General Writing and Grammar Help/Creative Writing- Specifically: Sci-fi
QUESTION: Hi, I was wondering if you can give me advice on creative writing and speech making. As to creative writing, I want to know how to better develop characters, plot, and to be more organized with my writing. What resources/programs do you recommend for this? Also, I want to become a better speech writer. Can you give me advice on what to do to improve my speech writing, and what resources to use? Also, can you provide me with any other information that will prove to be helpful?
ANSWER: Hi Erica,
These are really good questions, neither of which have a short answer, but I'll see what I can do.
With regards to speech writing, the most important thing by far is to get your message across clearly. It's one thing to tell people something. But, if you want to be as effective as possible, proper word selection is crucial. "I'm not opposed to the war in Iraq" means something entirely different than "I support the war in Iraq". The first one means that you won't fight or speak out against the war, but that you don't necessarily believe in it. The second one implies that you are both sympathetic and empathetic to the cause. Whenever you are writing a speech, take time and make many revisions to your text so that there is little chance that people can twist your words and that you say exactly what you mean. If you say something that is even slightly ambiguous some people will twist what you said and obfuscate your meaning. They will inject their own thoughts and opinions into what you said. Be direct. Be concise. Basically do the exact opposite of advertising. I use ads a lot as example for different things. Think about some of the slogans that you see on TV and in the newspapers. Take AT&T's "more bars in more places", for example. What does that even mean? More bars in more places that what? More bars in more places than the other guys have bars in places? Or more bars in more places than you had in places 10 years ago? And did you ever notice how most of the biggest cell phone companies claim to be the "biggest network"? How are they making that claim? Do they mean that they have most number of subscribers? Or that their network covers the largest geographic area? Or perhaps they have the most cell towers? Because they are vague deliberately all of them can technically be correct in their claim. This is a skill that takes practice, being concise and clear, but it's an important skill to learn for speech writing.
As for creative writing, I could write volumes on this topic. For plot you can write about literally anything within the realm of human experience. It really doesn't even matter if the story has already been told before, the only thing that matters is that you tell it well. As proof of this, watch Dances With Wolves, then watch The Last Samurai, then watch Avatar. The plot is essentially the same: a man finds himself with a group of people that his own people considers to be savages. He spends some time with them and learns to appreciate them and like them, and then he joins them and helps them fight against his own people for their freedom. Same story, different versions. All three were successful in the box office. I'll outline some of the very common mistakes below.
1. People use "archetypes" way too much. The villains are always evil and the good guys are always good. It's not like that in real life. No one is perfectly good or perfectly evil. I really enjoyed the animated films Megamind and Despicable Me because they weren't afraid to blur the lines. Even with villains, there was usually something that happened that made them that way. And those actions are something that most people could relate to. Oh, yeah, he's a butcher and he slaughtered dozens of people, but when he was a kid his house was burnt to the ground by rebels, his parents were killed in front of him and his siblings were taken into slavery and then he was shot and left for dead. Most people who have a bad reaction to those experiences. Most of us can relate to how someone who went through something like that might turn out a little twisted as an adult. It doesn't justify their actions, but it makes the villain more human because we understand what made them that way. I also really enjoyed shows like House and Elementary (which is based on Sherlock Holmes). In both cases the "heroes" are brilliant and do great things for society, but they also both suck with people skills and both struggle with substance abuse addictions. They aren't perfect "superhero" type of people, even they have their dark sides. And look to history for examples. Two classic Villains that we acknowledge are Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. Did either of them have the solid black castles and fortresses that you would find in Disney films? No. Saddam Hussein had a palace filled with gold. Hitler had a villa and loved to collect fine art pieces. You don't necessarily equate someone who appreciates Picasso and Michelangelo as being evil, but there you have a real life example.
