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How Science Fiction Movies Can Help You Write Novels

As many of you may know, when I’m not here writing about science fiction movies, I’m often off writing science fiction novels. And in that capacity, this is a big week for me: My new novel, Fuzzy Nation, came out on Tuesday, and even as we speak, I’ve begun a book tour to promote it.

What you may not know is that in many ways there is a direct relationship between my books — me as a fiction writer — and movies. Long before I was a published novelist, I was a full-time film critic. I spent a lot of time looking at story. So when it was time to write my own stories, some of the things I learned about storytelling from films made their way into my novels.

What did I learn? Here are three things — and I’ll use the recent Star Trek film as my example, if for no other reason than it’s a “reboot,” like my novel is (of the 1962 novel Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper).

1. When in doubt, use a three-act structure for your story.
Most films these days feature a “three-act” structure because it’s both useful and exciting. So, in the first act of the recent Star Trek film, we’re introduced to James Kirk and all the rest of the Enterprise crew; in the second act, Kirk and the Enterprise are thrown into battle and experience setbacks at the hand of the villain Nero; and in the third act, Kirk has to take control of Enterprise, defeat the villain, and save the universe.

Novels don’t have to follow this same structure — and many don’t, and not every novel should — but it’s a storytelling mode people just seem to get, so it’s one I often use. Thus, in my newest book, we meet our protagonist Jack Halloway and the mysterious creatures known as “Fuzzys” (act one); Jack’s life is changed when he learns that the Fuzzys might be intelligent, a fact which threatens the corporation that he works for (act two); and Jack has to decide whether to help the Fuzzys against the corporation (act three).

2. Get your audience right into the action.
In Star Trek, the opening scene has a Federation starship, the USS Kelvin,
encounter a strange, massive alien ship — then there’s a space
battle, and the audience’s blood is pumping right from the start. But
(and this is important) it’s not entirely gratuitous audience
manipulation; this action-packed prologue serves to set up back story
and some initial conditions for the tale to come. It’s a fast, smart way
to front-load information that the audience will need later, while at
the same time making them happy they’re in that theater seat.

A fast start is not needed for every novel, but there are times it’s useful. I used this sort of opening in my novel The Android’s Dream,
in which I had one character try to kill another in an unusual way.
The manner in which the attempted murder happens (to put it politely, it
involves the intestinal tract) grabs readers from the first line of the
book. And while the prospective killing is being arranged, I’m able to
slip in information about the world of the story and humanity’s place in
it — all sooner than later, when it would just slow down the
storytelling. When it works, it’s great.

3. Let your characters establish themselves with their words and actions.
is a visual medium, so it’s difficult to get inside characters’ heads.
You can try with voiceovers or narration, but that doesn’t always work (see Dune and the original cut of Blade Runner for
examples of this). Filmmakers work with what the audience can see and
hear: The swagger and smart-assery of Kirk, the precise, logical
emotionless of Spock, the cranky, weary sardonicism of Bones.

allow a lot more leeway to show both internal thought and narration,
but one of the things I ask myself when I’m writing characters is how
much of the person I can reveal through what they are doing or saying.
This is the old “show, don’t tell” advice, applied to the people in your
story. I could tell you what sort of person my character Jack Holloway
is, but it’s better if he tells you. Because in the story, he’s
the guy you’re going to be spending your time with, not me. My job as
the writer, at least in this story, is to move the scenery around.
That’s best done as invisibly as possible.

Now, to be clear, a
novel is not a film, and novels don’t have be like films. But good
writing lessons are where you find them. Even when you find them in
movie theaters. 

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