Ecology of Story: The Difference Between Anecdotes and Stories—How to Tell a Good Story

tree trunks coolIn her article in Quartz Magazine, Lila MacLellan suggests that “we’ve become masters of telling anecdotes, and terrible at telling our friends real stories.” Sometimes people think they are telling a story, but they are really just telling anecdotes, MacLellan reports after interviewing Maggie Cino, senior story producer for Moth storytelling series. While “anecdotes just relate facts,” Cino explains, stories are “about letting us know that things started one way and ended a different way.” Stories create space for movement.

Merriam-Webster defines an anecdote as a “short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.” Anecdotes serve to incite interest and to illustrate a point. They are often amusing, odd, sad or even tragic; if they are biographical, they often serve to reflect someone’s personality, attitude or philosophy. While anecdotes often provide a contextual jumping board to make a point—drawing you in with relevance—they lack the structure of stories. An anecdote is something that happens; a story has a structure that makes it memorable and provides a depth of meaning.

Stories move with direction; they have a beginning, middle and end. Stories evoke emotional truths. They compel with intrigue then fulfil us with awareness and, sometimes, understanding. The best stories are told through metaphor, those universal truths we all live by. And all good stories weave a premise, theme, plot, character and setting into a tapestry with meaning.

I teach new writers at the University of Toronto and George Brown College how to tell stories. I teach how stories can tell us who we are. Where we’ve been. And sometimes, where we are  going. The stories that stir our hearts come from deep inside, where the personal meets the universal, through symbols or archetypes and metaphor.

Depth psychologist Carl Jung described these shared symbols, metaphors and archetypes as pre-existing forms of the psyche. He drew parallels between synchronicity, relativity theory and quantum mechanics to describe life as an expression of a deeper order. He believed that we are both embedded in a framework of a whole and are the focus of that whole. Jung was describing a fractal whole, which reflects quantum scientist David Bohm’s quantum vision of holomovement.

Jung’s concept of embedded whole and a universal collective unconscious was embraced by Hero’s Journey author and scholar Joseph Campbell, who suggested that these mythic images lie at the depth of the unconscious where humans are no longer distinct individuals, where our minds widen and merge into the mind and memory of humankind—where we are all the same, in Unity. Carl Jung’s thesis of the “collective unconscious” in fact linked with what Freud called archaic remnants: mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem aboriginal, innate, and the inherited shapes of the human mind. Marie-Louise von Franz, in 1985, identified Jung’s hypothesis of the collective unconscious with the ancient idea of an all- extensive world-soul. Writer Sherry Healy suggested that Jung viewed the human mind as linked to “a body of unconscious energy that lives forever.”

What Makes a Good Story?

soft flowers copyA good story is about something important; attracted by gravity, it has purpose and seeks a destination. A good story goes somewhere; it flows like a river from one place to another. A good story has meaning; its undercurrents run deep across hidden substrates with intrigue. A good story resonates with place; it finds its way home. We’ve just touched upon the five main components of good story: premise, character on a journey & plot, theme and—what is ultimately at the heart of a story—setting or place.

Story Components

The premise of a story is like the anecdote, a starting point of interest. It is an idea that will be dramatized through plot, character and setting. In idea-driven stories, it can often be identified by asking the question: “What if?” For instance, what if time travel was possible?

A character on a journey propels the story through meaningful change. Characters provide dramatized meaning to premise through personal representation of global themes. A character takes an issue and through their actions and circumstance in story provide a fractal connection to a larger issue. Characters need to move. They need to “go somewhere.” Archetypes—ancient patterns of personality (symbols) shared by humanity and connected by our collective unconscious—are metaphoric characters (which includes place) in the universal language of storytelling that help carry the story forward.

The theme of a story takes the premise and gives it personal and metaphoric meaning by dramatizing through a character journey. It is often identified by asking the question: “What’s at stake?” In taking the time travel premise, a theme of forgiveness may be applied by choosing a character wishing to return to the past to right a wrong, when what they just need to do is forgive others and themselves, not travel to the past at all, and get on with their lives.

