April 28, 2012 — 2,710 words
By Craig Young
Several years ago, I picked up a wonderful little book by Blake Snyder titled Save the Cat. Despite hating cats, I was intrigued by the book’s suggestion that this was “the last book on screenwriting that you’ll ever need”. How wonderful! I can finally stop buying books about writing and just write!
Turns out, I’ve purchased over a dozen books on the subject since then... but that has more to do with my exceptional procrastination skills than anything else.
While Save the Cat deals primarily with long format script (film), it’s something I believe translates well to shorter format, novels, comics... you name it! Why? Because Save the Cat outlines the basic keystones used in weaving some of the world’s greatest stories.
Please remember though, that writing is not a formula -- writing is about structure. You can bend and play with structure to a certain degree, but it’s ultimately your foundation. It’s what all of your story's little surprises hang onto. Without this foundation, you’re most likely fumbling along aimlessly wondering, “What the hell should I do next? Why is my story so shakey??" Don’t fret. We’ve all been there.
Below are the summarized ideas Snyder plotted out. In many cases, I’ve quoted him directly (paraphrasing here or there), noting personal experience where relevant.
And swear words.
Instead of referencing feature format as Snyder did however, I’ve referenced approximate page count with a 22 minute animated TV series in mind. And yes, although I reference movies and scripts, remember: movies, scripts, novels -- they're all stories.
Opening Image (page 1)
The very first impression of what a movie is--its tone, its mood. We need to know what we’re in for off the top. It’s also the “before” snapshot of who our hero is before his/her journey begins.
I’ve used this basic concept even in pre-school school shows (Rob the Robot). In fact, the show is structured in a way where we ALWAYS start inside the rocket ship, setting the basic tone for the story, then end each episode back in the ship with fears conquered and mission accomplished. It’s not as dramatic (being pre-school and all) as what you’d have in a novel or film... but the basic idea is there.
I won’t say this idea is an absolute MUST, but I do feel the strongest stories end with this “after” snapshot of the hero. It gives your audience a true sense of satisfaction, seeing your hero come full circle. He rode out into the sunset uncertain, and came back to his place of origin as a confident arse kicker. Art imitates life in this sense. Your personal journey began as a bed wetting infant and ends as diaper wearing wizard of knowledge.
Theme Stated (page 1-2)
Within the first 5 minutes of a film (or the first chapter of a book), the theme should be stated (note, the theme is usually not stated by our hero oddly enough). It’s usually a question or statement posed by someone other than our main protagonist. The statement is the theme of the movie (EG: Careful what you wish for). It shouldn’t be too obvious... more of an offhanded/conversational comment.
Again with Rob the Robot as our example, quite often one of the characters will wish for something they don’t have. “I wish I had super powers just like Bolt Boy!” To which one of the supporting characters would respond “What’s wrong with just being yourself?” That theme is examined and demonstrated throughout the full 10 minute episode. In the end, the question is finally answered through trial/error and the support of his friends. It’s indeed better to be happy with yourself, just the way you are.
Always know what your theme is and never lose sight of it. I find a lot of writers get caught up in gags and the uber cool scenes they’ve crafted. Those scenes may indeed end up being uber cool, but will your reader/viewer hang in long enough to see it executed? Most likely no. Not if you’re story isn’t focused on its objective. Don’t flail around like a fat hamster with no idea where your story is spinning towards. Write with purpose. Write with your theme always in mind.
Do yourself a favour, and write your theme at the top of your 1st page. Stick it to your office door, fridge, desktop, boyfriend’s head... everywhere and anywhere you can to remind yourself why you’re writing this story. Having this constant reminder will help with your stories focus, and make it tighter from beginning to end.
Set-Up (page 1-3)
The first few minutes set up the hero, the stakes and the goal. The first pages should also set up or hint at every character in your story. I guess this varies in novel land, but I believe a similar idea should apply. Here, every character tic and behavior that needs to be addressed later on in your story should be present. It will allow us to know how and why the hero will need to change in order to win.
When our hero wants or is lacking, we must SHOW the audience here what is missing in our hero’s life. What needs fixing!
Working with MCM on Rollbots, this was always the case in our 22 minute scripts. We generally know from the teaser who/what the threat is being caused by and who it relates to. In the first act we would then identify all the other players. You can add elements of mystery of course (villains in disguise etc), but we need to know the main players. Even when we didn’t want our audience to be 100% certain who the villain is, we’d give them clues so they could at least start putting 2+2 together.
