So as part of my writing recovery plan, I’ve been re-reading and re-watching some of my favorite Sci-Fi books and films. The point of this is to remind myself why I wanted to be a Sci-Fi writer in the first place.
Last weekend, I re-watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. I like that movie. I like that movie a lot. But I don’t love it. Not in the way that I absolutely, positively, unambiguously LOVE Star Wars, or Alien, or The Martian. And that’s got me wondering: what differentiates a story that I, personally, love from a story that I merely like?
Obviously this is a subjective thing, but still there must be a pattern to my preferences. And now I think I’ve finally figured out what that pattern is:
- First off, a story needs good world building. There must be enough vivid detail (and also enough internal consistency) that I can picture myself actually living in the story world.
- Next, I have to feel like I really know the protagonist. I have to feel like know her or him well enough that we could be best friends.
- And lastly, there needs to be a serious threat: something big enough and scary enough that I feel genuinely frightened, either because this fictional world I now live in is threatened or because my new best friend is in danger.
Again, obviously, this is a subjective thing. But if you are telling me, J.S. Pailly, a story and if you want me, J.S. Pailly, to absolutely love your story, then you need to nail all three of those bullet points above. Witty dialogue, clever plot twists, hyper realistic science, insightful allegories about modern life—I’m happy to see those things in a story, too; but the three bullet points above are what really matter to me, personally.
In the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the world building is excellent. Just change the title to 2061, and I can totally believe this is what the near future will look like. As for having a serious threat, well… I really, really, really would not want to be trapped alone on a spaceship with HAL. Would you? Where 2001 falls short for me is its protagonist. We never learn much about Dr. David Bowman—certainly not enough to make me feel like I’m B.F.F.s with him.
Looking at other movies that fall just a little bit short for me: the villain in The Fifth Element doesn’t scare me much, and the world building in Gattaca has always felt a bit flat to me. Each of these films ticks only two out of three of my boxes, and thus I like them—I like them a whole lot, in fact! But I don’t quite love them.
But of course, different people come to a story wanting and expecting different things. I’ve told you which buttons a story has to push in order to make me absolutely, positively, unambiguously love it. What about you? What differentiates the stories you love from the stories you merely like?