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Posts tagged ‘Narrative Structure’

In Defense of Complexity

Hi, my name is Chris, and I like complex stories (this is the point where a chorus of “Hi, Chris!” wouldn’t go amiss 😉).

For the last century, we’ve been trained by television and cinema – much more constrained narrative mediums than prose – to laud the straightforward. And while there are good reasons for simplicity’s commercial popularity, I think it’s a shame that it has become our default mode of storytelling.

I think it is odd that in our culture, I find myself defensive of my appreciation for complicated storytelling. I like intricate plots, multiple perspective characters, rich language, and complex narrative structures. When I read, such complexities mark the difference between breakfast and dinner. Both are important meals, and both can and should be enjoyed. But one begs to be fast and the other lingered over.

Embodying Perfection through Culinary Excellence by DangerDragon

Embodying Perfection through Culinary Excellence by DangerDragon (via deviantArt)

Simple stories can be incredibly satisfying, but they are constructed to be swiftly captivating and directly processed. They are my literary breakfast. But more complicated stories are structurally incapable of such swift ingestion. They take more time to prepare, to enjoy, and to digest. Neither is inherently better than the other, just as pancakes and bacon aren’t inherently better than spaghetti carbonara. But each can achieve certain artistic effects that the other cannot.

Why Simplicity is King: Accessibility

Spaghetti Carbonara

Spaghetti Carbonara

First, I want to make it clear that I love simple stories. They are elegant, efficient, and enjoyable. Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury – all wrote simple, straightforward stories. Yet those simple stories remain incredibly powerful works of art.

Simple doesn’t mean bad, nor does it mean easy. It means uncomplicated, straightforward. A story is simple if it follows one perspective, if it features a single core plot with one or more sub-plots tracked alongside the core story. Simple stories use language that is utilitarian (serving to forward plot, setting, and characterization), as opposed to artistic (where the language and rhetorical structure serve to forward theme independently or in opposition to the plot, characters, or setting).

By this definition, most commercial stories are simple. Pick up just about any commercial thriller, or any best-selling SF/F novel, and you’ll find a simple story within its covers. Most popular mainstream literary novels are likewise simple, however beautiful their prose or highlighted their characters. There is (however much I might grumble about it) a correlation between a story’s simplicity and its sales potential. And I think a story’s accessibility lies at the heart of that relationship.

Simple stories are a narrative train: the author’s job is to put our wheels on the tracks, and then to let us go. They have their one primary line, and the story sticks to it. Their settings, language, characters, and sub-plots are only useful inasmuch as they push the train forward or slow it down. As a result, the reader doesn’t need to expend a large amount of work to get into a story or to follow it through to its conclusion. This speed of captivation is the primary strength of simple stories: their directness heightens their narrative momentum.

Contemporary YA and romance are probably the genres which have sharpened this method to a razor’s edge. Accessibility, and in particular the speed with which the reader is locked onto the narrative track, are paramount for both genres. I’ve heard proponents of this type of storytelling (the Professor in particular) argue that such simple stories work because they get out of their own way.

There’s a lot to be said for such an approach, as it has given us such enjoyable (and meaningful) rides as The Hunger Games (the first novel in the trilogy – the latter two got more complicated), the Harry Potter series, any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, most of John Scalzi’s novels, Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful Throne of the Crescent Moon, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, etc.

To understand them – at least at the superficial level – requires literacy and little consideration outside of the text itself. While some simple stories can be very deep and powerful (think The Great Gatsby or Dandelion Wine), they don’t require us to hold a great many characters, settings, or relationships in our heads when we read them. In other words, they ask less (often much less) effort of us than a book by Umberto Eco, William Faulkner, Victor Hugo, Tim Powers, Ursula K. Le Guin, Christopher Priest, or John Crowley.

Their accessibility grants them a significant commercial advantage, of course, because a great many readers don’t want to work that hard at the reading experience (if I had to read Proust every day, I’d go mad). From an artistic standpoint, their straightforward structures allow them to apply a finely-tuned focus to the themes and issues they wish to explore. By focusing on a simple, core story, its themes are brought into sharper relief. Sometimes, that’s what we want.

But there’s a trade-off inherent to this simplicity. Some artistic endeavors demand more work of the audience. Their accessibility (and so their sales) may suffer as a result, but artistically they can manage certain tricks that simpler fare cannot.

