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Posts tagged ‘John Crowley’

The Limits of Wonder and Defining Speculative Fiction

Much as I love genre theory, I typically steer clear of taxonomic debates. I find that genre classification tends to put the cart before the horse, to be the critical equivalent of describing an engine in terms of its color. Most such debate reduces to a collection of observations that do little to advance our understanding of how narrative mechanisms actually function. Yet over the weekend, Ian Sales posted a thought-provoking essay which diverges from this general rule. Unlike most attempts at genre taxonomy, Sales’ definition of speculative fiction tries to be systematic and comprehensive, built from a set of first principles articulated in previous essays on wonder and the source of agency in SF/F. On balance, Sales’ focus and clarity of thought make his proposed definition that rare critical beast: a critically helpful taxonomic construct.

Unfortunately, Sales’ definition of speculative fiction is also flawed.

Where Do Definitions Come From?

There is much in Sales’ essay that I agree with, and I think the most important point he makes is this:

A useful definition has to describe something intrinsic to the text, not something extra-textual.

If a taxonomy is to be valid, true, and useful then it must emerge from the texts being analyzed. While I know some in the arts who look askance at the scientific method, basic logic suggests that a viable theory must be supported by repeatable observation.

If we wish to define a genre, we must point to the identifiable and unique features of that genre. Romance, for example, benefits from a beautifully succinct definition: “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” One could likely come up with something just as elegant for mystery/crime or westerns.

But it is the broad, all-encompassing categories like speculative fiction and mainstream literature whose defining characteristics become harder to pin down, and that is because the reasons we enjoy them often occlude their underlying structures.

Dragons, aliens, magic, faster-than-light travel, etc. are extremely rare in mainstream literary fiction. When we read speculative fiction, they can offer us that pernicious “sense of wonder” which so often muddles critical analysis of the genre. On a superficial level, identifying speculative fiction by its devices has the simultaneous benefit of being easy and rarely incorrect. But it is a superficial and facile approach that fails to tell us anything about either how the narrative is constructed or how that construction contributes to its effects.

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

Sales is right to point to the weakness of identifying genre based on the devices that appear in the text. Just because a book features dragons or elves does not mean it is fantasy (or rather, does not mean it isn’t science fiction).

Consider the science fictional treatment of dragons in both Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (which I discussed at greater length here) and Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, or Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance’s fantastical treatments of hard science in The Book of the New Sun and Tales of the Dying Earth, respectively. As these works make clear, genre taxonomy cannot be reduced to a checklist of tropes. How such devices are used in the text and their relationships with the narrative’s characters, plots, themes, and settings have a greater significance than the mere fact of their mention.

While Sales’ stated goal (to define speculative fiction using characteristics intrinsic to the text) is one with which I am in complete agreement, I fear that his definition falls wide of the mark. Of his two defining criteria (wonder and [the source of narrative] agency), fully one half is external to the text and based entirely on a reader’s subjective, individual experience of the narrative.

Critically Pernicious Wonder

“Sense of wonder” is a critically contentious term that seems to come in and out of vogue every generation. I personally subscribe to the belief that it does have critical value, but only insofar as one of several diagnostic tools. Its utility as a criterion for definition is limited by the fact that our mileage may vary.

Sales argues – in line with reasoning by Romanian SF critic Cornel Robu – that “wonder” is centrally concerned with scale, and that science fiction fosters a sense of wonder through the actualization of scale in the reader’s perception. To be clear, this is not a bad way of thinking about wonder. But it is a very specific, highly individual, and rather limited one.

In my own reading, I find that many concepts, images, devices, and even phrases can foster a sense of wonder. For me, it isn’t all about scale: It may also relate to emotional intimacy (e.g. John Crowley’s Little, Big), or spirituality (e.g. James Blish’s A Case of Conscience), or mathematical or rhetorical elegance (Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket and Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, respectively). Many have written about “wonder” as touching on the sublime, verging on the transcendent, or as enabling a reader’s conceptual breakthrough. As a concept, it has descriptive value. But its own definition is imprecise, and that very imprecision stems from the term’s innate subjectivity.

Wonder is a quality intrinsic to the reader’s experience, and not to the text.

As a result, an epistemological definition of speculative fiction that uses wonder as one of its two legs cannot stand. “Sense of wonder” is neither a quantifiable nor an independently repeatable observation that can be made for a given text. This weakness is further supported by Sales’ own (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) equation for quantifying wonder, which itself relies on four inputs which are personal to the reader and have nothing to do with the text in question.

An Alternative Definition of Speculative Fiction

However, Sales’ definition does have value. I particularly appreciate his insight into the source of narrative agency. I’ve been thinking about his breakdown for the last couple of days, and I think he makes an excellent point:

Science fiction and fantasy can be differentiated by the narrative text’s implied prime mover. Fantasy’s implicit prime mover is the author, while science fiction’s implicit prime mover is deterministic natural law (which is, admittedly, often conceived and communicated by the author).

Of course, the author in all cases has control over both the narrative and their fictional world. However, what Sales really highlights isn’t the question of how the story is imbued with narrative agency. Rather, it is the implied author’s relationship/attitude towards their fictional reality.

If the text communicates the implied author’s attitude as explicitly deterministic or naturalistic, then the work is likely to be science fictional. If the text communicates that attitude as either unexamined, theological (even given a fictional religion), or metaphysical, then the work is likely to be fantasy.

Such a characterization seems to be broadly consistent with Sales’ use of “agency”, yet such a distinction is useful inasmuch as it helps us to differentiate science fiction from fantasy. However, it does little to differentiate speculative fiction from other more mainstream genres.

A Definition of Speculative Fiction

Rather than utilize “wonder” as the definition’s second axis, I would instead suggest the centrality of the speculative/impossible to the plot. The more speculative the plot, the more likely a given work can be deemed speculative fiction. That seems somewhat tautological, but it allows us to neatly place any work of fiction along a spectrum of “speculation”.

This alternative definition seems to be less susceptible to edge cases than Sales’ original: By taking into account the totality of the implied author’s relationship to their fictional reality, works like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination can still be comfortably classified as science fiction despite their central speculative conceit going relatively unexamined. At the same time, by exploring the speculative elements’ relationship to the plot (as opposed, for example, to the theme) we can differentiate works of magic realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude from secondary world fantasies like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

This lets us construct several precise definitions actually based on characteristics that are observable within the text:

  1. Speculative fiction is fiction where speculative elements (i.e. devices of the fantastic, scientific extrapolation, impossible conceits, etc.) are central to the narrative’s plot specifically, irrespective of their relationship to either theme or character.
  2. Fantasy is speculative fiction where the implied author’s relationship to the fictional reality is unexamined, theological, or metaphysical in nature. A fantasy’s implied author accepts the fictional reality without necessarily trying to explain it.
  3. Science fiction is speculative fiction where the implied author’s relationship to the fictional reality is deterministic or naturalistic. A science fiction’s implied author assumes and communicates an explicable fictional reality.

