HOW DO YOU WRITE A STORY SET IN SPACE?
Featuring Heather Antos (Editor at Valiant and Image; Former Editor at Marvel Comics for the Star Wars franchise and other comics); James Swallow (NYT Bestselling Author of Star Trek, Stargate, Warhammer 40,000 titles & more); Michael Moreci (Writer of Comics (Wasted Space, Star Wars) and Novels (Black Star Renegades)); Gary Kings (2001:1: A Space Felony, Murder on the Disorient Express, The Vortex)
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Heather Antos (Editor at Valiant and Image; Former Editor at Marvel Comics for the Star Wars franchise and other comics)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Little did I know when I first read those words on the silver screen that my life would be forever changed. At five years old, my obsession with Star Wars opened my eyes to, dare I say it, a brand-new universe full of familiar tropes that somehow just…worked. It was groundbreaking, yet comfortable. Revolutionary, yet relatable. And it sparked one of the greatest debates to ever exist in geek history:
Star Wars or Star Trek?
Except there’s one very small problem to that very popular debate. Though both extremely innovative franchises in the storytelling world, both set in space, both with the word “star” in the title, the two stories couldn’t be more different. It’s comparing apples and oranges…or should I say Vulcans and Wookiees?
The main difference? Genre. Star Trek is a science fiction story, whereas Star Wars is fantasy. Though often grouped together, the two genres are, in fact, quite different at their core.
Or, to break it down further: science fiction deals with scenarios and technology that are possible or may be possible based on science. However, fantasy deals with supernatural and magical occurrences that have no basis in science. Both genres require rules, though, and just because fantasy isn’t based on scientific fact doesn’t mean that “anything goes”. The difference with fantasy is the author makes up the rules.
“Space” in and of itself isn’t a genre, despite what those posing the above debate might argue. It’s a setting. And when writing stories set in space, that’s a key factor to remember. But it’s that particylar setting that can open whatever story being told to never-before-seen technologies, cultures, creatures, and of course drama that COULD be possible because there’s so much left to discover among the stars. It’s out there. Just waiting for us to discover it.
After all, space IS the final frontier…
James Swallow (NYT Bestselling Author of Star Trek, Stargate, Warhammer 40,000 titles & more)
The thing about writing stories in space is, for the most part they’re just the same as stories set anywhere else. Out in the inky void, character is still character, action is still action, drama is still drama – even these things are floating in zero-g around a planet in the Epsilon Eridani system.
Space – and by extension, the kind of science fiction that exists in that vast realm – is just your setting. It’s (infinitely) deep and wide, big enough to accommodate any kind of story you might want to tell, from something small and space capsule-size intimate to an epic tale with galaxies like motes of dust. Love and war, comedy and tragedy, you can do it all out there in the big dark. But just don’t forget to bring your spacesuit.
What falls short in this arena are works of narrative tourism. Too often, writers with a low knowledge base of science fiction tropes and themes use space as a backdrop for a story that doesn’t really need to be there. Don’t set your story in space just because you think it might be neat. Use it. Embrace it! If you’re going out there, make the journey worthwhile. Employ the setting as something more than window-dressing. Use the emotions instilled by the setting and the scope of it to help tell your tale. Weave your narrative into it, not over it.
Imagine two lovers orbiting that planet I mentioned, each on a different spaceship, conducting their relationship over the radio. That story doesn’t need to be set in space; it could take place at any point in human history where a form of long distance communication exists. Taking the plot of You’ve Got Mail and putting it in orbit? A wasted opportunity.
Now imagine those two lovers on those two ships are both traveling at different relativistic, near-light speed velocities, and time is passing at different rates for each of them. Think of a love story where every second passing for one character is a month for the other. Now you have a tale you could only tell out there in the dark between the stars.
But equally, it’s important to remember not to let the technology and the vista get in the way of actual narrative. Great science fiction meshes its two component parts (both right there in the name) to tell compelling stories. Space is so vast and enigmatic – and yet, at the same time measurable and scientifically quantifiable - that it can function dramatically as a reflection of anything you want to put into it; it’s an incredible stage upon which to mount your stories.
