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Writer Todd Kniss On How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

An Interview With Ian Benke

…Unique Characters (and their relationships with one another) For example, our characters in For Blood Or Justice: Cotton and Yada. Yada and Sangre. Sangre and Cotton. Alex and Angel. Take characters from diverse backgrounds and pit them against one another. I think no matter the genre, you need to start with unique characters.

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 Todd Kniss.

Todd Kniss is the creator, writer and executive producer of the new scripted podcast and graphic novel For Blood Or Justice. A graduate of Cal State University Long Beach with a BA in Film and Television Production, and the American Film Institute (AFI) with a MFA in Cinematography, he is a lifelong connoisseur of sci-fi, horror and psychological thrillers whether in book, podcast or film form. Kniss is also the writer and director of the independent thriller Homecoming. He lives in Long Beach with his wife and two young children.

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’ve always loved books. My parents were always reading something, LeCarre, Ludlum, Alistair MacLean, and it rubbed off on me and my siblings. I always have a book on my nightstand. A literal book, made of paper and ink. There’s something very romantic it about for me. Going to the bookstore, the library or even finding an old stash of books at a relative’s house when you’re staying over for the weekend. Having said that, I am also a very visual person. My dad was a professional photographer and all-around amazing artist, and I inherited some degree of his talent. I’ve always been fascinated by film, due in large part to seeing Jaws as a little kid. I was that kid running around the neighborhood with my dad’s 8mm camera, directing my friends as actors, and creating little home-made ‘masterpieces.’ I’m an alumnus of AFI in Cinematography and was drawn to that discipline because I am such a visual person, but alas, I realized much later that my true passion was in writing. Writing is my drug of choice. And in creating For Blood Or Justice, I was not only able to write and realize the story as a graphic novel, but also as a podcast series (and hopefully, one day, as a television series and a collection of novels).

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?

At AFI there is a mantra that is consistently drilled into your head — it takes the three Ps to be successful: Passion, Persistence, and Perseverance. I know it sounds like a postcard, but it’s so true. There’s no way I would have stuck with this project for so long, trying to find an audience, if I weren’t truly passionate about it. And if you’re truly passionate, and you really believe in the merits of your work, then you have no choice but to persevere. Quitting is not an option. Now hopefully, my persistence will finally lead to success. I’ve had many a day over the past decade where I was tempted to give it all up, to stop with the ‘daydreaming’ and simply get a job that paid the bills. But I never did that because I could never envision a world where I wasn’t writing or creating something.

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?

Our most immediate goal is to create a second season of For Blood Or Justice. We have numerous seasons plotted out if everything goes as planned. We even have several tangential stories that exist within the same universe, but I can’t divulge anything further on that. Ultimately, we envision For Blood Or Justice as a video game and television series; it lends itself perfectly to those mediums and pretty much everyone we’ve interacted with seems to agree. Here’s to making it happen!

Wonderful. Lets now shift to the main focus of our interview. Lets 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’ve always viewed sci-fi as a genre where the writer/creator speculates about the future, exploring where our current lives might be headed, sometimes for the better, but most often for the worse. Sometimes these stories will include extraterrestrial life, and often far-reaching scientific innovations — time travel, manned deep space exploration, and most, if not all people, now living in space or on another planet. But there is definitely a segment of sci-fi which is maybe more grounded in reality. For instance, dystopian versions of our society where we’re still on earth and living with little to minimal scientific advancement. Stories as disparate as Fahrenheit 451 to Mad Max.

For me, fantasy can take place during any era — the future, the past or even current day — but includes a fantastical element such as dragons, giants or some other fanciful creatures living amongst us as if they were a normal part of life. Game of Thrones, Reign of Fire, Lord of the Rings, and even King Kong are a few examples. I wouldn’t consider those stories sci-fi, but I would consider them fantasy.

For me, Michael Crichton was a genius at speculative fiction. Novels like Jurassic Park, Westworld, and The Andromeda Strain are more akin to speculative fiction, in my opinion They are all set on earth, in current day, and the science behind all of them is, to some degree, quite possible. Are they fantastical? Sure, but only to a degree.

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?

That’s so interesting and so true. And it makes me so happy that it is. I feel like there are times in our lives, especially when we are kids or teenagers, when we solely embrace what is new and emerging. The past is old, antiquated, and boring, but then there comes a time, not too many years later, when we start to look back fondly upon those activities that we engaged in during those exploratory years. For instance, I’ve always been into music, and when I was a young teen I loved nothing more than spending hours in the record store combing through the racks and racks of records. And then CDs came out and everyone ditched their records. And then the iPod was introduced and once again changed how we consume music. But vinyl records are a thing again, and it looks like they’re here to stay. Sometimes the simplest things are best.