In such a story, the plot would provide means and obstacles for the character in their journey toward enlightenment. Plot works together with theme to challenge and push a character toward their epiphany and meaningful change. Plot provides obstacles. Challenges. Emotional turning points. Opportunities for learning and change.

The role of setting or place is often not as clear to writers. Because of this, place and setting may often be neglected and haphazardly tacked on without addressing its role in story; in such a case the story will not resonate with what is often at the heart of the story: a sense of place. In stories where the setting changes (either itself changing such as in a story about the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius impacting Pompeii’s community; or by the character’s own movements from place to place) it appears easier to include how setting affects characters. However, the effect of place on character when the setting does not change can be equally compelling even if more subtle; the change is still there but lies in the POV character’s altered relationship to that place—a reflection of change within them.

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” due in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

Microsoft Word - Three Writing Guides.docx

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

The Gestalt Nature of Passion & Success

What is to give light must endure burning —Victor Frankl

 

big old tree“Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought,” writes Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write. “The closer [the writer] gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

So, why do it, then? Why bother? Is it worth it to make yourself totally vulnerable to the possible censure and ridicule of your peers, friends, and relatives? To serve up your heart on a platter to just have them drag it around as Stevie Nicks would say?…

Welcome to the threshold of your career as a writer. This is where many aspiring writers stop: in abject fear, not just of failure but of success. The only difference between those that don’t and those that do, is that the former come to terms with their fears, in fact learn to use them as a barometer to what is important.

“Everyone is afraid to write,” says Keyes. “They should be. Writing is dangerous…To love writing, fear writing and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction. It’s the essence of what we do.”

Unravelling the Secret…

How do you get past the fear of being exposed, past the anticipated disappointment of peers, past the terror of success?

The answer is passion. If you are writing about something you are passionate about, you will find the courage to see it through. “The more I read, and write,” says Keyes:

The more convinced I am that the best writing flows less from acquired skill than conviction expressed with courage. By this I don’t mean moral convictions, but the sense that what one has to say is something others need to know.—Ralph Keyes

This is ultimately what drives a writer to not just write but to publish: the need to share one’s story, over and over again. To prevail, persist, and ultimately succeed, a writer must have conviction and believe in his or her writing. You must believe that you have something to say that others want to read. Ask yourself why you are a writer. Your answer might surprise you.

Every writer is an artist. And every artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds the world accountable. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

The first step, then, is to acknowledge your passion and own it. Flaunt it, even. Find your conviction, define what matters and explore it to the fullest. You will find that such an acknowledgement will give you the strength and fortitude to persist and persevere, particularly in the face of those fears. Use the fears to guide you into that journey of personal truths. Frederick Busch described it this way: “You go to dark places so that you can get there, steal the trophy and get out.”

John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, said:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.—John Steinbeck

Finding Success Through Meaning

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to become an important neurologist and psychiatrist of our time and to write Man’s Search for Meaning.

Blogger Gavin Ortlund wrote: “What gripped me most about [Frankl’s] book, and has stayed with me to this day, is not the horror and barbarity of his experiences in concentration camps—when you pick up a book about the holocaust, you expect that. What really struck me was Frankl’s repeated insistence that even there, in the most inhumane and horrific conditions imaginable, the greatest struggle is not mere survival. The greatest struggle is finding meaning. As I was reading, I was struck with this thought: going to a concentration camp is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst that can happen to a person is not having a transcendent reason to live. Life is about more than finding comfort and avoiding suffering: it’s about finding what is ultimate, whatever the cost.”

