are labels we apply to characters to help us understand the story‌—‌but the roles can change, depending on our own perception of the actions. Ultimately, everyone is the hero of their own story.

And that’s as true in real life as it is in fiction.

How Disney use story, even in their park entrances

Stories are everywhere. In fiction, obviously, but non-fiction uses story forms too. Stories are used in marketing and politics. If you keep your eyes open, you can see stories everywhere. Even in design.

We had a family holiday to Disneyland Paris recently, and the amount of story on display was immense. This isn’t too surprising‌—‌Disney made their name with films and animations‌—‌but look a little deeper, and there is more to their use of story than this. They understand that stories are journeys, and if you want a potential customer and fan to follow that journey to the end, you need to engage their emotions.

The place is split into different areas, each with their own theme (Fantasyland, Discoveryland and so on), with distinctive buildings and music. The queues are their own ministories, with twists and turns that reveal props connected to the rides, or animated characters, or screens giving instructions in a manner suited to each ride.

And the staff are a part of the stories, too. It’s no accident that Disney refer to them as ‘cast’ or ‘crew’. They wear costumes appropriate to each area of the park or specific ride, and many perform roles in the manner they interact with the visitors. Even those cleaning the streets are in costume, and wouldn’t look out of place dancing with the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins.

So objects and personnel are part of the story, but the physical design of the place plays a big role, too. Nowhere is this most obvious than in the entrance to the main park.

Once through the security checks, visitors walk toward a large, impressive-looking building that houses the entrance to the park itself. But there is no straightforward route. Paths twist and turn around flower beds and water features, yet the journey eventually brings the visitor to the entrance.

disney1-e1561187814653.jpgThis is beneath the building, and on a bright day it is dark under there. It’s classic storytelling‌—‌the hero must first pass from the everyday world into the new, and that often means travelling somewhere uncomfortable, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. In classic hero’s journey tales, there’s a threshold guardian to thwart the hero’s attempt to progress, and in Disnelyand that role is played by the greeters and ticket-checkers.

But we pass these guardians, and emerge from the dimness into the new world of the park itself. But the journey is still not complete. In story, the hero must work through many trials, and the goal is never discovered round the first corner.

Disney2Ahead, blocking the path, is another building, this one a train station. The track runs overhead, and to progress the brave adventurer must step though the dark arches underneath. Emerging from these, the space opens up, and the adventurer is met by buildings from some idealised perfect past‌—‌clearly fake, but this is a magical story, so we can expect nothing else.

Yet this isn’t the promised end of the journey. We’ve all seen the Disney castle (at the start of every one of their films and on so many logos), and we know this lies at the centre of the kingdom. As in so many fairy tales, the castle is the ultimate goal. And now, on the far side of the train station, we can see fleeting glimpses‌—‌a pink turret, a flag‌—‌but not the whole thing. A bandstand blocks out view.

So, one more obstacle. We walk around this, and only then does the view open up‌—‌Main Street, with music and sounds and lights and life, and just beyond the wide space at the end, framed perfectly by the buildings of the street, is the castle, just as it appears in all the pictures. Now that we have seen the castle, we know we’ve arrived in Disneyland.

It’s easy to be cynical about this. Disney understand how stories can be used to persuade, and how a captive audience can be parted from their money. By that shouldn’t detract from the attention to detail here, and to the way that story is used so effectively. It’s also worth remembering that one of the primary functions of story is to entertain. In a place like Disneyland, the rides and attractions are the main focus, but by adding entertainment to the walks and queues Disney aim to turn a day out into a journey of adventure. Love it or loathe it, they know how to use story effectively.

There’s a thin line between hero and villain

The trailer for the upcoming (at the time of writing) Batwoman series came out recently (click here to watch it yourself), and I’ve found myself watching a lot of reaction videos. Most of the reactions are pretty negative (don’t think I’ve come across any that are positive), but there’s one (on the ‘Heel vs Baby Face’ channel) that goes deeper into the trailer’s problems This video argues that, rather than portraying Batwoman as a hero, the trailer actually shows her as a villain. It’s wonderfully argued, by someone who clearly understands character arcs in stories, and I recommend you take a few minutes out to watch it. In fact, stop reading this and watch it right now.

