Jeffrey A. Carver is the author of numerous science fiction novels and stories, including the Nebula-nominated Eternity's End, Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries novelization, and the hard-SF series The Chaos Chronicles. Jeff also teaches writing in settings ranging from MIT to conferences for young writers, and he's dropped in today to talk about one of the thorniest challenges faced by many aspiring writers.
New year! New ideas! Where do you get your ideas? That's the question most asked of every science fiction writer I know. It's a good question, I suppose, though the answer is simple: everywhere, everything I read, everyone I talk to, everything I see on the internet or watch on TV, everything that filters into my brain is a potential story idea. I'm up to my ears in ideas! The real question is, how do you turn an idea—which can be anything, even a simple concept or image—into a story, which is a sequence of events, one arising from another, in which believable characters grow and change?
Here’s a simple idea that is not a story: The king dies, and the queen dies.
Yes, things happen, but there's no motivation cause or reason, nothing to care about. Here's that same idea, turned into the nucleus of a possible story: The king dies of a mortal wound, and the queen dies of sorrow. How much character, how much cause and effect, is embedded in that one sentence?
For many aspiring writers, this is the critical problem: getting from that magical idea to an actual story. An exercise I often do with students is to tell them: Think of a power possessed by an individual. A magical power, a supernatural power, a scientific or political power: it doesn't matter. Then think of the greatest single benefit of that power, and the greatest single drawback. Write a scene that illustrates both. Surprisingly often, what the students come up with leads them directly into a chain of characters colliding with themselves or with each other, which then grows into a full-blown story. It's all about consequences, taking something you know (or decide) to be true, and thinking through the consequences.
Some of you reading this particular blog might not be science fiction readers. Maybe you think science fiction is all about spaceships and time travel and aliens—but not about people. Guess again. Would it surprise you if I—a hard science fiction writer—said that the most exotic planets and the coolest spaceships and the coolest aliens are a lifeless dud without real people to inhabit them, or fly them, or meet them, and provide them with purpose in a story? My characters are the most important part of any of my stories. (They might be human and they might be alien and they might be robots, but they're people.)
What's the connection between this and what I was saying about ideas? It's that the most crucial part of taking an idea and turning it into a story is the human element: Who wants what, and why, and what are they willing to sacrifice to get it? That's what it all comes down to in the end, and pushing yourself to think through those questions is how you get from idea to story.
Great to meet you all! And thanks, Terry!
You can also learn more about Jeffrey's work at his website, Science Fiction Worlds, or at his blog, Pushing a Snake Up a Hill. Aspiring young writers should check out his free online writing course at http://www.writesf.com.