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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dealing with the Origin Story

I just finished an advance copy of a neat book, (I’ll blog about it later— it’s due Feb 09 from Tor, so I have time.) and it got me thinking of a common narrative problem in speculative fiction. It is perhaps most obvious in superhero movies (I alluded to it in my Iron Man review) but it’s true for a broad class of speculative fiction, and for lack of a better term I’ll call it the “Origin Story Problem.” The problem is simple, the story itself concerns some ordinary person— at least “ordinary” in the fact that the character’s original status quo doesn’t include any paranormal/speculative elements— who through some means or other comes to grips with some kind of extraordinary knowledge/powers/abilities. This is a staple of superhero movies and comics, but it’s also recognizable across the broad swath of SF/Fantasy— normal guy becomes werewolf/vampire, stumbles on alternate universe, invents a zero-point power source, goes back in time, develops telekinesis.

The “Origin Story Problem” comes from the fact that it is very easy to obsess too much about the discovery phase of the neat idea, whatever it is. It becomes tempting to spend half a book exploring all the ramifications about the black box, before realizing “hey, there needs to be a conflict here.” Then, suddenly out of nowhere, we get a whole series of new characters and plot developments to threaten our hero. The pattern is a staple of bad TV pilots.

To address the “Origin Story Problem,” and make the story seem a cohesive whole, the main conflict of the story needs to become an integral part of all the story. i.e. The vampire hunters that are threatening to stake our newly-undead heroine need to be present before page 300. Or, more broadly, the story problems resolved in the climax need to be at least implicit in the beginning of the story.

There are several ways to do this convincingly:

  1. Start the main conflict before the “gosh-neato” stuff shows up. In Iron Man, Tony Stark develops the suit as an attempt to solve the problems that begin the movie.
  2. The main conflict is inherent in the “origin” itself. See Stephen Kings’ Firestarter for a primer on every shadowy government experiment gone awry. See the Bourne Identity for a more low-key variation on the theme.
  3. The “gosh-neato” bits directly, and quickly, cause the source of the conflict. See most one-way time-travel stories from Lest Darkness Fall to 1632.
  4. The “gosh-neato” bit is actually the real status quo, dropping the protagonist into some larger over-arching conflict; learning about the cool stuff is really part of surviving in a different world. The first volume of Zelazny’s Amber series is a good example. See also Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade.

What you don’t want to happen is have a story that spends half its time with the protagonist learning and experimenting with some new toy. Readers will say, “that’s cool” for a chapter or two. Then they’ll start wondering when something is actually going to happen.