Aphorisms for Writing Science Fiction
David Alexander Smith
Literature is worth reading
even when you know how
the story comes out.
Build the story around a
theme. Literature explores
themes -- a proposition to be argued or some aspect of human experience
to examine, such as emotions, places, times, crises, or events. Know
your theme and stage only those events which advance or illustrate
Observe dramatic economy. A story's dramatic elements
-- words, places, characters, dramatized events -- are all resources in
which the author asks the reader to invest his time. For the story to
work to its fullest, these must pay off: the reader's investment in
learning must be rewarded by understanding, enjoying, and appreciating
the story. If the dramatic elements are unused or incompletely used, the
reader may disengage.
Maintain scale throughout. A story has a dramatic
size -- the scope of its characters, setting, and time sweep. When
the story's scale shifts from that established in its opening, the
reader can become desensitized and disengaged. Many stories have an
unintended inflation of scale as the author keeps seeking bigger scenes
or emotions. A novel that begins with a day-to-day narration should end
at roughly the same pace. A story that opens by showing us a single
character's emotions should end by focusing on the feeling of a single
person (the same character or a different one).
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Story-elements should have similar scale.
A story is comprised of varying elements — theme, plot, world,
characters, pace, even voice — each of which has a natural scale
— that is, a natural story length (short story, novelette, novella,
novel, multi-novel saga is as good a distinction as any) that most
comfortably accommodates it. Ideas come in such size as they have,
and they have only limited ability to expand and contract, but if
they are ill-matched, the resulting work suffers in ways hard to
fix. A novel-class idea in a short story can drown it in exposition;
a short-story class idea in a novel
can collapse when its gauze fails to sustain the words plastered
This is easier to describe than to recognize, and
easier to recognize than to correct, but in well-balanced works, all
the elements — theme, plot, world, characters, voice, pace — are
Character action must derive from internal imperatives.
Character is shown best through action. If a character's actions are
inconsistent with his personality or environment, or if a character's
attributes are asserted but never demonstrates in actions observed by
the reader, then the character loses credibility and the story loses
Point-of-view is a scarce resource. Stories are told
from a point of view (POV). Unless the author is using the omniscient
narrator who sits outside events (rare), in which case the
narrator becomes a character, the POV will usually be vested in
one character per scene. The POV character is the lens through which the
reader will perceive all that goes on, and inevitably the POV character
is infused with additional importance; inevitably the reader is more
sympathetic to the POV character and will understand that character
better than any others in the same scene.
character could be someone who (i) faces crucial
which cannot be staged externally, (ii) observes best, (iii) is the
author surrogate, or (iv) is the reader surrogate. Often the
character is the protagonist; equally effective is a sidekick
character who sheds intimate light on the protagonist (cf. any Watson or
The Great Gatsby).
Choose the POV character carefully. It may change from scene
to scene (sometimes within a scene), but is usually the most
important staging decision the author makes.
A story walks better on two legs. Few plot lines are so
strong that by themselves they can carry the entire narrative. Much more
frequently they require breaks for travel time or emotional pacing
(either the characters' or the reader's). To do this without slowing the
pace, the author can run a second story line and alternate his action
between the two stories, just like a person walking on two legs, one
moving, the other resting and anchoring.
Often the story lines can become
symbolic of larger-scale
with the micro implying the macro and vice versa. Under the principle of
dramatic economy, they must tie together, the more frequently and
complexly the better, through character, setting, action, event, theme,
or combinations of all these.
The inner journey must match the outer journey. Unless
actions involve characters about whom we care, they appear to the reader
as meaningless running around . For us to care about the characters,
they must be emotionally engaged in the action, and they must express
through their behaviors the
conflicts that are driving them to do
what they. Essentially to any good story, therefore, is that the
character's inner journey (his change) is as important as his
outer journey (the events he experiences), so that even if the character
returns to the same place by story's end, he has undergone so much that
he is now a different person. (Think Frodo in Lord of the Rings,
or Sarah Connor in either Terminator movie.)
Link the out-of-whack event to the protagonist's emotional
disturbance. Ever since Aristotle writers have known the
reliable formula for gripping action: Knock a character's life out of
whack and spent the rest of the story watching him try to get his life
back into whack. For the inner journey to match the outer, the
out-of-whack event must link with the protagonist's emotional
disturbance -- something about the character's world-view is destroyed
early on, and the character is seeking to rediscover his own emotional
equilibrium. As E. M. Forster said, The king died, then the queen
died is a plot. The king died, then the queen died of grief
is a story.
Increase immediacy. An author is always trying to
create in his reader images so strong that the reader is mentally
transported. John Gardner called this the fictional dream, a story so
smoothly told that the reader absorbs the images as if seeing them
before his own eyes. Immediacy is the degree to which the reader
experiences events directly. It can be increased by:
Showing rather than telling.
- Describing things with tactile, visual specifics rather than
- Peripheral characters who are fully fleshed out individuals rather
than velour-shirted droids.
Reward the careful reader. Readers are greedy: they
will pay attention only if they are rewarded for doing so with all
little cookies like apt phrasing, witty dialog, incisive description,
As for you, the writer, never forget the following.
The reader is like a circus horse which has to be taught that it will be
rewarded with a lump of sugar every time it acquits itself well. If that
sugar is withheld, it will not perform.
Dictionary of the Khazars
Punish the careless reader. Readers are also lazy: they
will pay only as much attention required to give them the stimulus they
crave. An author should create text so tight that the reader who skips
two or three pages will miss something crucial to the story and will
backtrack to reader it. That kind of punishment (making him re-read)
will swiftly persuade the reader to remain engaged. Mysteries punish the
careless reader, which is partly why they have such a faithful
Hearsay is inadmissible. Immediacy is an emotional
concept, not just a descriptive one.
