Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Alien Romance

I'm prepending a comment on the "Great First Lines" discussion, then my own post on the definition of Alien Romance, or maybe SFR. They're sort-of related.

For my money, the single most grabbing "first line" I have ever encountered (in countless thousands of books read) is Marion Zimmer Bradley's opening to the original SWORD OF ALDONES (not the rewrite SHARRA'S EXILE).

We were outstripping the night.

Why is that a great first line?

Because it bespeaks the essential theme, the pacing of the novel, and delivers that same sense of motion without knowing where you came from or where you're going that the novel does. The novel delivers on the promise of the first line, and that is what makes it a grabber.

A slushpile reader is trained to look at the FIRST LINE - then compare it to THE LAST LINE -- split the MS and look at the MIDDLE. If the 3 points don't match, the MS does not get read, it gets rejected.

So it's not "great first lines" that is the real challenge. It's crafting a first line that bespeaks the essence of the story at the thematic level.

There is a method of achieving this effect which MZB beat into my reluctant head and I finally formulated into a style of working that I can grasp. Maybe this will help you, too.


The reason why you want to write the novel or story is the reason why people would want to read it. But you can't simply state that reason. You have to ENCODE it in SHOW DON'T TELL using foreshadowing and symbology, art and craft welded together.

Now armed with the answer to that arcane question, you search for the beginning of the main character's story. You have to run up and down that character's whole life and ask yourself, WHERE IS THE STORY? You have to ask, "WHAT EVENT SEQUENCE CHANGES THIS CHARACTER IRREVOCABLY?"

Each real life has such a point (can be 3-4 years even). Some of us do change under that influence - and we have a "story of our life" - others don't change and meet a different fate because of that choice.

The FIRST LINE and FIRST PARAG of a novel (not, interestingly enough, of a screenplay) are composed of the the point in time & awareness when the character is jolted out of his/her former life, and dumped into his/her next life.

The OPENING SITUATION of a novel is composed of the point in the main character's life where the CONFLICT IS JOINED -- where the CONFLICT BEGINS -- where CHANGE BEGINS. (this is also the key to writing great biographies.)

Thus in the typical romance the cliche opening is where the main POV character first sees or encounters the love-object or some effect that love-object has left in his/her wake.

The mistake most beginning writers make in choosing a protagonist and in finding the point where that person's story BEGINS (and thus the opening line of the novel) is to fail to spot, identify, and express the conflict. Or the reverse, knowing the conflict but failing to discover which of the ensemble characters HAS that conflict and is therefore the protagonist because that is the person who will resolve that particular conflict. (all these story components are related, and that relationship is expressed in the perfect opening line, the narrative hook.)

As a result of that failure to find character and conflict, the new writer will open their composition with a long, rambling, abstract history lesson setting out the parameters of their made-up universe, the long life histories of the characters, the politics and everything else that has nothing to do with the conflict.

This preamble is all material the writer feels the reader has to know BEFORE being able to understand or enjoy the story. This opening expository lump happens because the writer doesn't know the craft techniques I call "information feed."

No matter how clever or engrossing or startling the first line is -- that expository lump method is bound to fail.

Why? Because someone looking for a story is, whether they know it or not, looking for a conflict that can be resolved a number of ways -- and the story is about which way this particular person resolves that specific conflict.

Before the reader is ready to memorize the names of all the Empires and relatives of the royal families and the list of all the baddies who want to kill the protagonist, the life history of the person she/he will fall in love with -- BEFORE ALL THAT, the reader has to be made as curious to know those facts as a lover approaching orgasm is eager to GET THERE.

First you have to tease the reader into excitement -- THEN you can inform them, but never using dialogue or exposition. You must encode this information in SHOW DON'T TELL -- which means you must make the reader figure it out for him/herself because they want to know, not because you want them to know.

So the FORMULA for finding that all important opening line that prevents the expository lump of an opening is -







That one sentence is your opening line. It is your pitch for the screenplay. It's the line you use at the SFWA cocktail parties to pitch yourself to an Agent or Editor. It's what sells the thing (and you).