Victor Frankl wisely said:

The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.—Victor Frankl

Frankl is talking about passion. “If you long to excel as a writer,” says Margot Finke, author of How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer, “treasure the passion that is unique within yourself. Take the irreplaceable elements of your life and craft them into your own personal contribution to the world.” It’s what has you up to 2 am, pounding the keys. It follows you down the street and to work with thoughts of another world. It puts a notebook and pen in your hand as you drive to the store, ready to record thoughts about a character, scene or place. “For the passionate, writing is not a choice; it’s a force that cannot be denied.”

big old treeFinke says it astutely: You need to be passionate about everything to do with your book—the writing and rewriting, your critique group, your research, your search for the best agent/editor, plus your query letter. Not to mention the passion that goes into promoting your book. Nothing less will assure your survival—and success—as a writer.

Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness—Allen Ginsberg, American poet

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Nina Munteanu

References:

Finke, Margot. 2008. “How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer.” In: The Purple Crayonhttp://www.underdown.org/mf_ writing_passion

Frankl, Victor. (1946) 1997. Man’s Search for Meaning. Pocket Books. 224 pp.

Keyes, Ralph. 1999. The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. Writer’s Digest, 1999.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now. Starfire World Syndicate. 294pp

Ortlund, Gavin. 2008. “Frankl, the holocaust and meaning.” In: Let Us Hold Fast. http://gro1983.blogspot.com/2008/02/frankl-holocaust-and-meaning.html

Slonim Aronie, Nancy. 1998. Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. Hyperion. 256pp.

 

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

How Art Reveals Truth in Science

It is quite possible … that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology —Naom Chomsky

niels bohr

Niels Bohr

In the 1920s, physicist Niels Bohr struggled to re-imagine the structure of matter. He rejected the current hegemony of a fractal “solar system” model and sought a new metaphor.

“When it comes to atoms,” said Bohr, “language can only be used as poetry.”

Bohr compared the invisible world of atoms and electrons to cubist art because, according to Jonah Lehrer in an article in SeedMagazine.com, it “revealed the fissures in everything, turning the solidity of matter into a surreal blur.” In 1923 deBroglie had determined that electrons could exist as particles or waves. Bohr maintained that the form they took depended on how you looked at them: by simply observing, you determined their nature.

Many of us believe that while art can be profound, it does not solve practical challenges of reality; only scientific knowledge, which progresses on a linear ascent toward greater understanding, resolves the serious challenges of our world and will one day solve everything.

This is, of course a matter of belief. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, “the greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery.” The traditional elements of science have used a reductionist approach to understand the whole, looking at the parts and reconstructing the causal pathways. Take the synapse, for instance. Neuroscientists now know that 100 billion electrical cells occupy a human brain, that every cubic millimeter of the cerebral cortex contains a billion synapses involved in the neurotransmission of electrical impulses in perception and thought. Yet, as Novelist Richard Powers challenged, ‘If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?”

neuroscience“The paradox of neuroscience,” said Lehrer, “is that its astonishing progress has exposed the limitations of its paradigm … Neuroscience has yet to capture [the] first-person perspective. Artists … distill the details of real life into prose and plot … They capture a layer of reality that reductionism cannot … and provide science with a glimpse into its blind spots … Sometimes the whole is better understood in terms of the whole … No scientific model of the mind will be complete unless it includes what can’t be reduced.”

Logical minds will reject art as too incoherent and imprecise to contribute to the knowledge base provided by scientific process. They will maintain that Beauty isn’t Truth, that the novel is just a work of fiction, and abstract art the arcane expression of a micro-culture.

But what of paradox? Critic Randall Jarrell contended that, “it is the contradictions of works of art which make them able to represent us — as logical and methodical generalizations cannot — our world and our selves, which are also full of contradictions.” The cultural hypotheses of artists can inspire the questions that stimulate important new scientific answers, adds Lehrer.

neutrino colliding

Neutrino colliding

The irony of modern physics is that it seeks reality in its most fundamental form, and yet we are incapable of comprehending these fundamentals beyond the math we use to represent them. The only way to know the universe is through analogy.