By focusing on the relationship of a narrative’s speculative elements to its plot and the implied author’s attitude towards their fictional reality, we gain the ability to discuss the use of the fantastic and the speculative as metaphors and conceits, and to apply that discussion against narrative structure, techniques of characterization, and narrative subtext.

In other words, these definitions provide us with increased analytical clarity and precision – which is what definitions are meant to provide.

Characters’ Age: Musings on How it Affects Writing

In the western world, we live in a culture that idolizes youth, and I suppose that’s understandable. We naturally gravitate towards characters who are young, healthy, vibrant, powerful, and exciting. And yet, some of my favorite characters in fiction (e.g. M. John Harrison’s teugis-Cromis, Ian McDonald’s Georgios Ferentinou, or John Scalzi’s John Perry) are the exact opposite: they’re old, often sickly, damaged, and (superficially) weak. And yet despite their age and infirmity, they become memorable and compelling characters. (since a book I’m currently shopping to agents has an eighty-five year old protagonist, it’s a subject that’s been on my mind a lot recently)

The protagonist’s age is central to every dimension of their story. There is nothing — literally, nothing — that their age does not affect. Whether we’re writing realistic fiction, space opera, or secondary world fantasy, our protagonist’s age will affect the story’s broad plot, the techniques through which we build our world, the style of dialog, and even the specific word choices we make in our narrative.

Age and Plausibility

Let’s first look at age’s interaction with our protagonist’s background. Would you trust your brain to a fourteen year old neurosurgeon? Or would you get into a starship captained by a ten year old? Probably not. At least, not without some hefty assurances that you’re not about to commit suicide. When we consider the role our character plays in their society, we need to run a basic plausibility check. If the character’s age and role stretches that plausibility, then we need to ensure that we provide adequate justification for that divergence.

One of the better examples of this I’ve seen takes place in Philip Reeve’s madcap middle-grade space adventure, Larklight. There, we meet a fifteen year old space pirate captain named Jack Havock. Of course, Larklight is aimed at children…which is good, ’cause there are few readers who call out plausibility BS faster than a ten year old. And the idea that a fifteen year old might find himself a space pirate — and a space pirate captain, no less — obviously stretches credulity. But Reeve makes it plausible both through how he depicts Jack Havock’s actions (while still a child, in a crunch he behaves very responsibly) and through the back story he shows the reader.

A counter-example, where I felt a character’s age worked less well, was Ian McDonald’s recent YA debut Planesrunner where McDonald’s teenage protagonist is shown to be preternaturally skilled at just about everything he puts his mind to. McDonald is too experienced a writer to ask us to make the leap in plausibility unaided: he does provide explanations that justify Everett Singh’s abilities. I might have easily believed Everett to be a savant quantum physicist. Or a naturally gifted soccer player. Or a superb chef. But all three? That suggests plot-oriented convenience, and strains plausibility. Because each of those skills takes time to master…time that a teenager simply hasn’t had yet.

The same plausibility gap works in the opposite direction. In my aforementioned WIP, my protagonist is an eighty-five year old named Johann von Kempelen (yeah, the guy who invented the Mechanical Turk…’cause who else would you want as a clockwork emperor’s physician?). In this case, making him a young man would have stretched credulity on two fronts: first, his job is to be the personal engineer to the emperor. He is responsible for keeping the emperor ticking. That’s not a job you get at a young age, regardless of how fantastical the world is or how talented the engineer. Second, the real-life von Kempelen actually lived in the 18th century. But my alternate history is set in the 19th century. So to make that alternate history less-credibility-stretching, I decided to keep him an old man (even though, in reality, by 1885 he was long dead). Keeping von Kempelen old prevented a plausibility gap, and simultaneously better allowed me to explore the philosophical themes of the book.

In Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (which I discussed here), his protagonist is also an old man, in this case an aging ghul-hunter. On a superficial, sword-and-sorcery action-oriented level, Ahmed did not need Doctor Adoulla Makhslood to be an old man. He could have made him an inexperienced young ghul-hunter, eager to prove himself. Or he could have had him a ghul-hunter in his prime. Any of these choices would have been equally plausible given the overall shape of his story. But they would have completely changed the themes explored, the story’s emotional trajectory, and the technical way in which the story was told.

Age, Actions, and Reactions

Have you ever seen old people fight? I mean, physically? They move differently from the ways teenagers do. There are many reasons for that, some physiological, some psychological, but the bottom line is that a badass move we might pull off at twenty is not something we’re likely to succeed at when we’re sixty. As a result, the character’s age completely changes the way action sequences are depicted. Movement slows and becomes more deliberate, reaction times increase. The characters’ movements in an action sequence, the choices they make, the way they react to danger, all of those will be different based upon their age and whatever infirmities might come with it.

The same holds true for a character’s emotional reactions to events. I react to events completely differently today than I did at the age of sixteen (thank god). That’s one of the realities of aging. And it is one that we need to bear in mind when constructing our characters.

Nnedi Okorafor handles this brilliantly in Who Fears Death? (which I wrote about here). Her heroine, Onyesonwu, is relatively young. And she acts her age, with all of the high-strung emotion that entails. Reading the book, her choices made me gnash my teeth in frustration…but that didn’t mean they were “wrong” for the character: they were exactly the choices Onyesonwu would make. If she were fifteen years older, she would likely have taken a completely different path. But the character worked because her choices – however frustrating they might have been – were realistic given her emotional makeup and maturity.

Equally well-done in this regards is Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, by Mo Willems. If you haven’t seen it, check it out: whether you have kids or not (I don’t), you will find it absolutely charming. The picture book centers around a child who loses her favorite stuffed animal (the titular Knuffle Bunny). What makes this book stand out is that it focuses just as much on the father’s reaction as on the child’s, and Willems manages to grasp both the child’s frustration and fear, and her father’s panic and guilt (so well that we feel the story must be autobiographical). Both reactions are determined by the characters’ ages…and both are rendered in text and illustration perfectly.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Age and Its Relationship to Prose and Themes

There’s a school of thought that says a well-rendered character needs to grow and change over the course of a book. And this is true. But the trajectory of that growth differs based on the character’s age. All characters, regardless of their age, have some sort of back story that informs everything about the character, their perceptions, their values, their opinions, and their voice. However, when writing older characters there needs to be more of that back story, with all of the ups and downs that a full life demands.

