Lessons in storytelling: advice from Isaac Asimov

I have mentioned countless times how much I admire and look up to Isaac Asimov. And while I know he had his faults (don’t we all) I have to credit him with teaching me some important things about story-telling, despite the fact that I never got to meet him in person. In fact, an element of my most recent story, “Take One For the Road” (Analog, 6/11)¬†owes a debt to the lessons the Good Doctor taught me.

In the first volume of his autobiography, Isaac Asimov discusses one of this most famous stories, “Nightfall”. ¬†During the course of this discussion, he speculates as to why so many people thought it to be one of the best science fiction stories of all time. (He doesn’t agree with this assessment.) One of the thing he points out is that pacing of the story. He points out, quite correctly, that there is a breakneck pace to the story in part because he never allows a scene to come to its natural conclusion. It is always interrupted by some other event which in turn builds upon the tension in the story.

I deliberately tried to do this in “Take One For the Road”. For those who have read the story, the most obvious attempt at this is the scene in which Simon is describing the mission to Mercury, and the scene is interrupted with him becoming violently ill. I was attempting to build up tension by ending a scene before it could come to its natural conclusion, with the hope of pulling the reader along for the ride. I don’t know how successful I was with this, but from the comments I have received from those who have read the story, the most common compliment is in the pacing of the story and that tells me I had some measure of success in my attempt.

The lesson here, I think, is that you can learn from the advice and experience of those who came before you. There are numerous places in Asimov’s autobiographies where he talks about the writing advice he’d been given over the years. In fact, he says that part of the reason he wrote the books was to provide a kind of how-to guide for would-be writers. The pacing in my own story certainly owes a debt to the advice the Good Doctor provides, and which I managed to interpret and internalize and especially on which I was able to execute. But the critical point, I think, was in understanding how pacing in a story matters, and having a good example to follow. “Nightfall” may not be the greatest science fiction story ever told, but it is certainly an exceptional one. And I was able to learn from it.

So what examples have you been able to learn from in your own writing?

6 thoughts on “Lessons in storytelling: advice from Isaac Asimov

  1. That’s a big question. I will note that I learned from Isaac what he learned from Cliff Simak, about eliminating over-long transitions and instead cutting sharply from one scene to the next.

  2. I read “Nightfall” with my son a few months ago, and we discovered (despite the awkwardness of such Gernsbachian scientifiction names such as Beenay 25 & Aton 77) that that chestnut is still effective.

    However, we agreed that what drives the story forward is not the interrupted dialogs, but by Asimov’s use of the good old ever reliable ticking clock – the countdown to the eclipse and wondering what is going to happen when we hit zero.

  3. Michael, I remember that advice too, although I’m not very good at following it yet. However, I also recall the advice he got from Campbell: if you are stuck at the beginning of your story, you are almost always starting the story too early; pick a point later in the story and start there. I tried to do that with “Take One For the Road” as well.

  4. Mark, I’ll admit that the countdown is probably more effective than the incomplete dialogs. While I deliberately tried the latter in “Take One For the Road”, I unconsciously did the former. The story is set up so that the main character has only a month to live, and has to get his story out. I didn’t realize I’d done that until I read your comment.

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