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Posts from the ‘Writing’ Category

The Experience of Reading Diana Wynne Jones [Non-fiction] Aloud


Today’s post will be relatively short, but let me start by asking a question: when was the last time you read a book aloud to another adult?

Around Christmas time, I picked up a copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, which is an excellent collection of much of her non-fiction about writing. I could (and plan to) write an entire blog post just on the subject of that book, but instead I wanted to spend a little time discussing an interesting experiment that my wife and I have engaged in.

Most of us, when we read out loud do so with children. Of course, this can be great fun (even if the kids insist on hearing the same story time and time again), but it is a completely different experience from reading to adults. A public reading is a different beast entirely, mainly due to its performance nature. But for the past several weeks, my wife and I have been reading the essays in Jones’ Reflections to each other, and this personal, private experience has been quite eye-opening on many levels.

My wife and I are both readers. I read for pleasure, and she reads for both enjoyment and work (as a children’s book editor, it goes with the territory). We both have read many of the same books, and we enjoy many of the same authors (though our tastes vary widely). Being an autodidact, I’ve learned most of what I know by having read it somewhere. So reading non-fiction, especially about writing or literature, is nothing new. Because for many years I traveled extensively, I also have listened to quite a fair share of non-fiction audiobooks. But none have been close to the sheer joy of reading and having Reflections read to me.

The first major difference between reading a book to myself and having it read to me goes to the way in which I process information. I read very quickly, and I tend to integrate and internalize what I have read quickly. As a result, I pay scant attention to the construction of an author’s rhetorical argument. Instead, I wish to focus on their point. But having Reflections read aloud to me instead focuses my attention not just on what is being said, but equally on how it is said.

Whether this is good or not, I can’t say. But it is different. It gives me a better sense of how Jones constructs her arguments, for how she frames them. The act of reading them aloud focuses my attention on the sequence of her thoughts, which is itself an important point of information. On the face of it, this experience is not so different from that of listening to an audiobook.

When I listen to an audiobook, I too focus more on the sequence and rhetoric, on the way in which sentences are constructed. But an audiobook is not interactive. It forces me to listen at the reader’s pace, and prevents interpretative digressions or discussions. The facility to pause reading and crack a joke, or stop and discuss a point that Jones just made, fundamentally deepens the meaning and insight that I can get from a book.

Being such book people, we often discuss books we have read, are reading, or will read. But when we consume a book in parallel – when one of us reads it out loud to the other – it aligns our singular reading experiences in an interesting way. And this, in turn, opens interesting avenues for discussion. If we had read her essay on the narrative structure of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings separately, I think our resulting discussion of its ideas would have been very different. Perhaps no less interesting, but qualitatively different.

From a writing standpoint, reading her non-fiction essays out loud really draws attention to the way that she constructs her sentences and paragraphs. Many of us like to think of ourselves as auditory writers. I know I think of myself that way: I love how words sound, and as I write I think about how they will sound together. Diana Wynne Jones – even in her non-fiction – clearly constructed her sentences with their assonance and rhythms in mind. Which just adds yet another dimension to the whole experience, one which I don’t think one can get from reading non-fiction silently.

This isn’t so much a critical discussion of the book (that I’ve got planned for next week), but rather this is just a couple of interesting observations about the experience of reading Diana Wynne Jones’ non-fiction aloud. It’s been an interesting and incredibly enjoyable experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether that experience carries through to other non-fiction authors. Have any of you tried it? If so, what has that experience been like for you?

Pacing and Narrative Structure: How The Hobbit and Django Unchained Screwed Up


At first glance, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are fairly dissimilar. One is the tale of a beleaguered young man who is put on the path to a quest by an older, bearded wise man. The other has a dragon.

Jokes aside, both movies have come in for some criticism, though Django Unchained has gotten far less criticism than I think it deserves. Fans of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (myself included) were fairly incensed by the liberties The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey took with its source material. And some folks have been grumbling about Django Unchained on grounds of race, representation, and its indulgent depiction of violence (though why anyone would have expected anything else from Tarantino, I have no idea). But these criticisms (deserved or not) are not what I took away from the two films. Instead, I think that both movies – especially when taken together – can show us something interesting about the way that pacing stems from the story’s narrative structure and its presentation.

Where Jackson’s The Hobbit Fails

Tolkien purposefully kept The Hobbit short, simple, and very focused. This choice is exceedingly clear when we compare it to The Lord of the Rings, which features an epic scope and scale. The Hobbit – thematically and artistically – was never designed to be a big story, and its narrative structure is therefore constrained.

When Tolkien first wrote the book, and when his editor first edited it, they determined how best to communicate the narrative and its themes to the reader. They had to decide which information to include, what sequences to portray and which to leave “off-camera”. These are not – as Jackson’s The Hobbit would suggest – idle choices. They are the foundational choices any decent creator makes, sometimes intuitively and sometimes painstakingly, but always integral to the narrative.

Tolkien’s book focuses on a simple man hobbit, one Bilbo Baggins. Yes, on his adventures, Bilbo stumbles into other characters’ epic (Thorin Oakenshield) and tragic (Gollum and Thorin both) journeys. But Bilbo’s narrative is neither epic nor tragic. Tolkien chose to focus on the narrow, pastoral concerns of an anachronistic, pastoral character. Through Bilbo’s perspective, Tolkien looks in on Thorin’s epic journey and Gollum’s tragedy. But – like Bilbo – we remain outside looking in. The Hobbit as a result reads like an anti-epic, specifically presenting the futility of a traditional epic structure.

This fact – apparent, I should think, to most of The Hobbit’s readers – apparently escaped Peter Jackson et al. Whether out of nostalgia for Tolkien’s (actually epic) Lord of the Rings, or a desire to stretch a short book into three movies, or simply the belief that Tolkien and his editors got it wrong, the film makers chose to reverse what may be Tolkien’s most important creative choice.

When we read The Hobbit, we are invested first in Bilbo, and only secondarily in the other characters. Jackson tries to simultaneously earn an equal investment in both Bilbo (who Martin Freeman plays amazingly), and in Thorin Oakenshield (who Richard Armitage plays woodenly). These two characters’ narrative arcs are thematically and structurally incompatible.

By cramming his “white orc” plot line into the movie, Jackson weakens the narrative structure of Bilbo’s story. It makes the film painfully schizophrenic: one half is a version of The Hobbit which stays (relatively) true to the book’s themes and structure. But the other half is taken up by a story which contributes nothing to those themes. Because the events are largely constrained by Tolkien’s original plot, there is no opportunity for either a more complex exploration nor for a subversion of Tolkien’s original themes. If that were Jackson’s conscious intent, then an adaptation is not the place for it.

Jackson has successfully developed split narrative arcs before. The Lord of the Rings – which is an epic story – features this kind of split narrative. We have plot A (Frodo/Sam/Gollum) and plot B (Aragorn et al.). But as Diana Wynne Jones discusses beautifully in “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in the fantastic Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), that “split narrative” is actually a complex weave, where each strand supports, relies on, and contravenes the other. And both of those strands are epic in nature. They are compatible, and the narrative structure relies equally on their compatibility and differences.

It would be impossible to develop a deeper narrative structure around Thorin Oakenshield without rejecting either the structure or the themes of Bilbo Baggins’ arc. This puts the audience in a difficult situation: We must choose which narrative we will actually invest in. This choice plays havoc with the movie’s pacing. If I’m only invested in one half of the film, that means I spend the other half waiting to get to the good bits. One half of Peter Jackson’s movie contributes nothing to its narrative, and so tries the audience’s patience.

Django Unchained and the Pacing Impact of Self-indulgence

Tarantino’s Django Unchained has a different lineage. It doesn’t stem from a book, and so its plot is unconstrained by outside factors. An unabashed homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, as evidenced in the main character’s name (i.e. Django is a nod towards Sergio Corbucci’s excellent classic Django), offhand references (e.g. a character “Eskimo Joe” gets mentioned, probably a nod towards an often-forgotten spaghetti western Navajo Joe), and actor cameos (e.g. Franco Nero, who played the titular character in Corbucci’s classic Django).

