Story, as it turns out, has become a necessary thing to think about when you’re writing. I’d hate to be a party pooper, but it seems that I strayed from that fact a little bit this week as I was trying to get things ready for my colonization story. I was so focused on all these little details that I forgot to ask myself the fundamental question: what is the story that I’m trying to tell?
Don’t get me wrong. Research is important, but don’t let it blind you to what’s really important. As George R.R. Martin said: “A writer cannot do too much research, though sometimes it is a mistake to try and cram too much of what you learned into your novel. Research gives you a foundation to build on, but in the end it’s only the story that matters.”
For me, I was going off of a conceit (settlers arriving on a new world), but I didn’t have a story. Does a landing shuttle crash? Are the colonists trying to keep away a swarm of alien animals who see them as fresh meat? Do the colonists divide into rival factions? This week, my answer to all of these was a shrug and, “I don’t know.”
Let me put this another way…
Look at 2001: A Space Odyssey, a beautiful film counted among the greatest science fiction films ever made. It was put together in a gorgeous fashion that made you feel like you were looking at a possible alternate reality (at least from our post-2001 point of view; I don’t remember the Soviet Union being around in that year, and I certainly don’t remember there being any giant space stations or lunar bases). but what was the story about? Bowman turned into the Star Child at the end and then…what?
Now look at 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Cold War tensions rise. Soviet and American astronauts distrust each other. Curnow and Brajlovsky strike a friendship. Chandra embarks on a paternal quest to save his creation, the HAL-9000. Kirbuk is trying to decide whether Floyd is friend or foe, and Floyd is trying to redeem himself for the failed voyage of Discovery. Now that’s a good set of stories, and all of them under the umbrella of the main conceit, which is aliens trying to communicate with humanity.
Now, if it were up to me, I would have tried to combine the beauty of 2001 with the narrative of 2010. Roger Ebert compared 2001 to poetry, and it certainly is. I guess the problem that I have is that I prefer narrative poetry.