Catalyst (pages 4-5)
The catalyst is the first moment when something happens that spins us in a new direction, towards our new world in act II. Accidentally receiving a note, stealing a squirrel, the knock at the door, etc. In the set-up we learned what the world is like and now, in the catalyst moment... you blow it to shit (I’m paraphrasing).
This is most likely the most natural story element that even very young writers understand. It’s usually the one thing (after the uber cool scene) that a writer thinks of when she’s formulating the story in her head. I know it’s what I do.
Now I just need to practice knowing my ending first... but we’ll get to that idea later.
Debate (pages 6-7)
This is the last chance for our hero to say SCREW THIS, I’M OUTA HERE! At this point, we need him/her to realize that this might be a shit idea. Do I go into the cave? Do I take the ring? It’s going to suck out there, but what’s my choice? Stay here? A question must be asked of our hero and he/she alone must answer.
Act II (pages 7-8)
Our act break is the moment we leave the old world behind, and head into the new world. At this stage, the hero cannot be lured or tricked into this new upside down world. She must make the decision herself and CHOOSE to go. Being tricked into it or forced tends to make the individual less of a hero... your audience will see him as weak with little to aspire to.
Frodo was given the burden of the ring, but he chose to accept it. Had he been forced along all the way, we wouldn’t have routed for him the same way. We most likely wouldn’t have even cared. By choosing to go, despite his size and lack of skill set, he was a great underdog to cheer on.
The B Story (pages 9-11)
More often than not, this tends to be the love story. It is also the part of the story that carries your theme. Not to mention, it smoothes over the Act break itself, making it less obvious. The B story gives us a breather from the full assault of the A.
This is where your hero needs to be nurtured and can openly discuss the theme of the movie (which, being a genius, you’ve already set up from your opening pages). It’s a place for them to draw strength from to help push them forward into Act 3.
The B story often carries a brand new batch of characters with it as well... almost all of which are the upside down versions of the A characters we met in the first 10 pages. Sound odd? Think of how wonderfully the Wizard of Oz did this!
Fun & Games (pages 11-14)
This is the section of your story that captures the promise of your premise. It is the essence of your movie’s poster, book cover, etc. It is where most of the movie trailer moments are found and where your characters (well, at least the audience) has the most fun. It’s where we aren’t as concerned with the stories forward progress (although we’re NOT losing sight of it either... it’s just not AS intensely focused) -- the stakes won’t be raised till the midpoint of this act.
This is where Rob gets to try out his new rocket boots for the first time. It’s where Spin learns he has turbo mode... it’s where Neo learns Kung Fu.
This is the heart of your story.
It’s where you put all your snazzy set pieces!
Midpoint (page 14-15)
The midpoint is either an “up” where our hero either peaks (although it is a false peak) or a “down” when the world collapses all around the hero (although it is a false collapse).
The stakes are raised here. The fun and games are over. It’s back to the story.
The midpoint changes the whole dynamic of the film.
This is where the hero believes he’s made it (or completely failed), but it’s a false sense of victory. The hero still has a long way to go before he learns the lesson he really needs. It just seems like everything is warm and fuzzy here... it’s a lie!
The midpoint also has a matching beat which is called the “All is Lost” moment that leads into your third act. This All is Lost is a false defeat. These two points are set. It’s because they’re the inverse of each other.
The Rule is: It’s never as good as it seems to be at the midpoint and it’s never as bad as it seems to be at the All is Lost point... or vice versa!
Bad Guys Close In (pages 15-18)
This is the point where the bad guys regroup and send in the heavy artillery. It’s the point where internal dissent, doubt, and jealousy begin to disintegrate the hero’s team.
The forces that are against our hero tighten their grip here. Evil is not giving up, and there is nowhere for the hero to go for help. This translates to pre-school as well. The bully is winning the game, the witch has delivered the apple, etc.
All of this spells bad news for the hero. He is headed for a huge fall and that brings us to...
All Is Lost (page 19-20)
Again, this is the opposite of the midpoint in terms of “up” or “down”. It is the false defeat of our hero that appears as total defeat. Our hero’s life is in shambles. Wreckage abounds. Oh noes!!!
