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July, 2008 : Feature:

Lost-World Casting

Genre Forms and the Craft of Story

Genre gives the writer a narrative framework to shelter in, a structure, a place to start.
—Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon(1)

To what extent is Phillips right about the comfort zone of genre? How much does an established narrative framework help or hinder the writer of science fiction, fantasy or horror? Or does an established narrative framework even exist at all? In these days of slipstream and interstitial fiction, the last point could be convincingly argued.(2) But at the same time, the fact that these "new" forms within the realm of speculative fiction have become important enough to almost qualify as marketing categories and are defining themselves against or outside of established norms presupposes that those norms are both present and commonly understood.

In order to examine some of the questions pertaining to genre, comfort zones and the craft of story, we have taken our metaphor from lost-wax casting. This is the art of creating a sculpted piece in wax, packing it inside a ceramic or other durable mold, then pouring metal into it. The wax flashes and is gone with the heat, but the form remains.

In the same way, speculative fiction can be seen as a kind of lost-world casting—pouring the content into a mold with a recognizable form. How do genre tropes and story techniques influence world building? What kind of impressions do they leave on the work? Can they actually free the writer, as Phillips suggests was the case for James Tiptree Jr., a/k/a Alice B. Sheldon? Or are they more likely to constrict her?

The Narrative Structure(s) of Genre

Narrative structure is another area that, while not directly related to genre, is often indicative of genre. Slipstream and literary fiction use experimental and non-traditional narrative forms more often than science fiction does: nonlinearity (in a variety of forms), lack of traditional plot structure, breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience, inclusion of non-prose forms in the work (see Always Coming Home), and so on.
—Jed Hartman(3)

This tells us something about what the narrative structure of genre is notnow we need only to find out what it is. The implication seems to be that genre is largely traditional in narrative form and plot structure; linear and transparent, it avoids experiments and direct address. On the other hand, in his influential writing book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card argues that speculative fiction is naturally a rule-breaking genre:

One surprising result of the ghettoizing of speculative fiction, however, is that writers have enormous freedom within its walls. It's as if, having once confined us within our cage, the keepers of the zoo of literature don't much care what we do as long as we stay behind bars. (11)

In a way, this echoes Phillips' statement on the liberating effect of working in genre—but with a very different conclusion, Card arguing that speculative fiction is often more experimental than literary fiction.

Of course, to a certain extent both Hartman and Card are right. While within the confines of our genre we do have a certain amount of freedom to play our own little genre-bending games, at the same time there are a number of traditional narrative structures in science fiction and fantasy which have been reused many times over the years—and which contemporary authors still continue to fill with new content.

But to what extent then is there even a narrative framework common to genre? Is it simply a matter that most stories are told in a fairly straightforward manner? Or are there any concrete indications that genre writers are encouraged to tell their story in a linear fashion and are discouraged from experimentation? We have come across writers' guidelines more than once in sff publishing which discourage the use of the present tense (still often seen as experimental, despite the fact that it is too ubiquitous now to really qualify as such). On the other hand, there are a number of guidelines these days which actively encourage experimentation.

A common way of regarding story structure that is often cited in our cozy ghetto is the "Seven Point Plot" from the late great Algis Budrys.(4) This fairly well-known way of putting together a story goes as follows:

(1) A character (2) in context (3) with a problem ... (4) ... attempt[s] to solve the problem ... and (5) encounters unexpected failure ... or increasingly near-attainment of the goal, and (6) victory or death. ... What is left for the end is (7) validation. (Budrys, n.p.)

This could be seen as a fairly traditional narrative structure. But not only does the Seven Point Plot say nothing about the way the story should be told, it is common to a number of genres including many examples of mainstream and literary fiction. What it quantifies are the plot points a narrative should contain to qualify as a story—and can even be seen as a "guideline" for the quest narrative Joseph Campbell defines as the "standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero." (30)

On the other hand, the ur-stories which lie behind speculative fiction genres and sub-genres have immediately recognizable narrative structures and conventions. The morally dualistic quest fantasy is far older than J.R.R. Tolkein's work, as Campbell's research makes clear, but Lord of the Rings with its pseudo-medieval society, its elves and orcs and wizards, is taken almost universally as the prototype for high fantasy. Likewise the technological puzzle story so emblematic of Golden Age science fiction, which is still to be found in the pages of the latest issue of Analog, with the scientist-hero, the troubling problem to hand, and the clever solution presented in the penultimate scene.

We see similar patterns of inspiration in signature stories of other sub-genres. Take for example the time travel paradox story (an influential early example of which was Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps"), the alternate history story (L. Sprague De Camp, Lest Darkness Fall), military SF (Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers), cyberpunk (William Gibson, Neuromancer) and so forth. Such subgenres serve as prototypes through their survival in the shared consciousness of both pros and fans in the field; not only do they provide a kind of shared vocabulary, they can and do offer the kind of basic structure or mold into which the writer can pour his or her own individual story.

