5 tips for writing science fiction to engage people who don't read it
Back in 2006, I had an epiphany. Stories are empathy engines, regardless of the medium. And for humans, they always have been. We’ve been primed to imagine other’s lives since we sat in a cave, telling the stories of our tribe and making sense of the world around us. I published an academic paper on this in 2008 and have given talks about storytelling and empathy ever since. I’m thrilled that there are now hundreds of researchers around the world searching for the neurological mechanisms that link “theory of mind networks” to empathy and narratives.
In addition, I’ve been a futureholic throughout my life. Whether through science fact or fiction, I’ve wanted to know what was coming and how it might change everything we know. The future is very heady, complex stuff, and difficult to communicate to those who aren’t on your metaphorical wavelength, since change is inherently hard to understand or accept. With my novel, (R)evolution, I felt it was important to share research on nanotechnology and cognitive technologies like brain-computer interfaces, nanomedicine and more with an audience that might not read SF or know what is coming.
My parents are my sample audience. My father is a huge SF fan and the reason I am, too. Future-shorthand is easy with him. But my mother is so ignorant of SF, when we visited Industrial Light and Magic in 1980, she hadn’t seen Star Wars (and still hasn’t) and didn’t recognize the Yoda puppet! (OMG, how embarrassing to my teenaged self!) How could I explain the ideas I wanted to explore to my mother? Even back in my days on Hercules: the Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, we used my mother as the symbol of the vox populi. Now I can’t compare mothers, but mine lets me know immediately if she liked something or not and why. It doesn’t matter that I’m her child. There’s no soft-pedaling. (Cue neurosis…) So if she could understand, empathize and have a dialogue with us about Greek mythology and transposed stories from today’s headlines into an allegorical past – and like them – we knew we had accomplished our goal.
And good news for me – My mother loved (R)EVOLUTION! (Phew!) But it seems I’ve succeeded with others, too.
So how did I convince Mother Manney and others like her to engage with and enjoy it?
1) Take baby steps. This includes setting the story in a recognizable near future, so the reader is not too distracted by what they don’t understand. If it’s too futuristic, the audience can sometimes become more focused on the worldbuilding and less on the people in it or the events that take place.
2) Create deep and complex characters. Characters allow for empathy. You need another’s shoes to metaphorically inhabit to share their experience. The deeper and more nuanced the characterization, the greater the empathy and the further you can push the audience into controversial territory. I created Peter Bernhardt/Thomas Paine to let readers live through his technological experiences and the good and bad consequences of them. I also wanted the audience to empathize with both the heroes and villains, because I’ve always believed, like the great filmmaker Jean Renoir, “The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons.”
3) Discuss the broader ideas, but don’t become overly focused on them. Let your audience ask some questions for themselves. SF is the genre of the Big Idea. This is wonderful. SF concepts like artificial intelligence, extraterrestrials and human enhancement have changed how we view our species, place in the universe and inspired innovation. However, sometimes SF relies too much on ideas and spends too little time developing deep characters for us to relate to, alienating the very audience we hope to garner.
4) Keep the story moving and the plot engaging. Alexandre Dumas taught me this. And I’m still learning.
5) Leave them wanting more.
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