It’s the point where the mentor dies... or symbolically dies. Obi Wan kicks it, Gandolf is a goner, Marlin believing Nemo is dead...
Even if there is no mentor, stick in something that provides a symbolic death or hint of it (a character considering suicide, a dead flower, etc).
This is where the old character, the old way of thinking and the old word... dies.
Dark night of the Soul (pages 21-22)
This is the moment where we see how our hero deals with the All is Lost death moment. How does he feel about it? It can last 5 seconds or 5 minutes. It’s a vital point of your story -- the dark before the dawn. It’s the point just before our character digs deep and pulls out that last best idea that will save himself and everyone around him. But at this moment, that idea is nowhere in sight.
It’s the “Why has god forsaken me!?” moment.
It’s here and only here where we know our hero is beaten and admits their humility and humanity, yielding control of events over to fate. It is then that our hero finds the solution.
We must be beaten to know it and to get the lesson.
Act III (pages 23-24)
Thanks to the characters found in the B story (the love story), thanks to all the conversations discussing theme in the B story, and thanks to the hero’s last best effort to discover a solution to beat the bad guys who’ve been closing in and winning in the A story... the answer is found!
Both the external story (A) and the internal story (B) now meet and intertwine. The hero has passed every test, and dug deep to find a solution. Now all he has to do is apply it!
The classic fusion of A and B is the hero getting the clue from “the girl” that makes him realize how to solve both beating the bad guys and winning the heart of his love.
Finale (pages 25 -27)
This is where the lessons learned are applied. It’s where the character’s tics are mastered. It’s where A story and B story end in triumph for our hero.
It’s the turning of the old world and creation of a new world order -- all thanks to our hero, who leads the way based on what he experienced in the upside-down, antithetical world of Act Two.
The bad guys are dispatched, in ascending order (low rank to high). The head/source/cause of the problem must be completely dispatched in order for the new world order to begin.
It’s not enough for our hero to triumph. He must change the world.
It must be done in an emotionally satisfying way.
Final Image (page 28)
The final image is the complete opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that change has occurred and that it’s real. The world is now a better place, thanks to our hero.
With all of this in mind...
Again, the 15 steps aren’t about creating a formula. They're about understanding structure so you can weave your story within a universally inherent and accepted context. And yes, storytelling IS universal. We all recognize if a movie or book is bad or good, even though we might not fully understand or recognize why.
Throughout time, all cultures have applied the same story basics--from Greek mythology to American Westerns. You don’t have to take my word for it though. Pick a film that’s loved by the masses, or a popular book or TV show. Keep this post handy and check each step off as they’re presented.
If you felt completely satisfied by the story, I’m guessing you could identify the 15 keystones. If you were left feeling a bit put off... there’s a good chance a few of them were missing.
April 28, 2012 — 292 words
By Tim Sevenhuysen
When Pelly landed in the museum's loading bay, a museum staffer was ready and waiting with the Jitterdrive. He rolled the engine over to the gap in the floor. For a few seconds, everyone stood around, looking expectantly at one another.
"Er," said Milly, "Does anyone know how to install one of these things?"
Haglyn shook her head and shrugged.
"Not a clue," said Overard, cheerfully. "Hadn't thought that far ahead, to be honest. What about you, Mister..." He scrutinized the museum staffer's name tag. "Mister Cogs. Ever hooked up a faster-than-light engine before?"
"Actually," said Cogs, a pencil-thin man with a long, narrow nose, "I have, once. Helped my grandpa do one last year."
"Great!" said Overard. "We've got a hundred litres for you if you help out. Right, Milly?"
Before Milly could protest, Cogs said, "Sure thing!" and got to work. In minutes, he and Overard had the old Origami Engine out and had lowered the Jitterdrive into the slot. Cogs wheeled the Origami Engine away and returned with a box of tools.
Haglyn went to check on Tic and Dr. Fester, both of whom had been drugged into deep sleep to let their bodies focus on the healing process.
Milly wandered into the cockpit to wait. She was just sitting down when Pelly said, "Oh dear."
"What?" said Milly.
"Is Mr. Bolter still sleeping?"
"I think so."
"Oh, good," said Pely. "So this probably isn't his fault, then. I've gotten quite used to this kind of thing being his fault."
"What isn't his fault?"
Pelly lit up the viewscreen, revealing three approaching black-and-white ships, emblazoned with red and blue lights.