From a narrative standpoint, spaghetti westerns tend to explore themes of moral ambiguity and the interplay between justice and vengeance. Tarantino’s Django Unchained plainly follows in this thematic tradition, with its heroes relying on both deception and nigh-superhuman gun-slinging skills to free Django’s wife and exert justice on a rich southern slave-owner.

In general, the narrative itself is satisfying enough. It absolutely lacks the moral ambiguity or character complexity characteristic of the best spaghetti westerns, and in essence is little more than a classically-structured heroic quest (as the movie itself acknowledges). But that’s fine, and I would be happy to experience that kind of story. Unlike Jackson’s The Hobbit, Django Unchained picks one narrative and thematic structure and sticks to it. Where it ran into problems for me, however, lay in quite a few self-indulgent directorial choices that diverted attention from that narrative and easily added an unnecessary forty-five minutes to the movie.

Here are two examples:

Through vivid experiential flashback and spoken dialog, Django establishes his desire to free his wife Hildy (Brünnhilde, more properly). We understand what he wants, and we identify with it. We want him to succeed. The story has us invested. Great. But from this point forward, Tarantino chooses to throw in scenes where Django imagines (hallucinates?) his wife. The action slows down for each of these moments, giving us a drawn out pause that grinds the story’s movement to a halt. No dialogue is exchanged, and Django never remarks on these moments.

How do they help the narrative?

They don’t. Django’s motivation – and his character – are sufficiently established through other moments in the film. The story has only one narrative arc, and it’s pretty straightforward. We’re not likely to forget what Django wants. So these hallucinatory interludes only distract from the narrative, bringing its forward momentum to a grinding halt.

There is a similar, though much longer sequence, lampooning the KKK (to be fair, it’s really a “proto-KKK” since the movie is set pre-Civil War) which adds little to the narrative. Taken on its own, the sequence is actually quite funny, and from a moral/ethical standpoint I am strongly favor of portraying prejudiced bigots as the idiots they are. But what does it add to the story? It is a momentary side-adventure, which does nothing to move the main narrative arc (Django’s quest for his wife) forward. And it fails to deepen our understanding of either Django or Doctor Schultz: we already know where both characters stand on slavery and race relations long before this scene. While it is a very well-composed sequence, it is didactic directorial self-indulgence. And it slows the narrative arc substantially.

Window-dressing and Economic Storytelling

Whereas Peter Jackson’s choices in The Hobbit actively broke the story’s narrative structure, Tarantino’s choices in Django Unchained merely distracted from it. But while the scope of their poor judgment may differ, their mistakes were of a kind: both confused the presentation of story with the story’s narrative.

Presentation is a technical concern. It might be prose structure, language style, camera angles, or shot composition. It is the technique – any technique – through which the narrative gets communicated. When we tell a story, regardless of medium, we have to choose how to present that story. We choose our words, our sentences, our shots. But if we lose sight of what that technique is meant to communicate, if – like Peter Jackson – we choose to present thematically and structurally incompatible components, or if – like Quentin Tarantino – we choose to present self-indulgent sequences which fail to deepen the narrative arc/themes, then we’ll be damaging our story’s pacing (and possibly breaking the story beyond repair).

In short, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained just reinforced for me that presentation should always be in service to the story. That’s what people are there to read/see/experience.

Satire and the Fantastic


NOTE: Sorry for missing the post last week! It has been a really crazy several weeks, and I’ve been absolutely swamped offline as a result. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this week’s post even if it is a little bit behind schedule!

There is no art more serious than humor. That’s a short, earnest, declarative sentence made all the more powerful by the fact that it is true. For as long as I can remember, I have been in awe of literary satirists from Lucian of Samosata, to Voltaire, Swift, Twain, Morrow, Holt, and Pratchett. Their ability to move me, to make me laugh, and then to make me think represents the pinnacle in authorial skill: the same words doing triple duty, affecting readers through the years.

Just about every satirist I can think of relied on elements of the fantastic, and even if they did not use them in every work, its preponderance begs the question: why? Why is literary satire bound so tightly with the fantastic? And how does satire actually work in fiction in general, and speculative fiction in particular?

Satire, Distance, and Cognitive Estrangement

As I started researching this post, I found that defining satire is about as difficult as defining science fiction (and don’t get me started on that one!). It can be defined by its characteristics, by its tone, by its focus, by the author’s intentions, by the audience’s response. Sound familiar?

I consider a work to be satire if it both makes me laugh and simultaneously focuses my attention on real-world philosophical, ethical, metaphysical, or moral concerns. And if nothing else, I think that definition should give some indication of why I think Sir Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld novels examine politics (in the City Watch cycle), personal ethics (in the Witch cycle), metaphysics (in the Death cycle), civics (in the Moist von Lipwig books and others), and cultural values (in all the rest), is the greatest satirist since Mark Twain.

In order to be effective, speculative fiction relies on cognitive estrangement to take us out of our quotidian existence and put us into a mental state fit to internalize the content/themes of the story. While all fiction does this to some degree, speculative fiction characteristically employs more obvious devices to achieve this effect (e.g. neologisms, anachronisms, impossible actions/beasts, secondary worlds, etc.). If speculative fiction is the literature of actualized metaphor, the metaphors work because they allow us to look at our world from outside, from some measure of cognitive distance.

Satire operates the same way. Satire – both in the Juvenalian and Horatian sense – is effective only when its audience is cognitively estranged, when they are with the narrator inside the story’s frame, looking out at the real world with gazes weighted with judgment. Every satire needs this level of cognitive estrangement, whether the satire features fantastical elements (e.g. Lucian of Samosata’s A True History, Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock“, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels), or retains its realism (e.g. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal“, or Heller’s Catch-22).

The (adult and broadly middle class) audience for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were estranged through both the vernacular voice used in the novel, along with the protagonist’s age and social class. The readers of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” were estranged by the sheer ridiculousness of his suggestion. And Heller’s readers were estranged by the portrayed lunacy of the war theater (itself arguably a secondary world).

But while satire can achieve cognitive estrangement without relying on the tools of speculative fiction, there is no genre that has done more to develop those tools. It should therefore come as no surprise that the two have a long and close relationship, or that so much of the best satire can be solidly placed in the aisles of science fiction and fantasy.

The Story Comes First: Serious Reading of Satire at Face Value

Satire is just like any other story: in order to be effective, it has to first work as a story in its own right. If there is no conflict, if there is no tension, if the characters fail to earn our engagement, it will ultimately fail to hold our attention. And if the satire fails to hold our attention, then it is ludicrous to suppose it will affect our judgment.

In this, satire is very different from comedy of the absurd (e.g. Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhiker’s Guide series). Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Holt’s Flying Dutch, or James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah can all have their stories reduced to a plausible structure devoid of humor but still engaging.

Their basic plot structures and character functions could – conceivably – be played straight: read the plot description for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Hogfather on Wikipedia. Even summarized without the color and humor of the actual text, the stories themselves remain engaging.

I believe that satire’s ability to be read at face-value, devoid of any humor, is the foundation for the form’s strength. If at any level we look to fiction to find viable models for life, then a story’s ability to hold together under its own weight suggests that it communicates a workable worldview. Subconsciously, it establishes the credibility of the narrative, which I believe to be a necessary prerequisite for the satire’s message.

Whether satire features fantastical elements or not, the story has to be there for it to have any chance of working.

Incongruity, Humor, and the Fantastic

Psychologists and neurologists believe that humor arises out of the incongruous, out of a situation, event, or phrase which generates a cognitive dissonance between the audience’s expectations and the reality presented to them. Satire is humorous to the degree that it plays with reader expectations, and to the degree to which it introduces and maintains such incongruities.

Pratchett’s Discworld novels – which focus on wizards, dwarves, vampires, police, etc. – rely on a set of expectations developed from genre conventions. Reading within the genre and growing up in Western culture, we have certain expectations as to both the behavior of such characters and the values they hold. Pratchett’s humor derives from the incongruity of his characters’ simultaneous adherence to expected behavioral patterns, and to sensibilities and values recognizable from our real contemporary society.