Being Content to Seem What You Are: Complexity and Theme

Marcus Aurelius once wrote “Be content to seem what you really are,” and I think that’s damn fine advice for the written word. It is incredibly difficult to communicate true complexity or philosophical ambiguity in a simple story. Simple stories can communicate depth, emotions, philosophical meaning, morality – almost the entire spectrum of thought and emotion. But complexity is not depth, and uncertainty is not ambiguity. Effectively exploring either complexity or ambiguity as themes in a work perforce complicates its structure.

To roll with the train metaphor from earlier, content (plot, characters, setting, etc.) is one of the story’s two rails. Of the two, it is the easiest to notice because it’s what we consume when we read the story. But the second rail – theme – runs alongside the content, and so long as they run parallel the story can roll ahead. Should their relationship diverge, should the theme veer off at a tangent, the story comes off the rails and we end up with a big mess.

If complexity and its kissing cousin ambiguity are some of the themes we wish to explore, then the content must in some fashion convey that complexity or ambiguity. If it fails in this, then the theme’s exploration becomes stillborn and our artistic endeavor falls along with it.

Consider Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (which I discuss at greater length here). Judged solely by the length of the series, or by the page count of each volume, one might judge it similar to Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time epic. But it is absolutely different, and it is its exploration of historical, individual, and cultural complexity which set it apart.

The series is an artistic success because its content is so aligned with its themes. Where most door-stopper fantasies stick to a limited number of perspective characters with complex histories and relationships, Erikson’s number in the tens (if not hundreds ultimately – I lost count after the first several books). As each of these perspective characters has their own individual motivations, their own personal histories, their own personality traits, the resulting epic balloons into a messy, complicated, glorious work of imagination.

This is both its greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. Because its content (its characters, its plot, its settings, etc.) personify its theme of complexity, the story itself becomes incredibly complex. For its exploration of theme? Mission accomplished. But this raises the fence of accessibility quite high: it takes a significant effort to follow the complex weave of characters, plots, motivations, and betrayals, and many readers just won’t be willing to make that investment.

A similar marriage of content and theme can be found in Gene Wolfe’s writing. If we look at his works that focus on ambiguity, in particular his novels Peace, There Are Doors, and Latro in the Mist, we find that the thematic ambiguity Wolfe explores is likewise expressed in the content, and in particular in the perspective character’s own relationship to truth and reality.

In the case of Peace (which – perhaps appropriately – on some days is my favorite Wolfe novel, and others days is not), the complexity of the content and ambiguity of the entire novel is further developed through the non-linear presentation of events as recounted by the story’s narrator. In this, Wolfe plainly took a page out of Dostoyevsky’s playbook (and perhaps unsurprisingly, Notes From Underground is my favorite Dostoyevsky novel), but the consequence of Wolfe’s artistic choice is to make the story even more difficult to follow.

I think that both Erikson and Wolfe made the right choices in their respective (and extremely different) works. By unifying the content of their stories with the themes they were exploring, they were able to construct more cohesive, and more satisfying stories. It would have been impossible, I believe, to explore their themes of complexity and ambiguity without the corresponding complexity in content.

Structure and Language as Sources of Complexity

Of course, not all stories – and not all complex stories – explore themes of complexity or ambiguity. Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Both are complex stories: Tolkien features an extensive cast of characters, and expects the reader to follow multiple parallel storylines through the series. Burgess, on the other hand, writes a simple story in terms of plot and characters, but plays with language in a very interesting way. Could the same have been done without such complexity? Absolutely not.

In Tolkien’s case, the foundation of his epic’s artistic success lies in its narrative structure. Diana Wynne Jones puts it far better than I ever could in her essay “The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings” (recently collected in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing), but the balancing of disparate movements within LOTR is one of the reasons why the entire story resonates with readers so strongly. Had Tolkien only followed Frodo’s journey, or had he chosen to present Frodo’s story and Aragorn’s story sequentially rather than interspersed, the result would have been far simpler and far less effective.

Burgess’ story is much simpler, in terms of its narrative perspective, its plot structure, and its characters. But it is far more complicated in terms of how language is used, and in particular in the ways that Burgess employs neology. Burgess’ nadsat – an amalgamated argot of Russian and English – introduces complexity into the otherwise simple novel. Doing so in 1962 – at the height of the Cold War – explicitly focused contemporary readers’ attention on the cultural implications of this choice. Similarly, this use of language enables Burgess to surreptitiously slip the slang and its values into the reader’s mind – particularly when the reader is intended (per the author’s own declarations) to reject the violence and pornographic content of the book. Such a dichotomy would have been impossible to create without such complex linguistic play.

The Risks in Complex, Challenging Fiction

As I said, I love complicated stories. But sometimes I feel like they are a dying breed. Commercial considerations being what they are, I understand why. There are few complicated stories on the bestseller lists (although thankfully they still show up on award rosters often enough). Editors are pressured to acquire commercial titles, and that usually translates into easily-accessible titles.

