Are you having trouble thinking up a good plot for your next story? There are many ways of doing that, of course, but here’s one way writers have used for years that can result in a story (any type of story: novel, short story, flash fiction, whatever) that will keep readers turning the page. Take any sort of everyday story line—going downtown, flying in an airplane, running a routine mission in special ops—and change one or a small number of details to a point where the story becomes extremely unlikely in today’s world. That’s the operative word, here: unlikely. I’m not suggesting you write science fiction, don’t go that far. Just make one or a few small changes that puts the story in the realm of the improbable, or incredible, or even strange and unbelievable, something that makes the story unique, something that puts it in a one-of-a-kind category. It won’t take much, changing a few details may work.
For example, let’s take the classic novel Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. The story is about a whaling captain, Ahab, who lost a leg to a white whale and vows to revenge the loss. Melville, who spent time at sea in a whaling ship, knew what he was writing about. It’s not too unlikely that there might have been whaling captains at New Bedford in the 1800’s who lost limbs to whales, and wanted revenge. That’s understandable. And there might really be white whales (probably albinos) out there, but what Melville does is juxtapose those two unlikely possibilities. He puts two improbable situations together to form the basis for a classic novel. Either one alone would be unlikely to result in the tension necessary to carry the novel, but together they work. They’re small changes in the otherwise staid life of a New England whaling town to be sure, but that’s all it takes to make a great story.
Perhaps another example will illustrate what I’m talking about. Take the movie, “Rocky.” The first one, the one that started the franchise. Rocky Balboa is a small-time boxer, nowhere near heavyweight contender level. Yet Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the script, added one small, highly unlikely change to the story of Rocky. Stallone has the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, pick Rocky out of nowhere to fight the champ. Why Rocky? I don’t know, and I doubt that any self-respecting state boxing commission would ever approve such a fight. The match-up is too one-sided. Rocky himself even admits he could get hurt. And Apollo Creed would never have any way of knowing that Rocky would turn out to be such a worthy opponent. But that one little change, however inconceivable it might be, makes for a very intriguing story, and spawned a well-known series.
In short, a small change in the direction of a story toward the highly unlikely, can transform an otherwise regular, drab event into a tale that holds the reader’s or viewer’s attention, and produce a fascinating story. I’m sure you can think of other examples. Like William Shatner on that airplane in the Twilight Zone episode. A funny-looking apparition on the wing of an airplane? Hardly. Yet, it works.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s this funny green light shining through my window.
I had a chance a few months ago to see (twice, as a matter of fact) the movie “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” on television. These were the first times I had seen the movie since it came out in December, 1954. As an impressionable junior high school student with an interest in flying and with a father in the US military, it became one of my favorite movies, though I never had a chance to see it more than once back then. Since such a long time had passed since I’d first seen the movie, I’d forgotten a lot of the details about it, especially the ending. It was that ending that made such an impression on me as I watched it earlier this year (2018). And it is that ending I want to comment on here.
The movie takes place during the Korean War, and concerns a US Navy fighter pilot, a Lt. Harry Brubaker (played by William Holden) ordered—as a part of a lager force of jet fighters—to attack and destroy a group of bridges a the North Korean town of Toko-Ri. The bridges carry a major part of the traffic of supplies and materiel the North Koreans need to sustain their invasion, and they’ve become a major target for the UN forces. The planes attack and the bridges are destroyed. Then they continue to an second target and bomb it. But here, in this attack on a somewhat less important target, Holden’s plane is damaged, and he’s forced to crash land in North Korea. He can’t make it back to the aircraft carrier. A helicopter from the carrier arrives to try to pick him up, but the helicopter is shot down too, and now two more Navy guys are stuck on the ground with Holden, with no way to escape. This is where the ending takes an unusual turn. All three Americans are killed. Not rescued. Killed.
Why is this so unusual? Lt. Brubaker, the protagonist of the movie (and of the book by James Michener from which it was adapted) dies in the end. And in a rather gruesome way. He doesn’t make it back after going through so much to destroy two targets. He does what he’s asked to do by the US Navy, yet he doesn’t get a hero’s welcome. In so many books I’ve read, and perhaps the most common ending for novels, especially action/adventure stories, the hero lives. His/her return may be to the accolade of comrades, or it might be a quiet return with little fanfare and no recognition, but he/she returns alive to fight another day. Picture the ending in the first “Star Wars” movie. Hip-hip-hooray. Uplifting martial music. Highly polished droids. Happily ever after. Princess Leia as you will never see her again.
But in Toko-Ri, Brubaker is dead. And two other guys, too. And in an ugly, sewage-filled ditch in North Korea.
