Writing Right with Dmitri: Exploring New Territory

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Exploring New Territory

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Basically, there are three approaches to science fiction:

  1. The Jules Verne Approach: use science fiction to explore what you think might happen in the future, how people will react, and what the consequences might be. This is pretty straightforward, and attracts geeks.
  2. The Stanislaw Lem/Rod Serling Approach: use science fiction stories to talk about things your society won't let you talk about otherwise. A communist citizen like Lem could use sci fi to examine, say, faith in Solaris without getting in trouble with the Russians, while Serling could sneak racial tolerance messages past the Hollywood censors. This gives science fiction a liberal bias1, most of the time.
  3. The Alien Nation Approach: use science fiction to explore ideas that other people haven't thought of yet. This turns science fiction into a truly original art form.

Now, guess which one I'm going to suggest you try?

Back in 1989, TV audiences had good science fiction choices. Not only was there Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap, but they could also watch the new Fox Network's groundbreaking show, Alien Nation. Why was Alien Nation so good? It took aliens seriously – not as stand-ins for 'The Other', but as real individuals in their own right.

The Tenctonese are a new immigrant group, yes. They have predictable assimilation difficulties, of course. They get funny names from the Immigration Service, just as many Americans' Eastern European ancestors did at Ellis Island. Yes, they stand in for ethnic conflicts, community issues, and the question of dealing with traumatic pasts. That's inevitable, and predictable.

But where the writers of this show outdid themselves was in their vision of an alien people who were truly different in interesting and challenging ways. Not so foreign that the audience got brain-freeze following the argument, but original enough to provide satisfying talking points for social discussion. The Tenctonese confronted the viewer with alternative views on sexuality, gender, and family life – and watching the drama unfold was both entertaining and rewarding.

I'm going to try to challenge you to watch some of this series. Begin with the pilot movie. The rest of the one-season series, and the follow-up films, are readily available on YouTube. It may take a few minutes of searching. Watch as much as you like, but I strongly recommend two episodes in particular:

  1. Episode 16, 'Partners'. In this episode, a Tenctonese couple transfers their unborn child, in pod form, from the female to the male for the rest of its gestation period.
  2. Episode 17, 'Real Men'. Here, George goes into labour, while his human work partner Matthew helps him deliver the child, Matt's goddaughter Vessna.

Notice what happens in these episodes. Science fiction is being used, not only to interrogate human assumptions about their own culture – the time-honoured opportunity to 'step outside' the values of society in order to question them – but to provide an alternative scenario that succeeds in its own right. Both of these episodes are deeply moving, even when you find yourself wondering at the actors' ability to emote over animatronic constructions. You find the story strangely uplifting. The bonds between husband and wife, between parent and child, and between friend and friend are very real in these dramas. How in the world do you do that? Study the way the story leads you to these places. What elements help build your trust in the story? What scenes and dialogue aid you to discover and explore the themes?

The reason I recommend this exercise in TV watching is simple: writing courses and guides spend too much time concentrating on the wordcraft aspect of writing. Far too often, they neglect the most basic quality of narrative – the fact that you're telling a story. Figuring out what the story is that you want to tell, how to get and hold the reader's interest, and how to pace the action, is every bit as important as figuring out how to describe the fictional furniture. And the best way to learn is by observing a tale that really works. It helps especially if the story you're looking at it unusual, because the details stand out.

Too often, we get caught up in writing the same-old, same-old. Knowing what our audience's expectations are, we cater to their mental laziness, build on the same tired old narratives, and try to distinguish ourselves by throwing in fancy flourishes. Bells and whistles are all fine and dandy. Don't let anybody stop you. But first, ask yourself: is this really the story I want to tell? Or do I want to work just a little harder to entice the reader into exploring new ground?

Do you know a film, story, novel, or other piece of fiction that does this for you? Recommend it to us. We might all learn something.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

08.12.14 Front Page

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1As, according to Stephen Colbert, the truth tends to have.

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