"Oh dear," said Milly.
"Precisely," said Pelly. "So, what would you like me to do?"
April 27, 2012 — 283 words
By Tim Sevenhuysen
"Give us a Jitterdrive, and we'll make it worth your while," said Overard.
The curator twisted his moustache. "My while is quite worthy, I'm afraid."
"How worthy are we talking?"
"A fully functional Jitterdrive is easily worth half its weight in plastic."
"What!?" yelled Overard.
Milly realized she'd never really gotten a grasp of how much plastic was supposedly worth on Entulov 5, not in terms she actually understood. "That's a lot, then?" she said.
Overard ignored her, instead grabbing the edges of the curator's desk and leaning forward. "We'll give you 25,000 litres, not a drop more."
"You insult me," scoffed the curator.
"You deserve it," sneered Overard.
The curator wrinkled his nose. "The museum will accept 25,000 litres," he said, "and I will take an additional 5,000 for my personal account."
"Deal." The combatants shook hands, and the tension in the room instantly melted away into smiles.
"Pleasure doing business with you," said the curator.
"Likewise," said Overard. "I haven't had a good haggle in a while... Milly, you've got the cash, right?"
She did, but she wasn't sure how she felt about the fact that Overard had made that assumption. Still, they needed the engine... She made the transfers, and the curator directed them to pick up their new engine from a loading bay beneath the museum.
They returned to the ship, where Haglyn was disappointed to learn that she'd missed out on a negotiation. "Ex-army?" she sniffed. "I would've gone straight to threats and violence! Works wonders with those meatheads."
"Maybe it's a good thing you weren't there, then," said Milly, but Haglyn just winked knowingly and laughed to herself.
They directed Pelly to the loading bay.
April 26, 2012 — 1,820 words
By Letitia Coyne
You know me; I’m that obnoxious soul who keeps saying, ‘Screw the writing rules’. Every writer knows there are rules that we must OBEY. They are rules, rules, damn it. They exist so we can clearly demonstrate that the weight of educated opinion is with us when we choose to criticize.
Of course there are rules. Even I must relent at some point in the discussion, although I know good people with firm arguments who would say, ‘No, there is no need to relent. Ever. Creativity trumps literary fascism every time.’ But... I have to take a middle road when the choice is there. I argue the case of the Buddha: “Books [rules] are useful for finding your path. Once you have found your path, burn the books.”
In February of 2010, the UK Guardian asked some well known authors what were the most important rules for writing well. Some dug deep into their scholarly vaults and produced great wisdom on the points and counterpoints of language and expression. Like Elmore Leonard, who numbered among his recommendations:
But I read through and found those rules which I believe we should all keep to the fore as we labor through our creative worklife. These, I think, are essential and all aspiring writers should be caused to have them tattooed to their inner thigh in remembrance.
Many of these greats said READ. As many more said, DO NOT READ.
While Roddy Doyle said, “Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide;” Colm Tóibín said, “If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane,” and “On Saturdays, you can watch an old Bergman film, preferably Persona or Autumn Sonata.” So who’s right?
There is only one rule which every writer suggested: Write. Writers write. There you go; the best advice money cannot buy. So off you shoot, then. Start writing.
For the full transcript and a more in depth discussion of the fine points of authorial skill - if you want to know which ‘how to’ manual they recommend; if you want to know the finer arts of metaphor use or non-use; if you seek greater guidance on polysyllabic proselytizing, then go to Ten rules for writing fiction: Part 1 and Part 2.
Then sit down and write.
Or you could put off that moment of decision indefinitely, and create a list or two of rules which every writer must know and share them here.
April 26, 2012 — 268 words
By Tim Sevenhuysen
Milly and Overard deliberated for a few minutes before making a decision.
"Equipping the Pelican with a forcefield or an EMP could be really helpful," said Milly, "but even then, we're not really going to win any space battles. Maybe we should try for a Jitterdrive, with the cloaking device."
"Makes sense," agreed Overard. "Now to see if there's one available..."
They wandered over to the Help Desk and asked to speak with the curator. The attendant directed them to an elevator that brought them to the underfloor of the floating structure. They found themselves in a lobby surrounded by offices with large, thick windows. Strategically placed glass floor panels allowed them to see the pitted, battle-scarred ground, a kilometre or more below.