That type of ending surprised me, though I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s different. It’s not wedded to a stereotypical ending of “happily ever after.” It represents the triumph of imagination over the standard or conventional. The hero in a novel doesn’t always have to win and live to fight again. Sometimes he’s blown away in a hail of bullets. I suggest taking this type of ending into consideration. Even if you’re not writing a military book. Heroes do die.
A few weeks ago I attended a writers conference (or writer’s conference, I’m never sure which is correct) and one of the topics discussed was that of book covers. The cover of a book is important and lots of attention is paid to book covers. The cover—so they tell me—has a lot to do with selling a book. People do judge a book by its cover whether we authors like it or not, and publishers take considerable time and care to produce a cover that will help sales. A good cover can actually spur sales. Colors seem to be particularly important in book covers: some say reds and yellows don’t sell well, others disagree and look for a lot of red on their covers. I’m not one to say much about covers since I haven’t had one designed for my books yet, though I’m hopeful I will be going through that process soon. What I do want to talk about here is the presence of representations of people—presumably one or more of the characters of the book—on the cover
One of the main subtopics of discussion in the meeting was the use of people, either in face or whole body, on the cover of a book. Not all books use a figure, though many do. But I was struck by the dichotomy of the discussion about how to use a character’s likeness. If you put a man on a cover, either as just a face or an entire figure, then it’s a man. Period. But if you put a woman on the cover, it must be a strong woman, a weak woman—heaven forbid!—will not do. A man, okay; but not just any woman, a strong woman. No one ever says, “We have to put a strong man on the cover.”
We seem to have divided characters of fiction into two broad groups, men and strong women, as though any man is acceptable as a protagonist, but not just any woman. A male character is assumed to be a strong man, but female characters are divided into weak and strong, and no one wants anything to do with a weak woman. Especially not on the cover of a book. I’m not sure I can name any weak women off the top of my head, perhaps one or two of the March sisters from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But strong female characters are all the rage now, and if you’re writing a book about a female character, it must be about a strong one. Physically strong, as for example, Wonder Woman, or endowed with strength of character, as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind.” Agents and publishers are not looking for weak-willed women. Not a good role model. But does anyone ever question whether a male character is strong—in the same sense that we require a female to be strong? Certainly if someone wrote a book about a man who is constantly run over or put down by his peers, as for example, Caspar Milquetoast of the comic strip “The Timid Soul,” or Mr. Peepers, played by Wally Cox, of the TV series in the 1950’s, it might not even be picked up by a publisher. The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney has sold well, though. Yet, in some ways, those characters had qualities that gave them a type of strength we can admire. If not “strength” in the physical sense, then in a “persistence” sense. They picked themselves up and continued on, only to be knocked down again. They didn’t quit; it was not in their nature. I wonder if a book or TV series about a woman who is similarly kicked around would work.
But a “weak” woman on the cover of a book? Not likely. Eventually I hope we will be able to divide the heroes of books—and this is true especially of science fiction—into two groups: male and female, without having to use a modifier for females. The protagonist of any story has to be strong, of course, but do we need to divide by gender into men and strong women? I suspect that when agents and publishers say they want stories about strong women, they’re really saying is they want stories about women who, if you were to replace them with a man, would be a likeable and saleable character. Nobody wants weak men or weak women, except in very unusual circumstances.
If you read much fiction, especially science fiction or fantasy, you may have heard of the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It’s used to indicate a willingness on the part of a reader to accept as real the descriptions, the materiality, the phenomena and/or the validity of a world which does not exist in this universe, and in some cases, could not exist under any circumstances. You do it probably a lot more than you think. In some stories, for example, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, many things in the novel could be real, even though the characters aren’t. We know that Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, and all the others don’t exist and have never lived, but everything about the town of Maycomb does seem real and could really be true. The lynching of a black man is real. It has happened. And it takes place in Alabama, a real state. But when we read the book or watch the movie, we are willing to put ourselves in that town in that era and accept what’s happening. It becomes real to us, if only for a short time.
On the other hand, what in the TV series Star Trek seems real? Only a few things, such as San Francisco, where Star Fleet headquarters is located, and some of the humanoid characters—James Kirk, Captain Picard, etc. But everything else in this series is so unlikely and non-real, especially a space vehicle that is capable of traveling many times faster than the speed of light. It’s so far out of touch with current concepts of space travel that it seems ridiculous just to think about. Yet we watch. We suspend our disbelief to a much greater degree than with Atticus Finch, but suspend it we do, and we enjoy the show.
