How to Write an Ending No One Can Guess

writingThere are two ways to do it best. One is to start with an ending and work backward. I did this in Postmarked for Death, which began as a nightmare I had, involving an abandoned missile silo taken over by a madman. Not the usual scenario, either: there was no Hollywood missile, as in the movie “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” It was just two guys in the dark, each with a gun, listening intently for movement in the utter silence. The advantages to this method is that once you know where you’re going, it’s a journey of discovery to get there. Why are these two guys there? How did they get there—what led to it? Once you know who they are, and have established them vividly, the novel will write itself. Better if each is not a walking cliché (walking dead man) but a fallible, real person with both good and bad in them. They have made wrong decisions in the past, but redemption comes in making the right decision in the end. The second method is not knowing the ending. Again, you have the main character fleshed out. And a firm idea of what his or her dilemma is. In the case of The Methuselah Gene, I knew it was going to be a thriller about Big Pharma: how pharmaceutical drugs are tested and produced, combined with how the science of longevity may produce a drug in the near future to extend life by a decade or more. (Science validated recently in the Ron Howard series Breakthroughs.) With the main character (a bachelor researcher tortured by anxiety) fleshed out, it became a matter of doing research, and interviewing a few scientists in the field of genetic engineering so that the plot idea would be plausible. After that? A blank sheet of paper. No idea what would happen to this character, who he would meet, and how the plot idea would evolve. I simply put him into a situation, and listened to what he might say. As one of my fav actors, James Garner, once put it in his biography: “I don’t act, I react. Give me a reactor over an actor every time. As soon as you look like you’re acting, you’re dead. You’re just chewing the scenery.”  That’s the way I did it. I put him in motion, and told it from his point of view. He surprised me. That way, there is no way the reader won’t be surprised too. Just let go.

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John Carter meets Roy Batty

Blade RunnerOne of my favorite movies is Blade Runner, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, and set in a near future city bordering the dystopian, and which appears similar in some ways to current Chinatown in Los Angeles.  SF movies, though, largely get their predictions wrong.  The flying cars, massive structures and off-world colonies populated by cloned humans is much more than a stretch for 2018, as imagined back in the 1980s.  (2118 would have been more believable.)  Another great film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was also very optimistic in that regard.  Of course William Gibson, in his collection of essays Distrust That Particular Flavor states that SF is not about making predictions, really, it’s more about the current view of technology–the fears and hopes of its own time.  No one really knows where technology will go, and when, although it is the basis for social change.  (Think about what life would be like had the television or the cell phone or the laptop not come when they did.)  It’s predicted that by 2045 a sentient computer may arise, but the scientists I interviewed for the previous post say that is unlikely as well, and again 2145 is more reasonable.  About the science in films, Hollywood usually gets that wrong, too.  Stanley Kubrick came close, if you accept the premise of a super race which lives forever without bodies.  At least there is no sound in space, as there is in Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica.  (Entire books could be written about the bad science in those character-focused space operas.  Star Trek too, although it was more science friendly.)  Even Blade Runner makes mistakes, as when the dying Roy Batty (with a four year lifespan) talks in the end about having seen “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.”  Orion’s shoulder is at least 643 light years away, so unless faster-than-light travel was possible before 2014, and the clone was put into stasis, that wouldn’t be possible.  Again, the numbers don’t add up.  Despite its flaws, though, scientists polled voted the movie their favorite, because it asks the fundamental question who are we, and why are we here?  It does this with enough style and scientific substance to elevate it above the rest.  2001 also does this, in spades, which is but one reason why that film is usually listed in the top 10 movies of all time of any genre.  Why can’t Hollywood make more of these?  Is there no audience for it?  Puzzling.  As long as popcorn blockbusters, heavy on cliches and special effects, keep opening the wallets of comic book readers, what we get instead are battle/quest movies like John Carter (more space opera, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs, but unfortunately written by its director…ie. those num$ers do add up.)  Entertaining?  Of course.  But as Roger Ebert once put it, “there are no movies for adults, anymore.”  Americans, Hollywood has decided, want entertainment devoid of meaning.  I would argue that the TV miniseries The Martian Chronicles was more imaginative than many feature films being made today.  A new movie of The Martian Chronicles is in development, but who knows what that will turn out to be.  Will it be as bad as Galaxina, perhaps the most ludicrous SF film ever made, which nonetheless came out with a 25th Anniversary Special Edition with “storyboards,” audio commentary, galleries, extra scenes, and two complete “scripts” (including both the “original” and shooting script?)  Let’s hope not.  How about it, Hollywood?  Turn that clunker around and shoot for the stars instead of the same old tar pit.

Best SF Film Adaptations

In Space No One Can Hear You Talk Sports

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