We smile when Pratchett shows us the highly aristocratic, upper-crust Lady Sybil Ramkin…and portrays her as a down-to-earth volunteer devoted to saving much-maligned gastrically-challenged swamp dragons. Vampires with the blood-drinking equivalent of AA are so poignantly true-to-life that we cannot help but laugh. The humor is disarming, and that is the function that it serves within the broader text: it establishes a cognitive environment in which Pratchett’s themes can be explored through his characters. But it is not, perhaps paradoxically, his humor that makes his books into such effective satire.

Pratchett’s humor is broadly Juvenalian in nature, and it is very different from the more Horatian humor of James Morrow’s Godhead trilogy. The incongruity from which Morrow’s humor derives is more focused, and more central to the themes he wishes to explore. One cannot separate the incongruity of Morrow’s fantastical events (e.g. the comatose body of God) from the quotidian social reactions to those events (e.g. putting God on trial for crimes against humanity).

Divorced from the themes his characters wrestle with, Pratchett’s humor rarely extends beyond genre parody. To be clear, this is not a complaint: genre parody is important, and Pratchett executes on it so well as to be in a class all his own, but his satire happens in parallel to his humor, not as a result of it.

Character as the Source of Satire, Built on Story and Incongruity

Stories are effective when their characters have agency, when they must make difficult choices according to the values that they hold. When their held values are in mutual opposition (Tolstoy’s famous case of “two rights” pitted against each other), their story gains in drama and amplitude.

Satire itself derives from the application of incongruous values by characters who either hold to them or come to do so. Whether we’re talking about Voltaire’s Candide and Pangloss, Twain’s Huck Finn and Jim, Pratchett’s Captain Vimes and Death, or Morrow’s Martin Candle and Anthony Van Horne, it is the characters’ values applied in (fictional) practice that makes their stories satire. This is only possible because of an alignment between the incongruity employed by the story’s humor and its themes. This is the primary difference between satirists like Pratchett, Morrow, and Holt and humorists like Douglas Adams, Philip Reeve, or (to a lesser extent) A. Lee Martinez).

When a work of fiction uses humor but does not align the incongruity at its root with the broader themes of the story, then it fails to produce satire. It may still produce an excellent, entertaining, and even meaningful story. But it becomes a different kind of story, one that is plainly not satirical.

Douglas Adams, for example, can rightly be considered an absurdist. His novels, though hilarious and entertaining, lack the exploration of moral, ethical, or metaphysical themes common to true satire. His incongruous moments (e.g. the pot of flowers thinking “Not again” moments before its destruction) are used in an absurdist fashion, to highlight the impossibility of finding true meaning.

Philip Reeve’s Larklight trilogy uses humor to increase the accessibility of its characters and thus strengthen reader engagement with the overall story. But however well executed and enjoyable, the incongruity of setting and tone is independent and broadly unrelated to the books’ character-oriented themes.

A. Lee Martinez uses humor in a fashion more closely approaching the satirical, however his incongruities tend to fall short of unified alignment with his stories’ central themes. They are incidental or tonal in nature, used more to establish the character’s initial situation or the story’s narrative voice than to establish the particular themes explored by those characters.

I do not mean these comments as criticisms of these authors or their work, as their stories are all excellent, enjoyable, and often quite funny. Superficially, they resemble satire in that they rely on incongruity to produce humorous effects. But that is where the resemblance ends: lacking an alignment of incongruity, character, and theme, a work of fiction simply does not become satirical.

The Challenge Inherent in Satire

As I mentioned at the very start of this essay, I consider satire to be the single highest form of literary art. A true satirist must be an excellent storyteller, a consummate artist, and a deep thinker all at the same time.

To execute on the satirical imperative demands of the artist control over every aspect of their storytelling: the humor must be tightly controlled and painstakingly aligned with the themes of the story, the characters must be believably drawn even when divorced from the incongruities underlying the humor, and the events of the story must somehow hinge upon the values that are themselves inherent in the incongruity.

If that seems like the literary equivalent of juggling chainsaws while singing a pitch-perfect cantata and accompanying themselves on one foot when painting an oil-paint masterpiece with the other, well there’s a damn good reason for that. I am in awe of those writers who manage to pull off that trick, and I wish there were more of them.

NOTE: This is a pretty long essay (even for me) and I’ve touched on a lot of authors and titles here. I know some of you like when I provide a single list of referenced authors and works, so I hope this one helps!

The Anatomy and Value of Fictional Violence


Two months ago, Sherwood Smith and Steve Gould both urged me to read Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, and I am quite glad that I took their advice. The Sharpe stories are historical fiction, set during the Napoleonic wars and featuring the adventures of a British Rifleman Richard Sharpe. I’m only about a quarter of the way through the series at this point, but the books have made me wonder about the uses and techniques of violence in fiction. And since the genre I write most in (fantasy and science fiction) often features some level of violence, the question is philosophically and practically pretty relevant to me.

The Purpose of Fictional Violence

Like everything else in fiction, violence is a tool through which we can manipulate the reader’s emotional, mental, and physiological state. Most stories will use it as an accelerant: throw in a fight scene to boost the reader’s heartbeat, menace the hero to ratchet up tension, describe a murder in detail to make the reader uncomfortable. There is a natural sympathetic response when we read violence: our neurons fire in the same sensory areas as the hero’s, our heart rate goes up, our muscles tense. This is natural, and is part of the process by which we draw the reader into the story.

But violence can serve as more than an accelerant. Depending on how violent action is portrayed, we can use it to slow the story’s pace. Cornwell shows us – in scene after scene – how the butchery of war becomes a hard, bitter slog. He takes multiple paragraphs to describe a movement that would take seconds in reality, stretching the reader’s perception of time. And then he does it again. And again. And again, desensitizing us to the horrors of war just as if we were there fighting it.

In many stories, violence is the knife-edge on which the stakes balance. Conflict, and the themes it explores, are crystallized through violent action. A battle makes the political or philosophical conflict concrete, personalizes it, reduces it to an accessible or understandable simulacrum. A fight brings the emotional consequences home to the reader by playing on their sensory perceptions. While not all stories need violence to do so, violent action does make the stakes real in a way that reasoned discourse cannot.

So how does the tool work?

The Components of Fictional Violence

Focus

I keep returning to the Scribblies’ dictum that POV fixes everything, and that’s for damn good reason. The most important component in fictional violence is point-of-view, and more specifically the focus which that POV imbues.

Effective violence relies on the intersection of the reader’s imagination with their sensory perception of the events portrayed in the story. The reader might never have been in battle, but their imagination can supply the smell of smoke, the sound of screams, and the coppery taste of blood. The choice of how to direct the reader’s attention, which details to supply them with, which senses to evoke is one that relies on POV and focus.

Consider a bare-knuckles boxing match told from three different perspectives: one is a technical blow-by-blow in a newspaper article, the other is a sports announcer sitting ringside, and the third is one of the fighters (forgive me for the crudity of these experiments – I just want to illustrate a point):

Newspaper Article
Mondelo countered Flannery’s jab with a hard right hook, and Flannery went down for the count.
Sportscaster
Like a cat, Flannery shoots a right jab. But Mondelo just takes it! Takes it on the cheek, and doesn’t even blink. Mondelo’s right hooks around, moving like a meat hammer. Spins the Irishman clean around. He’s stumbling. He’s stepping away. Mondelo’s not touching him – he ain’t moving. The crowd’s screaming, going wild for Mondelo to finish up. Flannery folds up. The ref goes down. Mondelo’s just standing there. And that’s the count! Flannery is out!
Boxer
Flannery moved so fast, Mondelo never even saw the jab. It was like he’d blinked, just the one surprised blink, and then the blood streamed down his cheek like a salty tear. But his fist was already moving, and from this distance there was no way even fast Flannery could recover. Mondelo’s right crashed into his jaw, and though he couldn’t hear the Mick’s teeth crunch above the crowd’s screams, he felt them crumble up his hand and through his wrist, past his elbow and all the way to where his own face throbbed. Flannery spun around, flecks of bone and blood staining the ref’s shirt. Mondelo didn’t move. Let him go down, he thought. Let him go down, I don’t have another one like that. He couldn’t loosen his fist, like all of his bloodied knuckles had been fused together. Please, God, let him go down. The ring shuddered as the Irishman hit the mat. Below the haze, Mondelo could see the ref counting. The crowd was screaming. And his fist still wouldn’t open.

