Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Big Love Sci-Fi: Part 2, The Drama of Illness In Fiction

Last week we began a series of discussions I titled Big Love Sci-Fi after a comment by Heather Massey over at Galaxy Express.


That one is titled Sex Without Borders, and talks about this week's Parallel Universes series on Galaxy Express where the following Romance Authors will be posting during RWA.
This is at:


(all post times are EST)

June 28

9 am Jacqueline Lichtenberg

3 pm A.K. Norris

June 29

9 am Gini Koch

3 pm Marcella Burnard

June 30

9 am Diane Dooley

3 pm Yolanda Sfetsos

July 1

9 am Lilly Cain

July 2

9 am Lisa Paitz Spindler

So now to the topic of Big Love Sci-Fi -- is the SFR genre big enough to contain Love?  Or does it have to split?

I've got so much going on and so much "pending" (such as the arrival of a new computer), and as always happens in times of big stress, I caught a cold.  Or maybe some kind of flu, despite flu shot.

Whatever it is, it's going around this community, so no biggie.

Or is it?

Usually, in fiction, trivia like physical functions such as elimination, sneezing, etc are just left out of the narrative.  It's assumed people take care of themselves in the blank spots between scenes.

The most famous example I can think of at the moment is the lack of restrooms in Star Trek's Enterprise bridge area in the original design. Fans eventually pointed this out, so they put in some. 

One of the weakest skills among novelists, even some very well published writers, is scene structure and scene transitions.

I've written a lot about scene structure here:


That link has a link to Part 1 in it. 

Novelists have a hard time learning screenwriting because in a novel, you can get away with letting a scene wander on too long, with starting a scene too soon, and with describing all the character's movements from one scene to the next.

Readers just skip the boring parts.

Novelists often use traveling and looking at the scenery as an excuse to tell not show the reader all the interesting background that the reader really doesn't need to understand yet.

I was reminded of scene structure this morning as I watched a (time-shifted) episode of the television series IN PLAIN SIGHT. Hot sex scene: FLIP : working a case scene.  Or working a case scene: FLIP : dinner with ex-husband. 

It's in the FLIP (called a CUT) black screen section that the characters do things like going to the bathroom, changing clothes, cleaning their guns, calling to straighten out a billing error, sneezing.  The viewer infers they've done these things because they are real people living real lives.  But these things aren't relevant to the plot.

Last week, (6/21/2011) we talked about the "borders" in life that create dramatic tension.

Big Love Sci-Fi: Sex Without Borders.

Part of what we've seen as our modern culture shifts is an erasing of the borders of "privacy" -- and in Romance that has generated the sex scene placed right at the beginning of the novel. Today, sex is viewed as mere recreation by a lot of people, and studied as such in university courses on psychological counseling.  The public may be almost ready for the swing back in the other direction.  So a study of "privacy" in our culture is important for writers. 

One of the other sorts of functions that triggers our desire for "privacy" is illness. 

When you're sick, you just want to crawl into a dark corner or hole and not have to talk to anyone or even move.  Just breathing is hard enough, forget the world.

Mostly, in a family situation, you don't get a chance to do that.  Either people want you to go right on doing your chores for the house, or they want to keep you in bed and take care of you.

Either way, your privacy in a family situation is just plain gone.

Our society today seems to be trying to define the entire human species as one family, wherein there is no such thing as privacy, just as in a small living group, family, clan, tribe, whatever. 

Whether that's good or bad is mostly irrelevant until you get down to choosing a theme for your story.  At some point in the creative process, you will have to take a stand on the issue, but first look at all sides of the matter and find characters committed to each side.  You will then have to create the arguments for each side of the issue.

In the structuring of scenes, then, you must choose how to present the background beat of ongoing trivia.

In science fiction, those bits of trivia are the author's chance to insert relevant (only relevant) worldbuilding tidbits that will figure into the ending.

"She spent three days fighting a case of Arcturian Flu, slept off the fever and woke to a rainy dawn."

Or, if Arcturian Flu is not relevant to understanding the resolution at the end, then it would read:

"Three days later, she woke to a dismal morning."

The thing is illness is boring, especially if it's minor, does not involve the character's "arc" (or lesson the character learns because of the events of the story) or doesn't affect the character's ability to perform during the next challenge.

Even if Arcturian Flu is relevant to the ending, it might not advance the main character's arc, so someone else would come down with it.

Likewise bathroom scenes are boring unless they involve a "development" to the plot-line such as a ghost appearing in the steamy mirror, a lipstick message on the toilet cover, or a much needed, relaxing hot shower during which the main character gets an idea.

You're in the same danger zone when writing a sex scene. It's sort of difficult to understand why a sex scene could be boring, but someone mentioned that on Twitter recently and it stuck in my mind.

How can sex be boring? 

When privacy lines are not crossed!

Think about it.  Sexual activity (well, maybe except in some SF novels) requires physical contact, intimate contact, and almost by definition an invasion of privacy.

That's why sexuality is so fascinating to adolescents.

In adolescence, we first discover the personal need for privacy.  The crossing of that barrier or line is what makes teen-sex so titilating -- it's "forbidden" by the nature of the discovery of personal identity and sovereignty.  In adolescence, we push our "borders" outward so that we are sovereign over a larger "space."  If that process is interrupted with sexuality too soon, psychological health can be affected for the rest of the life.  (just consider parents reading a teen's mail!)

So loss of virginity is a redefinition of "privacy."

"Love" can be seen as the inclusion of someone else inside that bubble of privacy we work so hard to push our family out of.  

Kids are usually sick a lot, and get used to being cared for and kept in bed.  Thus being sick and having someone "invade" your private space is part of your identity.  It may actually feel good to an adult if they were treated well as a child.  .

Hence we have the plethora of fanfic stories in the now recognized genre called "Hurt/Comfort." 

In Hurt/Comfort, the stronger character of the couple loses self-sufficiency in some way (illness, sexual vulnerability, or an injury) and the weaker character becomes the stronger of the two, offering "comfort." 

"Comfort" in this definition is an invasion of privacy, and the most potent stories in this genre use a stronger character who would (if possible) resist being cared for physically.

That rejection of needed care is often seen as a masculine trait, but it's really just human.

So think about all this in terms of your reader's real life assumptions about where that "privacy" line is drawn, and what kind of dramatic tension can be built (and yes you have to build it by foreshadowing, worldbuilding, characterization, and especially plot) to separate the "private" from the "public" functions in your character's life.

Then you can play with your reader's unconscious assumptions and build a profound and meaningful resolution of the "privacy conflict."

Any Romance, SF or Paranormal, has to have that tension across the "Privacy threshold" but it might not be the central conflict that has to be resolved in the end.

If you need to learn more about "privacy" as handled by various human civilizations, read some books on anthropology.  And I especially recommend Edward T. Hall's book The Silent Language.

Language, body and spoken, shifts as we cross the privacy threshold.

Let your character's behavior reflect that, and they will seem more real to the reader.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com (for new Sime~Gen novels)

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