Posted on Wed Mar 23 2016 -- scifi
Film Crit Hulk writes about "breaking a story". Rather than constructing a story, the goal is to take a story you're familiar with, or want to tell, and separate it into its component pieces. So I'm going to attempt to do just that, and try to extract a formula for writing a space opera in the vein of E. E. "Doc" Smith.
We'll consider the following sources:
I'm choosing these because several of them have strongly similar elements, while the others either complement or contrast those elements.
So what are they?
There is either a single designated protagonist, or a "first among equals" working alongside members of a common organization. This is the most common point of divergence, so we'll dub these types the Hero and the Leader respectively.
The protagonist is male. He is highly skilled in his field, which requires he travel in outer space most of the time. He is physically fit, conventionally attractive, and highly intelligent. He is at least conversant in most fields of science, and can improvise or integrate solutions to problems using chemistry and high-energy physics. He is prone to overworking himself. He will strongly resist "taking it easy" or not being as fully active as he could be.
He will not openly acknowledge his feelings under most circumstances, if they are of a deep, sensitive, or romantic nature. He will show enthusiastic support for his fellows and cheer their successes, but will gloss over embarrassing or emotionally vulnerable moments.
When psychic powers are present in the setting, the protagonist will have the strongest potential for such powers among any of his fellow human beings. He will use them in conjunction with his closest friends or allies, eventually forming a mental fusion at times.
The Hero-type protagonist (LENS, SKY, TP, IPC) has a love interest, always female, who lacks his overwhelming competence but can contribute regardless. This is often a younger girl, and often the daughter of a notable public figure. She is attractive, conventionally or otherwise. She is notable for her spunk, spirit, or defiance in the face of danger.
She will have met the protagonist as part of his regular job. If there isn't already a relationship in progress, the two will develop a mutual attraction after significant hardships in space or away from Earth, and their confession of these feelings will mark a turning point in the story.
The Leader-type protagonist (GP, MOS) will be surrounded by male and female associates. Inevitably most or all of his female companions will have a one-sided attraction to him. All but one will find other partners, give up on the attraction, or develop an alternate relationship with him. Sexual politics and social infighting within the group will occur early on, giving way to a stable social group later on.
The Leader's eventual love interest will be an expert in her own field, and nearly as capable in others. She will work in partnership with the Leader character, ultimately deferring to his decisions, but contributing feedback and alternative viewpoints. She will be exceptional both physically and mentally.
The supporting cast can include any or all of the following:
Aside from the protagonist and his love interest, human characters in his immediate social circle who are of the proper age will eventually have romantic partners of their own. Aliens, older mentor figures, and the like will not have their love lives discussed.
Heroic characters will use idiomatic vernacular speech. Their informality with each other will be a point of pride. When in a serious situation, they will speak properly and respectfully. However, once protocol has been observed, they will be jolly and casual.
Non-heroic characters will speak more formally, often in a stilted or erudite fashion.
Characters threatening each other will be hard, steely, and serious. They will not escalate threats, merely state stakes and offer promises. More heroic characters will not bluff, but will call others' bluffs.
The central action of the story will involve one or more of the following:
The antagonists exist to prevent the protagonist from eventually achieving or facilitating a super-scientific utopia. Their secondary function is to exert the pressure that drives the protagonist and love interest together, and inspires the protagonist to embark on the development of newer and better power (science, technology, psionics).
Whether human or alien, individuals or an entire species, antagonist characters come in two major flavors:
Many antagonists will have access to most of the technology available to the protagonist. However, the protagonist may have exclusive access to some notable technology, often provided by a superior alien race. Antagonists that don't have a scientific or technological edge will have other resources (wealth, social influence over the protagonist, etc.)
So putting these pieces back together, what are the steps I'd take to plan a space opera in the mold of Doc Smith? I'd answer the following questions:
Building on that skeleton, and fleshing it out with the details from earlier, I think it should be possible to create a reasonable space opera in the Doc Smith mold. I don't know that I'll necessarily try it, but it's a good exercise regardless.