Each of these – admittedly rough – passages describes the same violent events, but the sensory details provided in each vary tremendously. It is the POV that informs which sensory details receive the focus, and it is in turn the focus which affects the reader.

Cornwell’s Sharpe series is told from a nearly omniscient point-of-view, which gives him the ability to narrow and widen his focus throughout the unfolding action of a particular battle. At one point, he might be giving us the view from ten thousand feet, describing the movements of entire companies on the field of battle. And in the next paragraph, he may have zoomed in to show us the brutal disembowelment of a cavalry man on the line. Consider the following (from Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Rifles):

Those Riflemen began to fall. The centre of the square soon became a charnel house of wounded men, of blood, screams and hopeless prayer. The rain was stinging harder, wetting the rifle pans, but enough black powder fired to spit bullets at the enemy who, crouched in the grass, made small and elusive targets.

The two mounted squadrons had wheeled away to the west, and now reformed. They would charge along the line of the road, and the frozen steel of their heavy straight swords would burn like fire when it cut home. Except, so long as the Riflemen stayed together, and so long as their unbroken ranks bristled with the pale blades, the horsemen could not hurt them. But the enemy carbines were taking a fearful toll. And when enough Riflemen had fallen the cavalry charge would split the weakened square with the ease of a sword shattering a rotten apple.

Dunnett knew it, and he looked for salvation. He saw it in the low cloud which misted the hillside just two hundred yards to the north. If the greenjackets could climb into the obscuring shroud of those clouds, they would be safe. He hesitated over the decision. A Sergeant fell back into the square, killed clean by a ball through his brain. A Rifleman screamed as a bullet struck his lower belly. Another, shot in the foot, checked his sob of pain as he methodically loaded his weapon.

As the above passage shows, the omniscient POV gives Cornwell great descriptive flexibility, as it allows him to communicate information which his protagonist (Richard Sharpe) does not necessarily have. But while an omniscient POV maximizes our flexibility of focus, it carries with a trade-off in the other essential component of effective violence: the level of emotional engagement.

Emotional Context

Violence without emotional context is useless. By giving the reader an understanding of the character’s perception of the violence, and of the character’s investment in its outcome, we make it possible for the reader to have an emotional response. The emotional context for violence is an amalgamation of everything we have learned about the characters involved, and about our perceptions of those characters.

Obituaries – which as a matter of taste and human decency, rarely depict violence – are a great example of this principle at work. The purpose of an obituary is to communicate that a person has died. But that could be communicated in one sentence: “Person X died yesterday.” Or, if we wanted to provide more factual detail, we might say “Person X died in a car crash yesterday.” But that’s not how obits are structured. They give us the facts, but they also humanize the person involved. They imply an emotional context for the event, at the least by mentioning the survivors.

Emotional context works the same way in violence. Violence where the characters lack an emotional stake fails to move the reader. It makes the violence clinical, which at times might be the point (a lot of serial killer thrillers do this), where the absence of emotional context itself becomes its own equivalent.

However, there is a difference between painstakingly writing a scene of emotionless, clinical violence (as in Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter), and writing one where the emotional context is haphazard. This is one of the complaints I tend to have about some gritty fantasy, in particular some of Joe Abercombie’s or K.J. Parker’s work.

While technically their portrayals of violence are fine, that violence is frequently devoid of emotional investment. The point-of-view is close, developing an expectation that the focus and depiction of violence will be visceral to the characters involved. But when that portrayal lacks an emotional dimension: the characters are often shown to have emotions, but those emotions somehow vanish when the violence begins. When those perspective characters’ emotions are kept at arms’ length, the reader’s emotions are likewise held at bay, weakening the effect the violence can otherwise produce.

Language and Violence

The language which we use to portray violence also carries significant impact. Historical fiction, quasi-historical fantasy, contemporary fantasy, and science fiction all feature technologies with which most readers are not fluent. But the use of technical terminology, of the correct terms for particular objects or maneuvers, can help establish the world-building of the story (see my earlier discussion of how Ian Fleming and John le Carré use these science fictional techniques).

The sentence, paragraph, and chapter structures can similarly affect the pacing of the action, and likewise manipulate the reader’s focus. Staccato sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters accelerate the pace. When the emotional stakes are established, when the reader is invested, the accelerating pace increases the reader’s tension.

The words used to describe the violence, with their sound, their rhythm, and the emotions they evoke in the reader likewise affect the reader’s response. To describe a sword wound as “gaping” or “weeping” produces a different response in the reader, and this type of response can be played with to good effect.

In Cornwell, the descriptions of violence are visceral: when focused closely, Cornwell describes the wounds inflicted in graphic terms. But for his protagonist, battle is just another day at the office. Richard Sharpe remains emotionally invested in the violence, but there is a purposeful disconnect between his ruthlessness in battle and the graphic way in which Cornwell describes the horrors of war. Sharpe laments the ugliness of war, but he also revels in it. As he says time and time again, it is the only job he was ever good at.

On the Absence of Violence

But not all books – and certainly not all genre books – need violence to be successful. One of my favorites, John Crowley’s Little, Big is pretty much devoid of violence. Violence can by its very nature either by physical (as it tends to be in much fantasy), emotional (as it tends to be in much romance), or philosophical (as it often is in much 19th century literature). But as far as I can see, the tools by which those different kinds of violence are established, and the uses to which we put them, are consistent.

Whether the violence involves a broadsword, a ray gun, or cutting repartée, the tools for its depiction remain the same. And that’s because it is not violence that affects the reader, but rather the way in which that violence gets presented.

Structure and Perspective in Children’s Stories and Films


NOTE: For those of you in the United States, since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I want to wish you and yours a wonderful, fun, and loving holiday!

This past weekend, Skyfall was sold out, so we saw Wreck-it Ralph instead (n.b. It was absolutely delightful: if you haven’t seen it yet, please do! It’s worth it, particularly if – like me – you spent a large part of your childhood at the local arcade.). Sitting in the theater I was struck by an observation I had never noticed before: all of the best (and most successful) children’s movies in recent memory (e.g. Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Shrek, etc.) feature adult protagonists. But children’s books, whether middle-grade classics like From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, more recent fare like Harry Potter, or edgier YA titles like The Hunger Games, almost never adopt this strategy.

It has become axiomatic that in children’s literature, the protagonist must be a child. Why? And why the discrepancy between children’s film and books? In thinking it through (and discussing it with The Professor), I think it stems from the basic structure of all children’s stories, and in particular from the point-of-view through which that structure becomes most accessible.

NOTE: Forgive me if the thoughts here are a little muddled or plum off-base. I’d love to know what you think, since I feel like these ideas are still a little fuzzy in my own mind.

The Cynical Argument: Parents Should Want to Go

There is, of course, a cynical argument to be made: parents are more likely to spend their hard-earned cash on children’s entertainment that they enjoy, and parents are more likely to enjoy a children’s story that on some level speaks to their adult sensibilities. Children’s movies – through which parents must sit – are more exposed to this commercial logic than children’s literature because kids of a certain age can read books on their own. As a result, one might think that parental enjoyment is less important for books than for movies.

But this commercial argument – while true insofar as it goes – strikes me as superficial at best. If constructing an excellent, enjoyable story were as simple as that, then we wouldn’t have any bad stories. Instead, I think that the methods by which the best kids’ movies and kids’ books are both constructed, and the ways in which they differ, deserve a deeper exploration.

The bildungsroman Structure of Children’s Stories

At its heart, every children’s story is a bildungsroman (coming-of-age story). While this may be a broad, sweeping generalization, I think it remains accurate. Every artistically and commercially-successful kids’ story (in film or print) is a story of personal growth portraying a character who gains a more mature understanding of how to navigate the complexities of the world.

Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles show Taran struggling to prioritize selfish desires, duty, and self-identity. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy follows the development of Katniss’ moral compass in a world that is far from black-and-white. Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower models a troubled young man’s development of self-confidence.

The same dynamic works in kids’ movies: Monsters, Inc. centers around coming to accept the Other. Lilo & Stitch is built around the acceptance of family and the responsibilities that come with it. The Incredibles focuses on the development and support of self-identity.

