So, in my last two posts, I showed you two of the most important things required for a good Science Fiction story: A Bad Romance and A Good Travel Agent. Together these two elements tell us what’s troubling our hero or heroine; shows us the struggle they must endure to achieve their goal; and allows us to empathize with their pain and disappointments.
So, what’s the third critical thing for a good SciFi story? What could it be? Well, I’ll tell you.
The Third Most Important Thing in Science Fiction Writing Is . . . believability!
Believing that something could happen or has happened is critical to the human experience. You might believe something because you had a similar incident. Or perhaps it’s a logical consequence of another set of beliefs you think to be true. If so, then it can be a compelling force that pushes you to action of some sort, like continuing to read the story.
Faith is another tool that brings about the action to believe. It’s a powerful tool that has made religion center stage in world history. It has united populations into tribes that went on to do both good and evil. Check out my book GOD GAMES and you’ll see what I mean. Faith is an intimate component of truth that has helped many endure personal tragedies and so they believe.
But some folks’ truths can be seen as folly by others. A fervent belief in something can be the main driver for invention and improvement of the human condition. Likewise, the energy from such vehement belief has led to disputes, wars, famine and death on an industrial scale. We see this today in our polarized world with each side believing the story told by those who want to lead. The stories doesn’t have to be true, just believable. And by the looks of things, these leaders tell very compelling stories. So, you can see why this makes believability a key ingredient to successful SciFi story telling.
In my July 22nd 2021 post I talk about the unbelievability of SciFi stories that feature spaceships with the doors left wide open after landing on a strange planet. Now what sliver of personal truth or faith is that based on? Unless you lived in Mayberry, RFD in the late ‘60s, chances are you lock the doors to your home each and every night before you go to bed.
Actually, there is no such place as Mayberry, RFD. I looked around after moving to North Carolina and couldn’t find the damn place. Turns out Mayberry is a fictional town from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW inspired by Mount Airy, a real town in North Carolina. Guess you can’t believe everything they tell you.
But even if you did live in mythical Mayberry, would you continue to leave your door wide open if you were suddenly transplanted to some strange neighborhood, one where you don’t know the customs or accepted rules of engagement? Don’t know about you but I’m from New York City. So that door will be closed and locked faster than the reflected light from a crook’s flashlight.
And speaking of light, a popular SciFi tool believed by fans is the Faster Than Light speed (FTL) engine, or warp drive to you Star Trek folks. As of this writing, there is no known way to go faster than the speed of light and cheat the related consequences, like surviving the acceleration required to reach speeds greater than 186,000 miles per second in a reasonable period. Even the Star Trek Next Generation writers were coy when asked how the Enterprise inertial dampers work to prevent the crew from being squashed like a bug every time the ship jumps to warp speed. The response was “they work just fine thank you.”
So, why is warp speed accepted by the fans? One reason is because it’s based on the belief that humankind will find a way to break the light barrier just as we broke the sound barrier a few decades ago. Is that a reasonable assumption? Who knows? But, that is where faith kicks in to save the day. “I believe it’s just got to happen someday,” the faithful will say.
But it is not just the technology behind a story that must be believable. What about the characters? Do they remind you of yourself or perhaps someone you know? Can Brian from the FAMILY GUY really date humans? Or are you convinced that Brian is really a guy personified as a dog and that enables you to believe he can actually “do the deed” with humans? After all, all men are dogs, aren’t we!
And what about the character’s conflicts and disappointments facilitated by his or her Good Travel Agent? Is there any significant meaning behind Neo’s struggle to know what is THE MATRIX? Or was it just a silly trip down some rabbit hole when he took that red pill from his Good Travel Agent- Morpheus? Did you have to make a similar choice that changed your life in ways you never thought possible? If so, then maybe you can empathize with Neo’s struggle. So, do you believe?
Since a story’s believability doesn’t have to be based on facts at what level does, as Charles Stross so nicely put it, “the tower of implausibility totters and collapses in our minds?” I believe that level varies for each person’s SciFi BS meter. For diehard SciFi fans it’s OK so long as there is some evidence of technical truth. For those who dabble in the fantasy realm, I suspect their tolerance is much higher, not requiring peer reviewed technical documents on what is to be believed. But wherever it is on the SciFi BS meter, the story’s elements and actions has got to be somehow aligned with a perceived truth to enable one to suspend disbelief. Only then can one move on and enjoy the story.
So, there they are, the three most important elements of a winning Science Fiction story: A Bad Romance, A Good Travel Agent, and Believability. Include these elements to help your SciFi story jump from electronic paperback to the big screen!
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