The reader doesn’t need to see it, unless it somehow directly affects the events of the story. But we as writers need to know it, because the choices our characters made yesterday affect the choices they’ll make today. For example, if we’re writing first person or close third person, characters are going to notice and react to different smells, colors, textures, tastes based upon their previous experiences. Does the character notice a particular scent? Smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, followed closely by taste. How a character reacts to it (and what else a character notices) should be informed by their earlier experiences.

So should the choices they make. A more mature character is going to grow and change differently from how a teenager would. That’s not because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it’s just that a more mature character will already have grown and learned many of life’s lessons. This dimension of character growth is, I think, more difficult for more mature characters. For the character’s emotional arc, I think the trick is to identify what lessons they failed to learn before the events of the story.

Saladin Ahmed does an excellent job of this in Throne of the Crescent Moon. Adoulla’s emotional journey centers around his failed relationship with a mature, strong-willed woman. He “failed” to learn a lesson about priorities in his younger days (or made choices that he has since come to regret), and the emotional arc of the story focuses on his realization of this fact and his rectification of that mistake. This puts into conflict two “goods” against each other: his duty as a ghul-hunter, and his love for Miri. This makes for a poignant emotional conflict. And a believable one for a character of his age.

Age Handled Well

I’ve mentioned a couple of books where I think characters’ ages are handled particularly well. But there are others which I also wanted to give shout outs to. I’ve mentioned Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: if Scrooge wasn’t an old man, the book would have no meaning. Hugo’s Les Miserables also works precisely because of its interplay between the emotional arcs of youth (Marius, Cosette, Eponine, Enjolras) and age (Valjean, Javert, the Thenardiers). And last but not least, John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big also only works because of the characters’ ages: the growth and evolution of Smoky Barnable and the Drinkwater clan only works because of their (sometimes purposefully indeterminate) ages.

What are some other examples that you think handle characters of different (or unusual) ages well?

Unity, Economy, and Writing as a Revelatory Act

So I’ve finally read Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, which had been strongly recommended to me by many people over many years. It was definitely worth the read, and I was particularly drawn into the essay “About 5,750 Words” which should be required reading for any storyteller in any medium. In it, Delany presents a compelling metaphor for the act of writing, presenting it as a gradual revelation of the story’s essence where each word simultaneously moves the story forward and changes our perception of everything that came before. It puts me in mind of a writer-as-sculptor, chiseling away at a block of marble to reveal the shape beneath. Each strike of the hammer is the next word on the page.

NOTE: Delany is one of those amazing writers who instantly put me in a philosophical frame of mind. So bear that in mind: I don’t know how practical my thoughts are going to be, but they do represent the way my mind is drifting beneath his wind.

Honestly, I was surprised to find the revelatory metaphor so compelling. When it comes to craft, I’ve always fallen into the ultra-rationalist camp. I like to believe that I am (or that I should be) in absolute control of every aspect of my storytelling. Before writing word one, I have always liked to know where my characters and story were going, and how they were going to get there. That doesn’t mean I need to have an entire book in my head before writing, but it does mean I need to know where a particular scene (at the least) is going. Writing as a revelatory act just didn’t – conceptually – work for me. But I find that the more I write, the more my outlook on this is changing. Partially, this is a question of experience and a broadening of my toolkit o’craft. But it also stems from what I consider the driving force of narrative: the quest for unity in storytelling.

When I think of the greatest stories I’ve ever read I find that every level of their storytelling is pulling in the same direction. Stories affect us on a physiological and psychological level, exerting both a rational and emotional influence on us. Basically, when we read, our bodies and minds are like great echo chambers where everything feeds back on everything else, amplifying the essential notes to a thunderous roar. Stories like Hugo’s Les Misérables, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and John Crowley’s Little, Big use their action, emotions, and themes in concert to resonate like a struck gong. I’ve come to believe that the secret to that kind of amplified resonance is a perfect (or near perfect) unity between the story’s action, emotions, and themes and the structure, pacing, and words through which they are expressed.

The Essence of Story

On a prosaic level, a story is just a bunch of words or images set down and consumed in sequence. But at the heart of each story, there lies some ephemeral truth that we as artists wish to communicate. Every story ever created might have a very different kind of truth: Zamyatin’s We warns us against the logical extremes of Marxism. Crowley’s Little, Big shows us something about family and the cycles of life. Jackson’s “Flower Garden” points us to the horror of unstated small-town bigotry. These truths could not be more different. Yet they are the unifying elements which tie together the events of their respective story, the structures of those events, their pace, and the words used to express them.

In that sense, I agree with Delany that our job as writers is to identify the underlying essence of the story. That essence is a chimerical questing beast: I don’t think any of us can ever truly internalize every aspect of a story’s essence. Any mere mortal’s brain would probably explode. But we can and should get our reaching fingers around the last, loose strand of that beast’s tail. And having plucked that strand free, to take a page from Baron Cuvier’s playbook and extrapolate the rest of the creature as best we can.

Different writers approach this in different fashions. My own preference is to consciously consider the essence of the story before or during its initial writing. But I know plenty of great authors who don’t give it any conscious thought until after it has been written. Their initial focus is on telling a fun story: they let their subconscious build the story’s essence, tie it into their words, and then try to amplify it during revision. Neither approach is better or worse than the other, and both ultimately lead us to the moment when a story gains meaning and achieves artistry. In my own writing, I’d really like to master both techniques, though I have a long way to go with both.

Words, Words, Words: The Only Things the Reader Sees

Fortunately or unfortunately, we can’t just download the essence of our stories into the audience’s brain (though I imagine there’s a good SF story in that concept, come to think of it). So we have to use symbols and metaphors to approximate that essence, employing language (the most basic symbol) to do so. Which is what brings us to Delany and Chekhov. Consider the following two quotes:

A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Samuel Delany Anton Chekhov

The Chekhov quote is often used by folks blathering on about “show, don’t tell” and I’ll put it bluntly: they don’t get it. All writers – yes, even Chekhov – rely on “telling” to a greater or lesser degree, so that truism is only helpful for the most basic writing. Delany and Chekhov are implying the same concept: they are each indicating that the words we use become the very essence of the story we are trying to communicate. Chekhov’s two nouns (his “glint of light” and “broken glass”) communicate more as images than his earlier verb (“shining”). We don’t need to know the story’s plot for those words to evoke emotions. The words themselves and the rhythm of their sequence do all of the heavy lifting. And to Delany’s point, Chekhov’s simple exhortation is effective because he first paints a picture (of the moon shining), and then refines it with more powerful and evocative language.

Word choice and sequence matters, because unless we’re working in a graphical medium, it’s the only tool we have. But when those words align with the emotions, themes, and (manipulative) intentions of the storyteller, then we achieve unity, and by the same token, the inevitability of prose that most folks like to call “style” or “economy”.

