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.