I could be old fashioned, but I still want to read books that are printed on paper. I want to hold them, feel the soft texture of the paper, and smell the earthy pulp. And I think as we get older and get more stressed out with the innumerable responsibilities of being an adult, fantasy becomes an even more appealing place to visit…or perhaps live? This is one of the biggest reasons why we wanted to have a printed version of the For Blood Or Justice graphic novel. We did a limited print run and it turned out incredible! And soon we will have a version ready for public consumption, and you too will be able to hold it in your hands.

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

As much as I absolutely love cinema, nothing will ever compare to the experience of reading and what the reader envisions in their own mind versus that which is presented on screen. In a way, listening to a podcast is similar to reading a book; it’s fully immersive and allows the listener to construct the story in their mind’s eye. As the podcast’s creators we are making some decisions for the listener by giving voice to the characters, texture to the locations with sound design, and mood with the musical score, but the remainder of the story is left to the listener to build within their imagination.

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

Stephen King, obviously. Peter Straub and Thomas Harris. Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, and Nelson DeMille, to name a few thriller writers. My current favorites are Preston and Child (I’ve read every morsel I can get my grubby little hands on), Michael Connelly, and Jack Carr. Outside of novels, my other big artistic influences are those in film. John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg formed my youth and drove me to become a filmmaker. George Romero, Brian DePalma, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, and Guillermo Del Toro are also some of my favorite filmmakers.

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

To Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child — regarding the novel Relic — you delved deeper into fantasy by including a monster as the protagonist, but in your novels since then (with the exception of the near-immortal Enoch Lang) you’ve pulled back from the fantasy a bit and have more firmly rooted your characters in reality. Why so?

Also, if Riptide is ever available for adaptation to the screen, I would love the opportunity to make it happen! I love all of the Pendergast novels, but Riptide still holds a very special place in my heart (and is the only P&C novel I have read multiple times).

Wed 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?

How would I describe myself? Slow. I don’t know that I have a specific style. At least none that I am aware of. I’ve always written by flow rather than by any specific rules of grammar and sentence structure. Meaning the words formulate in my head with a certain cadence. That’s probably not the way you’re supposed to write, but that’s what seems to work for me.

My stories often begin with a character, or a scenario. I then try to figure out how to get to that incident in an interesting way, then work my way back toward the beginning, figure out how it ends, and lastly, fill in some of the blanks. I’ll then start sketching out scenes and connecting them. At some point down the road, usually when I hit a roadblock, I’ll begin the process of outlining the entire thing. I realize that’s probably the absolute worst process of writing, but that’s how I work. I guess I get too excited to start writing that I can’t be bothered to stop and outline. Maybe one day I’ll figure it out…

Excerpt from For Blood Or Justice:

Armando knew it was pointless, but he tried the door anyway. Locked indeed. Just as he had figured. Just like the protocol that had been instituted. The door could only be opened from the outside, his leaving the area possible only when his shift ended and the next came in and opened the door. It was a sound protocol, and until now he had never questioned it. Why should he? He was paid well in a time and area where there was little other work.

But today was different. Something had gone wrong. The power had gone out before, but never for this long, and usually not without some sort of advance warning. It was usually a test of the system. But not today. He looked at the heavy wooden door down below, a sudden chill running up his spine.

Yes, something was wrong. It felt wrong. It felt downright creepy.

“¿Cuál es el problema?” came the voice from below. His partner, Enrique.

“Mierda…que ha bloqueado,” Armando responded tersely. “It’s locked.”

He fumbled in his pocket for his own set of keys, hoping against hope that perhaps one of them might work, but feeling in his gut that it probably would not. He pulled the ring of keys from his pocket and tried one after another without success.

“Debe trabajar. We can’t stay in the dark. Not down here,” screeched his partner.

“Mierda. ¡Nada trabaja!” he muttered. And then Armando heard the creaking of the steps behind him. He could also sense their growing presence, moving up the stairs toward him and the locked door that stood in the way of their freedom. Where the fuck was the flashlight? He seemed to recall that it was somewhere along the wall, hanging from a hook. He felt his way around, ignoring the whimpering that was growing in volume from behind. With no other illumination, no windows, vents or anything else remotely leading to the structure’s exterior, the room was impossibly dark.

“Prisa. Prisa. Something is wrong,” Enrique called out from the dark.

There it is. He found it. He pulled it from the wall and, before flicking the switch, quickly prayed that the batteries were still sound. And with a small click it worked. The lamp emitted a feeble, but sufficient shaft of amber light.

He turned around and looked down the stairs to the floor below. He passed the light over the gathered women, cowering to a one. Some had anxiously made their way up the stairs in anticipation of leaving, and some had stayed down below. But they were all largely docile. Thank God.

“Hands up! Move back down the stairs and to your places. Now!,” he yelled.

Armando moved slowly back down the stairs, swinging the light’s beam from side to side, herding the women like cattle. “Fuera de mi manera. ¡Movimiento!” he bristled. “We must wait here until they unlock the door. There’s nothing to be concerned about. Todo será fino.”