And it’s important to remember that space is without doubt the most hostile, most inimical environment known to humans. We’re just not meant to be out there, we’re not made for it. So immediately, any story you tell there is one unexpected explosive decompression away from destruction. Just the simple act of existing in space is fraught with dramatic possibility, and how could any writer resist a setting with that built in? If drama is locking characters in a box and shaking it up, drama in space is that with the added imminent threat of solar flares, micro-meteor strikes, alien encounters, and more!
The dark and distant unknowns out there can traverse the spectrum from terrifying to inspiring (sometimes both at the same time). We can tell stories of exploration and discovery, of challenges both technological and spiritual. Alien worlds and alien life hold up a mirror to humanity through which we can better know ourselves – and as noted above, all these things can blend with more common, earthbound themes or particular stylistic tropes.
For example, the “first contact” tale – of humans encountering alien life – is largely seen as a “space” story. But it could be one of horror and dread (Alien), intellectual and technological themes (2001: A Space Odyssey) or centred on humanist and social impact (Arrival).
For me, what makes space stories enthralling is the great mystery of it all. What’s out there? What can we learn from it? What will we discover about ourselves along the way? That incredible challenge of seeking out strange new worlds entices me as both a reader and a creator in a way that’s almost primal. It’s the desire to reach for the sense of wonder that such stories can instil.
Here’s some inspiration: http://erikwernquist.com/wanderers/film.html
Michael Moreci (Writer of Comics (Wasted Space, Star Wars) and Novels (Black Star Renegades))
The thing about writing in space is that you’re automatically saddled with the whole notion of “world-building.” Now, don’t get me wrong—I think world-building is crucial. But I think story is even more crucial, and world-building is meant to serve the story; it gives context to the plot as it unfolds, it gives it texture and character. But the thing is—what can you really done that hasn’t been done before? In Star Wars, Star Trek, The Expanse, Mass Effect, countless paperback sci-fi novels from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and so on. Now, this isn’t an endorsement not to try to break the mold; far from it. But, there’s something to be said, when writing about space, about where you put your focus—and when I talk to young writers, I often hear them put a lot of importance on world-building. Lengthy bibles on the world, pages of narrative dedicated, and so on. Again—I’m not saying this isn’t a worthwhile pursuit. But I am saying it is a matter of priorities. Because, to me, story will always be king. It’s story that makes something shine. Story. Story. Story. And while the world is part of the story, same as character and theme, it’s only part. Story, laid bare—meaning, what is this book/game/comic/etc. all about—is the heart of your work.
Let me give an example, and forgive me for going outside of space. I recently read a terrific fantasy novel, Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. Now, there’s no shortage of great things I can say about this book. It’s so good for numerous reasons. But what I love is how much Eames clearly knows the conventions of fantasy—then he throws them all out the window. He plays with the conventions, he turns them inside-out, he takes old tropes and makes them new in a rich, compelling, and fun way. And how? Because of his story (and his writing voice, which is remarkable). Eames wasn’t interested in creating his own fantasy world or breaking the mold of the epic quest; he doesn’t let himself be encumbered by that. Instead, he acknowledges everything that’s come before, he acknowledges how thoroughly the ground has been covered, and that frees him to do his own thing. And the results are spectacular.
What this all is meant to say is that, as Solomon said, there’s nothing new under the sun. Yes, that’s proved wrong occasionally, but very seldomly. And if you’re writing in space, it’s good to acknowledge what’s come before—be aware of what’s already been done, and instead of encumbering your book/comic/game/etc. with trying to create a new world, create a new story. Space is, to me, the best place to tell countless stories; it’s where I live, creatively, and I love it there. I love the possibilities, I love the imagination. But, again, what matters most is the story—tell your story. That’s what interests me most in a work. Your world can be big and great, but without a great story, you won’t travel far—and isn’t going to the greatest lengths the point of space?
Gary Kings (2001:1: A Space Felony)
The trick to telling a story in space is to ground it.
That was a joke, but it’s also the truth.
It’s important to set the rules. Even if they’re far from the rules of reality, establishing them clearly is incredibly important for a space-based story. For us at National Insecurities, we settled on something close to reality, but made concessions where necessary.