2. People change/People are different. A lot of times I see multi-generational stories where the authors's main character has gotten old so they just reinvent them in the form of their child and both characters have exactly the same traits and personalities. This never happens in real life, that's why parents and children argue. Siblings can be as different from each other as night and day. There may be certain elements of them that are consistent; physical features, a particular mannerism, a specific belief, but they will never be exactly the same. Also, people themselves change. You are not the same person that you were 10 years ago. And 10 years from now you'll be a different person still. Characters in your stories should grow and evolve. I've developed an in-depth character sheet that I use when I write. It has basic demographics about the character's background and physical characteristics, but I've drawn from my experience in psychology and developed a whole section that uncovers their motivations. When you understand what motivates a character, then you can better predict what those people will do in a given situation. And many times the writers will have the characters act out-of-character simply because they need to do so in order to make the plot work. But, using my method, once I understand their motivations, I am able to figure out what would compel a character to act out of the normal behavior and why, and how much influence it would take to make that change happen. And I can also start figure out how certain experiences will change my character's outlook on things based on their experiences. JK Rowling did a decent job of this with Harry Potter. Harry as you see him during the Deathly Hallows is a different character than in the first book. To most new writers I would say, skip the classes that talk about literary archetypes and take intro to psychology. Stories are about people. The more that you understand people, the more realistic they will be.
3. Environments are characters too. Countries, for example, have their own collective set of customs and cultures and ideologies. Individual characters might disagree with the social norms and thus creates conflict. Countries can disagree with each other, and thus creates conflict. But, the physical land plays a role too. Look at the Earth as an example. What we do affects the physical properties and characteristics of the Earth itself. In turn, the Earth behaves differently, which affects our ability to survive and our behavior. If you were to have an entire forest burn down in your story that would have a serious impact on the people of that story. Too many authors brush over this topic. For example, at least one scientist has conducted a thorough analysis of the final scenes of Star Wars 6: the Return of the Jedi, when the Death Star is destroyed in orbit above Endor. He estimates, that based on the size of the Death Star, and the amount of material that would have rained down onto the planet, the Ewoks would be extinct within 6 months of that event due to environmental destruction. Oops.
4. People are inventive and unpredictable. This is something that I didn't appreciate until I ran a role-playing game when I was in high school. In that game the players could command entire fleets of ships and could basically do whatever they wanted, the only repercussions they faced were from other players. They were very inventive at figuring out ways to kill each other off. Sometimes, if I am struggling to understand the dynamics of what would happen, I will ask my friends to help out by role-playing a scenario. For example, in one of the sci-fi books that I'm working on there is suddenly a power vacuum and there is disagreement about who should be the leader. I assigned each of my friends a basic position of thought, and a set of problems and resources and then said "what would you do if you were in charge?" Your planet is overpopulated. You can't make enough food to feed everyone. The food that had been arriving from off-world is suddenly no longer available and your people are starting to riot. What do you do? etc. I don't always use their answers exactly, but I will use their answers for inspiration or to get an idea of exactly how wild and unstable things can be.
As far as tools and resources go, there's only one tool that I use: WikidPad. (http://wikidpad.sourceforge.net/
). This is a free program. It's very small and can run off of a USB drive (where I keep mine). With about 5 minutes of learning you can make your own private Wiki (think wikipedia). I use this to make an encyclopedia to reference back to as I work. I always outline my whole book before I even start writing. In my case I've outlined 8 or 9 books in sequence, which allows me to include foreshadowing and events in earlier books. there will be things that will seem unimportant when you read them, but then later will be revealed as having been pivotal due to the influencing of other characters. You can also cross-reference everything easily. I use timelines, descriptions of groups and governments, ships, planets, family trees, and character bios. By having this resource it allows me to easily go back and look up information and keep my story consistent across multiple books with ease. Plus, I have the option of sharing that file or publishing it to the web (or as an encyclopedia in and of itself if the series becomes popular).
I have a few other tools I use, but they're specific to sci-fi or fantasy writing.
I hope all of this information helps and makes sense. If you have any more questions, please feel free to ask.
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Yes, all of it made sense. I am interested in sci-fi writing specifically. Could you give me any advice/offer any tools for that genre specifically. Thanks! Your other advice was super helpful!
Hi Erica, if you would like you can email me directly. I do have some tools and resources that I can send you, but AllExperts does not all me to attach any files to my replies. If you would like to email me directly, you may do so by emailing Johnathan.Clayborn at Gmail.com. If you would prefer to continue to use this system I can explain where to find some of the resources that I have.