Conflict of communication between
characters should be conducted directly between them, rather than
through intermediaries, because each removal from the immediate dulls
its impact and risks losing the reader's
engagement. Flashbacks and POV
cuts are commonly employed principally to assure that if a character saw
a crime or an event, the reader sees it the same way.
Let the reader have his own emotions. Writers who lack
confidence often overkill their situations by not only staging events
but also telling the reader how to react to them. This is invariably a
mistake: readers force-fed feelings either become lazy ("Why bother to
pay attention? The author will wake me up in time.") or rebellious
("Hey, even Adolf wasn't as bad as that"). Writers more confident -- of
themselves and of their readers -- relay events and let the reader feel
things for himself. Readers who feel for themselves also become more
Everything happens in the eternal Now. Immediacy also
means immediacy in time. The ideal narration occurs in the real-time
present, with the reader experiencing everything simultaneously with the
characters. This also raises the
stakes for readers and tends to reward
Moving away from the eternal Now (for instance, a character
remembering a past event, a character narrating a past
event to another character) weakens immediacy because the reader knows
that the event is in the past, therefore it is fixed and unchangeable.
Sporting events are much more exciting live than on tape delay.)
Wherever possible, adjust time sequences so that events occur directly
before the reader's eyes.
Use the specific to imply the general. We observe only
specific things; from them, we infer generalities. In the same
way, an author who wishes to imply a general phenomenon will usually do
better to stage a specific thing -- an incident, a phrase, a character.
By contrast, describing generally defuses immediacy, because we have no
specific scene to attach the action, and nothing to visualize. The micro
also easily extrapolates to the macro: Joseph Heller put all of World
War II on the island of Pianosa, Mervyn Peake saw the world through the
castle of Gormenghast; and then there was Forrest Gump.
sex is a winner. We are talking here not about
biomechanics but fundamental emotional contact. Staging sexually charged
encounters between focus characters invariably makes them more human,
more accessible to the reader. Sex also reveals character: among human
beings, intimacy and sex are tightly correlated. Sex is intimate
personal knowledge not generally shared. Most of our words for closeness
have sexual connotations, from the Bible's "And Adam knew Eve."
You have to decide which drum you're going to beat: sex or
Fill descriptive holes. Much fiction suffers from
tactile deficiency because its author is concentrating so hard on moving
characters around that he forgets to stage their environment.
Description, the vegetables of a reader's diet, must be integrated
throughout the story and the action. Every scene, every sentence,
contains places where adjectives and adverbs may be dropped without
adding pad words. These locations -- descriptive holes -- should
generally be filled.
For instance, "The boy hit the ball" contains three descriptive
holes: "The <adjective> boy <adverb> hit the
<adjective> ball." In each spot, the author can slide in a piece
of description essentially for free.
Describe with nouns and verbs. Although adjectives and
adverbs strengthen immediacy, overdependence on them leads to forsoothly
writing and psychic overload in the reader. Even better than using
descriptive modifiers are descriptive nouns and verbs. English is
a gigantic language with a myriad of words, each with its own shades of
meaning. Find the best noun and verb and use them.
Descriptors should be sensory. Descriptors are either
sensory (blue, sour, loud, smooth, putrid) or internalized (sad, dour,
proud, uncouth). When in doubt, sensory descriptors are better: they
increase immediacy and they use the specific ("His hands clenched") to
imply the general ("He was angry"). Internalized descriptors also tend
to editorialize, which prevents the reader from feeling for himself and
thus induces in the reader either laziness or rebellion.
Don't describe nulls. This is really a subcase of Point
16, filling descriptive holes. Avoid using words that saying nothing.
"He picked up one of the rocks" shrinks to "He picked up a rock". Or
consider this bit of dialog:
"You killed my brother!" she screamed at him.
He said nothing.
"And you're trying to kill me!"
This tiny snippet has two nulls: "at him" and "He said nothing." The
latter is particularly egregious, because the author had a free
opportunity to give us an emotional reaction ("His eyes flickered in
anger") or a description ("The mantelpiece clock ticked loudly") and did
neither because he was concentrating so intently on the dialog.
Vary your syntax. A photograph is conveyed into
newsprint via a pattern of individual dots. A story is conveyed to a
reader via a pattern of individual words and sentences. Textual variety
is important; without it, the reader becomes bored and irritable without
necessarily perceiving why. Noun-verb-object structure is fine and
should dominate, but if repeated becomes a club which can be used
stylistically (Hemingway, Pinter) but more often just bludgeons a reader
Vary your vocabulary and referents. A scene typically
uses only a few building blocks --
characters, places, objects -- and
then manipulates them extensively. The author thus refers to the same
things over and over. These multiple references are by themselves a kind
of descriptive hole; by changing the noun used to identify the
well-defined object, the author can slid in additional information. If
Policeman Jones is later addressed as "Bob" or described as the "chunky
cop", we learn bit by bit.
Choose metaphors appropriate for their environment.
Metaphors are a special kind of extended, custom-generated adjective;
they should be chosen to enhance and harmonize with the overall
universe. A detective would not squint "like a near-sighted
grandmother", he would squint "as if trying to pick a suspect out of a
lineup." Taken to extremes, of course, this become camp: "She was tough
as a blackjack and sharp as a stiletto."
Even important than harmonizing metaphors is avoiding obvious
metaphoric clash: in a romance, the hero should not run toward the
heroine "as quickly as a stampeding bull." Block that