The curator was a plump, rosy-cheeked man with a jovial moustache and fierce black eyes. He wore a military uniform with blindingly shiny buttons and plenty of swishing tassels. He greeted them with a casual salute. "What can I do for you, friends?"
"I'll get right to the point," said Overard. "We've got a crippled freighter in your docks that needs an engine."
The curator stroked his moustache. "For that you need a mechanic, not the director of a museum, don't you think?"
"We tried that," said Milly. "They, um... They didn't have anything that fit a Gyrian-made ship."
"Ah, proprietary connector types, eh?" The curator shook his head. "In the military, all our engines had universal adapters. But still, we are a museum, not a parts shop. Our engines are only for historical display."
"We thought you might say that," said Overard.
April 25, 2012 — 304 words
By Tim Sevenhuysen
Milly and Overard left Haglyn and the others at the ship and entered the museum. Milly was amazed by the high-soaring ceilings and intricate decorations. "This is the architecture they use to commemorate war?"
"Doesn't do much by to warn future generations, does it?" said Overard. "Let's check out the Space Tech section."
Most of the museum showcased the technology used in the Entulovians' most recent conflict. Enormous tanks and walkers loomed over the aisles, many with gaping holes blown through their armour. Overard said, "That's why Gortinawa seeds can do, in the right quantities."
Milly shuddered. She'd been carrying a bottleful of those in her hands!
Three spaceships were suspended from the ceiling in the corner, arranged in a close-quarters dogfight. Beneath them was a row of engines, each bearing an informational plaque.
"Bingo," said Overard.
"These can't still be functional..." said Milly. She read one plaque, which said, The Stubbard Ramjet generates a momentary forcefield during travel. It was used by daring pilots to turn their ships into projectiles.
"Actually," said Overard, "according to this brochure, it's Entulovian tradition to maintain historical technology. They treat their museums like armories."
"So they're always ready for the next fight?" Milly read another plaque: The Jitterdrive was designed for reconnaissance, and is virtually untrackable. Certain models generate cloaking fields. "Boy, this is some crazy tech."
"I know." Overard gestured to a big, red engine. "Listen to this: The Overact System requires higher than average spooling time, but it saw extensive use during the 22nd Tulov War because of its speed and the electromagnetic pulse it emits upon launch, which disables nearby electronics. Man, I'd love one of these."
"They all seem useful," agreed Milly. "But which one should we actually try to get?"
April 24, 2012 — 788 words
By Guest Author
by NL Cobb
In 2007, I tried my hand at writing web fiction.
I started writing the now defunct web fiction It's All Relative. I tried to write this story repeatedly but kept getting stuck, until eventually it fell by the wayside as life and work and school took over.
Ever since It's All Relative went completely dead in 2009, I've been dying to get back into web fiction, but life has been crazy. Yet my time spent trying to get back into the web fiction world has given me some insight into how to find some balance between the whole work, life, and writing thing. This post was supposed to be about possibly finding that balance, but clearly I have yet to find it--I'm thick in the trenches trying to finish up projects and still having trouble maintaining that balance.
However, if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that web fiction is like an (unpaid) intership.
Web fiction gives you valuable experience. You might be doing all the hard work and being underpaid (or unpaid), but when it's time to either pursue legacy/traditional or self/indie publishing (I see web fiction as a subset of the latter), you'll have all the experience of marketing your story, building a community, and all the lovely things that come with being an author. One day writing might be your main bacon bringer, so having something to put on your writing resume like cultivating a popular web fiction and building a community might be something that your future publisher may look for.
Web fiction teaches you to build a community. Building a community is essentially like networking with people in the business. This can be from coworkers (other writers) or your boss (which would probably be your audience in this case). Building up rapport with the people you come into contact with can be a great way to breath life into an internship.
Sometimes interships can be grueling. You're busy making copies and making coffee, isolated from the people who actually work at the company. Writing can be the same way. You can be isolated in your room while you are writing a brillant scene, rarely seeing your friends and family. Making personal connections draws people to your story and great writing and stories keeps them reading. Making connections means to have conversations with them.
Don't be a spammer. That's like the annoying butt kissing intern whose sole purpose to get a job and nothing more. Being a butt kisser is not only annoying; trying to please people--or in the web fiction case, trying to get page views--can burn you out. It's not about how many business cards you've got, but who those business cards belong too. In a web fiction sense, it's not about how many page views you have, but who is staying with the story, the true fan.