The failure mode for complex works is far worse than the failure mode for simple fare. Even mediocre simple fare is likely to at least satisfy some of its less discerning readers. Complicated fiction, however, becomes indecipherable or (worse) uninteresting when it fails to live up to its ambition.

Thankfully, there are plenty of authors out there who still strive for complexity and the creative opportunities it affords them. Authors like Lavie Tidhar, Terry Bisson, Madeline Ashby, Ian McDonald (in his non-YA fiction), and Samuel Delany are all creating ambitious, complex, multi-layered novels. And even where I might not care for a particular story, I applaud their ambition in their writing and their editors’ courage in acquiring their complex stories.

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.

Thinning and Accusations of Nostalgia in Fantasy

The other day I came across a comment somewhere (alas, I don’t remember on what blog/forum) that enjoyment of fantasy stems from a nostalgia for the medieval era when lives were “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This view is typically delivered with the rather heavy-handed (though often unstated) implication that only children and fools would enjoy stories set in a time period lacking women’s rights, flush toilets, and antibiotics. I suspect if you’re reading this blog you would agree when I label such a view simplistic and rather asinine. And yet…this opinion has been around for decades, and its staying power suggests that – just maybe – there might be something more at work here than haters hating.

Romanticizing the Past versus Being Nostalgic About It

So why then do people today still say fantasy just romanticizes the ugly past? I’ve never seen a child of the late ’90s and early ’00s make this statement. That’s understandable when we consider that for that generation, Harry Potter was the defining work of fantasy, and that its appeal and reach extended far beyond fandom’s traditional minority. In my experience, the accusation of nostalgia is most often made by folks who matured in the ’70s and ’80s. Unlike the Harry Potter generation, many of those my age or older could have grown up utterly insulated from the boom in genre. They would likely have only been exposed to the unavoidable hits of the generation that preceded them: Howard’s Conan, Tolkien’s Elves, Lewis’ Narnia, etc. Those formative books established their expectations, expectations which a cursory glance at fantasy covers in the ’70s and ’80s would have instantly confirmed. After all, contemporary urban fantasy at that time was the bleeding edge.

So fantasy’s predilection for medieval settings (whether secondary world or not) is an understandable stereotype. By volume, I would suspect (though I have no hard data) it remains warranted today. If someone were to tell me “Most fantasy is set in a quasi-medieval setting” I would say that this is likely a fact. But if somebody says that “Fantasy is nostalgic for the medieval era” I would take exception.

Contemporary fantasy owes many of its roots to romantic literature of the 19th century. In the literal sense, quasi-medieval fantasy does romanticize the past: images of the past are used as a cultural short-hand to set the tone of the work, establish a framework by which its themes can be explored, and set reader expectations. This focus on the reader’s frame of mind and emotional state is in many ways the defining rhetorical device of the Romantics. Realistic fiction does the same, but through the use of different imagery: contemporary imagery, objective or ironic presentation, etc. Both romanticize their subjects (however strenuously the realists might deny it). Fantasy just happens to use quasi-medieval window dressing.

However there is a line between romanticizing the past (a sin of which fantasy, historical fiction, and well-written biographies are all guilty), and being nostalgic for it. In fantasy, that line gets blurred by the genre’s reliance on thinning.

The Thinned End of the Wedge: Thinning vs Nostalgia

In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute defines “thinning” as the weakening of some aspect of the world or character which then enables the story to be structured as a recovery fable. I won’t reprint the entire definition, but I strongly recommend you check it out: it’s a deep and meaningful concept, however fuzzy the borders of Clute’s definition. The classic way in which fantasy stories use thinning is to present a world in some form of decline. The reversal or slowing of that decline becomes the object of the plot or one of the story’s major themes.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is replete with thinned elements yearning for restoration: the elves are leaving the world and going west, the line of Numenor is spent, Hobbits are no longer easy to find, dwarves are locked in their mountains, and the Ents have lost the Entwives (just to name a few examples that spring to mind: there are more). In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we first find a Narnia where humans have died out, the land is blanketed in perpetual snow, and the White Witch oppresses the land and its people. Thinning is even used in non-medieval fantasy, such as in Marie Brennan’s Onyx Court series (see my earlier review).