Plot and the Essence of Story

When I think about plot, I usually think of it as independent from the essence of my story. The truth of my stories is only tangentially related to the plot. While I find Ayn Rand’s screeds and self-aggrandizement to be incredibly annoying, I love the concept of plot and plot-theme which she introduces in her The Art of Fiction. What she calls the plot-theme is for me the essence of the story. It is what the story is about, its philosophical and emotional core. It is the truth that I wish to communicate. But plot is just Stuff That Happens, which, if I’ve done my job correctly, expresses the plot-theme succinctly and powerfully. And it does so by making the story’s essence accessible for the reader.

Consider the essence of Miller’s brilliant A Canticle for Leibowitz. One can likely reduce it to the warning that if we aren’t careful, we risk repeating the tragic mistakes of the past. Stated so baldly, the power of that essence is blunted. It becomes bland, polemic, and boring. But it is through Miller’s plot (what happens) that the story’s essence is demonstrated in action. Through the characters, and the events they experience, we gain a means of emotionally investing in the story’s essential truth…before that truth is fully revealed at the book’s conclusion. Our engagement with the book becomes emotional as well as intellectual, thus increasing the story’s effect on us.

When done properly, every plot point in a story contributes to the story’s final essence. This contribution, or the story’s essence itself, might not be apparent until the very end of the book. But if when we turn the last page the characters have consistently acted in support of the story’s unstated essence, we will find ourselves satisfied and the story ringing in our hearts and minds.

Writing as a Revelatory Act: A Writing Exercise

In his essay “About 5,750 Words”, Delany performs a neat trick: he writes a single descriptive sentence, and painstakingly, word-by-word shows how each word revises and clarifies the initial image that the author has in his head. It’s a neat trick, because it literally puts into practice the concept quoted above. And it shows how one can consciously construct a unified, economical story.

Of course, Delany does this trick for didactic purposes: I suspect that when he sits down to write fiction, he does not weigh each word five or six times before deciding on it. Doing so would likely mean decades spent on a single book. Yet I find myself fascinated by this concept of each word simultaneously revising and building on the words that came before it. Given the underlying essence of story, it makes that story’s expression a revelatory act: likely as surprising to the author as to the reader. And that kind of revelation would be awesome.

Because of the way my brain is wired, I strive to do everything on purpose. But of course, that’s an aspiration and I doubt I ever really come close to meeting it. But sometimes, a reader’s comments really surprise me. For example, one of my beta readers recently sent me her feedback on a draft of a finished novel. In her feedback, she mentioned how much she liked the fact that two opposing characters at different points in the story mirror each other in their personal desires for vengeance. She thought it really added and amplified the philosophical and emotional themes at play between those characters.

And this floored me, because while I wrote the words and mapped out the plot, this was just a happy accident. I wish I was cool enough to do that on purpose. But in fact, it was a revelation to me, because at no point in the process did I tell myself “These enemies will be mirror images of each other along the dimension of vengeance by which their themes will be amplified.” It just worked out that way. And even after I’d written it, I didn’t notice that that’s how the characters and their actions related to each other. Which on one level, just goes to show that even a self-conscious writer’s subconscious has a heavy hand, and that readers will always find something the writer didn’t expect in every story. Of course, on another level it might mean I wasn’t paying enough conscious attention to my story – which if that’s the case is a little more worrying.

Which brings me back to the trick that Delany employs in “About 5,750 Words”. I get the impression that letting the imagination run free and consciously considering each word individually and in sequence may produce the same kind of revelatory experience. If nothing else, I suppose it will exponentially increase my awareness of word choice. It’s probably not a viable technique for writing long pieces, but I think I’m going to do a writing exercise at some point where I write an entire short story one word at a painstaking time…without prior consideration of the story’s essence. On one level, this sounds almost like free-writing (an exercise I always found frustrating and useless). But I think it is actually more its opposite: because each word is carefully weighed and selected, it will hopefully yield some of the most unified and essential writing I could hope for.

At least, that’s the theory. And I figure it’s a worthy experiment to try. Would you like to see the results of the experiment up here on the blog? Since it’s just a crazy experiment (I don’t expect the creature to live), it might be fun to dissect it. What do you think? And how do you approach getting that kind of unity into your stories?

Negotiating the Borders of Intimacy and Imagination: Romance and Fantasy

Last week, I came across Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Big Love Sci-Fi series of blog posts (part 1, part 2, and part 3). I had been thinking about how romance, sexual tension, and emotional intimacy is built and maintained in books, and so her suggestion that romance in fiction is actually a negotiation of the borders of intimacy particularly struck me. As I thought about it some more, I realized that in some ways the romance genre and fantasy are analogous. If romance derives its power from the borders of intimacy, then fantasy builds its sense of wonder from negotiating the borders of imagination.

Borders of Intimacy: A Framework for Thinking about Romance

Romance may well be the oldest genre in existence. Since before the written word, stories and myths were full of love, sex, and betrayal. And why not? It’s fun! It grabs our attention, focuses our minds, and gets our hearts racing. What’s not to like? Artists have known for millenia that sex sells, but the methods by which it’s portrayed are culturally dependent.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice manages romantic/sexual tension very differently from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures. 19th century readers had different standards of intimacy: the kind of hot-and-heavy sex scenes we take for granted today would have been off limits back then. Even more graphic 17th century romances like Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess; or, the Fatal Enquiry (which was called pornographic when first published) lack the overtly-described throbbing body parts of today’s sex scenes. Despite the changing standards of intimacy, romances from Ovid to Danielle Steele engage us by bringing characters to an emotional precipice, and then having them finally plunge over it.

The Facets of Intimacy in Romance

An overly-simplistic view of romance says that it’s just sex. But Jacqueline is exactly right when she says that a sex scene lacking emotional depth is just boring. In western culture, the physical act of sex has always been used as a proxy for other intimacies:

Aspects of Intimacy

Aspects of Intimacy

Marriage (which traditionally precedes sex) represents a type of familial intimacy: one person’s family opens up and accepts a new member, or two families join. Probably the best example of this is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Of course, the two families alike in dignity reject that intimacy. But nonetheless, the underlying tension of that love story rests on Romeo and Juliet trying – and failing – to negotiate that familial intimacy. Here, death plays the role that sex often does: it represents the culmination and climax of their negotiation.

A different type of intimacy is the philosophical or worldview model that Austen nailed so perfectly: both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility deal with the protagonists adjusting how they perceive other characters. This is a philosophical intimacy, where the climax is the moment of acceptance rather than the moment of marriage (let alone sex). For Austen, sex – of course preceded by marriage – is in fact the denouement, never shown but instead implied by her heroes’ betrothal.