An internship is what you make of it. If there is nothing for you to do, don't spend your time goofing off, ranting to friends about how little work you get to do and at the same time bemoaning the fact that you aren't being paid enough. Take the initiative and take on more work. Posted chapter 1 of your web fiction? Start writing chapters 2 and 3, maybe even start outlining the rest of the series.
If you set a standard to learn everything you can about what you are doing, you'll transfer those skills to other things, whether you want to find another job in the field (go the traditional or indie route) or get a full-time position with your current company (make a living out of web fiction).
So the next time you're struggling with your writing, remember: you're not alone. Set some standards, and work towards them, because the more effort you put in, the more you will benefit. And if you find that magic formula for balancing work, life, and writing, let me know. It's muddy in the trenches.
NL Cobb is a graduate of UC Riverside with a degree in Psychology and Creative Writing. She is currently working on finishing the first a graphic novel retelling of Beauty and the Beast, trying to resurrect her defunct webfiction It's All Relative and turn it into a graphic novel, as well as a host of other projects in the works. To follow her exploits, like her page on facebook or read her (currently empty, but not for long) blog at nlcobb.wordpress.com.
April 24, 2012 — 285 words
By Tim Sevenhuysen
Milly put the bottleful of deadly Gortinawa seeds in the hold and returned to the cockpit, where Mak Overard was feeding Pelly some coordinates.
"Okay, where are you taking us?" asked Milly, sitting down in the copilot's chair.
"The Tulov 22 War Museum," said Overard.
"...And you think we can get a new faster-than-light engine there?"
"Without getting arrested?"
"I guess I can't be too skeptical," said Milly. "Things didn't work out that great when I was in charge. But can you at least tell me what the plan is?"
"Sure. Galactic Pelican, please show us the ground below."
"You can call me Pelly, dear," said the ship. The viewscreen changed to reveal a visual of the ground below, miles and miles of pitted, pockmarked terrain, marred by frequent, massive craters.
"Whoa," said Milly. "What caused all of that?"
"War," said Overard. "The Entulovians are a crazy bunch. Astronomy lesson: did you know there are only two planets in the Entulov system?"
"Really?" said Milly. "So why is this one called Entulov 5?"
"Because there used to be more."
"Oh," said Milly. "Wow."
"Yep. Their last global conflict, the 22nd Tulov War, was a couple decades ago. They put up the Tulov 22 museum out here in the middle of the battlefield to remind future generations to settle down, or they're going to run out of planets. We should be almost there..."
Pelly switched the viewscreen to a forward-facing camera. A floating building loomed ahead. Pelly swooped down and docked in its parking structure.
"What are we going to find here?" asked Milly.
"Lots and lots of old Entulovian Spaceforce equipment," said Overard, "and a bunch of volunteer staff with skinny wallets."
April 21, 2012 — 2,440 words
By Guest Author
by DL Morrese
Both science fiction and fantasy present things that do not exist. All fiction does this, of course. That’s what makes it fiction. But science fiction and fantasy include not only imaginary characters and events but settings, creatures, concepts, or devices that are qualitatively beyond our normal, everyday experience. If you are fortunate enough to have a brick and mortar bookstore near you, you are likely to find science fiction and fantasy grouped together in the same section of the store, probably labeled (logically enough) “Science Fiction / Fantasy,” and although they share some characteristics, there is, I think, a clear and unambiguous distinction between them.
Fantasy may be as old as speech. From the time we—well, not us specifically, I mean our ancestors—could communicate more than simple facts, people probably made up stories to explain the inexplicable, like where rain, thunder and babies come from. I’m talking about our earliest ancestors here, not those now living at a ’55-or-older’ community in southFlorida, although they probably made up some good stories, too. The people I mean are those who first discovered that they could chip flint to make sharp points to put on the end of long sticks, which they then used to hunt for food and intimidate their neighbors who had wild cave-painting parties late into the night or played their music too loud. I can easily imagine them huddled around a fire once they got around to discovering that, telling tales filled with imaginary creatures and mystical forces, which remain the defining characteristics of fantasy to this day. Fantasy is as old as mankind.