Thematically, thinning is deployed with a nostalgic tone. The pre-thinning state is never shown, so the reader never sees what this idealized past was like. But the narrator and characters leave us with no doubt that it featured characteristics that they felt were good. It is their nostalgia which permeates the text, not the reader’s or (necessarily) the writer’s. It is merely a rhetorical device, analogous in kind to the use of framing stories or unreliable narrators. It can highlight themes that the writer seeks to dramatize, and can plant deeper emotional hooks in the reader. This isn’t a tool unique to fantasy, and in fact has a long pedigree.

Remember the Dark Ages? Even though it’s an awfully imprecise term, Petrarch’s origination of it really lends a fantastical narrative to the Middle Ages: the Dark Ages were western culture’s own period of thinning after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the influence of the Renaissance (which itself idealized the classical era) remains a powerful force in fantasy today. Contemporary portal/quest fantasies are the descendents of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and characteristic fantasy characters (rogues, merchants, warriors, etc.) can often trace their lineage back to Bocaccio, Chaucer, or Malory.

What Comes after Thinning?

Thinning, and the nostalgic tone it engenders, is clearly nothing new for fantasy. This makes the accusation that fantasy pines for the medieval past an understandable conflation of the terms. Yes, it is wooly-headed. Yes, it is imprecise. And yes, the people who level this accusation are dying out. But if there is some poorly articulated truth to their criticism, then what if they really have a different and far more valid point: is thinning played out as a rhetorical device? Does it remain relevant for the thematic concerns contemporary writers wish to address?

The backwards-looking Renaissance gave way to the striving of the Enlightenment. Thinning and its nostalgic tone became rarer, and tended to be confined to the (already more fantastic) Gothic novels. Though there was much writing we might today call speculative, the thinning popular during the Renaissance was replaced by satire, philosophy, and utopian texts which raised questions about society in the moment and postulated future directions for its development. If thinning as a device has become cliché, what comes next? Can we expect a new Enlightenment in fantasy which replaces thinning and the nostalgic tone with satire? I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet, but I suspect we may be on our way there. And who knows? Terry Pratchett’s Discworld might just be the satirical canary in the coalmine that drags us kicking and screaming into the century of the fruitbat.

Leaping the Chasm of Imagination: Verisimilitude, Historical Fiction, and Speculative Fiction

The borders of genre are famously porous. Devices that start in one genre will get adopted, subsumed, and then modified in another. Then the cycle starts again, with the “new” device trickling back to its original progenitor. This tendency is why asking whether realistic or speculative fiction developed first is meaningless: anthropologists and fans can probably debate this ’til the heat death of the universe, and even then the answer won’t matter. But I’m curious as to how and why certain narrative techniques make this leap and others don’t.

Verisimilitude is the Heart of Storytelling

Every single genre – regardless of how speculative it is – relies on some degree of verisimilitude to enable comprehension. Sure, it’s theoretically possible to write a science fiction novel entirely in a made-up alien language with concepts for which there is no human analog…but who on this planet would actually read it? At the most basic level of language, we rely on mutually comprehensible words to communicate. This is the point where I call shenanigans on the pseudo-linguistic (read: intellectually irresponsible) school of critical theory that argues that text/words/language are inherently meaningless. If that were true, then we would not only never have fiction, we would also lose all written correspondence and spoken conversation. Community relies on communication: note their similar roots.

The sentence “John opened the door.” could appear in a hard science fiction story, an immersive secondary world fantasy, or in mimetic chick lit. Sure, we might need to replace the character’s name, and call John “Blaghosan” or something to maintain the illusion, but the act of opening a door can apply in any of these fictional modes. The richness of our lexicon and its corresponding flexibility enables us to assemble more complex, interesting, and layered sentences. But fiction (and any communication) relies on a shared ontological foundation.

At Viable Paradise (which I attended a couple of weeks ago), the amazing Teresa Nielsen Hayden said something utterly profound: “The subject verbed the object, and it was good.” The particulars might vary, but at the sentence level that basic principle underlies all communication, regardless of its realism. The fancy stuff (metaphors, similes, neologisms) that speculative fiction authors love is really a set of clothes hung on this incredibly flexible frame.

The Basic Devices of Fiction: Simile, Metaphor, and Neologism as Genre Markers

All writers use a certain basic arsenal in an infinite variety of combinations to communicate and manipulate their audiences. The most basic tools are such an indelible part of language, communication, and thought as to be near inseparable. But how we use them can actually be one of the markers of speculative fiction.

When we employ a simile (“John scuttled like an ant”) we are establishing a sense of apparency. The use of “like” indicates that John is not in actuality an ant. He merely acts with characteristics more commonly associated with one. Such a use of apparency can take place in any genre and is likely as old as language. Metaphor (“John was an ant scuttling across the floor.”) and neologism (“John the antyman scuttled”), however, are a little more complicated.

