I was lucky enough to be talking with one of my favorite scifi novelists the other day, and I asked him a question he didn't know the answer to.
We were talking about a book he'd written, and I asked him if he'd tell me the answer to a Big Unanswered Question in the book. (I won't say who this novelist is because I don't have time to call him and ask him if I can quote him.)
NOVELIST: I can't tell you, Josh. I don't know the answer.
ME: Really? It's like, a big unanswered question for the characters and for the reader.
NOVELIST: For me, as well. I don't know.
Which lead us to this: there will always be a point in your world-building when the world you've built outgrows the scope of the story you're telling. The edges are fuzzy; the next town over is mysterious. Perhaps you've hinted at something which suggests something else, which would really turn things on its fucking head IF you were to go down that path BUT YOU ARE NOT.
Not now. Not yet. And possibly, never. If you're world-building well, your world should feel full and alive and bustling in the corners, even if you've never actually made it over to the corner to see what the fuck is going on there. The world is true to your vision, but there is ambiguity and mystery and things undiscovered. I can know a thousand things about my the world I've created, but if there aren't a thousand others just outside of my creative periphery, then I start getting a little sketchy and bored.
This is the type of thing that drives studio and network executives crazy.
In the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles season 2 finale "Born to Run," Cameron invites John Connor to get up on top of her and cut her open in order to check and see if her nuclear power source is leaking. This is what she says (although she never actually says it) but we can wonder whether this is what her plan actually is. Certainly she knows whether it's sound or not, so perhaps she's doing it for John's benefit. On the other hand, she's not exactly clinical about the way she makes him straddle her. Here's the conversation I had with one of my executives:
EXECUTIVE: I don't get that scene.
ME: How so?
EXECUTIVE: I just don't get it. Why does she do that? Why does he do it? Was he going to kiss her? Does she want him to? What does she really want from him here?
ME: Well, we've got a lot of different possibilities. I'm sure she has her reasons. We don't really know Cameron's mind, do we?
EXECUTIVE: Shouldn't we know it?
ME: We, who? The royal we, you and me? Or the audience?
EXECUTIVE: Well. Any of the above.
ME: Like I said. You could read that scene many different ways.
EXECUTIVE: Do you have a favorite?
ME: They're all God's children.
Which is why they usually hated me.
Now whether you want to believe it or not, this was not me just being lazy. This is the way that I like my drama, both written and watched-organic, ambiguous, a little messy and inclusive of multiple interpretations.
Which, I grant you, on a bad day is barely distinguishable from lazy.
I can think of at least four reasons Sarah let John go by himself with Weaver into the future at the end of season 2. I can think of any number of reasons why he chose to do so. I also welcome the idea that both of these decisions were horrible decisions, and you might think that the Sarah Connor and John Connor that exist in your head would never do what they did. Because while I may lead you down a particular path, it is your god-given right as a participant in this television show to veer off the path at any time and start hacking your own way through the jungle.
Which is not to say I abdicate responsibility. Bad writing is a demon that takes all forms and often finds a warm and inviting host with writers who confuse the arbitrary with the mysterious.
So in that spirit, let me now contradict everything I've said previously by also saying that in Sci Fi TV there is NOTHING more important than the proper, specific detail. To wit:
In Episode 102 of the Sarah Connor Chronicles ("The Turk," written by John Wirth), the Terminator Cromartie kidnaps a scientist to assist it in growing cyborg skin. Cromartie has brought the skin recipe back from the future, and writes it on the scientist's wall so the scientist can follow it.
When writing the script, John had actually spent time on the phone with a cell biologist trying to get a formula which would best approximate something you might use to grow skin for a cyborg. John had given that formula to our production designer and he, in turn, had given it to the on-set painter so it could be written on the wall. These are the types of things we do all day.
The night before we were scheduled to shoot that scene, John Wirth and I went down to the set to see how it looked. It's late and I know the crew wants to get on their work. But here's the conversation we have:
ME: There's something…not right.
JOHN: I agree. It's just…what is it?
ME: It's not…I dunno…right.
PRODUCTION DESIGNER: Could you be a little more specific? We'll fix it. But, you know, maybe a direction to go in? Font size? Pen color? Anything?
ME: It's just…I can't think of any other way to say it…but it doesn't look like a Terminator wrote it.
PRODUCTION DESIGNER: Huh.
What followed was a lengthy conversation where we ran through a number of issues:
Had we ever seen Terminator handwriting? Do they write in a particular style? Would they be as precise as a computer or would they be in some way affected by their biped-ness, their height relative to surface…Would they disguise their writing as more human-like? And seriously - where was the fucking manual for this?
Eventually we took the entire wall down and did it all over again. This time…more…Terminator-y.
Now this type of conversation occurs on every set on every television show in the world every day. I'd be willing to bet that as I write this at ten o'clock at night, somewhere in Hollywood a showrunner is staring at a set of drapes, a pair of shoes, a bloody handprint, or a gunshot wound and trying to find the perfect balance between story, character and filmic verisimilitude. That's the job. (Frankly, that's everyone's job.)
But in Sci Fi you also get this:
ME: We need to re-do that urinal morph, Jim.
JIM: What's the problem?
ME: She looks like she's coming out of the urinal.
JIM: Isn't she?
ME: No. She's supposed to be morphing from a urinal into a woman. Right now it looks like the urinal is birthing her. That's gross.
JIM: I getcha.
ME: Think "the prow of a ship."
JIM: Awesome. Great note. I'll make it so.
(Because they do love to make it so.)
TV fiction is a depictive media, while written fiction is a suggestive one. A novel's language casts different shadow plays off the back part of each reader's skull while a tv show casts one vision for everyone. We all have our own idea of what China Mieville means when Detective Borlu "unsees" someone in the neighboring city, but God help the poor schmuck who has to decide what that idea means for everyone.
So we (or I, since it's my blog post) try to balance the concrete specificity of what can be seen (Terminator handwriting, urinals) with the novelistic "suggestiveness" of what we don't see but feel (why does she do what she does?). This is not exclusive to science fiction, but especially true of it; speculative fiction is just that - speculative. Creating a beautiful unanswered question can be a complete work of art - just ask Schrödinger and his cat.
Just know that some day somebody will open that box and, dead or alive, there better be a fucking awesome kitty in there.
Josh Friedman was the showrunner on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.