Hello, friends!

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?

25 responses »

  1. Steven Rose, Jr. says:

    I need not only believability of characters and setting but setting that enhances the story and influences the characters. E.G.) How the nearly unlivable conditions of an alien planet effects the moods of the characters.

    You put it really clear the way you bullet-point the three most important elements to making the reader engage with the story. It’s a good reminder about what should go into a good story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      That’s one of the reasons I love The Martian. Mars is both the setting and the antagonist in that book. I don’t know of many stories that communicate the idea so clearly that just being on another planet would be a serious threat.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kate Rauner says:

        A non-human (or at least, non-sentient) antagonist is hard to pull off. Even in the earthly portions of The Martian, the conflict is between good people who each try to do the right thing. Conflict, but not bad vs evil.

        Liked by 1 person

      • J.S. Pailly says:

        It is hard to pull off. I’d say Jack London does the man vs. nature (or dog vs. nature) thing best. The first time I read The Martian, I thought this is kind of what it would be like if Jack London wrote science fiction.

        Liked by 1 person

      • debscarey says:

        This comment has just caused me to move The Martian rapidly up my TBR!

        And thank you for the bullet points. A very helpful reminder which it’s all too easy to forget in the “yay, I’m writing” energy burst.

        Liked by 1 person

      • J.S. Pailly says:

        You’re in for a real treat. It’s a great book!

        Like

  2. Steve Morris says:

    I didn’t really enjoy The Martian. It just didn’t grab me. I don’t know why.
    But I know exactly how you felt about 2001: A Space Odyssey. I felt the same.
    As for The Fifth Element, that worked for me. Maybe the villain was a little camp, but I felt for the hero and his quest.
    Star Wars is great, yes.
    My all-time favourite? The Matrix. I didn’t feel like I really related to the hero, but the whole thing just blew my mind. I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      The Matrix is a great movie. Maybe I should add that one to my list. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it.

      As for The Fifth Element, I always have fun watching that movie. The world building is phenomenal, and I totally feel like I’m B.F.F.s with Corbin Dallas. The villain just doesn’t scare me enough. But that’s my personal tastes and preferences. The Fifth Element is still a great movie.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kate Rauner says:

    The Fifth Element is one of my favorites… to the point where my spousal unit covers his ears and runs yelling “not this again” when I flip it on. My attitude is really inexplicable, because I usually start to yawn through long cartoony fight scenes. It’s just so bright… so ridiculous… bumbling but also invincible heroes, with such an obvious theme. Cute little one-offs from minor characters that I notice and remember. None of that sounds like I’m describing a favorite, but I am. Only one question: what’s with the chocolate syrup dripping down faces?

    Liked by 2 people

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Yeah, that chocolate syrup thing is super weird.

      I think if that movie gave us a little more detail about the “dark planet,” I’d be 100% on board. Everything else is amazing, and I can’t think of any other movie that has that super vibrant visual aesthetic. I just wish we knew a little more specifically what the threat is. But that’s just me and my personal preferences. I’m certainly not trying to say the movie is bad in any way.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. ahtdoucette says:

    Wow thats an interesting reflection. I think mine is very close but you can substitute interesting problem for danger. Like Ready Player One where yes there was some actual danger but it was immersive game playing that got me. You want to see the winner win! I’m also a cozy mystery fan for that reason. I love puzzles and that alone can totally do it for me. I’m straining my brain for examples, but I know there are some sci fi stories like that. Where the tech or the weird question is the drama.

    Liked by 3 people

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Asimov’s robot novels were kind of like that. We learn the three laws of that govern robot behavior, and then we see robots doing things nobody expected them to do, and the main character has to figure out why. Solving those puzzles does make for some pretty interesting storytelling.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. That’s a good list. I basically agree with it. In the end, a story where we never get close to the characters, as in 2001, seems seriously hampered. I loved 2001 as a kid, but it’s interesting that I read a comic adaptation as well as Clarke’s novel before I ever saw the movie itself. Both the comic and book connected much more closely with Bowman (as well as with Moonwatcher (the ape) and Floyd in the early parts). Kubrick actually removed most of the script dialog just before production, which I think is what causes most of the disconnect (although it makes the movie much more surreal).

    I would add to the second point that I have to care about the protagonist(s) to at least some extent. Otherwise the danger from the third point won’t work very well. There are lots of movies or shows that I struggled to get into, mainly because the protagonist is just too unsympathetic for me to care. I had this issue with the early seasons of Torchwood, and The Last Kingdom TV series. (I hear the books are much better.)

    On the third item, I don’t know that it needs to be danger necessarily, so much as some kind of dramatic question. But whatever the question is, it needs to be compelling enough to keep reading, and a character I care enough about in danger is pretty compelling.

    Liked by 2 people

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I saw the movie before I read the book, and I have to admit the book helped clarify a lot of the things I didn’t understand about the movie. Dave Bowman feels a whole lot more like a real person in the book. I’d also say the book does a better job making HAL scary, in large part because we, as readers, do care about Bowman. There’s this sense of existential dread when Bowman realizes he’s now stuck on a spaceship 300 million miles from Earth with a homicidal computer. He can’t call Earth for help, because HAL controls the communications, and even if he could tell Earth what’s happened, there’s no way they could send help in time. So he just goes about his day pretending nothing’s wrong, because he doesn’t want to set HAL off again. I remember those chapters made for some really, really tense reading.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Steve Morris says:

        I think it is actually impossible to understand the movie without reading the book!

        Liked by 2 people

      • J.S. Pailly says:

        Yeah, pretty much. Also, if you don’t read the book, you miss out on the famous “My God, it’s full of stars!” part.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I’m just realizing that I read that book in the 1970s, more than four decades ago. But I definitely remember that period of desperation for Bowman, which the movie skips entirely. If I recall correctly, he does at some point manage to rig up communication with Earth, but his situation remains pretty desperate, and he has to fight despair with a busy work schedule.

        One line from the novel that stuck with me, when he’s leaving to investigate the monolith in space, something about it being more than 1000 times the age of the pyramids in Egypt. And yeah, the “My God, it’s full of stars!” line, and the note that it was the last thing mission control ever got back. (Which movie audiences never got wind of until the sequel.)

        I found the novel satisfying because Clarke provides an explanation at the end, a basic summary of who the aliens are and what they’re about. From what I’ve read, Kubrick deliberately decided to obscure that. He didn’t want to provide an interpretation of the events for the audience. He wanted to leave it open to alternate interpretations, even theological ones. The two versions probably represent the very different outlooks of Clarke and Kubrick.

        Liked by 1 person

      • J.S. Pailly says:

        I remember in film school, one of my teachers said the ambiguity of the ending was one of the reasons he thought the movie was so great. The way he sees it, movies that answer all of the audience’s questions are just pandering. This teacher may have been a bit of a film snob. Then again, I respect that different people want and expect different things from their entertainment.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Aliens is the the perfect science fiction movie to me. One heck of a roller coaster ride.
    I also really dug Fifth Element. I think that one is all about one’s tastes in movies. I found it quirky and fun.
    2001 – slow pace probably kills it for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m yet to finish Gattca lol
    Do you not like Interstellar?
    Have you watched Oblivion? I kinda liked that too
    Other movies I enjoyed were
    Lucy- Scar Jo 😍🔥, The Men In Black were nice too,
    Passengers, I have the ending of Prometheus left.. but I remember myself enjoying it
    Gravity was a good one
    There are lots of movies on my list but you can always recommend more 😛

    Liked by 1 person

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