How to write a good long Sci Phi Story?

A question was asked over at the Sci Phi Journal website.

I was wondering if anyone out there could shed some insight onto the following question: How do you make a serialized series that intends to go on for at least two decades, have large epic plots that still manage to make cogent philosophical points?

I ask because it seems that most tales that do make cogent philosophical points most seem to be one-shots. Even the Twilight Zone, as chock to the brim with far more insight than both recent live-action Star Treks combined as that show was, was an anthology, or a collection of one-shots with little to no serialization.

Though I love to make philosophical one-shots and read such one-shots, I must admit that my heart lies in making tales with long plot-threads, as it was such shows like, everything in the DC Animated Universe, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and Avatar: The Last Airbender that got me into wanting to be a writer in the first place.

I think that it’s not impossible, as those three things I mentioned above somehow managed to do it, but I’m just curious as to how one accomplishes such a thing and how difficult it really is, because I seem to be finding it’s mighty hard.

Short answer, yes it is very hard. Long answer below:

I’m in no way claiming to be an authority on these matters, but here are some thoughts based on my limited experience. A good long-lasting sci fi story with philosophical depth requires the following:

1. An appreciation of philosophy and reading of authors who are skilled in the field, especially those like G.K. Chesterton who enable you to see the deeper truths and inner magnificence of minor or even ‘ordinary’ events while integrating them into engaging stories.

This will help you to make the most of the elements in your story and the possibilities for philosophical points in the midst of what may not be striking at first glance.

2 A deep world/universe. By this I mean a world in which the author has thought out the geography, history, culture (including subcultures within more homogeneous societies), economics, politics and technology of the setting at the family, local, regional, national, international (and where appropriate interplanetary) level, and how each of these aspects affects the society in which the story unfolds; what dangers, fears and hopes lurk in the background that mould the way people think and approach problems.

This also includes how much political influence the various groups within that society have, and how much of the society’s economy depends on their work, as well as how valued that group is by the other groups.

What level of communication is there between the cultures and subcultures? Are there some groups that are much better informed in some aspects than in others? (e.g. someone who knows the intricacies of every cave network in the region, but has had no contact with the civilised world for the last thirty years, or someone who has been secretly meeting with an alien society and gaining their technology, or someone who knows the secret behind the rise to power of his own ruling class, and is considering whether to use that knowledge to undermine them or join them)

The above will offer all sorts of perspectives and value systems to explore, and opportunities for the various cultures to encounter each other and discuss/clash over/misunderstand their differences. It can be (and should be) a lot of work, but well worth it. If you are using a well-developed world that someone else came up with, then a deep understanding of it and its nuances will be required.

Such a world (especially one with a lot of variety) will give your stories longevity, since there will always be other areas to explore, other cultures to meet, interact with and mutually influence, other characters from those other cultures to follow without breaking continuity.

3. Deep characters. Characters with a proper history to them, cultures, values, priorities, role models and key events that have influenced them, whether they are aware of it or not. How much are they a product of their upbringing, how much do they identify with or rebel against what they were taught? What are their priorities, prejudices, opportunities and limitations? What are they afraid of and what do they hope for? How well do they know themselves and their capabilities and who do they associate with? What impact do their friends and enemies have on them?

This gives you a lot of avenues for looking at personality types, character, value systems, perspectives and ways of thinking at a more intimate level. Journeys of self-discovery and introspection are rife with powerful philosophical possibilities.

Such characters will give your stories authenticity and power. Readers will get invested in them and will care how things turn out.

4. Choices with weight, significance, costs and consequences.

Now here’s where it gets serious. In every scene in which a character appears, choices are made: the choice to pay attention or ignore what’s going on, to speak or stay silent, to hold back or intervene, to work or play, to continue or rest, to respond immediately or pause and think, to trust or distrust, to betray or stay faithful, how hard to push or what strategy to use to reach the desired goal.

Each of these choices and interactions should make a difference. Each scene has its context. For each situation, you should ask yourself the following:

How did this situation come about? What choices or events made this situation possible (or even inevitable)?
What options do these people have (that they know about), and what is at stake?
What choices are made here, and what are their impacts in the short, medium and long term, not just in terms of moving towards achieving a goal, but in terms of the future choices they make possible or impossible (or easier or more difficult), the mark they leave on the character of the people involved, on those observing, on the wider society and its culture? Do the people involved see this action as uplifting or depressing, empowering or draining, inspiring or horrifying?
What resources are gained or lost through this choice, and how easy will it be to replace them? What difference will it make to how well society functions in the future?

Philsophically, you can then look at the guiding principles and value judgements that informed those choices, that determined the impact they would have materially, socially and spiritually. Every little thing that is done, when viewed in its larger context, can be important, as in 1.

For me, the above set of questions in 4 is how I develop a story from the original idea, starting with a specific scene or choice, then branching out organically from there to its context, origin, wider setting, back stories of those involved, and the short and long-term impact.