He was moving the light around, looking for Enrique within the gloom, when he stopped cold. “¿Qué…?” he said, stupefied. “¡No!”

Armando moved down the stairs, pushing the women aside violently. He had to get there first. He had to stop Enrique. “¡Parada! Stop!”

He took the last three steps with a single leap and rushed to the far side of the room, shoving several screaming women to the ground. “No! Not that way,” he yelled with futility.

It was too late. Enrique had already done it. He had unlatched the lock and untethered the chain. And he was now opening the heavy timber doors.

Armando pushed through the women crowded into the open doorway and stopped behind Enrique. He wanted to shoot the man in the head but was too mesmerized by the sight before him to act.

The gathered group stood in awe, staring into the darkness beyond the doors.

It was empty, and silent. For now.

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.

  1. Unique Characters (and their relationships with one another) For example, our characters in For Blood Or Justice: Cotton and Yada. Yada and Sangre. Sangre and Cotton. Alex and Angel. Take characters from diverse backgrounds and pit them against one another. I think no matter the genre, you need to start with unique characters.
  2. Fiction woven into historical fact. In creating this story I thought it would be much more suspenseful if we could place it in an era before cellphones and GPS were ubiquitous. A time when if you were alone, you were truly alone. You didn’t have the luxury of making a call, surfing the web, or tracking your location. Once I was committed to this idea I had to decide on when exactly that time would be, and I knew I had to have fugitive Nazis that weren’t too far removed from WWII. Therefore, it should still be during the cold war and not too distant as to feel too far removed from present day, so the late 60s or 70s seemed like the obvious place to start. I started researching year by year to find a time that had numerous intriguing incidents that might lend itself well to the story, and I came up with 1977. It was the year Werner von Braun died, a character whom I always found incredibly complex and fascinating. It was also the year Elvis died, The Summer of Sam, the year of the NYC blackouts. Once I settled on the period I began weaving these historical facts into my fantastical story to make it more grounded.
  3. Putting ordinary people into dire situations. Again, this is not unique to the fantasy genre, but I find it necessary for me to include in anything I write. Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston did it masterfully in Breaking Bad with the conceit ‘what would it take to turn a good man bad?’ In For Blood Or Justice I put our protagonist in a similarly difficult conundrum — if someone killed everyone you loved, would you be able to restrain yourself in seeking revenge? Would you seek blood, or justice?
  4. An intriguing creature. I love zombie films and Armageddon scenarios. They’re the ultimate test of survival. The ultimate test of oneself. You suddenly find yourself dropped into a world where you have a lead pipe and a cantaloupe, and you have to somehow survive for the next week. This got me thinking — how might I create a zombie-like character/creature without actually making them the ‘undead’? So I thought, what makes one a zombie? In essence a zombie is a mindless, eating, killing machine. And what makes that different than a normal human? The only real difference is that most of us have a conscience and some manner of moral compass. We feel pain, embarrassment, abide by the law, and generally adhere to idea of society’s social mores. Well, what if you could remove those characteristics yet still keep them as living, breathing creatures? Without giving away too much, I feel like I’ve done a reasonably decent job of creating that version of a real life zombie. Oh yeah, and there are a variety of other fantastic ‘creations’ we’ll eventually discover as the story progresses, but I can’t divulge those secrets just yet.
  5. Mash-up of genres. I thought if I was ever going to create a story that was truly unique I would have to mix several different genres together. And if I was going to be working on a single project for the next several years I wanted it to be something I was very passionate about. So I took the stories I always loved growing up — the horror films of Carpenter and Romero, the books of Stephen King, Elmore Leonard and Robert Ludlum, espionage movies like 3 Days of the Condor and Marathon Man, and the gritty characters from movies like Dirty Harry and The French Connection — and rolled them all into one crazy stew. And I’ve given it a new term — horror-noir.

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 🙂

Bono, Vin Scully, John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro, Douglas Preston

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I hope to one day write and publish a series of For Blood or Justice-related novels…but until then you’ll just have to follow and listen to the podcast at: podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/for-blood-or-justice And on social: @BloodOrJustice There will be much more to come.

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

About The Interviewer: Ian Benke is a multi-talented artist with a passion for written storytelling and static visual art — anything that can be printed on a page. Inspired by Mega Man, John Steinbeck, and commercials, I.B.’s science fiction writing and art explore the growing bond between technology and culture, imagining where it will lead and the people it will shape. He is the author of Future Fables and Strange Stories, the upcoming It’s Dangerous to Go Alone trilogy, and contributes to Pulp Kings. The CEO and Co-Founder of Stray Books, and an origami enthusiast, Ian is an advocate of independent, collaborative, and Canadian art. https://ibwordsandart.ca

Writer Todd Kniss 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.