The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was apparently coined by the British author and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1815. He used it to refer to the fiction of his day, which didn’t include science fiction, though there were some elements of fantasy in some works prior to that time. (For example, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.) After all, the first real science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, didn’t appear until January, 1818, and Jules Verne, who published his groundbreaking sci-fi in the latter half of the 19th Century, hadn’t gotten started yet either. I doubt that Coleridge ever had any idea how far his phrase would be taken in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
But while the term refers to the acceptance of a fictional universe, it refers to what is, I believe, essentially a passive action. We simply let ourselves go and accept what the author has to offer. But I submit that there is really an active process in which we are engaged when reading science fiction. Especially good science fiction which fleshes out a non-real or fantastical world in so much detail we can actually see ourselves living there. Or at least visiting. A reader has to actively submit to the author’s world and allow him/herself to be transported there. We see and smell and taste and touch and hear things the author has not even suggested or described because we are so intensely embedded in that world we instinctively know more about it than the description has suggested. This is a much more active process than just accepting the non-real world for the duration of the novel or the movie. For example, can’t you just feel the heat and humidity of an Alabama summer without air-conditioning?
As a science fiction author, I became aware of this requirement of a sci-fi novel only slowly over a period of many years. (Too many years to list here.) To keep a reader’s attention, the world has to be believable, and well to the end of the novel. I’ve tried to set up the fictional worlds and characters in my novels to seem real, to draw the reader in and keep him/her there, but time will tell whether readers agree.
With all the advances in astronomy over the past quarter century, we’ve learned a lot about the universe, especially about out own galaxy, the Milky Way, and even more about the area within a few hundred light years of own home planet. We’ve learned that there are planets orbiting other stars, stars relatively nearby in our little corner of this galaxy, and that some of them are, potentially anyway, havens for life because they could have liquid water on their surface. If there is life out there, what does it look like? In all probability it won’t look like us.
But if you watch science fiction shows and movies, and read science fiction books, the largest majority of aliens are humanoid in appearance, i.e., they look like us. It’s as though we’re stuck giving aliens human characteristics and foregoing the expense and difficulty of designing aliens in other forms. We like our aliens to look like us. As I wrote once in a blog post on this blogsite, if I see an alien that looks like a human but just slightly modified, (like, for example, the alien that was supposed to have landed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947) I always know it’s a fake and isn’t likely to be real. Real life from another planet will almost certainly not look like us. Yet we continue to portray extra-terrestrial life as humanoid. Why is this?
I’ve come up with three reasons I believe aliens are so frequently portrayed as humanoid. First, and this is true in movies and TV, it’s easier to dress up an actor in a humanoid costume and have him/her play a role. Getting an actor into a non-humanoid costume would be much more expensive and time-consuming. Easier to have it with two arms and two legs and a head with most of the sensory organs built in. (The evolutionary process of sensory organs settling in an anterior head is known as cephalization.) The cantina scene in the 1977 movie Star Wars: A New Hope, is a classic example. Most of the patrons of the bar were generally humanoid. Some were shaped a little differently, some had more hair than humans generally do, one had green, scaly skin (I think his name was Greedo, and he got blasted) and the bartender would look right at home on the streets of USA. A bit gruff, perhaps, and annoyingly unfriendly, but he wouldn’t stand out as unusual. Not to mention Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi . . . the list goes on.
Second, I believe it’s easier for us as readers and viewers of science fiction books and visual displays to accept an alien as humanoid. We’re so used to humans that an alien is automatically more acceptable to us if he’s only a little bit different. Green, perhaps, or arms that reach to the alien’s knees with fingers as long as our forearm, but generally like us. We’ve come to accept these creatures because we’ve seen them so often.
Third, it’s easier for us science fiction writers to invent an alien that is near to human in appearance because it takes less to describe it, and we know our readers will immediately accept it. The reader doesn’t have to work too hard to visualize it. I have to admit that most of the aliens in my (as yet unpublished) novels and stories are humanoid, probably because it’s easier to work with them. And if they’re human in appearance, I suspect we feel that they will be human in action and demeanor. The more human they look, the more human they will act. All of this simplifies writing and description. I have submitted a novelette (around 24,000 words) for publication that uses aliens that are distinctly non-humanoid, but still they have two arms and two legs, though they haven’t gone through the process of cephalization to obtain a head filled with sensory organs. I’m not sure how this will go over with the publisher, but it represents my attempt to break with humanoid characters, and do something different.
So, we appear to be stuck. Aliens are humanoid much more in fictional stories on Earth than they would ever likely be in outer space. I would like to see more distinctly non-humanoid characters in movies and books and stories. How do you feel?
