Writing pet peeve, “What are we doing here?”

This is something I’ve seen several times in short stories or novels over the years.  I recently saw this in a short story by a famous author, which prompted this rant.

Basically, what happens is a group of people set out on an expedition, either to another planet or back in time.  It takes months or years of work to outfit the ship and/or fly to the other planet.  Shortly after they arrive, one of the crew raises their hand and asks, “What are we doing here?” Now, I’m not talking about military expeditions where – for secrecy – they have to get to the place before they open their orders, I understand that.  What I’m talking about is usually corporate missions to find some new resource or a general science expedition.  Every time I see it I can’t help but wonder, Did they miss the memo?  I mean, how can they spend months or years working on a project without once asking, What’s the point?

I think the reason many authors do this is because it’s the best way they can think of to disguise an info dump.  Seriously, what would you rather read about, characters discussing what they are going to do with a planet looming in their viewscreen, or characters sitting around a drab conference table on Earth as some schmuck reads through the bullet points on a power point presentation?  “As you can see, here are our synergetic objectives once we arrive at Brindenbaugh Alpha-7.”

I understand that on one hand there is the realistic – usually boring – way things are done in the real world, while on the other hand there is the far more entertaining way things are done in fiction.  I also understand that part of enjoying fiction is getting lost in that world, momentarily forgetting that it’s fiction.  So when I read about a character who spent months in a spaceship flying to some distant planet, apparently without once asking why they’ve spent months in a spaceship flying to some distant planet, the fact that these characters are not real people become abundantly clear.

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