Study each of the suggested opening lines in the previous posts -- analyze them. You won't learn anything, especially not how to produce those lines from the mishmosh story idea in your head.

You can't learn that trick by reverse engineering great opening lines. The greater the line is, the less you can learn by studying it.

Make a pile of your favorite books. Write down the opening line, the last line, and the middle paragraph of each book.

Use this list of questions above and produce your own opening lines (do dozens for stories you will not write). Then rewrite them and rewrite them -- until you can see how you are in fact replicating the EFFECT of the opening lines YOU admired.

The whole rest of the novel is about WHO THAT PROTAGONIST REALLY IS UNDERNEATH IT ALL. And maybe about how the protag finds out who he/she really is, which is often different from who they think they are.

So a fully encoded SHOW DON'T TELL story is all about Identity, and how Identity changes under the impact of EVENTS. IDENTITY change is STORY. EVENTS SEQUENCE is PLOT. I call the Event Sequence the "because" line -- because this happened, that happened, and because of that, this other thing happened. Because this happened, that person did this, which causes this other person to do that. "Because" cross-links the story and the plot so that a reader can't tell the difference.

It's like making soup. You can't replicate your Mom's soup without knowing the ingredients and proportions.

The FIRST EVENT (often psychological not physical, sometimes both) in the plot is hidden (or maybe not so hidden) in the first line. The first Identity Change potential lies nascent in the first line.

"We were outstripping the night." -- flight from dark horrors. WHO? A person being chased by that which is inside himself. RESOLUTION - turning to face that demon, The Shara Matrix. Lew Alton's story -- starts with him returning home to make home strange. Notice "outstripping the night" looks "backwards" or "behind" the character. The entire novel is an unraveling of the true meaning of events long past.

That's SWORD OF ALDONES. Go read it. Study it. It's a masterpiece. But MZB didn't like it because she thought events happen without CAUSE being apparent. I love it because I can imagine the causes. When the reader is prompted to contribute important elements to the fantasy, they become invested in that story - and look up your byline again. Leave room for the reader's imagination.

I learned while interviewing Leonard Nimoy for Star Trek Lives! that this technique of leaving an open spot for the viewer's imagination is called in theater OPEN TEXTURE. It's a technique that makes the characters walk off the page and into the reader's dreams. The opening line sets up that "texture" effect.

So now to today's post! Sorry about the rambling preamble! But I think the previous posts on opening lines were about the art, and about admiring other people's art. This is my contribution to the "craft" -- the part of writing anyone who can write a literate English sentence (As Marion Zimmer Bradley always said) can learn.


Yesterday, I had an interesting experience. The mother of a young man in High School had told him to call me for advice about what story to write for a science fiction course he was taking. (???? SF taught in HS? With writing? What an interesting new world.)

Well, this young man is highly proficient in Math and Science -- but really lacking when it comes to writing papers and so on, i.e. verbal skills. And she knew he'd never call me.

So I said, "Well, tell him to go to the definition of SF. 'What if ...? If only ...? If this goes on ....' And start from there. Put one of those in a story, and you might have SF. Put all 3 and you have an award winning SF story."

She memorized the list of springboards, but didn't understand, so I said, "Well, what if Hillary Clinton becomes President? What if she cut science funding to fund health care?" (because the kid likes science and is a kid so doesn't care about healthcare yet)

What if -- Hillary wins? If only -- we had universal health care. If this goes on - we have to cut something to fund healthcare. See?

(Hey you and I know Hillary wouldn't, but that's not the point -- the point is to demonstrate how to use the springboards to create a story that is SF, so some absurdity is required in the premise, then you work it out logically from there. Cutting science to fund healthcare is a contradiction because you need basic science to create new cures -- which is why this would make an SF story. It's fiction about science.)

Well, she went away confident that she can propel her son into writing a story now. It's hard being a mother who can't help with homework.