The video makes a great deal of sense (and I love his reimagined version, where Batwoman has to be encouraged to take up the mantle of the Bat). But what struck me is how the difference between hero and villain can be so small.

Both strive to get what they want, often against huge odds (even the ‘cartoon villains’ of Bond films have spent years building up their money and power, often weaving complex deceptions to get their own way). However, we want the villain to fail, and we want the hero to win‌—‌and the reason for this comes down to sympathy.

We also feel sympathy for a hero because of their flaws. A character who is strong in every way is hard to relate to‌—‌flaws make a character more human, more like us, especially when their imperfections threaten to impinge on what they are trying to achieve. This is why we love the ‘everyman’ hero, the average person who is thrust into unimaginable dangers‌‌—‌because we can relate to these characters, we can imagine ourselves in their shoes.

This is why Harry Potter works as the hero‌‌—‌he might have innate magical ability, but the whole wizarding world is new to him, and he struggles with so much of it. Then there’s Ripley, just another worker who finds herself battling an alien as it kills off the rest of the Nostromo’s crew. There’s Katniss, taking her sister’s place in the Hunger Games and being thrust into a whole situation she is totally unprepared for.

The list goes on and on.

Motivation comes into play here. The hero’s struggles are often down to the battle between what they want and what they know is the right thing to do. Where the villain is consumed by entitlement and superiority, the hero constantly battles with doubts, and has to push hard to do what they feel they must. They put their lives on the line, or their reputation, or their own happiness, because they know, deep down, that there are higher stakes.

And this is why we root for a hero. They might have similar doubts and imperfections as us, but they don’t give in. They fight for what is right, just as we want to imagine we’d do in the same situation. They don’t have everything handed to them, or take whatever they want.

In the trailer, it does appear that Batwoman simply takes everything Batman has built up, and demands credit for it‌—‌and so it’s hard to sympathise with her. But it’s worth pointing out that this is only the trailer, and might not be a fair representation of the series itself. It’s always possible to pull scenes and lines of dialogue out of context, and to create the illusion of an alternative story (as the Scary Mary video demonstrates so well, trailering Mary Poppins as a horror film, or the ‘happy’ trailer for The Shining).

Or maybe this trailer shows highlights of the first act of a redemption story, where Batwoman initially allows her internal villain to take over, but as the series develops we’ll see her forced to confront this. Maybe she’ll fight through as she learns what made Batman who he was, and in the final act we’ll see Batwoman helping others for their sakes rather than her own ego, finally becoming the superhero Gotham needs.

There’s a thin line between hero and villain.

Why the hero must save the day

It’s always disappointing when a story that begins with so much promise falls in the final pages.

This happened recently in a trilogy I was reading. The first book was great‌—‌it worked well as a complete story, but with enough unanswered questions to encourage me to keep reading. The second book meandered a little, but I was able to let that pass‌—‌it was setting things up for what promised to be gut-wrenching finale. The hero had gone through so much inner turmoil, but now he was in an impossible situation‌—‌the only way to save the world would, without question, result in his own death. Could someone who had been acting from selfish motives for so much of the previous two books make the ultimate sacrifice?

The third book in the trilogy started strongly as the hero battled the fears in his mind as well as the physical dangers all around. Then, in the final few chapters, everything changed. One of the ‘bad’ characters was going through his own struggle of conscience, and when it came to the end moments, he stepped in. This reformed character took the place of the hero and died to save the world.

At first glance, this might seem to be a good ending‌—‌the world is saved, and the hero lives. It’s win-win, surely. But as I read those final chapters, I felt cheated. To be honest, it ruined my whole experience of these books.

handshake-4040911_1280One reason I felt cheated was down to a broken promise. In any book, the writer gives certain promises to the reader. These might not be made explicit, but most readers will pick up on them subconsciously. If a group of characters have been preparing for a big battle, then there is an inherent promise that there will be a battle. When the two main characters meet in a romance, even if they can’t stand each other initially, there is a promise hard-wired into the genre that they will end up in a happily-ever-after.