Of all the words in the English language, the capital letter “I” has to be one of the easiest to type. I suppose the lower case word “a” is even easier since you don’t have to use the shift button on your computer keyboard, but capital “I” is a close second. Yet, every now and then I see a post, usually on Facebook, where someone has written lower case “i” to refer to him/herself. I always take notice, and I’m always a little disappointed that someone would go to that length to type that way.
Why? Let’s take a short look at handwriting. I’ve studied handwriting analysis (a long time ago in a city far, far away), and it has the potential to give an expert an insight into the psyche of the writer. It can provide a window into the ego, into the subconscious of the writer. People will often reveal characteristics of themselves in their handwriting they would never reveal in conversation. A lot of factors go into analyzing handwriting, including the slant of the writing, the pressure of the pen on the paper, the spacing of words, spacing of lines, the way certain letters are formed, and so on. And it includes how they make the capital letter “I”. There are so many factors I can’t list them here, and I don’t even know all of them. Handwriting analysis has to be used with care to avoid ascribing something to a person that isn’t there. As a result, a handwriting analyst has to be very highly trained, a situation in which I definitely do not belong. I do know that the letter “I” is a reflection of the self, and can reveal things about how the writer feels about him/herself. So when I see a lower case “i” in a blog or Facebook post, I always wonder about what the person is thinking. What’s going on in his/her life that caused him/her to write about themselves in lower case. But there’s more to it than that.
When someone writes with pen or pencil on paper, writing lower case “i” is simple and straight forward. Just a tiny vertical line with a dot above. But on a computer, at least with the writing programs that I am familiar with—Microsoft Word, WordPress, and Facebook—writing lower case “i” will be changed to the upper case form by auto-correct. In fact, it already has several times in this post. Whenever I’ve written “i”, I’ve had to go back and change it from upper to lower case because auto-correct has taken the lower case and made it upper. And then it flags it with that red, wavy underline because “i” isn’t in its list of acceptable words. That means that anyone who wants to purposely write the lower case version on a computer also has to go back and change it. Not as simple as writing on paper. So why do they do that?
I can’t say in any particular situation and I am certainly in no position to try to analyze it, and I suspect the reason may be different for different people. I’ve seen only a few examples of it, but it always concerns me. It tells me something about the person I may not want to know. It could, potentially, at least, be an indication that the person is feeling “down” or “blue” in some way, perhaps seriously. I always wonder if I should notify someone. (However, that could be an invasion of privacy.) If you see a lower case “i”, I suggest you wonder about it too.
Several weeks ago I attended a talk where the speaker made a comment I think worth repeating. I’m putting it into my own words here, but the comment was to the effect that today’s young people are more insistent than ever before on knowing the truth about what is going on in the world. Actually, I think that probably extends to all people, but that’s a little off the topic I want to discuss here. Someone from the audience asked, “How do you define ‘truth,'” and the speaker got onto a religious definition, which was okay, but limited, and I thought didn’t really answer the question. (It was a valid answer, but not exactly what I was expecting.) After the meeting, I thought more and more about what the speaker said, and started to wonder if there was a way to define ‘truth.’ What is the ‘truth’? What do we mean when we say we want the ‘truth’? What is it we’re looking for? Is there a definition we can all agree on?
The dictionary has several definitions of ‘truth,” several of which exist only in certain limited cases. But I’m looking for a definition that fits the above situation: what do we mean when we are looking for the ‘truth’? The closest my dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition) comes to this is, “The state of being the case: FACT,” or “The body of real things, events, facts: ACTUALITY.” Both of these definitions are close to what I want, but there are problems with them. The first is somewhat vague (I don’t know what the “case” is), and the second is overly broad. So, what’s really going on here?
In my limited cerebral wanderings on this subject, and trying to stay within the parameters given above about what people are actually looking for, I’ve come up with a definition that goes something like this. The truth is the ultimate reason, the bottom line, the real, unvarnished root cause as to why someone does something. It’s the fundamental cause of a human’s action. It’s the primary motive force driving a person’s actions. In it’s simplest terms, it’s the real reason someone does something. So often—way too often, really—that reason is hidden, and we have to guess what it is, or go to great lengths to bring it out. So much of our lives are invaded by politics these days that even the definition of a word becomes a guessing game. “What is the truth?” The FBI informant Deep Throat famously told Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein back during the Watergate era, “Follow the money.” Money, or the desire to get more, is the leading candidate for why a lot of things are done, especially in the political arena, but it’s also true in everyday life. But whatever the reason, money or otherwise, find the ultimate, bottom line as to why someone has taken a certain action, and you will find the “truth.”
This, of course, is just my personal definition, and you may have a different one, but let’s see what we can come up with. How do you define “truth”?