Occasionally I’ve heard science fiction writers complain that in order to create a future world or alternate reality they have to sacrifice characterization; to create a world and to create characters would take too long, be too wordy, and might bore the readers.
That is crap. It’s an excuse used by 1) lazy writers who don’t want to bother with characterization, and 2) inexperienced writers who haven’t yet learned to “show, don’t tell.”
Ray Bradbury created an unfamiliar world populated with well-defined characters in Fahrenheit 451, as did Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, as did Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, as have many other science fiction and fantasy writers.
You don’t need to waste lots of words describing your futuristic world; a few well-chosen words will do. In one of his stories, Robert A. Heinlein has doors that operate like camera shutters; they open automatically when someone approaches them and close after the character has passed through. To communicate this concept to his readers, as his character approaches a door, Heinlein writes three words: “The door dilated.”
Similarly, don’t waste words describing your characters; show them in action. The best way to engage your readers is to create characters who are like them, characters who want the same things and who react emotionally in the same ways. This establishes an emotional bond between your characters and your readers.
To create a dystopian world, find something that may be slightly wrong in our contemporary society and exaggerate it so that it is has caused your future society to be seriously out of whack. For example, Ray Bradbury took censorship to the next level in Fahrenheit 451 when he envisioned a future in which firemen seek out illegal collections of books and burn them.
So you have characters to whom your readers can relate, and you have a society in which something is broken. Now combine the two.
Remember that, although the characters have an emotional tie to contemporary readers, their thoughts and actions must be consistent with the society in which they live. In Fahrenheit 451, for example, at the front of the characters’ minds all the time is the knowledge that possessing a book is a serious crime. They know also that speeding 100 miles per hour down the freeway and trying to hit anything that moves is a good, and accepted, form of recreation.
That’s it in a nutshell. Writing a solid dystopian story is as easy as writing a contemporary story if you follow these three guidelines:
The article originally appeared on BEAUTY IN RUINS on April 12, 2012
Ray Bradbury once said that there are three great adventures: being born, living, and dying. Last night Bradbury embarked on that last great adventure when he died at his Los Angeles home at the age of 91.
Bradbury not only had a profound influence on my writing style, but his book The Martian Chronicles inspired me to start writing in the first place. We exchanged a few letters in the 80s and early 90s, and I found him to be an approachable and generous man.
The first time I wrote him, I sent him a copy of the college thesis I’d written about him and his early work: Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. In less than a week I received a note of thanks along with galleys for a new book of criticism of his work another author was publishing.
My first inclination when I heard of Bradbury’s passing was to take time off and read some of his stories in honor of his memory. But I immediately realized that the best memorial to a man who got physically sick if he didn’t write at least two pages every day would be to write. So as soon as I post this, I’ll go back to work on my novel. I’ll read some of his stories later.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As a young boy, Ray Bradbury was fascinated with the planet Mars. Many kids – and even many adults – in the early 20th Century were fascinated with Mars. It was our nearest neighbor, coming as close as 35 million miles of Earth. It had green patches that could be vegetation, it had white polar caps (ice?) that appeared to shrink and grow with the seasons, and some astronomers claimed to see lines (straight lines, indicating that they were made by intelligent beings) which they called canals. What a wealth of imagination for young boys – and science fiction writers.
During the 1940s, Bradbury expressed his fascination with Mars in a series of stories, several of which he later collected into The Martian Chronicles (1950). But The Martian Chronicles is more than a collection of related stories. It is an allegory depicting the settlement of a world, obviously paralleling the settlement of the New World by the Europeans, conquering the Native Americans and taming the western wilderness. The novel also depicts the decline of human settlement on Mars. To help this collection of stories work as a novel with a unified theme, Bradbury wrote a number of bridge passages to ease the transition between stories.
I won’t say too much about the plot. For those of you who haven’t read it, I don’t want to give anything away. I wouldn’t call The Martian Chronicles science fiction. Even at the time Bradbury wrote these stories, scientists were pretty much in agreement that the Martian environment was too harsh to support human life. Bradbury never cared much about the science, which is probably why some hard core science fiction readers don’t care for him. He has always been more interested in showing what kind of trouble we can get into if we don’t use technology responsibly. According to Bradbury:
“It is all too easy for an emotionalist to go astray in the eyes of the scientific, and surely my work could never serve as a handbook for mathematicians. Somehow, though, I am compensated by allowing myself to believe that while the scientific expert can tell you the exact size, location, pulse, musculature and color of the heart, we emotionalists can find and touch it quicker.”*
So if you can get past the fudging over the science and enjoy the fantasy/allegorical aspect of The Martian Chronicles, this book has lots to say and is a must read.