And in the trilogy I read, with so many words given over to the hero’s struggle with his situation, there was a clear promise‌—‌the hero would sacrifice himself to save the day.

But he didn’t. The promise was broken.

And, to add to my dissatisfaction, he ultimately did very little to help save anyone. It felt as if the preceding three books’ worth of internal and external trials were all for nothing. So much work, and at the defining moment the hero stepped aside and let another take his place.

That’s like an athlete training hard, spending hours running in the cold, struggling through injury and personal doubt, slowly realising that they can win the big race‌—‌then having someone else run in their place. Or a musician practising every hour of the day on a complicated piece of music, fighting to prepare in time for the deadline of a major concert‌—‌and then sitting in the audience as someone else plays the piece for them.

As readers, we expect the hero to be the one to save the day. We want that stand-up-and-cheer moment when they overcome the odds. So if we’re given a different ending, we don’t get the closure we want.

Imagine how watching Star Wars would’ve felt if, instead of Luke destroying the Death Star, one of the other pilots had done so. Or if Harry Potter, in his final battle, stood aside as one of the Hogwarts teachers defeated Voldemort. Or if the crew of the Nostromo in Alien had been saved by a passing military vessel.

In all these cases, good would have triumphed over evil, and the heroes would be alive to tell their tale. But the endings wouldn’t have satisfied. We would’ve felt cheated. Why follow these characters through all their highs and lows when none of that matters at the end?

Heroes might not save the day on their own (and if part of their character growth is in trusting others, it might be important for them to receive help), but they definitely should have that moment of glory. This is what Luke did when he trusted the force and destroyed the Death Star, what Harry Potter did in defeating Voldemortm what Ripley did when she overcame her terror and sent the alien out into space.

If the hero doesn’t save the day, then they are only a side-character in someone else’s story.

 

Is science fiction a genre?

I read genre books. Yes, I read literary fiction too (whatever that actually means), but because I enjoy science fiction, fantasy, horror, the occasional thriller and so on, I’m predominantly a genre reader.

As I both read and write more, I’m becoming increasingly conscious of tropes in different genres. These are those scenes or events that are expected, those parts of the story that almost define it as a certain genre. Thrillers have the ‘hero at the mercy of the villain’ scene, the ‘speech in praise of the villain’. There’s often a false ending, too‌—‌and this crops up in horror as well. In romance there’s the first kiss, the misunderstanding that appears to ruin everything, but there’s always a happily-ever-after (miss this and endure the wrath of countless romance fans). Then there are all the internal genres, those that follow a characters development (either positive or negative)‌—‌the moment when they have to make a choice from which there is no going back. In a maturation story, there is that moment when it becomes clear to the main character that the world they believed to be true is based on a lie of some kind.

So different genres have different tropes. But what about science-fiction stories? What defines a sci-fi story?

fantasy-2861815_1280

It has to be set in the future‌—‌unless it’s set in the past (like Star Wars), or an alternative present.

There has to be some kind of cool technology‌—‌unless there isn’t (think Planet Of The Apes.) And the technology doesn’t have to play a major role in the story either‌—‌it can be simply setting.

What about action? Well, there’s action in a lot of sci-fi‌—‌but not all. There might be battles in space, or there might be duelling in dialogue between two characters. Some sci-fi is fast-paced, but other stories in this area are slower and more reflective.

And are there any set scenes in sci-fi? Erm‌…no.

The more I think about this, the more I realise that science fiction is not a genre, at least in the same way that horror or thriller or crime or romance are genres. Science fiction refers more to the setting than the type of story being told.

Maybe a few examples will help:

TheMartian_AndyWeirThe Martian is definitely sci-fi, but it is also a survival story; one man against the elements. It’s just like Robinson Crusoe, or any other survival story. It just happens to be set on Mars.

DoAndroidsDreamOfElectricSheep - PhilipKDickBladeRunner (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep) is a philosophical detective story, with musings on what it means to be human, and also has many noir tropes‌—‌downtrodden detective, questions over who are in fact the good guys. Oh, and there’s a love story underneath all this. But it has replicants, and it’s set on an Earth that many people have abandoned to travel to the stars.