Richard Feyman

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman said, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.” While artists rely on imagination, much of modern physics exceeds the imagination: dark matter, quarks and neutrinos, black holes, multiple dimensions and folded space. To venture beyond the regular confines of our “ordinary world” where matter is certain, time flows forward and there are only three dimensions, we must resort to metaphor. “Metaphor in science serves not just as a pedagogical device,” wrote physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, “but also as an aid to scientific discovery.” Einstein came up with relativity while thinking about moving trains; Arthur Eddington compared the expansion of the universe to an inflated balloon; James Clerk Maxwell visualized magnetic fields as little whirlpools in space. String theory is often imagined as garden hoses.

Pablo Picasso bullfight,1934

Pablo Picasso’s Bull Fight, 1934

The greatest physicists of the 20th century thought metaphorically. String theorist Brian Greene wrote that the arts have the ability to “give a vigorous shake to our sense of what’s real.” Picasso never understood the equations, says Lehrer: “he picked up the non-Euclidian geometry via the zeitgeist.” A century later some scientists still use his fragmented images to symbolize their ideas.  “Novelists can stimulate the latest theories of consciousness through their fiction … Painters can explore new theories about the visual cortex … Dancers can help untangle the mysterious connection between the body and emotion.”

Both science and art benefit from exchange. By inviting art to participate in its conversation, science provides art with the opportunity to add science to its repertoire. And through its interpretation of scientific ideas and theories, art offers science a new lens through which to see itself.

Karl Popper exhorts us to “give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes.”

And that is the stuff of fiction after all…

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

 

 

 

Why & When Should You Write a Synopsis?

cat typewriterWhen I was just beginning as a novelist, the publisher guideline request “submit a synopsis and sample chapters” was intimidating to say the least. There was something terrifyingly daunting about writing a succinct compelling summary of my 300-page novel packaged into just a few pages. As author Katherine Eliska Kimbriel said, “The instinctive response [of the author] is to clap on a helmet and start digging a trench.” I had a right to be terrified. In some ways the synopsis is the hardest thing for a novelist to write. Yet it is the first thing most publishers and agents want (and have time) to see of your cherished project (aside from those sample chapters, of course). Every fiction writer who wants to sell in the current market must know how to write a synopsis because that’s what an editor wants to see first. Most editors (if they’re good) are overworked with scarce enough time to answer their phones, much less their emails.

I’m not going to describe how to write a synopsis in this post. If you want to see an excellent summary of what a good synopsis should look like, there are many excellent descriptions by professional editors, agents and other writers who describe what a synopsis is and even give examples—including my own book “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!”, Chapter “O.” Elizabeth Lyon also describes the synopsis (as opposed to an outline) in several of her how-to books.cat-on-typewriter

Instead, I present here why you should write that dreaded synopsis, and way before you finish your book, too.

Synopsis vs. Outline

A synopsis is not an outline. Both are useful to the writer, yet each serves a very different purpose. An outline is a tool (usually just for the writer) that sketches plot items of a book. It provides a skeleton or framework of people, places and their relationships to the storyline that permits the writer to ultimately gauge scene, setting, and character depth or even determine whether a character is required (every character must have a reason to be in the book, usually to move the plot). For writers just beginning, this is an excellent tool to keep the narrative spare and compelling and to remove superfluous characters and other things (a common beginning writer inclination). A synopsis, on the other hand, is an in-depth summary of the entire book that weaves in thematic elements with plot to portray a compelling often multi-level story arc. This is usually what an editor wants to see, although I have seen them request an outline as well. To put it basically, the outline describes what happens when and to whom, while the synopsis includes the “why” part.

What a synopsis does (along with the sample chapters and extremely important query letter) is get your manuscript read by an editor. That’s the real purpose of a synopsis. An editor makes his/her decision to look at your manuscript based on these three items: query letter (intro to you); sample chapters; and your synopsis. Ultimately, their decision resides with whether your project fits their own imprint at the time.