Just because these are stories of personal growth and maturation does not make them either formulaic or didactic. In fact, there is no surer kiss-of-death for a children’s story (regardless of medium) than didacticism. Instead, these stories all model the gradual process of maturation, in which by their conclusion the character(s) come to a more nuanced view of the world and their own roles in that world. Children’s stories model the maturation process every kid undergoes, and by doing so provide kids with a framework for dealing with the world’s complexities.

A Question of Perspective

Personal growth is – by definition – an internal, private journey. The perspective from which the story gets told is closely tied to the dramatization of that journey. Children’s books are axiomatically always told from a child’s perspective. Whether they are written in first person, or close third, etc. the point-of-view is invariably that of the child. It is the rare kids book indeed that tries to tell its story from an adult perspective (I’d like to call particular attention to Anna Waggener’s recent debut Grim, which makes a noble attempt at this daunting challenge).

We see Hogwarts through Harry Potter’s eyes. We struggle through the Arena on Katniss’ shoulder. We face the horrors of Uglyville and New Pretty Town alongside Tally Youngblood. Children’s books model the child’s experience directly, unmediated by any narrative distance. Authors face the challenge of giving their youthful protagonists agency and the opportunity to exercise it (e.g. “getting rid of the parents”) but once the adventure begins, the reader can experience the journey directly.

Children’s books tell their stories from a very close, very personal perspective. The emotional power of stories like Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Halse Anderson’s Speak, or Larbalestier’s Liar derives from the intimacy of being in the narrator’s head. Interior monologue and narrative voice – two tools which film lacks by its very nature – are key to this process.

Children’s movies that focus on adult characters obviate the need to empower their protagonists with agency. Sully and Mike Wazowski are grown ups, in relative positions of authority within their world. Wreck-it Ralph, though not in a position of authority, is clearly a grown-up with all of the freedom of choice that implies. Mister Incredible and Elasti-girl likewise have theoretical agency, however constrained by circumstances. When children’s movies focus on adults, they don’t need to “get rid of the parents” the way children’s books do.

However, movies are inherently more distanced from the character’s emotional journey than books. Movies generally lack an interior monologue or narrative voice to communicate the internal journey. Camera angles, voice work, shot composition, and lighting all contribute (often significantly) to give us that emotional window into the journey, but the relationship is always at a slightly greater remove.

When they focus on adult characters, children’s movies accelerate the speed at which the character’s expression of agency occurs. This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to rapidly develop the character and their emotional journey through dramatic action, which is key to entertaining the audience and getting us to identify with the character.

Because the adult characters in children’s movies are portrayed with agency, and with clear motivations expressed simply (however complex their underlying logic) kids understand how to interpret them. They may not be able to empathize with Mister Incredible’s frustration at a dead-end job, but they are able to understand the fact of his frustration’s existence. But it is through the adult characters’ relationship with non-focal children’s characters that the real accessibility occurs.

While kids will find it harder to empathize with Mister Incredible’s job troubles, or with Elasti-girl’s marital concerns, they can definitely empathize with the experiences of Dash and Violet, and in particular with the consequences of their parents’ difficulties as experienced by the children. The adults’ personal journey is modeled in the experiences of the youthful secondary characters, and the relationship between the youthful secondary characters and the adult protagonists itself models relationships familiar to the child audience. This gives the story an immediacy and relevance to audiences young and old.

In children’s books, this type of an approach is more difficult: the internal experience of an adult character is a greater (though not impossible) imaginative leap for children to make. Because the written word by its nature yields a more intimate audience/character relationship, this complicates and slows the emotional accessibility of the story.

The Value of Narrative Unity

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think the trick to effective storytelling for children – whether in film, in prose, or in sequential art – ties back to the concept of narrative unity. Whatever perspective the story is told from, and regardless of whether the protagonist is an adult or a child, if the relationships in the story model relationships understandable and relevant to both kids and grown-ups, then the story is likely to be accessible and engaging to both audiences. And those stories where the personal journeys of both adult and child characters are tied together and their resolution is explicitly and emotionally unified are likely to be the most resonant and the most lasting.

Does this concept make sense? We just repainted the upstairs hallway, and the paint fumes might be making me more fuzzy-headed than normal, but it seems a little muddled to me. What do you folks think?

Ephemeral Horror and the Diffusion of Genre Markers


Content, when it comes to genre taxonomy, is king: we categorize stories based on the conventions they employ and the devices that show up within their texts. Spaceships, time travel, aliens? Let’s call it science fiction. Magic and knights? Let’s go with fantasy. A five-act structure centered around mutual attraction and misunderstanding? Romance. A crime that needs to be explained? Mystery. (Yes, I know this is a gross over-simplification – but that doesn’t make it wrong.) These devices, the objects and tropes of most genres, can easily be slapped on a cover to communicate the story’s category to booksellers and readers.

But then we come to horror. Peter Straub is right (hat tip to Robert Jackson Bennett for pointing this essay out) when he says that horror is the only genre whose defining characteristic is absent from the text: horror gets categorized as horror because of the reaction it produces in the reader, not because of the devices it employs (although those devices do contribute to the reaction). The ephemeral nature of horror’s defining characteristic is both a strength and a weakness for the genre.

The Strength and Freedom of Ephemera

Creatively, Straub is exactly right when he writes:

…this absence of specificity is not at all a limitation but the reverse, a great enhancement. That no situational templates are built into horror grants it an inherent boundarilessness, a boundlessness, an inexhaustible unlimitedness. If the “horror” part is not stressed all that overtly and the author spares us zombies, vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, hideous things in bandages, etc., what results is fiction indistinguishable, except in one element alone,  from literary fiction.

Horror lacks the constraints that more solidified genre conventions impose. We can write a horror story – like Shirley Jackson’s classic “Flower Garden” – without a single element of the supernatural or the inexplicable. But even such a “mundane” story can still evoke a sense of horror similar to The Haunting of Hill House.

This freedom means that – in order to be effective – horror must sneak past the reader’s natural defenses, must directly speak to the reader’s perceptions, values, and fears. This is the kind of deep-seated, emotional and perceptual communication that the literary fiction genre has traditionally claimed for itself. But where literary fiction uses such emotional and philosophical intimacy to explore comfortably distanced morality, horror uses a highly sensitized point-of-view to get as close to the nerve as possible, to map even the most painful experiences from the inside.

When a horror story fails to achieve this effect, when it fails to develop such a reaction, it fails to be a horror story. There is a reason why vampires and werewolves and zombies now fill shelves of urban fantasy and paranormal romance: fictional devices that once terrified, now no longer do so. And herein lies the weakness of ephemeral genre definition.

Content is (un)Dead

What is the taste of blue? That is the same kind of unanswerable question as “how can you tell a horror story from its cover?”

There was a time – not all that long ago – when vampires were horrific. Their stories evoked the frisson of terror and repulsion that characterizes the horror genre, and so slapping a vampire on the cover sent a message to the reader that said “This book will horrify you.”

But over time, and in paticular over the last thirty years, we have become acclimated to vampires. They stopped horrifying us, and so have oozed into science fiction (e.g. Peter Watts’ Blindsight or Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series), romance (e.g. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories, etc.), fantasy (Jasper Kent’s Danilov Quintet), and so on. When we see a vampire on a cover today, we are more likely to think of these genres than of horror.

This dissolution of the communicative value of fictional devices is a normal part of the creative cycle, and it affects every genre (and is particularly accelerated in YA). But because horror is defined by the reaction it produces, the genre is more exposed to this danger, and its covers (and sales) are disproportionately affected by it.

The Future of Horror?

I think the future of horror will be much like its past: subject to boom-and-bust cycles closely tied to society’s fluency with and acclimatization to the devices which evoke the reactions that define the genre.

For designers and publishers in the field, I think that the challenge is to disentagle cover design from the devices used in the content. Thrillers and (to a lesser extent, mystery) have both broadly succeeded in doing so: their covers tend towards the iconic, rather than the representational. It is worth noting that cover designs for horror perennials like Stephen King and Peter Straub seem to employ this exact strategy, and I suspect that it helps to smooth the genre’s traditional boom-and-bust cycles.