Spiritual intimacy between characters can likewise be negotiated. Unfortunately, I had some difficulty thinking of romances that deal with this facet of intimacy, but ultimately I think Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is probably the most succinct example. Dagny Taggart’s relationships with Hank Rearden, Francisco D’Anconia, and John Galt all oscillate around her most fundamental spiritual values. While Rand might well have spit nails to see those values described as spiritual, there is no change in Dagny’s philosophy over the course of her relationships. Instead, the climax of these relationships is her finding her idealized counterpart, the impossible superman who personifies her ideals. If we were to swap Rand’s Objectivism for any religion, the relationships would still function the same way (though the plot’s MacGuffins would not).

The Borders of Imagination and the Fantasy Spectrum

If the core of romance is characters negotiating the borders of their intimacy, then I suspect the core of fantasy might be negotiating the borders of the reader’s imagination. Love titillates us because it speaks to something deep within our hearts, touching on our innermost desires, exciting us with the promise of fulfillment. But intimacy doesn’t lurk alone in the deep, dark corners of our soul. It shares those caverns with our imagination.

A romance hinges on the borders of intimacy between the story’s characters. Typically, that intimacy is indelibly linked to the story’s plot. For example, the plot of Romeo and Juliet would fall to pieces without the Capulets and the Montagues. But fantasy’s relationship with imagination tends to be slightly more removed from the story’s plot, and it does not need to rely so heavily on proxies the way intimacy often does.

The Borders of Imagination

The Borders of Imagination

Fantasies make us look at reality sideways, utilizing evocative imagery, secondary worlds, strange creatures, and magical powers to broaden our understanding of our own reality. Superficially, elves, monsters, and wizards are cool plotting devices that let us tell entertaining stories. Who doesn’t like magic and monsters? But beneath that surface level, they give us a new lens through which we can see an oblique picture of the world.

Imagination operates on a spectrum that describes a relationship between the story’s characters, the reader, and their environment. At one extreme we have our world, in all its mundane glory. It is at this end that we find mainstream literary fiction, where the world operates according to the real-life rules that govern our everyday existence. The range of plot options or the focus of characterization at this end of the spectrum is nearly limitless: we can deal with a plot-driven mystery, or a character-driven rumination. The focus can be narrow, internal, psychological or just as easily societal, philosophical, or spiritual.

At the other extreme we have a secondary world, where anything goes. A secondary world does not even need to have human characters – consider Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland. Immersive fantasies – which force the reader to suspend disbelief and to accept the prima facie rules that govern the secondary world – operate at this level. Just as with mainstream literary texts, their range of plotting options and focuses is nearly limitless. However, unlike mainstream literary fiction, immersive fantasies have the ability to use different rules of existence and their accompanying imagery to cast a different light on aspects of our reality.

Portals and the Broad World Perspective

If we start in our real world, then we can gain access to the rich imaginative vocabulary of the secondary world. But to do that, we have to take our characters from our world and bring them to the secondary world, typically through the use of a portal of some kind. In her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn conflates the portal fantasy with the quest fantasy, and while this works at the level of plot, it does little to explain how portal fantasies interact with the reader’s imagination. That’s because we can have an immersive quest fantasy that takes place in a completely secondary world (think Tolkien, Brooks, etc.), but the thematic, plot, and character focus tends to be different if we start in our world.

The moment our characters go through the portal, everything in their new reality is contrasted to our world. Whether it is in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by starting the story in mundane reality we establish the reader’s (and characters’) initial state. Whatever imagery follows can then be related back to our real life, and can be interpreted as a thematic symbol. From a plotting standpoint, the secondary world is often thinned and ultimately by the climax of the book, comes back to some sort of eucatastrophe that leads to its restoration.

Intrusions and Narrow Focus

Intrusion fantasies – where the secondary world inserts itself into our reality – are the mirror image of portal fantasies. Consider Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, or China Miéville’s King Rat. Here, the secondary world is dark, dangerous, and forbidding as a general rule. Its intrusion into our own world tends to be frightening, disorienting, and leaves our heroes struggling to find their own place in the world.

Just as in the portal fantasies, the fantastical elements can be interpreted as thematic symbols. But the mood tends to be darker, and the focus of the story narrower. While portal fantasies tend to focus on the world at large and build towards eucatastrophe, intrusion fantasies focus on the narrower, private world of the principle protagonists. Rather than building towards a climactic eucatastrophe, they instead build towards a moment of personal climax/realization/rejection.

Liminal Fantasies: Philosophical by Design

Liminal fantasies either dance on the border between two worlds (like John Crowley’s Little, Big) or ambiguously hint at the existence of a secondary world (Graham Joyce’s How to Make Friends with Demons). In these cases, fantastical imagery is often used allegorically and the reader’s position relative to the events of the text is always ambiguous. Reading these books, we wonder if we are – in fact – operating within a fantastical reality? Or are we instead merely using allegory to highlight and comment upon philosophical, emotional, and spiritual considerations?

Understandably, the focus for such liminal fantasies is always narrow, focusing on the values of the protagonist. Their emotional climax typically lies not in picking a side: choosing our “real” world or the secondary world. Instead, it rests in becoming comfortable with that middle ground between the two. Acceptance on an emotional, philosophical or spiritual level, as opposed to the more conflict-oriented eucatastrophe or resolution.

Symbols, Imagination, Plot, and Emotion

While fantasy makes it possible to use a rich palette of imagery, fantasy is not merely symbolic: sometimes, a talking tree is just a talking tree. Plot is just as important as the underlying themes of a story, and images are used not just to represent values and thoughts in the real world. They can just as easily be used to evoke certain emotions, to raise tension and the like. What specific imagery we utilize should tie into our goals for a particular scene, whether those goals are emotional, thematic, or both.

And of course, part of the fun is when we combine aspects of romance (negotiating the borders of intimacy) with aspects of the fantastic (negotiating the borders of imagination). Fantasy and romance are genres that can contain multitudes, after all.

Some Assembly Required: Building Pacing and Emotional Flow with Legos

The other week, I pulled a sentence at random out of John Crowley’s classic Little, Big. I used it to illustrate a point about narrative voice, but a couple of days later I had an epiphany: the same sentence can also illuminate pacing and a story’s emotional flow.

Legos Tell Stories

When I was a kid, I spent just about every waking moment building adventures out of Legos. Back then (despite my fiancée’s assertions, dinosaurs did not roam the earth), Legos lacked variety. There were blocks…and blocks. A handful of different sizes, and that was about it. But despite their limited palette, I could tell just about any story my five year old self could imagine using those blocks. I built castles, and spaceships, and horses, and windmills. Fantasy, science fiction, monsters: I was only limited by my imagination.