So then I got to thinking about the definition of SF and remembered I'd forgotten to include the really salient part of the definition. Fred Pohl and John Campbell and Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon I think, came up with this one in a brainstorming session. (long, long story there)

"If you can take the science out and still have a story, it wasn't SF to begin with."

We use the same test for Star Trek fanfic. If you can take the Star Trek out and still have a ST fan story, it wasn't a ST fan story to begin with, and you should write it in its own universe and sell it. (some writers are doing that successfully now, though the first few attempts failed)

So we come to the problem that really has my attention -- defining Alien Romance.

You all know by now my own attempts at this definition created the premise that there is a Plot Archetype which I dubbed INTIMATE ADVENTURE, the core of ST fanfic. In the 1970's you couldn't buy Intimate Adventure SF/F at Waldenbooks so people paid exorbitant prices for fanzines printed on paper.


I still think of Intimate Adventure as a genre, but it is actually a Plot Archetype, which my sometime collaborator Professor of English Jean Lorrah has proven.

So that disqualifies it as the "definition" of Alien Romance because I/A is really not a genre. So I'm back to square one trying to define what it is that I actually write.

At the moment, I am working on transposing my Romantic Times Award winning novel, DUSHAU, into script format. So I have my nose into that universe again, and it definitely is Alien Romance -- it's SF Romance with an alien as one of the protags in the Relationship that drives the plot. In the third book, they actually get it on, too.

Appropos of the prepended item on FIRST LINES, the opening of DUSHAU is a parag all in caps, centered above the first paragraph of real text.


The protagonist who sees that announcement on her desktop display, responds instantly with total professional outrage, and eventually murders the Emperor because of this opening event. She has to change her loyalties to do that. The student should note what is NOT included in that opening line.

For more on why the accurate definition of the genre is vital to generating a FIRST LINE that will sell the book, see my January column and the review of SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES! by Blake Snyder and my comments on Amazon and on blakesnyder.com blog. It's a huge topic all about Commercial Art as a business.


Well, AR always seems to have a "What if ...?" element because you need to cast a universe around the characters. It has an "If only ...?" element because most all Romance does (the yearning for a soul mate), and occasionally AR comes up with an "If this goes on ..." type of prediction.

But what is the TEST to see if this particular novel is AR or not?

It can't be "If you take the romance out and still have a story, then it wasn't AR to begin with." Because that's the test for ROMANCE, not AR.

It might be, "If you take the alien out and still have a romance, then it's not AR?"

But then you come to what constitutes an "alien" -- as I've pointed out previously, humans can be the most bizarre aliens of all.

Take for example Banner's Bonus, by Carol Ann Lee (new author!) at awe-struck.net (for my money, the best e-publisher currently operating).

This book is as well constructed and well written as anything Manhattan publishes. It should be a Mass Market paperback.

Awe-struck.net sells it as SF Romance, but I think that's borderline. I also don't see it as Alien Romance, but it almost is.

This is set in a Star Trek like universe but apparently without non-human aliens (think Firefly). So some humans have been affected by a substance that has left them with Empathy, a trait that breeds true. So they're "alien."

However, halfbreeds have unpredictable half-talent. The particular kickass girl we follow is I think quarter or eight Empath. She believes she has no talent because she was tested. Her mother reads her father extremely well, though, and seems to be "bonded."

Her father hires a tough guy who hauls (interstellar) freight for him to protect his girl from some killers. She's a virgin. She spends weeks isolated in a small space ship with this tough guy, who melts. She (unknown to herself) bonds with him empathically, and thus becomes able to track him when he's kidnapped.

Definitely a Romance, and not too much actual sex. He takes her to the last place in the galaxy anyone would think to search for her -- his family's home. He has brothers - equally tough guys. They see she's bonded with him, even though he and she do not.