If we’re reading a work that is by definition realistic, then we recognize metaphor as a stronger way of evoking apparency. If we’re reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, we know that John hasn’t actually become an arthropod. But if we’re reading something speculative than lacking other markers in the text, our hero John may have suddenly literally transmogrified into an insect (hey, it worked for Kafka, right?).

When we come across a neologism (“antyman”) we now have to decode the new word and incorporate it into our lexicon. Its semantic meaning may be unclear, and needs to be gleaned from context. In speculative fiction, that context may support fantastic concepts (antyman – the hybrid of a human and an ant) or merely extend our realistic lexicon (like Shakespeare coining terms like “assassination”).

This decoding process is part of what we love about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Decoding where a given work’s fantastic borders are is an intellectual puzzle that gives us no small degree of satisfaction (whether escapist or otherwise). Traditionally, literal metaphor has been the plaything of speculative fiction writers. Realistic writers might have dallied in it a bit, but it is only with the relatively recent rise of magical realism and literary fiction’s “discovery” of science fictional devices that this technique has been fully appropriated. A similar process has happened over the centuries with narrative structures.

The Many Structures of the Novel

While many hardcore genre fans might disagree, I would argue that most innovative novel structures first appeared in “realistic” fiction. Whether it is the epistolary novel, the framed narrative, stream of consciousness, or non-linearity it probably appeared first in the realm of realistic mimetic fiction. There’s a good reason for that: like speculative fiction, innovative structures require effort on the part of the reader to decode and process them. To expect the reader to decode an innovative structure and process the speculative elements is likely expecting too much.

Consider the history of the epistolary novel. When it first grew to prominence in the seventeenth century (check out Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister), we had to learn how to consume realistic epistolary novels before fantastical interpretations could flourish. As far as I know, it was not until 1818 that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus successfully introduced early science fictional elements into the epistolary structure, and not until 1897 that Bram Stoker’s Dracula did the same for the nascent genre of horror. I suspect these novels owe much of their continued longevity and relevance to being early examples of speculative stories that made the imaginative leap and successfully appropriated a mimetic/realistic structure.

The pattern is quite similar for other innovative narrative structures. Could Delaney’s Dhalgren have appeared without the innovations of Kerouac? Or would Effinger’s When Gravity Fails have the same resonance without Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett? As readers, we don’t need to have read the realistic taproot texts to experience and enjoy their speculative descendents. Because their structures are successful, they spawn a multiplicity of children: they become part of the cultural zeitgeist that soaks into our awareness.

This pattern actually holds even for the most basic taproot texts of literature. At the start of this post, I asked whether realistic or speculative fiction came first. And the answer is that they both appeared at the same time in the form of historical fiction. Wikipedia dates the first piece of historical fiction back to the 20th century BC. In those ancient days, there was little distinction between what today we characterize as “myth” and what they called “history”.

Even the earliest historical fiction had the same world-building challenges as speculative fiction. History is a foreign country we can never visit, and ancient Greece or Regency Britain are as foreign to our twenty-first century sensibilities as Middle-Earth or the Sagittarius Arm. The world-building techniques for the two genres are identical. Look at how Patrick O’Brian pulls us into his Napoleonic-era nautical understanding in his Aubrey and Maturin books. Then compare his methods to how Arthur C. Clarke introduces us to space-age technology in Rendezvous With Rama. The challenge is the same, and the craft to address it is the same as well.

Does the Pendulum Swing Both Ways?

With the rise of the modernists in the early twentieth century, we saw the fantastic get relegated to a pulp ghetto that we still struggle to escape. Yet even then, there were some “mainstream” authors who looked to fantastic fiction as a source of inspiration (Kingsley Amis and Shirley Jackson both come to mind). The last several decades have seen fantastical techniques gain acceptability within the realistic fiction community (provided they’re labeled “magical realism”). With post-apocalyptic texts like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or blatantly science fictional novels like Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel being published as “mainstream literary fiction” we may be living through the pendulum’s reversal as we speak.

Which are the fantastical devices that will now hop back over that imaginative chasm? What are – and what will – contemporary “realistic” writers learn from their speculative peers? That the cycle will keep going I have no doubt, but I’m curious what lessons realistic authors are learning from those of us who like to mess about with elves and space ships and zombies. Regardless of the genre, my own predilections suggest that writers who want to innovate structurally should read widely and extensively across genres to internalize others’ innovations wherever we come across them. T.S. Eliot nailed it when he said “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.”

What should we be stealing nowadays?

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