I love the TV show Stargate: SG1. Love it. It can be corny and repetitive, but I adore it. (Except the lame recap episodes. Whose idea were those? Urgh.) The show is self-aware, ready to have fun, and isn’t afraid of anything.
Hubs and I are rewatching it for the third time and I’ve been thinking about what it’s taught me about writing.
This may contain a few spoilers, but the show has been off the air for a few years now so I’m going to say it’s safe.
1. Is it cool? Use it.
This works best if you can make it make sense, of course. Awesome for the sake of awesome can easily come across as useless. Readers can tell when you’re just throwing crap in, but if you can keep their suspension of disbelief going, you’re in business.
Want to blow up a star? Go for it! Just tell me why you’re doing something so awesome and crazy. Want to have a bunch of space ships shaped like pyramids? Me too.
2. Get the main character(s) to suggest things and act.
This seems obvious, right? Have your protagonist protag. But keep looking for more opportunities to make your character to move. I was watching Jack say, “Let’s do this plan!” while his boss was sitting right there.
Wait wait, I thought, shouldn’t General Adorable have this plan? He’s a general. I’m sure he’s already thought of it! But then I realized. General Adorable (okay, Hammond) isn’t the protagonist. Jack is. Of course, Jack had to check with Hammond that this was okay, but Jack had the idea because he’s the protagonist. (I am overcoming a tendency to let my characters defer to authority figures. Last year I went through an entire manuscript to make my main character work harder. Now it’s a better story.)
3. Things get worse. No, MUCH worse.
Stargate is really good at making the viewer afraid for the characters. True, they’re the main characters. It’s unlikely they’re going to die. (Or stay dead.) So what they’re really doing is making you ask, “How the heck are they going to get out of this?”
This struck me for the first time when I was watching Sam stand on the space gate in the middle of nowhere outer space, trapped in her astronaut outfit with limited air. (She probably had to pee, too.) The spaceship she’d been riding was just blown up. Holy. Cow. So she’s stuck there? And then things get worse: A bunch of bad guy ships show up, ready to attack.
So go ahead. Make things ridiculously bad. You don’t have to know how to fix things while you’re writing it. Figure it out later. (And when your characters figure out a solution in five minutes book time, it will make them look super cool — even if it took you five days.)
4. Don’t give your characters what they want. Or — better yet — give it to them and make them choose to give it up.
How many times did Jack have to crash or otherwise destroy his hard-won pyramid-shaped motherships? Two I can think of right off. His mission was to find new technology to help them fight the bad guys, and he really wanted to do that. But every time he managed to get something, he had to choose to give it up. Usually to save the world.
(Don’t frustrate your audience. Do let there be progress. Eventually.)
5. It’s okay to explain things.
There’s always someone who’s going to skim. Or knit while watching the show from the corner of her eye. They may need reminders. “As you know, Bob” is cliche and can get repetitive, but sometimes it’s the only way to make your readers (or viewers) get from point A to C. ‘Cause you know there’s someone skimming.
Just keep it interesting for the people who are paying attention. Every time Sam tries to explain something to Jack (for the sake of the audience), she gets just far enough the audience can catch on, and then he interrupts her or something explodes or whatever. That way the people who are paying close attention don’t want to stab themselves with a rusty spork.
6. Have fun.
If you’re not having fun, the audience can tell. Yes, writing is hard and sometimes we (okay, not me, but I hear some people) hate our books. But if you don’t care, why should your reader?
I’m sure there’s more I’m not thinking of at 4:45AM (when I’m writing this), but that’s enough for now.
Obviously all this won’t work for everyone, or in every situation. I can actually think of plenty of times where they might not work! But this post isn’t about that. This post is about freeing yourself to write bigger, to consider things you might not otherwise.
As always, in the end, you have to do what’s right for the story.