2000:1: A Space Felony is a sci-fi murder mystery courtroom comedy set in space. An interplanetary ship loses contact with earth, and you are sent to find out why. Upon arrival, you find everyone on board is dead, aside from the AI, and it’s your job to investigate, snap pictures of evidence, and cross reference the AI as the lead suspect for these murders.
You can get the game here, it’s pay what you want, and around an hour long. The rest of this piece contains spoilers for some elements of the game’s mystery.
Here is the first piece of art I ever sketched for the game, back when it was just a daft joke I’d never sink any real time into. It depicts two things that would become key to the final version: a man hanging by his neck in space, and a giant wheel shaped ship. I didn’t know it at the time, but these two elements would become fundamental to establishing the rules of our game’s reality.
Let’s start with the simplest of the two, the hanging spaceman.
The imagery is a contained mystery in itself. In zero gravity, how does someone get hung by the neck? Well, if the door to your spaceship opens, you’re pulled out at great speed, as if falling. If there’s a rope around your neck, space becomes your gallows. This is a simple application (of my basic understanding) of how space works.
Where the game deviates from reality is in its presentation. It’s been a year since it happened, but the rope is fairly taut, the astronaut striking a pose that implies struggle. If this happened in reality, both the rope and its victim would likely both have quickly settled into a more relaxed position. So why didn’t we do that?
For a start, it wouldn’t have looked half as good. But much more importantly, it wouldn’t have communicated the events anywhere near as clearly. Our game is a murder mystery, which means that we not only need to tell a story the player understands, we also need the player to be able to tell the story back to the game. Ambiguity needs to be applied very selectively here, or the game doesn’t work.
Now let’s look at the other thing in that original sketch, the big wheel.
Though many familiar with the science fiction genre (or just science) would be quite aware of this method of approximating gravity in space, it’s not exactly common knowledge. So when factoring it into the mystery, we had to assume the player wouldn’t know it.
The concept is introduced to the player via narration as soon as they first enter the wheel for the first time. It doesn’t explain everything, but does let them know the basics - as long as you’re in the big wheel, there is gravity.
After entering the centrifuge, the game then introduces a new mystery to you: there is a dead person at the bar with an overturned glass. There is also a puddle of an illicit liquid way across the room.
This person was poisoned. But deducing this depends on two factors:
Identifying the substance on the floor as poison.
Identifying the substance as having originated from the dead woman’s glass.
The first, we communicated to the player by making the puddle and a nearby container of poison be the same colour, and reinforcing the obvious connection through the narration. The player can’t mess this up.
But connecting the poison puddle’s origin to the glass in the dead person’s hand is less obvious, and unlike the hanging man, this does not operate by rules the player is likely to be familiar with before playing the game. And so the game has to introduce the player not only to centrifugal force, but also to a side-effect called the Coriolis effect.
Although a spinning wheel can approximate gravity to anything placed on its inner surface, there will always be a slight sideways push in the opposite direction to which the wheel spins. This wouldn’t make much difference to solids, but it can affect liquids in perceivable ways. The water in a fish tank might lean a little left, and any spilled illicit substance might slowly make its way along the concave floor and settle in a corner somewhere.
The above is quite a lot to explain to the player without giving away the answer, which is no good for a game about deduction, so we decided on having a very literal demonstration of the coriolis effect in the form of a fish tank on board. The distinct lean in the water is very visible, and when you snap a photo for documentation, the Coriolis effect’s impact on the water is explained through the narration, without its connection to the dead person’s glass or the puddle on the floor being made explicit. It is then for the player to take this newly learned rule and apply it to the other pieces of the puzzle.
In this way, 2000:1: A Space Felony establishes rules specific to its setting, and then has those rules play a role in the game’s mystery and deduction mechanics. The rules are scientific, but we are not scientists, we’re storytellers. It’s unlikely our game accurately depicts the correct amount of lean in the water for a centrifuge that small moving that fast. But it doesn’t matter. We based it upon reality, then shaped those rules to our needs so that the player could learn them, apply them to their deductions, and express their findings back at the game.
In the end, clarity was more important than the rules themselves.
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