For authors in the field, I think that the trick to continued artistic success will be to focus on that reaction, on the emotional and perceptual effects which define the genre. Essentially, to stick to our knitting. Those who manage to evoke that sensation of visceral repulsion or terror will continue to sell, will continue to have readership, because the darker facets of human nature have and will always fascinate.

And with that being said, I have to wonder: how does reader reaction and the diffusion of genre markers extend or impact on other genres, like science fiction and fantasy?

What is Science Fiction for?


NOTE: Thank you so much to everyone who wished us health and safety during and after Hurricane Sandy! I’m happy to report that we’ve got power, cell service, Internet, and cable TV all working again. Thanks again. If anyone wants to help those hit much worse than we were, I urge everyone to make a donation to the American Red Cross Hurricane Relief fund.

No matter how many times the community debates science fiction’s viability, direction, and future, a fundamental question goes unasked: What is the purpose of science fiction? The answer to that question is at the heart of every (often recurring) debate about the genre, yet I have rarely seen it asked directly. Consider:

Quality: Genre vs. Literary Fiction Science Fiction’s Exhaustion Award Criteria

These are just the most recent paroxysms of genre self-confidence that I can recall from the past year. And in most cases, the resulting discussion is necessary for the continued health of literature (and of our genre, in particular – see my earlier thoughts on that front here and here). But in each discussion, the debaters speak from a particular perspective, heavily informed by their underlying and unarticulated perception of science fiction’s purpose. It is the implicit background which every one of us takes for granted, but which leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and grossly divergent conclusions.

The Amorphous Purpose: A Definition

(NOTE: I would love to see a story entitled “The Amorphous Porpoise”. Just saying.)

The purpose of a genre is – by its very nature – protean. It is an amalgamation of methods, effects, and consequences within literature and society. If the concept appears fuzzy and imprecise, there’s a good reason for that: It is. Like so much critical discussion, it is a philosophical abstraction. We cannot apply it to any particular title, nor even to a particular series. To be meaningful, it must be broad enough to contain contradictions, and resilient enough to withstand them.

Despite its imprecision, genre’s purpose remains a powerful critical tool. When Damon Knight says that “science fiction is what we point to when we say it”, he relies on the particular mix of methods, effects, and consequences of a given story to group it with other stories of similar purpose. Conceptually, it is similar to Brian Attebery’s “fuzzy set” of genre markers, but its value goes beyond the merely taxonomic: genre’s purpose contextualizes the stories within the genre, and thus creates a framework for our interpretations and responses.

When Christopher Priest laments the nominee slate for the Clarke Award, or when Paul Kincaid observes the “exhaustion” of science fiction in the Best-of anthologies, their concerns can be reframed in terms of genre’s purpose. Between the lines, they each suggest an indistinct and idealized vision of science fiction. Neither offers a clear prescription, but it is clear that they have set their own bars on the basis of some criteria, whether articulated or not. If we reframe their arguments (hopefully without doing damage to their intentions), we find that Priest observes that the Clarke Award does not reward the fiction he believes aligns best with science fiction’s purpose. Paul Kincaid believes that much of contemporary science fiction aligns with an outmoded purpose, which may no longer be culturally relevant.

In both cases, they leave the purpose of science fiction implicit and unarticulated, which I think does their core arguments a disservice. I think a debate about the purpose of science fiction and its role within literature and society is an interesting and valuable one, from which interesting ideas about writing and genre can both flow.

On the Constitution of Purpose

I think of genre purpose as having three components. There may be more, particularly since this is still a concept I’m trying to wrap my head around. But in general, a genre’s purpose is the combination of its:

Methods
These are the techniques, conventions, and devices which are employed in stories ascribed to a particular genre. They are directly observable within the text, no one story will ever use all of them, and any one story may specifically reject or subvert one or more of them.
Science Fiction Examples:

  • Scientific plausibility
  • Fictive Neology
  • The Novum
  • Rational actors/consequences
  • Naturalistic prose
  • Reliable narrators
  • Unreliable narrators
  • The imagined future
  • Interstellar travel
  • Intelligent alien life
  • Sentient artificial life

Effects
These are the emotional and mental responses produced in the individual reader as a direct result of the genre’s methods. They are not observed within the text, but are observed within its individual readers. Certain effects may be generalizable across an audience, but because no two readers experience a story in the same way, the effects are never universal for any story. The effects can likewise be directed, e.g. “fear of science” or “fear of government”, etc.
Science Fiction Examples:

  • Escape
  • Entertainment
  • Imaginitive speculation
  • Wish fulfillment
  • Ethical Uncertainty
  • Sadness
  • Horror
  • Terror
  • Optimism
  • Ambition
  • Transcendence
  • Affirmation
  • Curiosity
  • Rumination
  • Satisfaction

Consequences
These are the cultural reactions that a genre produces. They may be expressed outside of the literary sphere, for example in education, cultural sensibilities, or public mores. They may also be expressed within future texts, as a response to or expansion/subversion of the genre’s purpose.
Science Fiction Examples:

  • Fleeting enjoyment
  • Scientific/technological development
  • Changed social acceptance/rejection/prejudice
  • Perceptions of government power
  • Perceptions of civic responsibility
  • Perceptions of civil rights/roles
  • Adjusted conceptions of justice
  • Adjusted aesthetic sensibilities
  • Adjustments in personal priorities

I believe that all fantastic genres (science fiction, fantasy, and horror), and possibly all literature shares the majority of their effects and consequences, but that they rely on different methods to do so. I imagine – and I hope – that there are people who disagree with this, as their thoughts might provide fascinating insights into the purpose of literature and art.

The Evolving Purpose of Genre

When each of us thinks of a literary tradition – be it science fiction, biography, or mystery – we value different methods, effects, and consequences differently. This is partially a consequence of our individual tastes, and partially the result of our philosophical values. Genre’s purpose – in its abstract philosophical sense – does not have intentionality. But when we begin to discuss a genre’s purpose, each of us prioritizes certain methods, effects, and consequences over others, and this gives genre’s purpose a directionality.

The cycles we see in science fiction – whether it was the gradual move away from scientific romance conventions in the pulp era, or the New Wave’s focus on the sociological, or cyberpunk’s psychosocial aesthetics – are a consequence of genre’s constantly-evolving purposes, which in turn are an emergent property of our consumption of media and our experiences of daily life. The sometimes acrimonious divide between “hard” and “soft” SF merely reflects differences in our community’s priorities, tastes, and philosophical values.

Our individual values, and the intentions they lend to our perception of genre, inform everything we do when it comes to genre. When we write genre fiction, we (hopefully) write what we think it should be, applying and communicating our values. When we review genre fiction, we express how an author’s work is executed relative to our individual conception of the genre’s purpose: did the story successfully align with what we want from the genre? When we criticize genre fiction, we generalize across multiple stories to either gain insight into how genre’s methods, effects, and consequences interrelate or to articulate our generalized desires about the genre.

Perhaps, rather than rehashing the perennial “genre is exhausted/dying/dead” debate it would be helpful to take a step back, and articulate what we think genre should be, and start from there. There will be plenty of disagreements if we do: this is actually pretty complex philosophy, and it has flummoxed much smarter people than me. I suspect that for many of us, it is easier to express our values through our fiction than it is to spell them out. But I think as a community, it is a discussion worth having nevertheless.

But if we want to advance our understanding of the art form, and if we want to advance the quality (howsoever it gets defined) of that art form, shouldn’t we at some point spell out where we want it go?

Escaping into Fantasy: Thoughts on Transportive Fiction


I’ve got a confession to make: I read for escape.

I don’t just read to learn, or to shape my moral compass, or to consider the deeper truths of life. If any of that happens, I’m ecstatic. I love to think, and I’m thrilled to have to have my horizons broadened. But literature can only achieve such effects when it has engaged the reader on an intellectual, emotional, and physiological level.

There is a difference between being engaged with a story, and being transported by it. Engagement need not be visceral: it can be distanced, nuanced, and cerebral in nature. Escape is transformative, in the sense that for a time I am taken out of my day-to-day concerns and focused entirely on the story and its characters. A story that engages me might hold and maintain my interest. A story that allows me to escape will not let me put it down.

