A couple of weeks ago Monica and I did an exercise with a few of the Data & Society fellows. I printed out some cards that describe technologies we’re likely to have in the next couple of decades. (For these, muito obrigado to the Envisioning Technologies Research Foundation in Brazil. If you ever need to do a future-themed brainstorming session, they have some excellent visual aids.) Then I paired people up, gave each pair a card, and asked them to come up with the basis of a story involving that technology.
What is the basis of a story? Monica pointed us to the quick-and-dirty guide from TV writer Dan Harmon, which sums up a story structure as follows:
- A character is in a zone of comfort,
- But they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation,
- Adapt to it,
- Get what they wanted,
- Pay a heavy price for it,
- Then return to their familiar situation,
- Having changed.
Cory Doctorow, who knows a thing or two about structuring sci-fi stories, and whom I had the good luck to run into at the D&S launch event this week, gave me an even quicker and dirtier version (apologies to Cory for paraphrasing):
- You have a character in a situation with a problem
- She keeps on trying to resolve the problem and failing
- Each time the problem gets worse
- Until the climax, when it’s resolved, in either a happy or a sad way.
So I asked the fellows to just get us to step 1. What is a situation that the technology on your card conjures up? Who is a character it might affect? What problem does it create for her that she has to get resolved? (Or, who are two characters for whom that situation creates competing needs?)
For the first round, I gave each pair one card. These included technologies such as:
- In-vitro meat
- Neuro-gaming (games jacked directly into your nervous system)
- Infrastructure health sensors, embedded in bridges or houses.
- Emotion-tracking devices
For round two, I injected some fun by giving each pair two cards with seemingly unrelated technologies and asking them to imagine a story involving both of them, such as:
- Skin-surface biosensors + reputational economy
- Agricultural drones + telepresence
- Predictive crime prevention + teledildonics (i.e., sex toys people operate remotely over the internet)
That last one was my favorite.
It turned out that this game was easy. Ten minutes was plenty of time for each pair to come up with a plausible set of circumstances for a story. Mixing two technologies didn’t seem to make the task any harder. For predictive crime prevention and teledildonics, we devised a scenario involving an FBI operation that implants surveillance into teledildonic systems and monitors the people who use them for fetishes that might suggest they’re likely to carry out sexual crimes. An FBI agent discovers that some of his colleagues are using the system as a kind of illegal sting, manipulating people into behaviors that could get them flagged as sex offenders. He finds himself in a dilemma when he realizes that his only chance for stopping the program is to team up with a group of sex workers who are trying to sabotage the system, since it’s undercutting their business.
Why am I not worried about giving away this idea? Because what the session made clear was that ideas are two a penny. Execution, as every writer I’ve spoken to since starting this project has made clear, is the hard part. Coming up with believable characters and engaging descriptions, crafting a narrative that keeps the reader reading, finding a way to round it off without it feeling contrived—that’s where the work really begins.