Science fiction, on the other hand, is a relative upstart, a form of fiction that has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment. Science was an element in fiction as early as the Seventeenth Century, included in works by Francis Bacon (New Atlantis 1617), Johannes Kepler (Somnium 1634), and Francis Godwin (The Man in the Moone 1638). The term ‘science-fiction’ wasn’t coined until 1851 by the English author, William Wilson. The first known reference to ‘science-fiction’ appears in Chapter Ten of his book A Little Earnest Book on a Great Old Subject, but it did not come into common use, apparently, until the 1930’s. I’m not quite that old, so I can’t say I have any firsthand knowledge of this, but I have it on good authority that this is true (see references below).
It may be hard for us living in the 21st century to imagine, but people did not always regard the scientific method—that is, empirical evidence obtained through observation and experimentation—as the best way to understand things about the world. In many societies prior to the Enlightenment, reality was what your tradition, king, or priest said it was, and you had a much better chance at living to a ripe old age of about 40 by not questioning them. (The average European life expectancy in the 17th Century was 35.)
According to my old and somewhat tattered copy of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, (you knew I’d include a dictionary definition in this somewhere, didn’t you?) science fiction is “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.” In other words, science fiction relies on a scientific foundation for the speculative elements of the story. The tone of such stories was originally a positive one, supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about the possibilities science creates.Wilson’s usage of the term in 1851 is in reference to the laudable goal of using science fiction to popularize real science. The best of the genre, in my opinion, still does this.
Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are two of the earliest true modern science fiction writers. Both stretched the bounds of what was known at the time to posit things that did not exist. Unlike earlier, and even much of the other speculative fiction of the time, though, they based their plot devices on extrapolations from current science and technology. Previous visits to improbable lands, encounters with strange creatures, and even fictional travels through time were often the result of a dream or mystical insight. Both Wells and Verne presented their readers with fantastic machines, but these were based on scientifically explained principles. They included strange creatures, but they were natural rather than supernatural, with abilities explainable, at least in theory, solely in terms of biology and evolution.
Fantasy is less constrained. It can include just about anything—magic wands, vampires, dragons, demons, werewolves, genies, talking rabbits in waistcoats with pocket watches... well, you get the idea. These things just ‘are’ and don’t need to be explained from a scientific, naturalistic, post-Enlightenment perspective. The magical elements must be internally consistent, but they don’t need to be based on known science. If the story includes supernatural or mythological characters or forces that cannot be supported with plausible sounding techno-babble in scientific terms, then it is fantasy. Well known examples would include Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and (my personal favorite) Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.
There are, of course, books that fall into a gray area and even merge these two genres. A term that has been applied to these is ‘science fantasy.’ An example would be Star Wars, which is mainly a fantasy adventure with some science fiction trappings. The fantasy element is the Force, which is described as a mystical ‘energy’ field. The science fiction elements, obviously, are extraterrestrial aliens and space ships, although there is never much of an explanation for how the latter are supposed to work. Another example would be Star Trek, which is mainly science fiction but with some fantasy thrown in. One of the science fiction elements is super-luminal space travel, which the various series explain is achieved through a matter/antimatter reaction creating a warp in space-time. The fantasy aspects of Star Trek include such things as the scientifically unexplained psychic abilities exhibited by Vulcans and Betazoids.
Although there are many exceptions, science fiction stories also tend to take place in an imagined future or futuristic setting while fantasy tends to be set in an imaginary past, often a medieval type setting. This is not always the case, of course. There seems to be a growing popularity for fantasy that is set in current times with stories such as Harry Potter and a plethora of vampire and zombie novels. The possible combinations of settings and mixtures of fantasy and science fiction elements are extensive, and many subcategories of both genres have been identified. I won’t go into these here because they are beside the point of this post, but if you are interested, SF Site put together a good list.
When asked to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy, Isaac Asimov, the prolific writer of mystery, science, and history but known mostly for his science fiction, replied, “science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” Although I am a great fan and admirer of Asimov, I think this statement is presumptuous because it implies that we know everything that is possible. I’m inclined to believe we don’t.
A distinction I like better was provided by the Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, who I had the honor of chatting with at the 100 Year Starship Symposium hosted by DARPA in 2011. He said: “Succinctly: there's discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there's continuity between our reality and science fiction.” To expand on this just a bit, I believe he is saying that fantasy proposes the existence of things we can’t begin to explain rationally. Science fiction, on the other hand, must present at least some backstory for how such things could exist and at least imply a plausible theoretical explanation rooted in what we currently know. Where did they come from? How might they work? What allowed them to evolve the way they did? Works of science fiction don’t need to answer such questions in any detail. They don’t require elaborate explanations in the stories, but the reader must feel that scientific explanations for them are possible. Somehow, the fictional marvels that are components of the plot or setting must link back to our current scientific understanding of the real world.