That type of engagement – when we temporarily check out of our day-to-day existence and inhabit a fictional world (whether it is fantastic or not) – opens us up to whatever deeper truths we may find in the written work. And (on a superficial but no less important level) it makes the experience enjoyable. But what makes that kind of escape possible? What makes some stories a means of escape?

The Difference Between Escape and Engagement

When I read, I find that there is a fundamental difference between engagement with the story, and escape. It is not, however, a difference in kind, but rather in degree. I can be engaged with a story, interested in seeing the characters’ fates, curious as to how the plot resolves, etc. without divorcing myself from my everyday reality.

Plenty of good books generate engagement. Many of the Russian classics (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc.) and more modern SF writers like Greg Egan, Gregory Benford, or Kim Stanley Robinson engage me. But I find that they do so on a very cerebral level, and that as I read their stories I remain fully aware of my surroundings, my reactions to their text, and what I have cooking on the stove.

To be clear, this is in no way a criticism of the quality of their stories.

However, I find that their focus on intellectual exploration of “high concepts” keeps me intellectually focused on the topics they explore. It grounds me, in a way that stories which allow me to escape do not. Other SF writers – like John Scalzi, Peter Watts, Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and early David Brin – do manage to provide me with an imaginative escape that goes beyond “mere” engagement.

But your mileage may vary. It is entirely possible that a different reader might have an inverse of my experience, and there is nothing wrong in that. It merely suggests that different readers have different tastes, and respond differently to different stimuli.

I believe that stories have certain building blocks, certain broad conceptual components, that are all inter-related and which together affect the reader. The balance between these components will vary from story to story, and certain configurations will produce escape, while other configurations will produce engagement. The configurations that work for a particular reader will be different from those that work for anyone else. And the configuration that works for me today may well be different from one that will work two years from now.

And while the configuration of components that drives escape may vary, I think the list of components is pretty solid.

Character: The Root of All Tension

I like to believe that everything flows from character. The character drives the plot, not the other way around. And yet, character is also one of the trickiest components because it percolates through all of the others: voice, world-building, concept, etc.

As a human being, I have a certain degree of empathy for other members of my species, and so I am naturally interested in understanding a new character whenever I meet one. I respect depth even more than affability, and the degree to which I can understand or engage with a character is a high indicator of the story’s ability to grant me escape.

China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station opens with a prologue, written in first person, from an (initially unidentified) narrator. This prologue fails to develop much in the way of character, although it does establish a tone and begin the process of world-building (see below). But the character who dragged me into the story, who made my escape to New Crobozun possible, makes his appearance in the first chapter: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin.

Mi&eacue;ville’s descriptions are rich and varied, and they imbue Isaac with a depth of character that is instantly engaging. They make me curious about where Isaac will go and what he will do. They make me care. However, this in and of itself would not have been enough to actually transport me. It might earn my engagement, but it would have done little besides.

Miéville manages to transport me by having his words do double (or triple) duty: while his sentences and paragraphs tell me about the character of Isaac, they are simultaneously contributing to the other components of the story, particularly its world-building.

World-building: What Most Folks Think of as Escape

Because so much speculative fiction deals with secondary worlds or imagined realities, and because the portal fantasy structure has played a major role in genre history, world-building is often associated with the concept of escape. After all, we escape to some place, right? And in speculative fiction, we are specifically escaping to a fictional reality that someone else (the author) has made up.

Effective world-building, however, is not a rattling off of hard-to-spell place names, or of cramming eons worth of mythology down the reader’s gullet. Transportive world-building is all about evoking a reality that is compelling and plausible and real for the reader on a sensory and emotional level.

Miéville’s Perdido Street Station does a great job with this, too. His exposition simultaneously informs us as to character, while giving us extensive detail about the world of New Crobuzon. The details provided, however, are slipped in sideways: we are introduced to a Dickensian environment, with over-crowded tenement streets, with grime-encrusted slipways, and with all of the economics such an environment might suggest.

Miéville doesn’t tell us that much of New Crobuzon is reminiscent of a Whitechapel slum. He instead demonstrates this fact by opening his first chapter with the prosaic act of buying groceries. In the space of several paragraphs, he evokes a mood and feel for the environment which will carry through the rest of the novel. In one sentence – where he off-handedly mentions hissing constructs stomping up and down the street – he shifts us into a fantastical mode, where such “constructs” might walk unimpeded.

Taken on its own, this opening would have engaged me pretty quickly. Miéville uses all of the senses to evoke the feel for New Crobuzon. Two passages in particular stand out for me, one olfactory and the other aural:

Below the basket the salls and barrows lay like untidy spillage. The city reeked. But today was market day down in Aspic Hole, and the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot that rolled over New Crobuzon was, in these streets, for these hours, improved with paprika and fresh tomato, hot oil and fish and cinnamon, cured meat, banana and onion.

Between the stalls stomped hissing constructs. Beggars argued in the bowels of deserted buildings. Members of strange races bought peculiar things.

The sensory detail is fine-grained and carefully selected. It creates a mélange of sensation specifically tailored to convey the chaos and layering of scents and sounds that such a bazaar would have. It is verisimilitude, but of the most fantastic variety.

From these “establishing” passages, Miéville introduces us to the character of Isaac, and here his world-building ratchets into high-gear. While simultaneously introducing us to the character’s values, priorities, and personality, he introduces us to some of the fantastic races that live in New Crobuzon, and paints lines of cultural tension into the city.

This is the point where, for me, Perdido Street Station became transportive. The combination of depth of character and simultaneous, evocative world-building transported me into the story’s fictional world.

Pacing & Tension: A Consequence of Character

To establish a fast pace and build tension, the characters need to be well-drawn. However, I find that well-constructed tension can often over-ride weaknesses in world-building. This is a phenomenon I have observed most often in television, particularly in spy shows like Covert Affairs or police procedurals like Castle.

By giving us characters who we invest in, and then by ratcheting up the tension and the pace, the writers can distract us from the implausible or slapdash world-building that permeates the story. This is, I think, a risky technique because it places escalating tension and world-building in opposition. At some point, the implausibility of the world-building might overpower the tension, and throw the reader out of the story. This, I think, is a weakness often found in much of the thriller genre.

But when the world-building and the tension both contribute to and derive from characterization, when all narrative horses are pulling in the same direction, the effect is to heighten the story’s transportive capabilities.

Intellectual and Moral Exploration: High Concept Escape

Intellectual and moral exploration can be highly stimulating, and I do not doubt that for some readers it provides the imaginative escape that I find in character, world-building, and pacing. But for me, I find that the intellectual dimension on its own cannot transport me. But when the intellectual/moral dimension supports and is supported by the characters, tension, and world-building of the story, then the transportive effect is greatly multiplied.

I am reminded of two very different reading experiences: Peter Watts Blindsight and Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket. Both books feature high-concept intellectual conjecture, and both are interesting and engaging on that front alone. However, Blindsight also builds compelling characters who are engaging and stimulating, and whose actions and choices directly reflect on and feed back into the novel’s intellectual considerations.

The Clockwork Rocket, by contrast, fails to develop plausible characters or to develop plausible world-building outside of the novel’s central conceit (see my earlier review here). It remains an engaging and interesting read, but for me, the weakness of its characterization and the shallowness of its world-building prevented it from being transportive.

Point-of-View: The Lens which Mediates the World

The more I think about it, the more I begin to subscribe to the thesis put forth by the Scribblies that “POV Fixes Everything.” In terms of enabling escapist reading, point-of-view is the foundation: it informs and shapes the way in which all other tools are applied in a given work.

If a story’s capacity to transport is determined by its characterization, its world-building, its pacing/tension, and its intellectual conceits, these components all must be communicated through the writing. The words we choose, the sentences we assemble, and the paragraphs we construct are all determined by the point-of-view the story is told through.

On a superficial level, the point-of-view determines which details get noticed (read: communicated to the reader), which values get explicitly communicated and which get implied, and which sensory details are presented. At first blush, this might seem to be the same as characterization, but point-of-view and character are not necessarily identical. They may be congruent in a work with limited POVs, but they need not be: the narrator always exists, even if a story is told in close or distant third person.