If that isn’t reason enough to write a synopsis of your novel, below are two others:

Synopsis as Storytelling Prompt

cat typewriter2A synopsis of your novel goes beyond the outline to help polish elements of story arc, characterization with plot and setting with story. The synopsis can answer questions perplexing the author, stuck on a scene or plot item. It helps you weave your novel’s elements into a well-integrated story that is compelling at many levels. Because the synopsis is based on emotional turning points (related to theme), character dramatization of the premise is a key foundation. It makes sense to write drafts of your synopsis as you go along in the novel; that way it’s useful to both you and to the editor and then it’s more or less written when you need to submit it along with sample chapters…and not quite as daunting a task either.

Synopsis as Marketing Summarytrees sunlight

Your well-written synopsis is often used internally by the publishing house staff (e.g., by artist, copywriter, and sales department) once your novel has been accepted.

I advise you to write it now. Don’t wait. Make the synopsis work for you throughout your novel’s journey.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

He said, She said: Using Dialogue

fall trees pathOne of the most important devices to spice up narrative and increase pace is the use of dialogue. There’s a reason for this: we read dialogue more quickly; it’s written in more fluid, conversational English; it tends to create more white space on a page with less dense text, more pleasing to the reader’s eye.  Dialogue is action. It gets readers involved.

Good dialogue neither exactly mimics actual speech (e.g., it’s not usually mundane, repetitive or broken with words like “uh”) nor on the other extreme does it proselytize or educate the reader through long discourse (unless the character is that kind of person). Good dialogue in a story should be somewhere in the middle. While it should read as fluid conversation, dialogue remains a device to propel the plot or enlighten us to the character of the speaker). No conversation follows a perfect linear progression. People interrupt one another, talk over one another, often don’t answer questions posed to them or avoid them by not answering them directly. These can all be used by the writer to establish character, tension, and relationship.

Below, I provide a few tips when using dialogue in your story.

  • Show, don’t tell: a common error of beginning writers is to use dialogue to explain something that both participants should already know but the reader doesn’t. It is both awkward and unrealistic and immediately exposes you as a novice. For instance, avoid the use of “As you know…” It’s better to keep the reader in the dark for a while than to use dialogue to explain something. Which brings us to the next point.
  • Have your characters talk to each other, not to the reader: for instance, “Hello, John, you loser drunk and wayward son of the most feared gangster in town!” could be improved to, “You stink like a distillery, John! Wait ‘til papa’s thugs find you!”
  • Avoid adverbs: e.g., he said dramatically, she said pleadingly; instead look for better ways to express the way they said it with actual dialogue. That’s not to say you can’t use adverbs (I believe J.K. Rowling is notorious for this), just use them sparingly and judiciously.
  • Avoid tag lines that repeat what the dialogue already tells the reader: e.g., “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Do you have a dog?” she asked.
  • He said, she said: reduce tag lines where possible and keep them simple by using “said”; another sign of a novice is the overuse of words other than said (e.g., snarled, hissed, purred, etc.). While these can add spice, keep them for special places as they are noticed by the reader and will distract otherwise.
  • Pay consistent attention to a character’s “voice”: each character has a way of speaking that identifies them as a certain type of person. This can be used to identify class, education, culture, ethnicity, proclivities, etc. For instance one character might use Oxford English and another might swear every third word.
  • Use speech signatures: pick out particular word phrases for characters that can be their own and can be identified with them. If they have additional metaphoric meaning to the story, even better. For instance, I know a person who always adds “Don’t you think?” to almost everything they say. This says something about how that person… well, thinks… I knew another person who always added “Do you see?” at the end of their phrase. Again rather revealing.
  • Intersperse dialogue with good descriptive narrative: don’t forget to keep the reader plugged into the setting. Many beginning writers forget to “ground” the reader with sufficient cues as to where the characters are and what they’re doing while they are having this great conversation. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name. It’s called “talking heads.”
  • Contradict dialogue with narrative: when dialogue contradicts body language or other narrative cues about the speaker, this adds an element of compelling tension and heightens reader excitement while telling them something important. Here are a few examples:

“How’d it go?”