Handful of Standard Lego Bricks

Lego Color Bricks, via Wikipedia

Fast forward a few years, and you’ll still find me playing with building blocks. Only now, I use words, sentences, and paragraphs to tell stories instead of little plastic bricks. At its most basic, a story is composed of letters. Those letters build up words, which in turn comprise sentences, then paragraphs, then chapters, then acts, then books, then series, and so on. But those letters are not necessarily our story’s real building blocks: instead, think of them as the long-chain polymers that make up our true Lego pieces. And the specific mix of Legos will differ across stories and media.

Literal Building Blocks: Panels, Scenes, and Shots in Visual Mediums

Jumbo Comics #1 (September 1938) “Hawks of the Sea” by Will Eisner, via

It’s easiest to see these building blocks at work in visual media like sequential art (comics, graphic novels) and film. Some people might argue that dialog is key to these media, but I disagree. Dialog doesn’t frame the story: dialog is what gets framed.

For sequential art, Scott McCloud1 and Will Eisner2 both explained brilliantly how the page is the medium’s real building block. Each page is composed of one or more panels that depict some action occurring in time. The composition of each panel and its relationship to others on the page establishes tension and moves us from one state to another. The page frames a finite emotional progression, while the panels that make up that page control our sensation of time (the story’s pacing) throughout the journey.

The same paradigm works for film. A screenwriter’s scenes function the same way as a comic book page, where each scene represents a finite emotional arc through which the audience and characters travel. Each scene takes us from an initial point A to a subsequent point B, and the director uses one or more shots to get us there. Shots structure and control the flow of time and tension throughout the encapsulating scene, just as sequential panels structure the flow on a comic book page.

Visual media impose structural constraints by their very nature, which helps make their building blocks easier to spot. But when writing prose, those constraints go right out the window.

The Building Blocks of Prose Pacing: Sentences

The structure of our prose affects how we perceive the flow of time. Hemingway’s short declarative sentences communicate speed. Proust’s meandering sentences, with their convoluted clauses and tangential commentary, establish a more laconic feeling. Short paragraphs and short chapters read faster than longer ones. But it is their relationship to emotion that determines the real pace of the story.

In Little, Big, Crowley uses the sentence as his primary building block. Practically every sentence in that book takes the reader on its own miniature emotional arc:

Sentence #1: “Then an expectant silence, followed by a firmer start, and the station wagon backed warily out into the drive, making two soft and delible marks in the wet leaves.”
Sentence #2: “That there was such a house in the world, lit and open and empty, became a story in those days; there were other stories, people were in motion, stories were all they cared to hear, stories were all they believed in, life had got that hard.”
Sentence #3: “But life is wakings-up, all unexpected, all surprising.”
John Crowley, Little, Big, 1982

Even the utilitarian sentences that describe an almost-incidental action contain an emotional arc. If Little, Big is composed of Legos, then they are sentence-shaped.

The sentence length, structure, punctuation, and emotion-laden words control the story’s pace. Each sentence demands that we pause and savor what it has done to us. Without those miniature emotional arcs, the text would be meandering, dull, and lifeless. But by employing brilliant tricks of emotional association, Crowley’s manipulation of our emotional state becomes transparent and, like Smoky Barnable, we find ourselves enraptured in the liminal fairyland of Edgewood.

Paragraphs as Building Blocks

Compare this to G.K. Chesteron’s The Man Who Was Thursday. While his individual sentences lack the emotional depth of Crowley’s, we remain moved by his paragraphs (again, selected at random):

Paragraph #1: As the wood grew first thinner and then smaller with distance, he could see the sunlit slopes beyond it and above it; and across these was still moving the square black mob like one monstrous beetle. In the very strong sunlight and with his own very strong eyes, which were almost telescopic, Syme could see this mass of men quite plainly. He could see them as separate human figures; but he was increasingly surprised by the way in which they moved as one man. They seemed to be dressed in dark clothes and plain hats, like any common crowd out of the streets; but they did not spread and sprawl and trail by various lines to the attack, as would be natural in an ordinary mob. They moved with a sort of dreadful and wicked woodenness, like a staring army of automatons.
Paragraph #2: Syme’s laughter at all this had about it a wild weakness of relief. He laughed at the idea of the paralytic Professor being really a young actor dressed up as if for the foot-lights. But he felt that he would have laughed as loudly if a pepperpot had fallen over.
Paragraph #3: At first the large stone stair seemed to Syme as deserted as a pyramid; but before he reached the top he had realised that there was a man leaning over the parapet of the Embankment and looking out across the river. As a figure he was quite conventional, clad in a silk hat and frock-coat of the more formal type of fashion; he had a red flower in his buttonhole. As Syme drew nearer to him step by step, he did not even move a hair; and Syme could come close enough to notice even in the dim, pale morning light that his face was long, pale and intellectual, and ended in a small triangular tuft of dark beard at the very point of the chin, all else being clean-shaven. This scrap of hair almost seemed a mere oversight; the rest of the face was of the type that is best shaven—clear-cut, ascetic, and in its way noble. Syme drew closer and closer, noting all this, and still the figure did not stir.
G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, 1908

Taken individually, the sentences are utilitarian. Most are solely descriptive, with no emotional imagery employed to direct our mental state. Yet in each paragraph, certain imaginative descriptions are employed with laser precision to manipulate our emotions (a “staring army of automatons”, “wild weakness of relief”, or “deserted as a pyramid”). Each sentence is just a sentence, but with his paragraphs Chesterton increases and decreases tension like a sound engineer mixing in a recording studio.

Still other authors use scenes or whole chapters as their basic building block. While I won’t quote entire chapters here, I recommend taking a look at how Steven Erikson or Yasunari Kawabata manage it (particularly in Gardens of the Moon and The Master of Go, respectively).

Picking Legos out of the Box

So enough theory: what practical conclusions can we draw from this? If each story has a set of natural building blocks, then we have to identify it. The set will depend on the story’s medium, its audience, and the emotions we want to evoke. I suspect a spy thriller is unlikely to use sentences as its building blocks: to get an emotional response from individual sentences would slow the action too much to work within spy thriller conventions. By contrast an introspective memoir might luxuriate in the kind of sentence-level emotional manipulation that Crowley executes.

While this may just be my own idiosyncrasy, I find that once I know what the basic building block of a story is, it becomes much easier to write. If I know that I start a [sentence / paragraph / scene / chapter] at emotional point A, and need to get to point B by its end, the amorphous task of writing becomes easier. It’s not just a question of knowing where to go: that’s just plotting. Instead, it’s grokking the space I have to operate in. While I’m not a painter, I imagine it’s like understanding the bounds imposed by a piece of canvas. Within those bounds, I am limited solely by my imagination. But by figuring out which Legos I’m really using, it lets me have fun building stories.