A story’s point-of-view – which may be distinct from its characters – informs the voice through which it is told. This affects the prose, in terms of its style and lyricism. It affects the way sentences are constructed, and while prose alone cannot transport me, it does constitute the grease that lubricates the story’s engine.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the stories which allow me to escape, those that transport me into a fantastic environment divorced from my quotidien concerns, have one over-arching characteristic in common: every component – their characterization, their world-building, their management of pacing, and their underlying intellectual concepts – are all unified according to the point-of-view(s) through which the story gets told.

What do you think? Which factors – or which configuration of factors – drives your escape into the stories you love?

Balancing Beauty, Language, and Story


Recently, a friend and I were talking about writing (like you do), and he drew my attention to some comments from Jonathan Carroll about the relationship between beautiful language and storytelling. In a 2002 interview with Rain Taxi, Carroll says:

Too often, writers either write well or they story-tell well. Very rarely are they working toward the middle, and a lot of the time the guys who write well are considered hands-off, literary writers. I think that they are forgiven a lot. They may have beautiful language or metaphors, but when I read, I want both. I want to read a good book, and that’s one of the reasons why I don’t read genre fiction, because most of these guys can’t write well. They can story-tell well, but they can’t write well, and I just get bored. To sit on a page with furiously beautiful language: that entertains you for a while, but after a while, it’s like, come on! And if the guy tells a good story only and the characters are like film sets that have a stick behind them, and if you take it away they’ll collapse-no, I want both. I want both in what I read. And I’m trying to do it in what I write.

This is a nice quote because it is succinct and it communicates Carroll’s point clearly. However, I think that taken at face-value it oversimplifies the relationship between language and story-telling (bear in mind that an interview like this doesn’t really provide much room for nuance, and I suspect a writer as good as Carroll well understands the underlying nuance that informs such statements).

I agree with Carroll that beautiful prose and solid story-telling should not be mutually exclusive. However, I object to the use of the term “beauty” as a way of describing prose in any critical sense because it tells us more about the speaker’s literary tastes than about the text itself. It is an over-broad term, useful in colloquial, casual discussion (or in interviews), but useless in exploring how fiction actually works.

What Makes Prose Beautiful?

First, let me start by saying that I do not think that all books are created equal. Some stories are better than others, and some are just plain bad. But the beauty of prose alone, or the degree to which the story takes primacy over style, does not determine “quality” in my estimation. And that is because the style of a given story and the balance struck between story, character, philosophy, and style are consequences of authorial choice.

Consider for a moment three sentences, taken from three different “mystery” novels. While all three sentences serve a similar – technical – function, their constructions differ greatly:

Sentence A As our little mules strove up the last curve of the mountain, where the main path divided into three, producing two side paths, my master stopped for a while, to look around: at the sides of the road, at the road itself, and above the road, where, for a brief stretch, a series of evergeren pines formed a natural roof, white with snow.
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Sentence B It’s a long drag back from Tijuana and one of the dullest drives in the state.
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Sentence C I opened the front door with my latch-key and purposely delayed a few moments in the hall, hanging up my hat and the light overcoat that I had deemed a wise precaution against the chill of an early autumn morning.
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

All three of these sentences serve a straightforward narrative goal: they set the scene, they establish the setting in which the rest of the action is to take place. It is a simple goal, but they are each written in a completely different style. Eco relies on a multifaceted sentence, with plenty of subordinate clauses and descriptive imagery. Chandler rejects all of that, and instead offers a flat description of a character’s perception of the environment. And Christie, whose prose Carroll calls wooden elsewhere in his interview, presents an unemotional portrayal of the narrator’s actions, with some characterization implied through the narrator’s value judgments.

Which is the more “beautiful”? Which the more effective?

I posit that they are each “beautiful” in their own way: Eco’s sentence is more complicated, with more components and more images than either Chandler’s or Christie’s. It relies to a greater extent on visual imagery, and its punctuation and rhythm imbues a serene ambiance to the text. Chandler’s sentence, though simpler in its construction, tells us more about the speaker/narrator, and uses an the elongated soft vowel (the “a” in “drag”) punctuated by the short “u” and hard “dr” (in “dullest drives”) to both suggest the experience described and offset it with a hard stop. Chandler’s sentence accomplishes just as much as Eco’s, but in far fewer words. By contrast, Christie’s sentence straddles a position between these two extremes: hers is a sentence verging on the “merely functional,” wherein she includes more sensory detail and more mental context than Chandler offers, but less visual imagery than Eco. One might suggest, as Carroll does in his interview, that Christie’s prose is “wooden” as a result. But I don’t think that is the case: Christie’s prose is functional; it gets the job done, but in her stories she focused her attention on aspects other than the prose.

For me, there is beauty in all three approaches (and I suspect that Carroll too would recognize the beauty in Eco and Chandler at least, particularly in light of his other comments regarding Chandler). But what makes all three sentences “beautiful” is not their elegance, their fluidity, their economy, or their rhythm. Their “beauty” stems from the fact that they are effective: they produce a response in the reader, and put the reader in a certain frame of mind. And they are particularly effective, and so particularly beautiful, because their construction and the response it elicits align with the themes, characters, and plot of their respective stories.

The Right Tool for the Job

When we write, words are the chisels we use to carve our marks on the readers’ minds. In general, we would be unlikely to use a shovel to turn a screw. The craftsman and the artist must both select the tools best suited to the task at hand. If words and the style in which they get assembled into sentences and paragraphs are the tools of a writer, then they should be used as needed for a particular story. This is probably easiest to see when considering the relationship between prose style and pacing.

A complicated style, stuffed to the gills with literary allusions and luminous metaphors, might work very well in a mainstream literary novel. But by its very nature it slows the reader down: to be appreciated, it forces the reader to consider the ways in which a sentence is constructed, to savor each syllable and the way the sentence rolls off of the tongue, to luxuriate in velvety imagery like a lounging cat. There is a place for that.

But sometimes, like when a character is literally hanging over a precipice by their fingernails, the reader doesn’t want any of that artistry. They want to know: will they fall or not? They want to know what happens next, and are on the edge of their seat waiting to get it. Allusions and flowery metaphor, in such a situation, risk just getting in the way of what drives the reader’s engagement with the story (see my earlier thoughts on that score).

And this is why when we write, we need to carefully select and modulate the way in which we write to suit our needs. Because the right style for a particular passage will depend on our goals for that passage, and it will vary from story to story, or even within the same story. I am reminded here of the movie Blade Runner, which Caroll himself references elsewhere in that interview. He and I share a favorite line from that movie, apparently, namely the scene where Rutger Hauer’s character is dying and he says to Harrison Ford:

Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

For me, this is an excellent example of code-switching, of getting the audience to the right emotional point where they can experience a cathartic moment, and then to amplify that catharsis by a switching into a different style.

Prior to that scene, Blade Runner toes a fine line between a straight noir science fiction detective story, and a more poignant exploration of life and humanity. The philosophical dimensions are alluded to, suggested more by their absence from the story (and highlighted by the excellent score) than by its explicit dialog. But those allusions and tantalizing hints crystallize in that one scene, where the action of the detective story gives way to sublime beauty as voiced by the film’s ostensible villain.

That trick worked in the film because of the way the movie teetered on a point between straight detective story and philosophical conjecture. And therein, I think, lies the secret to unifying prose, theme, and character: balance.

When we write, our job is to balance the myriad devices of our fiction to achieve our artistic goals. The “right” balance will vary from story to story: one story might skew more to heart-pounding action, another might teeter in the direction of poetry, etc. But for a story’s prose to unify with its themes and narrative, we must determine where the right balance for that story can be found. Once that has been done, we must “merely” (Ha! Easier said than done!) write the text that adheres to that balance, and hope that the balance that tickled our fancy as writers will likewise resonate with our readers.

SF Signal Mind Meld on Heroes


NOTE: I’m still at Viable Paradise this week, so again, sorry if I’m slow to respond to comments! I will get to them, though, I promise.

In case you missed it, there’s a really interesting new discussion of heroes and protagonists up at the SF Signal Mind Meld. Definitely worth checking out!

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