*From The Ray Bradbury Companion by William F. Nolan (Detroit: Gale Research, 1975), p. 70.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” – Ray Bradbury
Contrary to popular belief, having a college degree does not mean you’re educated. A degree is only the beginning of your education, the first tiny step. Education is a lifelong commitment. This is true for everyone but is especially true for writers.
Fortunately, I discovered this when I was in college. About midway through my course of study I took a good look at what I was learning. I was reading lots of books, writing lots of papers, and taking lots of tests. But what I really wanted to learn was how to analyze data and reach conclusions. I wanted to learning how to think. And the curriculum wasn’t helping me accomplish that goal.
I enrolled in the honors program, and under the supervision of a professor in the English Department, I undertook a research project which culminated in a thesis entitled Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. I re-read all of Bradbury’s early work, analyzed it, and drew my own conclusions about it. The project was a good exercise in thinking for myself.
But even the thesis is only a beginning. I consciously made the decision not to pursue a graduate degree because I believed it would hamper my learning. Getting a degree is fine if y0u want to go into a particular line of work, like teaching, engineering, or business, etc. But you don’t need a degree to be a writer – the subject of my thesis, Ray Bradbury, only graduated from high school.
To be a writer you need a curiosity about everything, a hunger to learn how the world works, and a drive to understand people and why they do the things they do. You satiate this hunger by absorbing everything you can, soaking up information like a sponge. Read on a variety of topics, listen to a variety of music, watch films and TV, have new experiences, meet a variety of people, get out of your comfort zone once in a while.
There is an old Chinese parable about obtaining enlightenment – Imagine a palace with a beautiful courtyard. A young man peers through a tiny hole in the door, but he can’t see the whole courtyard at once. In middle-age he looks out on the courtyard through a small window; although he can see more, his view still is hampered. But as an old man he has thrown open the door and stands on the balcony where he can see the entire courtyard and beyond.
This illustrates the learning process throughout our lives; as we expand out horizons, the view becomes more clear.
To paraphrase Bradbury, stuff yourself with everything. The key is to continue to grow for the rest of your life by doing all the things I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago. Don’t become stuck in time; continue to evolve. For writers, you can’t write about life thoroughly unless you strive to understand it – you never will understand it completely, but the important thing is that you continue to expand your world. For everyone else, the non-writers, you need to keep expanding your world or your world will become a cramped, cold place.
To understand our world and to change it for the better we must remember that a formal institution of learning cannot give us an education. Teachers and mentors can point the way, but ultimately we are all responsible for what we learn, and our education is a life-long commitment.
On most magazines’ Submission Guidelines page, the editor suggests reading a few issues to see what type of stories they publish. While it’s a good idea to be familiar with the magazine to which you’re submitting, sometimes this can be taken too far.
I’m talking about slanting a story to fit a magazine, an editor, or an audience. Early in my writing career I read lots of articles about how to slant stories to fill editorial needs. Many of them suggested dissecting a magazine, taking note of such things as:
Many even suggested taking notes on the percentage of the magazine devoted to advertising, and what kind of products are advertised. A writer of one of those how-to-slant articles told about how he dissected Good Housekeeping in this way, wrote a story for the magazine, and they bought it.
But I am reminded of the late Richard McKenna, author of The Sand Pebbles. When he was trying to break into print, he decided that he wanted to write for the Saturday Evening Post. He analyzed several copies and started submitting stories. The Post rejected the stories, so he sent them to other magazines. On rejecting the stories, those editors included notes that were a variation of this: “This is so much like a Post story, we wonder that you haven’t tried them.”
As you probably have gathered by now, I’m not a big fan of slanting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to know a publication well enough so you don’t send a western to a mystery magazine or a science fiction story to a woman’s magazine (unless you know that the woman’s magazine publishes SF). And you do need to take certain things into consideration – don’t send a woman’s romance to a man’s magazine, for instance – but those things are easy enough to see; no heavy analysis required.
One of my objections to slanting is illustrated by the Richard McKenna story. No matter how well you slant a story to a particular magazine, its acceptance is not guaranteed. There are lots of reasons editors reject stories, and “not being right for us” is only one of them. If your story is rejected you’ll have to substantially revise it before you submit it to the next editor, and the one after that, and the one after that … And that’s a lot of work. It’s also not being true to yourself or your craft.
