I’m a member of the Facebook group Science Fiction Writing Fanatics. It’s a fun group with a decent amount of activity – not so much it’s overwhelming but enough to keep me thinking. If you’re working in speculative fiction I strongly suggest joining. There’s a good amount of advice relevant to other genres as well.
A young and hungry author asked a question about setting a story in a colony on a far-off planet. He was asking for advice on getting started and got lots of it.
Is There a Real Analog?
I think the best place to start with any story is with a real-life equivalent, or the closest thing you can find in real life. Researching similar real life events will give you insights into how things work in the real world, and from there you can start to tweak things to make the story work. So with our example author, I suggested he look into how the New World was colonized. Take a look at how colonies were established when our world was a bigger and scarier place, and you’ll get an idea of what happens when a group of people make a dangerous journey to a largely unexplored land. There’s no guarantee the colony will hold, and any manner of things could cause its demise – hostile natives; disease; crop failure; even the weather patterns in this new place would be unknown and scary. Armed with all this information, you can pick out the pieces that talk to you and get the story going.
Remember There Will Be Conflict
In this type of story, there will be a mix of leaders and followers. If you want something close and relatively recent, watch a season of Survivor. Note the differing personalities on that show: the clear alphas. The alphas who don’t say much and work behind the scenes to cause their adversaries’ downfalls. The followers who just kind of go along. All the while there are constantly shifting alliances and conflicts. In a real story set in a far-off world, this kind of thing is going to happen as well. There will be power structures and those who respect them, as well as those who don’t. How that plays out is going to be the engine of your story.
There most likely will not be a scenario where everyone gets along. Think about if you’ve been on a long bus ride, or a train ride, or an airplane. You’re only there a couple hours and there are bound to be people on there who drive one another nuts. Can you imagine being stuck somewhere that you can’t get off at the next stop with these people?
No Deus Ex Machinas
When I was young, numb and dumb writing wise, I thought it’d be clever to have some third party show up and help resolve the conflict. It was a bad idea. In a screenwriting class my instructor tore me apart on this, telling me I had a deus ex machina in my script and it had to go. Stories written before we figured out how stories should work are exempted from this rule, but for those of us alive and writing now we should know better.
Remember one of the key points of good writing: the protagonist needs to be the one who rises or falls. Their decisions and actions need to set up the resolution of the story, whatever that is. If the colonists deal with some natural disaster and then the homeworld defense force shows up in pristine uniforms to save the day, that’s a deus ex machina. If the rescue mission shows up because the protagonist in a critical moment set off the distress beacon before the antagonist or antagonizing force destroyed it, and nobody knows whether the message got through or not so they don’t know whether help is coming or not until they show up, that’s OK.
How about you? You have any advice for getting started?