In Conclusion: Some Fun Lego Constructions

And to conclude with the Lego metaphor, here are some fun Lego projects that some amazingly talented people have constructed:

10,000-piece Sandcrawler

Functional Antikythera Mechanism

Narrative Voice as Mind-control: Thoughts on Manipulating Reader Perception

Voice: Purpose, Function, Technique

A Conceptual Framework for Narrative Voice

I’ve always considered voice one of the most important tools when writing alternate history, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about how that tool really works (both within and outside the sub-genre).

There are probably as many valid descriptions of voice as there are writers, editors, and critics out there. For my part, I believe that voice has three components: its purpose, its function, and its technique.

The Purpose of Voice: Establishing a Relationship with the Text

The purpose of voice is to establish the reader’s relationship to the text. Different stories, different narrators, call for different relationships. Would Nabokov’s Lolita be as powerful if we weren’t sympathetically engaged with the monstrous Humbert Humbert? Would Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories be as effective if the narration were as coldly dispassionate as the detective himself? Voice – both in narration, and in dialog – establishes how we relate to a story. At its most basic level, it controls the emotional distance with which we perceive it, and is most powerful when wedded to the story’s themes.

Nabokov wants us to view Humbert Humbert up close and personal. The power of his book relies on juxtaposing our the intellectual horror at Humbert Humbert and the visceral engagement his voice engenders. Had Nabokov employed a distancing technique, for example making Humbert’s story epistolary, or telling it from the dispassionate perspective of a court stenographer, it would not have the resonance it does.

John Crowley in Little, Big uses voice to distance us at once from our reality, and the reality of the text. The lyrical, metaphoric voice he employs puts us in a liminal state, somewhere on the borders of what is, what was, and what might be. In this, the voice employed is fundamentally aligned with the book’s themes.

Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men keeps the reader at arms length, so that we can view the events of his future history dispassionately, as if we were observing them from billions of years removed.

When Michael A. Stackpole employs a voice reminiscent of 17th century colonial texts in At the Queen’s Command it instantly links his book to that time in the reader’s mind.

The relationship created between us and the text is foundational in the act of reading. It sets the context for everything else, determining how we perceive a story’s pacing, how we engage with its characters, and how we identify its themes. In this sense, the purpose of voice transcends any individual sentence, or any paragraph. It is a combination of the voice’s expression in narration, in dialog, even in its epigraphs (shout out to @DDSyrdal for reminding me of this term!). But apart from its broad and abstract purpose, voice has a function within the story which is variable over the length of the text.

The Function of Voice: Manipulating the Reader’s Perception

I often think that it is the writer’s job to manipulate the reader, to take us on an emotional roller-coaster the author has designed. By influencing how we perceive events, settings, and characters, the narrative voice becomes the rail which guides us along the ride. It imparts the twists, falls, and rises. If well-constructed, it shouldn’t be noticeable (unless we’re looking for it). But if it’s shoddily put together, well…I’d rather not consider what happens when a roller-coaster comes off its rail.

Voice’s function can be modulated for specific effect. This is easiest to see in dialog, where each actor has their own voice, more or less distinct from the voices of other characters. Those differences exert a subtle influence on our perception of those characters. Consider the following exchange from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones:

“Boy,” a voice called out to him. Jon turned.

Tyrion Lannister was sitting on the ledge above the door to the Great Hall, looking for all the world like a gargoyle. The dwarf grinned down at him. “Is that animal a wolf?”

“A direwolf,” Jon said. “His name is Ghost.” He stared up at the little man, his disappointment suddenly forgotten. “What are you doing up there? Why aren’t you at the feast?”

“Too hot, too noisy, and I’d drunk too much wine,” the dwarf told him. “I learned long ago that it is considered rude to vomit on your brother. Might I have a closer look at your wolf?”

From his short, staccato sentences we get the sense that Jon is direct, straightforward. He answers the question asked of him, but by offering little additions he avoids being brusque. He asks direct questions, wanting to know the answers. By contrast, Tyrion Lannister’s dialog is more complicated. His first sentence is broken apart by prose narration, imbuing a meaningful pause that – were the text read aloud – might suggest either humor, or shock. His second sentence, with its precise list and brutally honest self-assessment shows us Tyrion’s precision and self-deprecation. His third sentence gives us further insight into both his sense of humor, and his relationship with his brother.

The entire exchange is used to manipulate us into liking both Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow, though for different reasons. Even if we cannot articulate it, even if we don’t notice it at the first reading, we respond to Jon’s simple directness. And we appreciate Tyrion’s self-deprecating humor. And Martin achieves this subtle effect just using voice in his characters’ dialog.

Prose narration – descriptions of setting, of action – can similarly affect our perception of and emotional response to the story. Consider two brief passages, each describing the same actions (sorry for the quality of my example sentences – I’m coming up with these on the fly):

Version #1 Version #2
The rain-slick leaves left the tree like snowflakes, gently spinning to melt into the mud. Rain battered the leaves. Glop! Glop! Glop! And down into the mud.

Hopefully (if I’ve done my job right) the two example sentences establish an entirely different mood. The first is more laconic, gentler, quieter. While the second is harsher, more abrupt, and louder through the use of onomatopoeia. The events are identical, but the difference in voice puts the reader into a different frame of mind. Voice becomes the tool I use to control the reader’s response to a particular scene, passage, or sentence (even a particular word!). And like any tool, there are a variety of ways in which it can be applied.

Purpose and Function Applied: Techniques for Controlling Voice

The range of control that we choose to exert over voice lies on a spectrum. At one end is banally utilitarian prose – the bland monotone of “Dick and Jane run after the ball.” On the other end we find the inimitable mastery of Nabokov, whose fine-grain manipulation of voice makes its inner workings invisible to the reader. Most of us operate somewhere between these two extremes employing a variety of techniques that are universal:

Perspective as a Window to Voice
Every one of us uses perspective to imbue our story with voice, whether consciously or not. In terms of purpose, the choice between first, close third, omniscient third, or the rare second-person narration has an immediate and major impact on the reader’s relationship to the story.

First person narration – when executed well – earns the reader’s instant engagement precisely through its link to voice. The narrator is a character in the story, with their own perceptions, predilections, and foibles. They have their own way of seeing the world, a tendency to pay attention to certain aspects that others might not notice in the same way. One narrator might comment on people’s appearances. Another might pay closer attention to facial expressions. And just like a character’s personality should affect their speech patterns in dialog, the same affects a first person narrator. For example, in Lisa Yee’s excellent YA novel Millicent Min, Girl Genius the narrator (the titular genius) uses complex sentences, a refined vocabulary and sprinkles in a little Latin every now and again. Her defining characteristic – her intellect – is intrinsic to how the narrator’s voice is portrayed.