Which brings me to the most important reason for not slanting – if I jump through hoops to write a story for an editor, I’m ignoring my inner voice, which is screaming: “No! No! That doesn’t make sense. You’ve got to write it this way.” Stories can often be written several ways, but a few of those ways are better than others. You must trust your instinct. The way you write your story must come out of you; it must not come out of an attempt to make it acceptable to a particular editor.
That’s a tough way to go because it may mean that a lot of what you write is not what other writers are writing, so you may collect more than a few rejection slips. But it is how you write your best fiction, by being true to yourself.
Ray Bradbury had an awful time breaking into print. One of the reasons is that he wrote stories his way, which was not the way many editors wanted them. He succeeded because he was a disciplined and prolific writer (he wrote a story a week), and he started selling a story here and there. Soon he developed a following, and readers – and editors – looked for his work. Many of the other pulp writers of the Forties have long since been forgotten, but we remember Bradbury and other writers who were true to their inner voices.
Think of the best stories you’ve ever read. How many of them are standard, run-of-the-mill stuff? I would be willing to bet the stories that stick in your mind have a fresh, a different perspective. And that can only happen when the author is true to himself or herself.
So my advice is to write first, then find a market for what you write. Remain true to your inner voice, and you will be published, and you will write lasting work.
In 1966, Ray Bradbury wrote: “I find now, after the fact, chances are Fahrenheit 451 might be around for a few years.”
At that time the short novel, originally published in book form in 1953, had “been around” for 13 years. In 2003 it celebrated its 50th year in print, and now, in 2010, it is still as popular as ever.
Why has this story had such longevity?
Is it because Bradbury reversed a widely accepted premise–instead of putting out fires, future firemen start them? Is it because people are horrified at the idea of censorship? Is it because of the passion with which Bradbury tells his story of rogue fireman Guy Montag?
Perhaps. But I believe the main reason Fahrenheit 451 has become a classic is because of its powerful, three-dimensional, multi-layered storytelling.
On the surface, Fahrenheit 451 appears to be about a Fireman’s new-found love of books and his rebellion against burning them. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Bradbury is painting a picture of a world that has become desensitized, a recurring theme in much of Bradbury’s early work.
In Bradbury’s future, life goes on in the parlors, where the walls are giant, interactive television screens. People plug their ears with seashell radios, even while they’re asleep, and they often OD on sleeping pills in order to get to sleep. They drive more than a hundred miles per hour to have fun. They avoid thoughts of death or anything else that makes them unhappy; five minutes after a person dies, his or her body is dumped into a giant incinerator and reduced to ashes. Even in his descriptions of Montag’s wife Bradbury symbolizes the drab artificiality of the society:
“Mildred stood over his bed, curiously. He felt her there, he saw her without opening his eyes, her hair burnt by chemicals to a brittle straw, her eyes with a kind of cataract unseen but suspect far behind the pupils, the reddened pouting lips, the body as thin as a praying mantis from dieting, and her flesh like white bacon. He could remember her no other way.”
“She ran past with her body stiff, her face floured with powder, her mouth gone, without lipstick.”
Bradbury also gives us a credible villain in Captain Beatty. Although Montag is a mouthpiece for the author, Beatty makes a good argument that books cause unhappiness and should be eliminated–because the focus of this society is on happiness and not on thinking too much.
But Montag suspects that people are not happy. The television walls, the driving at super high speeds–and hitting things that wander unaware into their paths–the seashell radios, and the giant flues where dead bodies are reduced to ashes in a second anesthetize them, numb their pain. If they don’t think, they can’t be unhappy. And books make them think.
Bradbury suggests through Montag and Faber–a retired English professor who, after initially being frightened to openly oppose the status quo, helps Montag with his rebellion against conformity–that only when one thinks and feels, is one truly alive; stop thinking and feeling, and you become a zombie.
Although for the most part the technology is a bit dated–Bradbury missed the Internet entirely, and communications are still snail-mailed–his prediction that television would play a major role in the mind-numbing of future generations appears to have been right on. That was a pretty astute speculation for 1950 (when Bradbury wrote his original novella, The Fireman, which was published in Galaxy Science Fiction) when many folks did not realize the powerful force that television would become.