The Propagation of Prototypes

We do not intend here to generalize principles from examination of type specimens. Within the context of the present discussion, these examples are instructive because they show how strongly readers, not to mention writers, editors and critics, can latch onto a prototypical piece and propagate its narrative forms and plot structures for decades. The most obvious example of this is the continuing iterations of post-Tolkein high fantasy which hew very closely to the mold of The Lord of the Ringsbestselling series by Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, for example. The enthusiastic reader of high fantasy can become the aspiring writer who wants to produce the kind of books he or she loves—they've acquired the genre dream that drives them to the empty page.

It is probably this more than any kind of conscious decision in favor of a sheltering narrative framework that leads to the imitation of genre conventions. Alice B. Sheldon's early writing attempts were more mainstream and literary, but ultimately she turned to science fiction because she read it and loved it. Imitation is a large part of the craft of genre writing, but as the example of James Tiptree Jr. shows, so is reinvention. Not only are the molds re-used, they are reshaped.

It is a clichéd statement that genre is a conversation, but also very much true—just as is any work of fiction aware of its antecedents. Neuromancer may be the beginning of cyberpunk as a sub-genre, but even such founding works are in dialogue with what has been written before. William Gibson was a great admirer of Tiptree's, and "The Girl Who Plugged In" is often cited along with the stories of Philip K. Dick as a precursor of cyberpunk.(5) Other works borrow forms or structures from one (sub)genre and apply them to another, or they deliberately violate genre structures. House of Leaves, for example, uses radically nontraditional narrative in what should be a standard dark fantasy story about a house with extradimensional characteristics—it can be tied back directly to Heinlein's "—And He Built a Crooked House—" Likewise The Lovely Bones, which takes a core genre convention, the ghost story, and maps it over a lit-fic narrative which barely acknowledges its own antecedents.

Both of those examples were published outside genre, but similar convention-bending works abound within the field. Vellum and Ink are an aggressive deconstruction of the traditional narrative forms of fantasy. The Merchant Princes series is science fiction cloaked in fantasy forms. A Song of Ice and Fire wears the trappings of fantasy and has a core fantasy plot, but hung upon a narrative structure borrowing from numerous genres from the complex, multi-layered architectonic novels of the nineteenth century, to historical nonfiction (The Guns of August) and tech thrillers (Red Storm Rising)—employing numerous overlapping narrative lines around both prime movers in the plot, as well as minor "color" actors.

In some of the above cases, these works stand out in substantial part by what they are not. The novels of A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, rely much less on magic than a more traditional fantasy series such as Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth. Martin's dense novels contain more examples of complex political intrigue than wizards and wands. Rather than our world, however, the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is an imagined world, making the novel fantasy instead of historical fiction.

What these examples tell us is that within a fairly broad definition of genre, there is quite a bit of freedom to bend the rules and bring in new elements—which if the work is influential enough can also result in the foundation of a new sub-genre. Work is a reaction to previous works, derivative or responsive or critical, an endless serve-and-volley of a group of committed, enthusiastic writers who are almost all of them fans as well, sharing in the great project that is speculative fiction. The casting of worlds from the forms of previous worlds is how most of us learned our craft. It's a long and honorable tradition, from the books of the Old Testament to William Shakespeare to the latest steampunk novel release.

Footnotes

  1. 244.
  2. See our IROSF article, "Is Slipstream Just a Fancy Word for Voice?"
  3. "Where Does Genre Come From?" Strange Horizons, December 3, 2001: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2001/20011203/editorial.shtml.
  4. See for example Doctorow and Schroeder: 80-81.
  5. See for example Moriarty.

Works Referenced

Budrys, Algis. "Writing, Part One" (1996). http://www.webdreamer.com/algis_budrys_writing_part_one.html.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1972.

Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. 1990.

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Partheon Books, 2000.

Doctorow, Cory and Karl Schroeder. Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books. 2000

Duncan, Hal. Ink. London: Macmillan. 2006.

–. Vellum. London: Macmillan. 2005.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books 1984.

Goodkind, Terry. Wizard's First Rule. New York: Tor Books 1994.

Hartman, Jed. "Where Does Genre Come From?" Strange Horizons, December 3, 2001: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2001/20011203/editorial.shtml .

Heinlein, Robert A. (writing as Anson MacDonald) "By His Bootstraps" Astounding Science Fiction, October, 1941

–. "—And He Built a Crooked House—" Astounding Science Fiction, February, 1941

Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones. New York: Bantam Books. 1996.

Moriarty, Chris. "CYBERpunk..."

Phillips, Julie. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. New York: St. Martin's Press. 2007.

Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. Boston, New York, and London: Little, Brown and Company. 2002.

Stross, Charles. The Family Trade. New York: Tor Books. 2004.

Tiptree, James, Jr. "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." New Dimensions 3, ed. Robert Silverberg. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. 1973.

Tolkein, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. London: George Allen & Unwin. 1954.


Copyright © 2008, Ruth Nestvold and Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

COMMENTS!

Jul 1, 19:37 by IROSF
Do you have a response to this idea? Let us know!

The article is here.

Jul 13, 14:08 by Janine Stinson
Well-done piece. I love finding articles that gather up threads of other "conversations" in the SF world and weave something concrete out of them. That's what reading this article felt like to me, so thanks to the authors for providing it. I think I grew another brain wrinkle...

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