This is the key distinction. Fantasy does not require such things to have a basis in known science. Science fiction does. Science fiction, in the original sense of the term, is supportive of a scientific outlook and optimistic about humanity’s ability to use science to explain the universe and create a brighter future. In this respect, it is almost the antithesis of Fantasy, which has a mystical basis, positing the existence of things science cannot explain or, quite possibly, deal with.
To appreciate the distinction between the two genres requires some knowledge of science, of course. Without it, the reader has no foundation for distinguishing between ideas that are plausible, unlikely, or almost certainly impossible from a scientific point of view. You don’t have to be a scientist; you don’t need to have a firm grasp of general relativity or quantum mechanics (I certainly don’t), but you must have some familiarity with the major findings of science and an appreciation for how science approaches questions about the world through careful observation and experimentation. As Carl Sagan once said, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge” (Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, 1979).
This, I believe, may be the major cause of confusion about these two related but distinct genres. Scientific literacy, especially inAmerica, could be better. If readers believe an opinion is the same as a theory, or that intuition and insight are as likely to provide as reliable an answer to a question as controlled testing, then they will not be able tell the difference between fantasy and science fiction. Regular science fiction readers may be more scientifically astute than the general population and therefore more likely to understand the difference, although I know of no survey or study that has been done on this. I do know, at least from anecdotal evidence, that many current scientists and engineers were inspired by reading or watching science fiction when they were young, so at least in that respect, there is a connection.
But even people who believe a magic wand is no less implausible than a TV remote control, or that telepathy is as likely as reliable cell phone coverage, can read and enjoy fantasy and science fiction. Stories from both genres can be insightful, thought-provoking, mind-stretching and evoke a sense of wonder. Both can take us to strange and fascinating worlds. There is a difference between the two, but you don’t need to recognize it to enjoy the tales. Personally, I would imagine they are more enjoyable if you do, but that is just my opinion. It’s not science.
DL Morrese is a fulltime American Science Fiction/Fantasy author with degrees in philosophy and government and a background in military logistics. His books are a unique blend of genres, often funny, and sometimes satirical. All are set in a well-conceived alternate world and populated with interesting and endearing characters. DL, or Dave for all things other than book covers, lives near Orlando, Florida with a varying number of humans, dogs, cats, and a turtle. You can find out more about him at his website http://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/
April 21, 2012 — 300 words
By Tim Sevenhuysen
More pursuers rounded the corner, blasters at the ready. Haglyn raised her hands.
Milly reached into Haglyn's lap and grabbed the bottle of beads. "Stop!" she shouted. She held the bottle up over her head and brandished the blaster in the other hand for good measure. "Back away, or I'm going to set these suckers off!"
Every person at the other end of the alley recoiled in terror. "Eep!" cried one. "No, don't!" said another.
Milly continued, "You're all going to put your weapons down and leave the way you came, and we're going to disappear. No one gets hurt."
One blaster dropped to the pavement, then another. People began backing out of the alley. "But..." said one. "Do it!" said another. "There must be two hundred seeds in there!"
The moment the alley was clear, Milly dropped the beads into Haglyn's purse and they whirred off the other direction. Milly checked her PAI and picked out the quickest route to the spaceport. They arrived with no further fanfare, and Overard ushered them aboard. Pelly was already prepared for takeoff, and Overard put the launch in motion.
Once they were in the air, Milly fished the beads out of Haglyn's purse. "So," she said, "what's the big fuss with these things, anyways?"
"You brought them with you!?" Overard sputtered.
"Those are condensed Gortinawa seeds," explained Overard. "They're like acid bullets. You can eat a fist-sized hole out of a brick wall with one of them."
Milly and Haglyn exchanged a glance. "Huh," said Milly.
"Interesting," said Haglyn.
"That could've gone poorly, then." said Milly. "Anyways, we still need a new faster-than-light engine..."
Overard thought for a moment. "Okay, put those things somewhere secure. I think I know where we can get an engine discreetly."