EndersGame_OrsonScottCarfEnder’s Game is almost a sports story, with Ender starting off in the little leagues and working his way up to the big time. Ender takes his team and uses their weaknesses as strengths, overcoming all the obstacles in his path. It could almost be viewed as a coming-of-age story, too. The fact that the games involve space battles is secondary.

HitchHikersSeries_DouglasAdamsHitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is comedy, full of bizarre happenings and loads of satire. The plot is secondary to the humour, and the science fiction setting simply gives Adams more scope for letting his ideas run riot, and allows him to satirise many things in our current world/time.

Foundation_IsaacAsimovAsimov’s Foundation books (at least in the original trilogy) tell the story of a civilization over time, with much of the action involving political shenanigans and business dealings. The technology is used in trade, rather than in space battles, and the most important science is social science. And then, in the third book, there is the Mule, the lone individual who throws a spanner in the works, and proves that even the greatest minds are not infallible. Science-fiction is simply the setting in which Asimov tells his generation-spanning saga.

Dune_FrankHerbertDune is another saga, with all the political and familial intrigue of a historical novel. Like the best sagas, it draws the reader into a rich world populated by diverse characters, each with their own motives and desires. It just happens to be set on a desert planet.

Six science-fiction books, and all so different. Many sci-fi readers will enjoy them all, but there will be those who love getting embedded in the world of Dune but can’t stand the apparent frivolity of Hitch-Hikers. Those who become engrossed in Watney’s constant struggles in The Martian might be turned off by the socio-political dialogue in the Foundation books. These books area all undoubtedly science fiction, but they are very different story-types.

Have a look at the science-fiction sub-genres on Amazon‌—‌alternative history, first contact, metaphysical & visionary, military, time travel, space exploration to name a few. There is a science-fiction subgenre in romance, another in action & adventure. There’s science-fiction erotica, and there are technothrillers (where science-fiction and thriller meet). And that’s just the official categories. The film Alien uses the sci-fi setting to tell a classic horror story. Another film, Gattaca, is basically a society story (different classes of citizens and so on), but told in a future world.

I think this is a great strength of science-fiction, and it is something that sci-fi writers have utilised for years. In the late 1930s, L Ron Hubbard, already a successful writer of adventure stories, was approached by Astounding Science Fiction magazine to write for them. He was initially reluctant, saying that he didn’t write about ‘machines and machinery’, but about people. The publishers of the magazine told him that this was precisely what they wanted. His first story for the magazine was a success, and led to more and more people-based sci-fi stories, by writers such as Isaac Asimov.

There are some sci-fi stories that are primarily concerned with the science aspects (hard sci-fi, such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama), but the majority use the setting to tell other stories, and may use this further to reflect on our present-day world. Science-fiction gives a writer great scope for asking ‘what if…?’ and then crafting a suitable story around wherever that question takes them. Or it gives them a vast canvas on which to tell a myriad of stories, drawing on whatever influences and preferences they have.

And this is one of the reasons I love reading science-fiction‌—‌the whole ‘genre’ gives me such a huge array of different stories. When I read sci-fi, I can explore types of stories I wouldn’t normally consider, but without stepping too far out of my comfort zone. I can escape to new worlds while still, for example, being presented with an intricate puzzle in the form of a crime/detective story. I can be entertained while being challenged, made both fearful and hopeful.

Much of this relates to fantasy, too‌—‌unsurprising, as the two ‘genres’ share many similarities. There are fantasy action stories, fantasy romances, fantasy thrillers, fantasy sagas‌—‌the list goes on.

Of course, in the end, the setting is only secondary to the story. A cool world is fun to visit, but without interesting characters being thrust into intriguing situations there’s little to hold us beyond a brief visit.

This is why, as a writer, it’s important that I understand tropes, and that I understand different kinds of stories. My own stuff fits in science-fiction, but to make the stories work, I first need to know what kinds of stories I’m telling.