I would have to agree with Bradbury’s other prediction in 1966; I think Fahrenheit 451 will be around for a few more years. Although it gets a little preachy at times, is a powerful story and encourages us to think. I highly recommend it.
“I disagree with the advice ‘Write about what you know.’ Write about what you need to know, in an effort to understand.” – Donald Windham
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably been advised once or twice by a well-meaning writing teacher or Beta Reader, to write about what you know. Usually they mean to write about things you’ve experienced. While it is good to write what you know, you don’t have to experience it to know it.
When I was attending the University of Nebraska I knew a science fiction writer named Cindy who’d had two stories published in Analog. One of those stories had been critiqued by a writing Professor from whom I was currently taking a class. The Professor had admonished her to “write what she knows,” and apparently he was skeptical that an alternate reality was something that Cindy understood. That story went on to become her first published fiction.
Although some writers have written excellent fiction that has grown out of their experiences, for most of us there is research. The research can range from a little to extensive.
While in college, I wrote a story for a writing workshop about a custodian cleaning the morgue during the graveyard shift. He has a habit of drinking on the job and is a little tipsy, so he believes that one of the bodies dropped off for an early morning autopsy is really alive but is in a coma. I had never been in a morgue so I called Lincoln General Hospital and asked if I could come over and take a look. A nice fellow showed me around the morgue (the first thing I learned is they didn’t like to call it the morgue; on the door was a sign that said “Clinical Evaluation”), and I went home and wrote the story.
It turned out that one of my classmates actually had been a custodian on the graveyard shift at Lincoln General. He thought I’d worked there at one time myself. When I told him I’d just done research, he said I’d nailed it. He asked if they still had that barrel of brains … I said no, just the jars containing bits of organs in the closet.
“Clinical Evaluation” became my first published story, appearing in Pig Iron Press’s 1983 anthology The New Surrealists.
Arthur Hailey was an example of a writer whose backgrounds were almost entirely researched. The author of such bestselling novels as Airport, Hotel, and The Moneychangers, Hailey would choose an industry, spend months researching it in-depth, and then set a story in that industry.
Although Hailey was a pilot, he didn’t have much personal experience (and most of the time he had no personal experience) of the things about which he wrote. But no one could ever accuse Arthur Hailey of writing about things he did not know.
Whatever you write about you can fill in the parts you don’t know with research. Sometimes what you haven’t experienced can be a major part of the story.
When you research, use “live” rather than “dead” sources as much as you can, or as much as you need to. A dead source is anything you find in a book, magazine article, a document, online, or any other place it is written down or recorded. A live source is when you get your information by talking to people who have had the experience you’re writing about. In the examples above, Cindy used dead sources–and her imagination–to get her science fiction story right; Arthur Hailey and I used live sources for our research.
Use “live” sources whenever you can because they’ll be able to tell you things you usually won’t find in books. You’ll be able to ask them questions that will help give your story the touch of verisimilitude that it needs. For instance, you’ll be able to ask a person who grew up in New York City what it feels like to window shop on Sunday morning, what the traffic’s like at that time, and how many pedestrians are out.
You probably would search long and hard for that information in a book, and you may not be able to find precisely what you want by surfing the Web.
The Internet, however, is a good tool to use for contacting “live” sources around the world and getting almost instantaneous answers. For example, the Australian writer Steph Bowe–whose first novel, Girl Saves Boy, will be published in Australia this September and the summer of 2011 in the U.S.–recently posed several questions to her American followers on Twitter about how an American character would react in certain situations.
Make sure that your research is thorough. Dean Koontz is another example of a writer who does extensive research. He cautions writers to be sure to get the tiniest details right–for one of his novels he had to find out the color of taxicabs in a certain Japanese city.
Don’t assume that you know something; find out. I thought the slang “blow away” was descriptive of what happens when someone gets shot; the force of the bullet knocks the victim over. Then I researched it for a novel I was writing. As it turns out you’d have to use a pretty big gun for that to happen. I mean a seriously big gun. If you shot someone with a .357 Magnum or a shotgun, for instance, he would just drop like a sack of potatoes, not go flying off his feet like he did in one movie that shall remain nameless.
That’s the sort of thing that somebody, somewhere will know, and it’s annoying to be at a book signing and–to paraphrase Ray Bradbury–have one of your readers say, “Dude, on page 227 where Joe gets shot and it flings him over the back of the couch …” and you say, “Yeah,” and he says, “Nah.”
So write what you know, but you don’t have to personally experience it to know it. You know what I mean?