The SF universe building seems to me lacking. There is nothing different about the ports they visit, the types of people (crooks, criminals, lowlives, and heroes) they meet, the galactic political situation, the ways people do business -- and nothing at all is made of the mechanics of the space-drive they use, or any other science or technological innovation that might change the way people live their lives (watch a movie made before cell phones, and you'll see what I mean). In fact, their tech is less than we have today.

So the extrapolation of science is lacking. The worldbuilding, that we've discussed on this blog at such length, is a failure in this novel (even though it's a very well written novel.)

The Empathic premise could be something that happened on Earth -- Chernobyl comes to mind. Imports from China. There's no reason inherent in the story that forces the setting into the galaxy. They go from planet to planet as people might go from Southsea Island to China or India or San Francisco. The port bars are about the same. There's nothing galactic in this galaxy.

There's no reason that this story needs space travel. You take out the science, and you still have a story -- it's not SF.

Its "alien" is only human with a genetic twist of empathy that does not dominate or twist her personality, limit or inhibit her abilities, or rebound in any unexpected and unpredictable way making a problem the protags have to surmount (except the old Star Trek fanfic cliche of telepathic bonding) unique to this constructed universe.

It isn't SOLD as Alien Romance, but as SF Romance. Awe-Struck is the best publisher because they're honest and totally up front about their packaging. What you see is what you get.

Banner's Bonus is only just barely "SF" -- and the SF ladled on top like frosting. You can scrape it off.

But underneath the frosting, it's one whale of a good read! It tickles my AR button, but doesn't actually press it.

So what is it I'm really looking for in Alien Romance? What is the real core of the definition without which you do not have an ALIEN Romance?

Banner's Bonus is an example that should reveal the answer to that question. But I don't see it yet. It's a must-read because it's a book to study.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Anonymous1:51 PM EST

    I've so much yet to learn. Thanks for the helpful words. Gotta go work on a few lines, now.

  2. Anonymous9:10 PM EST

    FWIW, Banner's Bonus by Carole Ann Lee was originally published in 1995 under Love Spell's Futuristic Romance line. ISBN 0-505-52027-3.

    I know many of today's readers describe the futuristic romances of the 90s as 'historicals out in space'. They may be fluff or without heavy SF substance to today's readers, but I remember picking up my first one and thinking this was something new and exciting. It was so cool to have a full-blown romance in a science fiction setting! IMHO, it's like the early pulp SF. Sure, when we read them now, some are simple or out-of-date SF, but they are the roots of today's SF. You should read them to see how much SF has grown; besides, there are some real gems in the older stuff. And to me, coming from the romance side of reading, the futuristic romances of the 90s are the roots of SFR. I enjoy reading each and every one of them.

    Sorry, I'll get off my soapbox now to speak on your topic. Alien romances, to me, involve having to analyze/ understand the 'alien' in order for a change to take place in my thinking so I'm able to align myself with the alien personality. But then, isn't that what we already do with humans? Hmmm, I'll have to think about this some more.

    Vicky Woodard

  3. I saved your column to file. Interestingly, I came by this naturally for SCD, but still haven't figured it out for my other novels since. Now that I have this column though, I can go back and write it deliberately.

    It's one of those things, as a writer and a reader, when I'll think, "Something's missing." But, I can't figure out what it is on my own. Now I'm pointed in the right direction. Thanks.

  4. Wow, that was some post! Lots to think about.

    Anon, I hear you. When I'm in the mood for some pulp SF or futuristic romances, I'm *really* in the mood. I just have a fondness for those stories.

    I agree, there's some neat stuff in them, even though I might be simultaneously groaning about the out-of-date or wacky elements.

  5. I thought about this post today as I was reading a shapeshifter romance. I was feeling grateful that the heroine didn't discover a latent shapeshifting talent at the end because I usually feel cheated when the author goes "presto," and the H/H have really been the same all along. To me, it invalidates the struggles they've gone through if the struggles turn out to be unnecessary.

    Then I thought of your post. I think this is a major factor in my personal definition of alien romance - the hero and heroine being alien to each other.