The Dimensions Of Storytelling. Part The Second: The Nifty Idea

Last time I talked about this I posited that stories – novels too, but here I’m generally talking about short stories because I’ve got a collection coming out very soon – are built along multiple dimensions of engagement. That is, there are multiple ways to gain and hold a reader’s attention. The first dimension, for me, is one of excitement and action and colour. I want stuff to happen, and I want it to do so in an interesting way.

I should emphasise that this first dimension is different for each reader. What I might find exciting and colourful my friend Sharon (who loves her some incredibly dull Victorian literature) is likely to find loud and tawdry. And I don’t have a problem with that. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that for some people, a description of the vague fear that steeping your Earl Grey too long may leave a bitter aftertaste could be considered exciting and colourful. I am not one of those people, however, and I firmly believe that anybody who does fall into that category has neither taken enough drugs, nor ridden enough motorcycles. Also, Earl Grey smells of urinal soapcakes.

Point being: that for a reader of romance, that first dimension is provided by descriptions of romantic passages. For a crime fiction fiend, the first dimension is about murders and mystery. For a lover of westerns, there must be horses and gunplay. Pretty easy concept. You’ll note that it ties in closely with genre, however, which is an idea I really don’t want to get into until I hear back from the marking committee on my Masters Degree work…

Anyway, within the realms of speculative fiction – particularly science fiction, which I read very heavily as I grew up – the second dimension of storytelling is what I would call The Nifty Idea. This concept exists across genres, but it’s most prevalent in the highly imaginative genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and all their strange and terrible offspring. This was the kind of thing that pulled science fiction out of the pulp era. For E.E. “Doc” Smith, science fiction was ‘space opera’, in which rayguns and rockets replaced six-shooters and horses, and fiendish aliens took the place of villainous railway barons and savage redskins. The trappings were science fiction, but the stories were still good-guy versus bad-guy to the end.

As the readership (and the markets) grew a little more sophisticated, so did their demands. The Nifty Idea became important: a shiny, new, imaginative concept upon which to hang a story. If I list just a couple, I’m willing to bet you’ll recognise stories based around at least some of them. How about dragons on a planet colonised by humans? Dragons bred from local stock? You’d probably think of Anne McCaffrey here, but I’d like to mention Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters, too.

Then there’s time travel, and the endless variations on that theme. Think about Ray Bradbury’s iconic butterfly-stomper, A Sound of Thunder: the whole point of the story lies with the idea that tiny variations in the past caused by careless time travel may lead to radically different history-lines and present-times. The piece begins as a robust, time-travel hunting safari story, complete with scary dinosaurs, so it has that wonderful quality of excitement. The tale builds up to its horrible revelation in the last couple of paragraphs, exploring and foreshadowing the time-travel paradox concept so as to create a delicious payoff at the end as the nifty idea comes to fruition, giving us a story with two strong dimensions of engagement.

Another great second-dimension story would be Arthur Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God. The plot summary on Wikipedia makes it clear enough. Some computer operators are called in to help a Tibetan lamasery. The Tibetans believe that humanity (indeed, the whole universe) exists to help God discover all nine billion of His possible names. (They have an algorithm, you see.) They’ve been writing down names by hand for centuries, but with the computers, they expect to finish in a couple months. The computer operators sneak out just before the end of the programme in order to dodge a bunch of cranky Tibetans, disappointed when nothing happens – but as they leave, one of them looks up and notices all the stars are quietly going out, one by one.

Excitement? Check: there’s tension as the computer operators scheme to escape before the inevitable disaster. And as for the Cool Idea… yeah, actually it’s pretty brilliant. It’s a nifty, much reprinted story and it remains clear in my memory. And why not? I read a huge string of these second-dimension stories as a kid. Many of them were awesome. They made me think about the world, the universe, and the possibilities of life in new and exciting ways. I ate them up – and I’ve even written and published at least one: The Ballad of Farther-On Jones.

Jones came out in Cat Sparks’ first agog! Collection, and I’ve still got a soft spot for it. Written during the First Coming Of Pauline Hanson and her cretinous attack on Australia’s multicultural society, I wanted to create a story that explored the value of cross-cultural tolerance. I envisioned a man who went to the stars alone in a sleeper pod, driven by nothing more than a desperate desire to go, to see (and that much is me, to the core.) When he got out there, he discovered he had an unexpected advantage. He took with him much of Earth’s cultural legacy (stored in his computer library) and coupled with his own native ability for negotiation, that helped him contact alien races safely.

The idea at the heart of the story: that Earth’s multicultural system is (probably!) unusual for a spacefaring species. The aliens that Jones meets all come from mature, planetwide cultures and they have no real history of dealing with other, often radically different cultures. Jones’ familiarity with the mad, wonderfully divergent cultures of Earth lets him make friends with many different species – and when the people of Earth finally follow Jones to the stars, they discover countless new allies waiting for them.

See? The nifty idea holds it together, and exploration of the idea becomes the story itself. Yet though it’s not an action-adventure piece, it still has (for me) a quality of excitement. I love the idea of exploration and contact. If you gave me the chance to do what the hero of the story does, I’d wave goodbye to my family and friends, and I’d promise to write letters – and I’d be gone. So the piece has two dimensions for engaging a readership: the excitement/adventure of travelling and exploration and discovery, and the development of the idea that multi-culturalism is a valuable human asset which could save us all.

The trouble with these second-dimension stories is, quite simply, that there are limits to the range of new ideas. (Honestly!) Furthermore, the combination of Nifty Idea plus exciting exposition is, well, a bit shopworn. Don’t forget that the term ‘classic’ means ‘of a particular historical period’ as well as ‘something unforgettable and outstanding’. A great many of the grand classic science fiction stories were second-dimension pieces. It’s not easy to write a new story of that sort which can stand out and grab the modern reader’s interest.

So what does? Well – for me, it’s the third dimension of a story: the human dilemma. And that is where I’m going with the next instalment of this series. But before that, I want to mention what may be my all-time favourite second-dimension story: Who Goes There? This 1938 piece was written by John W Campbell (better known as a groundbreaking editor of science fiction) under the name Don A Stuart. Best film adaptation was as The Thing, by John Carpenter.  The Nifty Idea: scientists in the Antarctic discover a frozen alien creature and bring it back to life. The excitement: it’s a shape-changing monster that can take the place of ordinary creatures, and it’s out to kill everybody on the planet. Great story, tremendously fun movie…

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  1. Can the Nifty Idea also be a plot twist, or the twist ending? For me I always thought of Clarke’s story as the twist ending but it certainly is a nifty idea?

    1. The twist ending is the CLASSIC embodiment of a Nifty Idea story. Not all Nifty Idea stories end up with a twist, but it’s certainly a really common way of delivering the concept: the idea-as-punchline.

      You see the same thing in Arthur Clarke’s “The Star”. You remember that one? Where it turns out that the guiding star that led the Wise Men and marked the birth of the Christ child was actually a nova — and that nova wiped out the only other intelligent life known in the galaxy?

      Cool story. Nifty idea. Lots of consequences.

  2. […] The second dimension of storytelling — and this is of particular import to the speculative genres — I referred to as The Nifty Idea. That little piece can be found here. […]

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