“Great,” he lied.

“I feel so much better now,” she said, eyes darting away from him.painted leaves

Well, you get the picture, anyway.

This is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire)

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Art & Science of World Building: The Tools You Need to Make a Believable World

futistic cityMost fantasy and science fiction novels require major world-building, which involves both real and imagined aspects.

World building spices real physical and social facts with the author’s imagination to create a civilization, a political structure, a culture and zeitgeist as backdrop and influence to story. Writers define world-building as the process of constructing an imaginary world, usually associated with a fictional universe.

Popularized at science fiction workshops during the 1970s, the term describes the development of an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, and ecology that is rich, unique and resonates with the story’s premise.

The list below provides things to consider when first building your world:

  • The world (e.g., on Earth or not)
  • Physical and historical features (climate, geography, resources)
  • Magic and magicians (e.g., rules of magic, technology)
  • Peoples and customs (e.g., language, ethics and values, religion)
  • Social organization & structure (e.g., government, politics, conflicts, fashion, entertainment)
  • Commerce & trade (e.g., industry, transportation, communication)

Science vs. Art In World-Buildingthe-city-cgtrader

If a novel is a historical fantasy set on Earth, science is not a critical part of world building; if a novel is set on some probable planet in the Andromeda Galaxy, then science becomes an integral part. But, in both cases the writer needs to do his or her research. In the case of the historical fantasy, world building will be based on accurate historical information, even if an alternate history is being written.

Part of the reason people read historical epics is to learn more about that particular civilization and time period. The reader trusts that the writer will give him or her the facts on the world, while taking liberties on the remaining story elements. Similarly, a science fiction reader opens the first book in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series with the expectation of learning about a made-up world based on accurate principals of science.

A lot of science fiction is written by nonscientists. That said, many science fiction readers— particularly those who enjoy hard science fiction—expect your science to be not only plausible but somewhat proven and your premise to be based upon sound scientific principle. They expect your research to be impeccable because they are expecting to learn something—in science.

World-Builder’s Disease? 

City of Woven Streets

“City of Woven Streets” by Emmi Itaranta

“Fantasy writers have a penchant for working up histories of imaginary empires that can run for hundreds of pages, full of maps and chronologies and genealogical trees a yard long,” says Ansen Dibell, author of The Elements of Writing Fiction: Plot. “Similarly, science fiction writers can fall in love with their hardware and want to show it off,” he adds and describes this as a kind of narrative cancer, a “World-Builder’s disease.”

Most writers who world-build keep extensive files of background information on their worlds. In some cases, these can be published as companions to the main book series (e.g., J.K. Rowling’s books on Quiddich or magical creatures, which most certainly came from her extensive background notes). Dibell’s point is that this information doesn’t belong in the main book, where it can interfere with the process of storytelling. It becomes “info dump”, which is often very static, lacks drama, and proves ultimately boring.

Tying Your World to Theme and Plot

NineteenEightyFour

“Nineteen Eighty Four” by George Orwell

What’s important to remember is that the world you build is part of the story. It isn’t just a lot of “interesting” detail. The world you build, like a character in your story, plays a role in defining and supporting its theme. The major qualities of your world are, therefore, best derived for plot and thematic reasons—which come from “story”. The rest—the details—are things you can find in books, websites or get from experts in your local university, etc.  Don’t let science intimidate you; but ensure that you get it right by using your resources and verifying your information with an expert. Use your local libraries, universities, colleges, and online resources. Interview scientists, technical people and other writers. That’s part of being a writer too.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

“To Boldly Go Where No Human Has Gone Before…”

nasa-buzz-aldrinA while ago I was approached by Robert Gooding-Townsend, Science in Society editor for Science Borealis for my opinion on a persistent idea that post-Star Trek sci-fi is more pessimistic and less technologically imaginative. I wanted to provide for you my full response here, given that the article couldn’t include all of it. You can read the Science Borealis article here, with comments from several authors, including me.

