For reasons that should be fairly obvious, I’ve been thinking lately about story construction and distinguishing characteristics of science fiction. I’d like to share some of the results of that thinking. Nothing really profound here, but those of you prone to psychological analysis of authors through their works (I’m sure that sooner or later somebody reading this will resemble that remark) may find it helpful.
I’m of the opinion that there are three elements that must be present in a science fiction short story. (The jury is still out on the question of how much this applies to other genres as well. It’s also still out on whether publishers agree with my opinion: we’ll settle that one when I get a story written and find out if it sells.) There’s a lot more that needs to go into a story to make it a story (characters spring to mind, just for starters), but without these elements, it’s not SF. For purposes of discussion, I’ll call them the “device”, the “motivator”, and the “resolution”.
The device is the central idea, the “what if” that is the reason the story exists. It doesn’t need to be an actual “what if”, but it has to be the question that puts the “speculation” in “speculative fiction”. For instance: “What if the stars only came out once in a thousand years?” “How can I build a mansion in the space of a one-room shack?” “What if tying buttered toast to a cat’s back generated a significant amount of energy, even if it’s not a perpetual motion device?”
The motivator is the problem that the protagonist must solve. The motivator derives from the device. “What are stars and how do we keep civilization from collapsing when they come out?” “Whoops, the house collapsed into the fourth dimension and I’m trapped inside.” “With the world’s butter supply tied up by the energy industry, what do I put on my english muffin?”
The resolution is the answer to the problem posed by the motivator. It too needs to derive from the device; otherwise you’re straying into deus ex machina territory. The Greek playwrights got away with it, and frankly, so do far too many modern authors. Yes, it can be done well, but I think if you go there you’re more likely to cbe heating your readers by giving them only two-thirds of a story. “Oh, that’s what a star is. Oops, there goes civilization.” “Jump out of a window and hitchhike back to LA. But this gives me a great idea for the next house I design!” (Clearly it doesn’t have to be a happy ending or a resolution that solves the problem, but it needs to bear some logical connection to the device.) Marmalade could work, but it’s probably going to be a “well, duh!” moment for our English and Canadian readers. Margarine is a bit better, since it’s a manufactured product that was probably produced using energy from the buttered-cat generators. Kind of boring, though. How about we go for the tragic ending, and have our protagonist, despondent over the lack of butter, commit suicide by spreading his muffin with some of the huge surplus of obsolete fuel oil?