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Author Lani Diane Rich On How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

An Interview With Ian Benke

Remember that all of your characters are human. If a character is sentient, they are coded as human, even if they’re a talking frog or a dragon hording their gold. If a character wants something, they’re human. Stay connected to the part of every character that is human. Even when they are evil, see their humanity, and show it to your readers.

Science Fiction and Fantasy are hugely popular genres. What does it take for a writer today, to write compelling and successful Science Fiction and Fantasy stories? Authority Magazine started a new series called “How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories”. In this series we are talking to anyone who is a Science Fiction or Fantasy author, or an authority or expert on how to write compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lani Diane Rich.

Lani is a NYT bestselling author, an award-winning podcaster, and a story expert. Her book, “How Story Works,” a simplified guide to storytelling, will be available in January.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about what first drew you to writing over other forms of storytelling?

I have always loved writing, since I was a kid, but it never seemed like something real people did. I grew up, I got married, I had kids and when I was a stay-at-home mom, I wrote as a daily amusement. That amusement led to my first book deal, which was a big surprise for me, because although I’d studied stories and writing, I still never really thought you could get paid to do it. I was thrilled to discover I was wrong.

You are a successful author. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

One huge predictor of success is a dogged willingness to fail, and I have that in spades. I often presume out of the gate that I’m going to fail at something, but I do it anyway because it might be fun. It was Halloween night in 2002, only hours before Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), when some friends from a writing group explained to me what it was (a challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days) and suggested I play along. I did, and that resulted in my first published novel, Time Off for Good Behavior.

Another trait I have that contributes to success is curiosity. I want to know what it’s like to write and finish a particular story. I want to see if I can pull off a genre I’ve never tried before. I wonder what I will learn if I start a podcast talking about a story I’m passionate about. I just want to know what’s at the other end of the rainbow, and I will endure all manner of indignity to find out.

But really, the most powerful thing that contributes to success is only defining success along axes I can control. I can’t control whether my book will be picked up by an agent, bought by an editor, hit a bestseller list, or make me a load of money. I can control that a book will be done, and I can control how much fun I allow myself to have while writing it. Having an internal locus of success is so hugely important. Like I tell my students, outcome is not your business. Your business is that you do the thing. That’s success.

Can you tell us a bit about the interesting or exciting projects you are working on or wish to create? What are your goals for these projects?

Right now, I’m finishing up edits on “How Story Works,” a book that sums up my life’s work of trying to understand and wield the power of storytelling. The book is probably the biggest thing I will ever do, as I’ve distilled what makes a story work down to core principles that can apply to any form, any genre, literally any story. It’s a short book, direct and to the point, but I’m about as excited to put it out into the world as I’ve been for anything I’ve ever done.

After that, I’m excited to start writing fiction again. I went through a devastating trauma a few years back that made it pretty much impossible to write fiction. I have only recently been able to read fiction again; for a few years, I couldn’t even listen to music. Because of that, I’ve focused on my non-fiction work analyzing and understanding stories, and writing “How Story Works.” But now that that big work is finished, I’m excited to pick up a project that I dropped during those fallow years and finish it. After that, I just want to teach storytelling and write novels for the rest of my days. All kinds. All genres. I honestly cannot wait.

Wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define sci-fi or fantasy? How is it different from speculative fiction?

I think of sci-fi and fantasy as a subset of speculative fiction. Where speculative fiction encompasses anything that veers significantly from the world as we know it, sci-fi and fantasy take a particular angle on that veer.

Sci-fi is about a “what if?” philosophical question that humanity hasn’t faced yet, but could viably face down the road. These questions are usually answered by drawing a line from our current base of knowledge — science — to where that science might lead. What if robots gained sentience and wanted to live human lives? What if a passenger on a spaceship wakes up on a long trip and can’t go back into hyper-sleep, and thus must live out his life alone, surrounded by other sleepers? What if aliens who see through time land on our planet to ask us for help in a future they can already see? Sci-fi at its best is where philosophical edge cases are explored.

