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3 Storytelling lessons from Science Fiction

Since the beginning of human civilization, even before the written word was popular, we’ve used storytelling to connect with others, to pass down knowledge, to record our histories, and to make sense of the world around us. Religions are based on stories called parables. Movies are a billion-dollar industry and also a form of visual storytelling. Stories convey lessons that shape who we are, and we use storytelling to connect with others.

In all forms of literature, you’ll find character and plot techniques that draw the reader in and connect them emotionally to the lives of both real and fictional characters. Often the distinction is menial. To the modern person, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are characters in the story of U.S. history. Likewise, none of us have ever met Captain America or Katniss Everdeen. But the lessons of hope, justice, and perseverance in the face of tyranny conveyed by all of these characters affects many of us in the same way.

Your grandfather may not get as much out of Avengers as Saving Private Ryan, but there are storytelling techniques layered across all genres that speak to our humanity.

My passion for storytelling comes from a deep admiration for human tenacity, community, and ingenuity. Storytelling has led me from teenage dreams of film directing, to visual arts, to a degree in literature and writing, to blogging and podcasting, to writing cross-genre fiction, and finally to my career in web design, digital content, and content marketing. If you’re interested in storytelling, writing, literature, film, or marketing, (like I am) then I hope you’ll find something here that speaks to you and perhaps some insights you can use.

1. Finding humanity in the fantastic

While imaginative, surreal settings and situations draw us to science fiction, it’s ultimately the characters that we connect with. I’m not saying that I don’t get excited about repulser rays or starship battles, but it’s the how and why characters use their magical abilities or cool technologies that matters. From Tony Stark’s ego (and the responsibility of his alter-ego, Ironman) to Darth Vader’s totalitarian obsession with power, flawed characters in science fiction struggle with the mistakes of their pasts and how to proceed into their futures.

There’s a reason why the most famous lines from Star Wars are “I am your father!” and “I love you / I know”. The betrayal Luke feels for the villianous father he never knew, now hunting him and his friends as a fascist military leader. The love that Han and Leia have nurtured through denial bursting forth at the cusp of life and death. These dramatic moments exemplify what it means to be tribal, passionate, flawed human beings. Focusing on personal relationships, Sci-fi authors utilize fantastic settings and circumstance to dramatize those common human experiences that shape us all.

2. The hero story will always resonate

From real life heroes like fire fighters and veterans, to medieval and Jedi knights, to warrior vigilantes and meta-humans (a.k.a. super-powered beings), all our greatest stories focus on some type of hero. Even everyday heroes who stand up to injustice or help the less fortunate inspire us. We want to find the best within ourselves and within others, to hope and love and win. The hero story speaks to our human experience, drawing on millennia of history and fable.

We want to find the best within ourselves and within others, to hope and love and win.

From King Arthur’s court to Hogwart’s, stories have always focused on overcoming fear in the defense of humanity. King Arthur finds the strength of character to risk his life time after time, to break the rule of fear, and to unite his people by example. Harry Potter finds motivation in friendship and compassion instead of living in fear or seeking vengeance. Faced with difficult choices, the hero struggles with the same adversity that all human beings face. The hero story inspires us to persevere over our greatest doubts and fears, darker desires, and struggles of morality.

3. Tension and peril build character

Every person you meet has had some traumatic or perilous experience. At age five, I survived a particularly bad blunt force trauma to the head. In our mortal experience, we as human beings experience danger, peril, adversity, loss, and pain. When we absorb stories, on the screen or on the page, we relate to the plight of characters experiencing struggles similar to our own.

When the Avengers fight for their lives and the lives of everyone in New York, possibly the world, we relate to their heroism. They dive into the fray against demigods, outnumbered and outgunned by a fearless, faceless alien army. Freedom, friendship, and possibly the very existence of mankind becomes the greater cause which drives them to overcome their mortal fears.

We’re drawn in by the tension caused by their difficult choices and dire circumstance. Captain America’s unwillingness to leave civilians to their fate to focus on the greater battle. Tony Stark’s willingness to sacrifice his own life to save his friends, loved ones, and fellow humans inspires us to stand up for what we believe. Thor’s love that keeps him from slaying his brother Loki, despite the latter’s attempts to destroy humanity. When heroes win the day, we care because they’ve shown themselves to be flawed and overcome those flaws to not only survive, but also to protect and persevere.

All the fight choreography and weapons special effects in the world are meaningless without the human flaws, difficult choices, and character forming experiences that create authentic characters.

Sure we enjoy the special effects and action, but we cheer with each small victory because we’ve struggled against powerful foes and dire circumstances ourselves. All the fight choreography and weapons special effects in the world are meaningless without the human flaws, difficult choices, and character forming experiences that create authentic characters. Having been shown the internal struggle, the victory of character over temptation or fear, we’re invested in the outcome. In moments of peril, in the palpable tension of choice between power and responsibility, these heroes show us who we want to be.

Even the most fantastic stories have a single thing in common: human experience. Sometimes transferred to animals or aliens, struggles with identity, loyalty, integrity, and mortality are a constant of character building across genres. It’s the realistic nature of those characters, facing struggles similar to our own, that connect us to the stories we love.

What are some things you admire about storytelling? Do fantastic tales inspire you? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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