Six Things from Musical Opera to Apply to Writing Your Space Opera
Space opera is one of my favorite genres, which is why I recently put out the first book of a space opera series. While it derives its name from other coinages like soap opera, at the root of it is opera, and embracing that core can create a spectacular work featuring complex plots in a glittering and vast world.
Borrow lavishly. Opera, developed in the late 16th century, pulls from music, poetry, dance, drama, painting, and costumery and provides a gorgeous, enthralling spectacle woven from these arts. Space opera is a genre full of vast and beautiful sights, alien pageantry, and splendor on a cosmic scale. Convey it with every trick you know, and learn some new stuff in the process to use those tools too. Pull from arts of all shapes of all shapes and sizes and forms, and remember that music fills words and sentences as well as sones.
Pull out all the emotional stops. Great operas take their characters to the heights and depths of emotion, exploring those stages and pulling the viewer in to experience them. Make emotions larger than life sometimes and use them to fuel the engine that drives your story. Make sure all the characters have their own emotions, and let them act on them.
Pay attention to the details. A great opera stage set glitters and gleams, and details echo each other: the costumes of the dancers, the colors of the backdrop, the patterns created by shadows and lighting. Take at least a couple of editing passes devoted to making sure there’s no dust or cobwebs, and that details are burnished till they shine as they should.
Make sure you have motifs. A motif is a recurring fragment, theme, or pattern that keeps appearing. Think about how a particular musical passage or song can become identified with a particular character or circumstance. Repetitions can be used to deepen meaning, tension, or changes of any kind. What are the possible motifs in your work and how can you use them to better effect?
Use a range of voices. An opera uses an orchestra rather than a single instrument, and its songs are similarly created by voices acting in concert. Make your characters different and use them to achieve different effects and circumstances. Make your space opera the story of a group ensemble — although you may choose to focus on a handful of specific characters — and you will find your story swelling to fill the stage.
Employ illusions and special effects. Characters who turn out to be other characters, objects that turn out to not be what they seem, circumstances that change drastically, and similar changes can startle and astonish audiences. Authors have so many tools at hand for creating surprises, from unreliable narrators to cascades of plot twists. Go nuts, and have fun while doing it.
If you’re a fellow space opera lover, some of my favorites include C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur series, the Miles Vorkosigan saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, Space Opera by Catherynne Valente, and the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey. To me one of the joys of space opera is often the length at which the story is told; I’m finishing up a re-read of the first 8 Expanse books right now in order to come to the ninth with everything I need in my head.