Learning from the Masters
I grew up on the tail end of science fictions “Golden Age,” a time when writers were more philosophers, scientists, and theorists than people intent on creating entertainment. Most novels focused on scientific principles and how those related to men and conflict.
Even though “soft” sci fi stories were few and far between, there were authors who were consummate masters: Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, H. Beam Piper and Ray Bradbury.
My personal favorites are still: The Beast Master by Andre Norton; Have Space Suit Will Travel by Robert Heinlein; Four Day Planet and Lone Star Planet by H. Beam Piper; and Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed by Ray Bradbury. No matter how many times I re-read these books, they never lose their freshness and appeal.
What have I learned from these great storytellers? First, world building doesn’t have to be included in the story. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit Will Travel gives little information about Earth during the story’s time setting. It simply wasn’t important. Details on even the Mother Thing’s planet are skimpy and irrelevant.
Second, elaborate character background needs to remain in the author’s head, not in the story. The hero of Lone Star Planet is simply explained as part of a government agency relegated to a backwater world as discipline for too much “free thinking.” All the nuances and details of his past life are immaterial. It is how he reacts to situations and responds to the challenge that make the story intriguing.
Finally, the story itself must be entertaining and compelling. Readers seek similarities, points of reference that are at once familiar and different. What connects readers to the hero in The Beast Master are ties to the past, familiar scenes of farming and ranching. What grounds us in the story are the similarities with a few simple brushstrokes, like Chinese line painting. The white spaces, not the lines, define the subject. The conflict and action which drives the story are powerful and potent when found in the most basic needs: belonging, home, family, what defines us, what really matters. Once a writer has found these things, the story unfolds naturally and all the accouterments such as details, setting, dialogue become embellishments, like jewels on the hilt of a sword or decorations in a home.
Stories of ordinary people facing ordinary life in an extraordinary way, this is the stuff of legends.