In first-person narration, we are generally locked into the narrator’s voice throughout the story. That’s the trade-off we make for building that super-close reader/narrator relationship. Close third-person narration trades a little more distance between the reader and the POV character, in exchange for greater latitude in vocal manipulation. With close-third narration, we can shift POV characters (typically at chapter or section breaks for decent narrative flow) employing different voices for different points of view, as well as make more gradual, subtle shifts in tone and mood within the confines of a scene. This facility to shift vocal strategy is a double-edged sword and must be used judiciously. Do it too often or too fast, and we risk either confusing the reader or putting too much distance between her and the characters. For a great example of this technique employed well, I recommend Tad Williams’ Otherland series.

The relationship between voice and distance is less clear-cut for omniscient third-person perspective. As the most emotionally distant of the perspectives, omniscient third may well suit our thematic or stylistic purposes. However, by requiring a consistent narrative voice throughout, omniscient third loses the vocal flexibility that close third enjoys. There are situations where this trade-off makes sense. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings requires an omniscient narrator and consistent voice to evoke its linkages to epic storytelling and myth.

Style and Structure as Voice
If we were to ask five writers to write one sentence describing something, we would inevitably get five different sentences. How those sentences are composed – how the writer employs clauses and adverbs and conjunctions and even punctuation – determine what is typically called the author’s “style” and represents one of the most influential aspects of voice.

Pick up any book from the 19th century. You’ll immediately see that the way 19th century authors put their sentences together differs dramatically from contemporary styles. When we say an old classic hasn’t aged well, what we are really saying is that the modern reader’s emotional response as controlled by the story’s voice differs from an original reader’s presumed response. The variegated, many-claused sentences that characterize 18th and 19th century texts have a distancing effect for the modern reader. Bulwer-Lytton is a great example of this at work. In his day, he was one of the most influential, most celebrated writers in the English language. Today, there are awards named after him that celebrate purple prose.

This is not to say that contemporary voices are simpler than their predecessors, or that such simplicity would be a good thing. Many excellent authors – John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, to name a few – write lush, complex sentences. However their structure differs substantially from what came before. For one thing, contemporary authors adhere more strongly to the principle of “show, don’t tell.” Consider the following two sentences selected at random:

Sentence #1: “But they were entirely ignorant of what had passed; and their raptures continued with little intermission to the very day of Lydia’s leaving home.” Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice, 1813
Sentence #2: “Then an expectant silence, followed by a firmer start, and the station wagon backed warily out into the drive, making two soft and delible marks in the wet leaves.” John Crowley, Little, Big, 1982

Both come from excellent books. I would in fact argue that the Crowley sentence is more structurally complex than the Austen. However, the voices are quite dissimilar: the Austen voice tells us that their raptures continued. It does not show us those raptures, nor does it provide any metaphor or analogy by which we can emotionally connect to them. The voice is – by design – at a remove from the emotional significance of the events. Austen’s voice leaves it to the reader to establish that connection, through the implications of certain facts dropped and hinted at: the “little intermission” and “to the very day”.

Crowley’s voice, by contrast, employs evocative imagery to show the reader a prosaic event. His adjectives, and the order in which they are placed all communicate an emotional significance (which may or may not be important). By calling the silence “expectant,” the start “firmer”, and the marks on the leaves “soft and delible”, Crowley anthropomorphizes insensate objects, imbuing them with emotions. The sentence describes no characters, yet we still have an arc that rises from expectation (expectant), to action (firmer), and descends through denouement (soft and delible).

The complexity of sentence structures is of course infinitely varied. However, stealing vocal tricks from other authors is a good idea and can lead to some truly impressive work. In her 1973 essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” Ursula K. Le Guin calls Lord Dunsany “the First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy” – specifically because his mastery of voice and style is so inimitable and so frequently imitated. Lots of us fall victim to this trap (I know I’ve been guilty of it!), but this ability to imitate past masters, to emulate their voices and styles, is actually a skill for any writer. It broadens our vocabulary, adding new tools to our toolkit. Archaic voices have a place in fiction, as do Gothic voices, or Lovecraftian voices. Imitation is the finest form of flattery, after all, and a writer’s skill lies in deciding where to use which voice.

For example, The Phoenix Guards is Steven Brust’s homage to Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Of course, Brust’s story is an out-and-out fantasy, with dragons and semi-immortal elf-like people. But his plot structure has clear ties to the d’Artagnan romances and his sentence constructions echo Dumas’ voice flawlessly. Reading The Phoenix Guards today is an experience much like reading The Three Musketeers, and it is precisely because Brust not only built off of Dumas’ plot, but because he adopted Dumas’ vocal methods as well. Had he chosen to emulate only one facet (either the plot, or the sentence structures), the book would have rung off-true: somehow not quite complete.

As I’ve mentioned before, the best writers of alternate history and historical fiction employ such emulation to cement the reader in the time period depicted. Examples can be found in Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command, or Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought (see my reviews here and here).

But we can also have too much of a good thing. For example, in Freedom and Necessity Steven Brust and Emma Bull (otherwise, two masters of vocal technique) pull off their emulation too well. The combined effect of the novel’s epistolary frame and its flawless emulation of 19th century sentence construction create a sense that one is actually reading a genuine 19th century novel…despite the fact that it was written in 1997. Technically, it is a masterpiece of voice. However, I find that it establishes too much distance for the contemporary reader. The reader’s engagement with the events of the story is held at arm’s length, slowing the pace of what would otherwise be an amazing, exciting book.

The Invisible Voice
Voice is the ultimate mind-control, affecting how the story resonates with us, how we feel about the characters, and what we remember when the last page is turned. At its most impressive, it should be invisible. When we notice the voice, its influence on our responses and perceptions is lessened. I can’t think of anybody who has mastered voice more superlatively than Nabokov. His Lolita is the perfect union of purpose, function, and technique. No matter how many times I read the story, I still cannot figure out how Nabokov hooks me. I dream of finding the time to dissect his work word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph: to take it apart like clockwork and examine its movements and physics. Maybe someday I will. But until then, a more productive use of my time – and one which will probably get me farther – is to just imitate him. I’m sure anything I write won’t even approach the quality of his invisible voice (and I’m even more sure my practices won’t be fit for any editors eyes!), but by tracing over his lines maybe I’ll pick up a thing or two. And then when it’s time to apply those techniques, I’ll have some new and useful tricks up my sleeve.

What about you? How do you approach constructing and managing narrative voice in your own writing? What are some of the best-voiced books you’ve come across? If – like me – you’re looking for good books that use voice in interesting ways, below is the list of authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy from your local bookstore or library, and enjoy:

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