Below is my full response:

Whether this perception is true I can’t definitively say but there is a reason behind it, which I believe reflects a subtle shift in our cultural paradigm and worldview in the past decades since Star Trek. A shift involving a growing awareness of ecology and the emergence of the “feminine archetype” in storytelling.

I think two things are happening in concert: science fiction is maturing as a genre: 1) in its actual breadth; but also 2) in our perception of it.

I think this is partly: 1) a reflection of a more diverse, sophisticated and mature audience (what The Economist terms “mass intelligent”); and 2) the result of a wider acceptance of SF as literature by “non-genre” writers embracing what literary critic Ted Gioia calls “conceptual fiction” (e.g., Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins; Thomas Pinchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada; John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Emmi Itaranta’s The Memory of Water; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, etc.).

Our shifting worldview, along with science fiction’s gradual blending with strong literary elements is reflected in a perception of higher pessimism with less focus on technological “wonders”. When asked to describe SF today, colleague Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel series, argued that, “SF is mainstream now … It has grown up, emotionally, from being about wish-fulfilling technologies … to embracing the social implications of change.”

Today, SF is recognized more as “real” literature rather than being dismissed as “escapism.” Williams shares that SF’s roots are as old as myth. “Like myths and bible stories, SF is an instructive literature, pointing out how things can go wrong (or right) and why. The growing up SF has done since the 1950s lies in an increasing recognition that [humanity is its] own worst enemy and a better understanding of human nature is crucial to the problems we face, not just the hard sciences.”

For the past few years I’ve been following a trend in the science fiction writing courses I teach at university: more and more students (male and female) are bringing in WIPs on ecological and global environmental issues. Many of the stories involve a premise of environmental calamity, but not in the same vain as previous environmental disasters that depict “man” against Nature. These works give the Earth, Nature or Water an actual voice (as a character). And a protagonist who learns to interact with it cooperatively. For me this represents a palpable and gestalt cultural awakening in the realm of the “feminine archetype”. One that is focused more on the sociological and ecological consequences of humanity’s evolution.

I believe that ecology—the science of relationships and consequence—best parallels the literature of science fiction, which studies the world and the consequences of our actions (advances in and impacts of science and technology) through metaphor. The literature of science fiction explores large issues faced by humankind and is foremost a literature of allegory and metaphor; one deeply embedded in culture.

Stories of doom and gloom have populated the science fiction genre since its inception. What appears to be changing is the increased sophistication of this assessment and humanity’s place—and technology’s place—in it. Editor and Publisher of On Spec Magazine, Diane Walton shares that she is seeing a lot of Post-Apocalyptic submissions, “mainly because it’s interesting to put your characters in a setting where the rules don’t apply any more. They have to try to rebuild the life and security and order they used to have, or else revert to savagery, or else adapt to a whole new set of circumstances.”

Environmental fiction has been written for years. But I believe that now—partly with new awareness of climate change and with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor, for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness, much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

The stories I’m seeing more and more—whether by established writers or by my own students—reflect an emerging worldview of participation, responsibility and accountability. It is the worldview of Jung and synchronicity; of David Bohm and “implicate order”; of Rudolf Steiner and “cosmic intelligence”, of biochemist Mae-Wan Ho and “quantum entanglement”, of Frans de Waal and “empathy”, and of Matt Ridley and “altruism”.

Whether told through cautionary tale / political dystopia (e.g., Margaret Atwood’s space-planetsMaddAddam trilogy; Bong Jung-Ho’s Snowpiercer), or a retooled version of “alien invasion” (e.g., Cixin Liu’s 2015 Hugo Award-winning The Three Body Problem), these stories all reflect a shift in focus from a technological-centred & human-centred story to a more eco- or world-centred story that explores wider and deeper existential questions. So, yes, science fiction today may appear less technologically imaginative; but it is certainly more sociologically astute, courageous and sophisticated.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.