Let’s take a look at The Martian by Andy Weir from a writer’s perspective.
This post contains spoilers.
The Martian by Andy Weir
Summary: When a freak accident leaves astronaut Mark Watney stranded alone on Mars, — with no one aware that he survived — his chances of making it back to Earth safely are nonexistent. That, however, doesn’t stop the rebellious mechanical engineer/botanist from figuring out how to survive.
Path to Publication: The Martian became a bestseller in an unusual way. Andy Weir started out publishing a chapter at a time via a newsletter to about 3000 science and technology-oriented readers. He admits he did that because he didn’t think the novel would have mainstream appeal. However, after he self-published it (giving it away for free at first!), it was picked up by a traditional publisher. Eventually he sold over 5 million copies and the novel was made into a major movie (See more details at StoryFix.)
At the beginning of the book, astronaut Mark Watney is stranded alone on Mars. How do you create a compelling story with one lone character? First of all, Weir makes Watney endearing and someone who readers will root for.
He also puts his main character in the direst of circumstances. At first neither the crew on Earth nor the astronauts who left him behind know that Watney has survived and there isn’t any way to communicate with them. Although there is another landing scheduled, it isn’t for an number of years and may be cancelled because of his supposedly fatal accident. He is quickly running out of supplies, especially food. The tension is incredible. How can he possibly survive?
Instead of dialogue, Weir reveals Watney’s thoughts and feelings through a diary/log. He writes in a conversational, humorous tone, which helps move the story ahead quickly.
Weir says he used a series of problems and solutions to drive the plot. Each time either Watney or the supporting characters solve one problem, they either discover another or the solution causes another problem. And the problems just keep coming.
If you are interested, StoryFix also deconstructs the plot by finding pinch points, etc.
The secret to Weir’s success is in the scientific details. By picking the planet Mars, Weir has chosen an intensely real setting for his science fiction. Weir did a lot of research, including creating trajectories for his spacecraft and even picking a particular launch date, although no dates are given in the text.
Since publication, we have learned a few things were inaccurate. For example, recent studies have shown Martian soil has more water than Weir thought. Still, the Mars setting makes the story realistic and concrete.
Mars Dust Storm NASA
The Martian is truly a one-of-a-kind novel. It is a perfect mix of compelling storytelling and hard science underpinnings. The unbearable tension and rapid-fire action make it an excellent read. This is one of the best novels on our list so far and one that all writers — not just those work in science fiction — should study.
Edit: Here’s a bit of our discussion from Facebook:
RG — I was thinking about his problem/solution plot structure — which is often used in thrillers — when I realized the novel also reveals something bad is going to happen and the suspense is whether or not the protagonist can stop it from happening. It is a classic thriller set up. So, it is a science fiction thriller?
KG — Good point. I think that is one reason I enjoyed it so. It wasn’t filled with off space creatures, but instead every day problems that just happened to create life or death situations. And it was up to our hero to overcome every challenge thrown his way, even sometimes those he himself created.
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The next book is number49. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (2012) – Discussion begins January 28, 2019