As Pliny the Guy I’m Quoting Again once said, “True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read.” Once you decide to write, how do you achieve true glory?
Stories can all be boiled down to two big concepts: What Happened? and What If? Non-fiction writing is about What Happened. Histories and biographies are the obvious examples, but almost any book of facts is at its core a history of what happened before. If you get a book on birdwatching, the author has basically written down what he found out when he looked for birds.
Fiction is different. Fiction is about What If? What if a one-legged sea captain got obsessed with the white whale that injured him? What if a freak tornado dropped a little girl’s house on a witch? What if an ordinary guy got put in an iron mask because he coincidentally looked like the king?
What If? stories are a staple of science fiction. You can find whole anthologies of stories written about what would have happened if the South won the Civil War, or the Nazis had won World War II.
As I wrote earlier, writing is about conveying things (information, ideas, feelings, etc.) So if you want to write, one of the first questions you have to ask is “What do I want to convey to my readers?”
To hold a reader’s interest, you need to be able to express a new idea, or an old idea in a new way. Before you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), it’s important to ask the question, “Why am I writing in the first place? What do I want to say?” If I don’t know what I want to say, the words are just something something am I done yet maybe I’ll stop here.
Say for example I decide to write about war. A lot of people have, and there are a lot of different dimensions to a subject that big. So let’s boil this down to a simple question: Is war good or bad? If I want to write about how war is bad, the next question is “What can I write that hasn’t already been written about the badness of war?” If my audience already knows what I know and agrees with me, it’s going to be hard to keep them invested in the story. Have you ever started reading a book, and about 50 pages in you realize that you’ve already read it? I’ve read new books that make me feel this way. It’s why I gave up reading fantasy a long time ago. There’s only so much noble elves vs. evil humans rehashing I can sit through.
On the other hand, one of my favorite authors is Robert J. Sawyer. I love his books, because he starts with a new idea and explores from there. What if aliens landed on Earth, and wanted to know about our idea of God? What if you suddenly saw 2 minutes of your life from 20 years in the future? What if you could suddenly read one other person’s mind, and someone else could read yours? *
Let me give you an example of my own. In the Star Trek universe (Spoiler Alert: this section is about Star Trek) there is a concept called the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive basically says, “Advanced civilizations screw things up when they interfere with primitive civilizations, so don’t do it.” It’s the highest law in the Federation, and many stories involve our heroes (or someone else) accidentally (or intentionally) tampering with another culture and screwing things up, so our heroes have to fix it. This was a fixture of Gene Roddenberry’s 60’s Vietnam-era philosophy.
I’ve had a story roaming around in the back of my mind for 20 years. What if there was a rogue starship crew who went around interfering, and wasn’t screwing things up? The Federation is heavily invested in the idea that all interference is bad, but what if they were wrong? What would our heroes do if confronted by these renegade do-gooders who were actually doing good, without unintended consequences?
I never wrote this story, and probably never will, but the “what if?” aspect of the story keeps bringing it back to me. I wish this story had been written, because I’d love to know how it comes out.
* If Sawyer’s ideas sound fascinating, the books I refer to above are called Calculating God, Flashforward, and Triggers. Go find them.