Fantasy is about our internal landscape, and I would classify a subset of horror as fantasy, when that horror is using monster as metaphor, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fantasy creates things that don’t exist and map them to things that do exist so that we might be able to see them from a different angle, and understand them better. Monsters, dragons, hobbits, elves, fairies… they’re all representative of very human experiences that are presented as a magical other, allowing us to experience that one metaphor purely as its own thing.

The big thing to remember is that sci-fi does not mean spaceships, and fantasy does not mean medieval settings and dragons. “Star Wars” — the original three, anyway — are fantasy stories, because they generate from a mythological framework. Michael Crichton’s “Timeline” which takes place predominantly in a medieval setting, is science fiction. Don’t let the setting fool you.

It seems that despite countless changes in media and communication technologies, novels and written fiction always survive, and as the rate of change increases with technology, written sci-fi becomes more popular. Why do you think that is?

One of the concepts I talk about in “How Story Works” is the separation of story and form. A novel is not, in itself, the story; it is the delivery mechanism for the story. Same for television, movies, video games, graphic novels. The story is the thing, and any form that can deliver story, will.

Novels are popular and will remain popular because they offer a very particular kind of immersive experience. A reader of a novel must invest, they have to put effort into reading the lines and the translation from marks on paper to ideas and characters and events happens internally, within their mind. Because of that, novels have a particular immersive opportunity that other forms don’t have. Meanwhile, other forms such as movies and television have other strengths.

I think written sci-fi would be popular now because we’re living sci-fi right now. Things that would have been inconceivable 10 years ago are daily reality now. I have all of human knowledge in my purse right now; that’s insane. Answering those “what if?” questions becomes much less theoretical when you find yourself living the “what if?” that you were wondering about a few years back.

In your opinion, what are the benefits to reading sci-fi, and how do they compare to watching sci-fi on film and television?

I think reading requires a bit more elbow grease from the reader than watching film or television. Note; I’m not saying reading is better. I have no time for value arguments. The forms are just different. But because reading is a more immersive form, a sci-fi reader needs to wrestle deeply with the philosophy of the story as they engage with the material. You can watch 2016’s “Arrival” and enjoy the beautiful visuals and sound design and but you can walk away without thinking too deeply about the core of the story. But if you read Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life,” upon which “Arrival” was based, the philosophical questions are unavoidable. You cannot help but twirl those central questions around in your mind, and what makes it so fascinating is that it uses a sci-fi setting to examine something so incredibly human; the meaning and nature of love. You can’t read that story and not engage with that question.

What authors and artists, dead or alive, inspired you to write?

So many. Jane Austen, of course. Emily Brontë. Jennifer Crusie. But honestly… it’s been a lot of television writers. Glenn Gordon Caron created “Moonlighting,” which was the first time I’d become simply obsessed with a story. Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is such a good time; same for Amy Sherman Palladino. Jane Espenson’s work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a beautiful mix of laugh out loud jokes and deep emotion that I strive to emulate in my work. I will never be as good a writer as any of them, but man, it’s fun trying.

If you could ask your favourite Science Fiction and Fantasy author a question, what would it be?

Pardon me for being what I believe the kids are calling “basic” but if I could sit down with J.R.R. Tolkien and ask about the worldbuilding, I would. There is magic in the ability to create a world, down to a fully functional language, that is fascinating to me.

We’d like to learn more about your writing. How would you describe yourself as an author? Can you please share a specific passage that you think exemplifies your style?

I am a deeply emotional author who mixes pathos with humor as a defense mechanism. I write stories that are mostly, in the end, about lost family and found family, which is not always the same set of people.

But if I had to pick one passage that is probably the most me, it’d be from my novel written as Lucy March, “For Love or Magic.” This is the moment when the heroine, Eliot, meets the hero, Desmond, who has a touch of the Byronic to him.