As an example, the initial idea for Nobility Among Us came when I was lurking and following a small writer’s forum, and someone suggested a writing contest with the prompt ‘at a party’. Being someone who doesn’t like being conventional, I thought to myself, ‘How can I do something that meets that criteria without being the kind of thing that people expect?’ So I came up with a high society party comprised of nothing but nobles, talking to each other as they wait for the guests of honour to arrive. Just a single short paragraph.
Now I had this situation, who could the guests of honour be? Who could be more important than the cream of society? How about a group of lowborn girls? How could they be that important, what are they there for and how did this situation arise? What has driven the nobles to need to do this? So from there came the uprising and from there the causes of the uprising and the rest of the nobility’s strategy to pacify the people, developing the wider world of the setting.
Some further obvious questions arose- what happens at the party, what key decisions are made by who and what are the results of those events and decisions in the short and long term?
From there I got a basic plot outline, a list of key events, then that was fleshed out with intermediate events and processes that needed to occur for those key events to happen, which gave me some story arcs.
Then I started filling in supporting characters, throwaway characters, some of whom ended up being far too interesting and alive to be just that and grew into main characters, and new unplanned story arcs arose from that, some even ended up modifying the original key events or introducing new ones, all of those arcs interconnect and influence each other and the most important ones come together for the climax.

For Beyond the Mist, it started out with reading a commentary on John C. Wright’s blog on the various stages of philosophical degradation in modern society, so the idea was for a strategy to rehabilitate people who had gone through that full degradation. As for how that works out, you’ll just have to read the story to find out 🙂

Writing a serialised story (which ‘Beyond the Mist’ will be) is hardest of all, since each individual instalment has to grab the reader’s attention, give them something enjoyable and thought-provoking and finish in a way that will leave them hungry for more. Jason Rennie’s Sci Phi Journal policy of ‘food for thought’ questions to go with each submission has really helped to crystallise the philosophical issues that each instalment will cover. It is a challenge for me, and one I hope will provide thought-provoking entertainment for a lot of people.

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7 thoughts on “How to write a good long Sci Phi Story?

    • Thank you. I might not often have the time, (five children and a normal job plus writing in the gaps) but playing around with ideas is fun. The above is a kind of mental check list I go through when fleshing out a fictional world. Feel free to use it for yourself.

      I find the economics of fictional worlds is the aspect most often overlooked, since it seems boring and most people are averse to the subject in the real world :-), but when done well it really helps to bring that world to life. It is a description of how the society functions on a practical level, where its strengths and weaknesses lie. From a story perspective, it for example identifies the mechanisms that the power structure of the society depends upon, and so highlights effective places for a rebellion to strike or recruit and thereby cripple the ruling class’s ability to project their might. Another example would be someone who identifies a key economic dysfunction in a society and offers a solution to it, in doing so gaining popularity and influence for himself, so the existing authorities begin to see him as a rival and a threat.

        • Unless you’re talking about a culture of pure energy beings or demigods such as the Q, then every society involving corporeal mortals has some form of economy, even if it is comprised of nothing but hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. Economics doesn’t have to involve currency, since economics at its most fundamental level is about how the members of a society obtain the resources needed to survive. This would include how raw materials are obtained (planting & harvesting, gathering, mining or recycling), how they are distributed, stored, protected and processed into useable forms and what is done with any waste material.

          All of these tasks will need to be done by someone. After any length of time in a properly functioning society, specific tasks will fall to certain members of that society more than the others (if not exclusively). For societies that automate some or all of these tasks, those machines and tools will need to be supplied with energy, maintained, repaired or replaced when they stop working.

          Increasing levels of specialisation involve more sophisticated structure in society, meaning defined roles, organisation and political considerations, including deciding who gets to do the ‘dirty’ jobs.

          A few extreme examples:

          A society that obtains all of its resources by conquering other societies or acting as a parasite upon them, merely focuses its internal economic activity on the distribution, storage, protection and waste disposal side of economics, the obtaining and processing of raw materials then falls to the conquered or host societies.

          A collection of stragglers that survived a global apocalypse and survive by scavenging the broken remnants of the fallen civilization have reverted to a gathering and rudimentary recycling-based economy.

          A sophisticated society with widespread 3d printing of tools, structural components and foodstuffs still needs to mine or harvest and supply energy and appropriate raw materials for those 3-d printers (and whatever robotic assembly and distribution networks), as well as maintain all that equipment.

          A spacefaring civilization with perfect recycling of all materials will still need to harvest fuel and energy, as well as maintain their automated systems.

          Even if there is no shortage of energy and raw materials, those things still need to be distributed to where they are needed and processed in the right way, and those aspects of the economy could potentially be disrupted.

          • Yeah, pretty much, I always regarded them as much more of a fantasy type of character, a pseudo-scientific gloss on the concept of spiritual beings. I was just using the example to demonstrate how far you have to go to avoid economics being a factor in a given society. I should have also mentioned that economics is not just about survival, but about improving the quality of life of a given society, so things like services, conveniences, luxuries and the arts are all part of that. Non-currency-based economies would include bartering societies, or where favours are exchanged in an honour system, though this comes close to currency, since currencies are in effect tokens representing the amount of favours you have earned or are owed, whether that’s in terms of desirability of the service you have provided or the value of the goods you have traded.

            As for races and sub-races on a world, I don’t have any experience with creating those myself, but in my opinion it would depend on how much you want to explore that world. It’s a good idea to have at least a general idea of the major races on a world, leaving open the possibility that there are other isolated races that are unknown to the rest of the population (e.g. living deep underground, deep under the sea or inside the ice caps, in an inaccessible mountain valley or inhospitable jungle, or a civilization of very small creatures that the other inhabitants took for dumb animals).

            For the known races and subraces, how do their physiologies differ from humans and what effect does that have in tems of their capabilities and limitations, needs and desires, history and culture? In terms of interaction between the races, is their world a hive mind, a cultural melting pot? Do they behave like separate castes in a single nation, separate nations, vassal states of an empire, outposts of rival empires? Has this arrangement changed, or is it still changing? If so in what direction and what is driving that change?

            Lots of things to consider and explore there.

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