“Being and Nothingness,” I said, reading the spine. “Sartre will make you jump off a bridge, you know that, right?”

He smiled, and there was a slight glint of surprise in his eyes, the same surprise I usually see when people discover I’ve read books. “Not a fan?”

“Of the books? No,” I said. “I like the letters.”

Again, surprise lit in his face. “To Simone de Beauvoir?”

I nodded. “Yeah. They’re both so dense and pretentious in their texts, but the letters they wrote…” I smiled, remembering how I’d felt when I’d read the letters, like I was slipping into a cozy, warm robe, fresh from the dryer on a cold day. “They weren’t trying so hard, you know? She was one of the world’s most staunch feminists, and he called her ‘my dear little girl,’ and she liked it. She could just be a woman with him. Don’t get me wrong, she was a hot mess, but he knew it and loved her anyway and there’s something really encouraging about that. A nutty lid for every crazy pot, that kind of thing.”

“Hmmm,” he said, noncommittally. “I haven’t read the letters.”

“You should. The things they wrote to each other were more real and meaningful than anything else either of them ever did. I mean, the guy is famous for saying, ‘Hell is other people,’ and yet the only reason anyone reads Being and Nothingness is so that other people will be impressed. What kind of fucked up legacy is that?”

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I was insulting him until I’d finished insulting him. I opened my mouth to say something smooth and charming that could get me out of the hole I’d just dug for myself, but what was I going to say? I’m sure you’re not reading it to show off? Of course he was, because that’s the only reason people read Sartre.

“Unless you’re taking a college class,” I said slowly.

Based on your own experience and success, what are the “Five Things You Need To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.

The ideas I’m about to lay out apply to all fiction, but science fiction and fantasy are no exception.

  1. Know what your protagonist wants, and why they can’t have it. Stories are about protagonists trying to get something or do something, and being blocked in that attempt.
  2. Remember that all of your characters are human. If a character is sentient, they are coded as human, even if they’re a talking frog or a dragon hording their gold. If a character wants something, they’re human. Stay connected to the part of every character that is human. Even when they are evil, see their humanity, and show it to your readers.
  3. Likeability is a myth. Someone may tell you, especially if you are a woman or are writing female characters, that you need to make those characters more likeable. You do not. You need them to be sympathetic, which means you need to give them vulnerability. Even your villain. Maybe especially your villain. See #2.
  4. It’s okay for your protagonist to lose. For a story to be narratively legit, a winner must be decided in the central conflict… but it doesn’t have to be your protagonist. As a matter of fact, in some stories, especially where a protagonist is a villain or is holding onto ideas they need to release, they should lose. Happy endings are not required for a story to work; only honesty.
  5. How you end a story tells your reader what it’s about. The last scene you write in that story will be the most important; be sure it reconnects your reader with the heart of your story.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Entertainment, Business, VC funding, and Sports read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I hate to say it because I’m currently doing a podcast on his “Sandman” comics and it sounds really self-serving, but if I’m honest… Neil Gaiman. I have spent the last 17 years studying story structure, how to make the craft of it all work. Neil works almost entirely in the magical part of storytelling, connecting themes and ideas and perspectives in a way that reaches through human experience into some of the first stories we ever told. I lean on craft because it gives me something to put my back up against; the magic intimidates me, but the magic is the reason we tell stories, and why we come to them as readers. Magic is everything. You can get away with bad craft, but bad magic? You’re sunk before you start. From my perspective, Neil has this ability to write from a place that pulls directly from the shared magic of our stories, so he’s not only privy to his own magic but… everyone’s. Like, through time. I don’t know if I’m explaining that well, but I just want to sit and hear him talk about his process. He’s one of the bravest writers I’ve witnessed, and I don’t know if he knows how he does it, but I’d love to have the opportunity to ask.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m on Twitter @lanidianerich, and readers can find information about me and my books at lanidianerich.com.

Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success.

Author Lani Diane Rich On How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.