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Posts tagged ‘Theory’

On Where Genres Come From and How to Stitch Them Together

Victor Frankenstein had it easy. He had to muck about with viscera and body parts, and though the result was an eight-foot tall, sallow-skinned monster, at least human anatomy provided him with a map to follow. Writers don’t have such guidelines: the scope, direction, and style of our art is only constrained by the scope, direction, and style of our imaginations. And while such a wide-skyed vista might be freeing, our desire to navigate its uncharted expanse is precisely why we create genres.

Mommy, Where Do Genres Come From?

Most of what I’ve read about genres centers on three concerns:

1. Taxonomy What [set of] characteristics determine membership within a particular genre?
2. Interpretation How does a title’s membership within a genre affect the way it is interpreted?
3. Historical Application How do a critic’s views on genre taxonomy and interpretation work when applied retroactively to works that predate them? or When did a genre begin?

All three are interesting concerns, but they fail to address a fourth question that is – to me – just as interesting: for what purpose and by what process are genres created? To say that genres are created by booksellers or by readers puts the cart before the horse: a book has to be written before it can either be shelved somewhere or read. And this suggests to me that writers are the creators of genre: we develop genre as the scaffolding on which to assemble our stories. They are the blueprint that we use to stitch our monsters together.

Why Genre is Helpful to Writers

It is rather silly to look at a piece of writing – any writing – in isolation. All writing, all art, is in dialog with the writing, art, and culture which preceded it. Sometimes, that dialog may be overt and the writer conscious of it. Other times, that dialog may be inadvertent: a consequence of the writer’s subconscious interpretation of and response to their own idiosyncratic stimuli. But communication requires a shared substrate to be functional, and all writing uses words to produce its artistic effects. Our words are the cells in Frankenstein’s monster.

When we assemble those words into particular narrative constructs, when we structure our story in certain ways, we are building the muscles, sinews, and bones of our creation. These components, taken together, constitute the morphology of our story and help to guide the reader’s experience along the route our artistic vision demands. In that, the conventions of genre are a helpful shorthand, a finely-balanced compass that gets the reader to our destination.

Different genres have different strengths: thrillers get the blood pumping, category romance provides an escapist catharsis (note, that’s not a pejorative!), realistic literary fiction excels at intellectual exploration, science fiction produces a sense of wonder, etc. These are the responses that different narrative conventions evoke in the reader. When we understand how the text produces such responses, then we can begin to understand the art of storytelling.

And when we write, we apply – either knowingly or not – the tools and techniques that we have learned from other stories. We might say “That’s a cool trick – let’s play with that” or we might say “That’s an overplayed cliche – let’s subvert it”, but in each case we utilize our inspirations in our own work.

When one of us applies a particular technique, it is an individual act. But when enough of us use the same tool, our individual applications rapidly accrete to create a convention. When enough such conventions have accreted, then we look around and find that we have created a genre, or a style, or an artistic movement. And eventually, these conventions become tropes at which point their subversion becomes another convention, and the cycle repeats. In other words, genre is an emergent property of the act of writing.

Hybrid Monsters: How to Merge Genres

Much as I love readers, much as I respect booksellers, at a general level this process has nothing to do with either: it has everything to do with how writers experience stories and respond to them in our own work. But when we look at individual stories, at a particular writer’s specific application of a set of techniques, the (unknown and unknowable) reader’s experience becomes relevant. Will they be able to interpret it? And will they be able to enjoy it? The answers to these questions are, alas, never discrete. They are always found somewhere on a continuum that varies across readers, from one story to the next, and that are changeable in time. That’s why applying conventions from one genre alongside those from another can both be incredibly rewarding, and incredibly risky.

When done well, our words serve double (or triple) duty, eliciting the responses familiar from each of the genres we endeavor to blend. Consider John Crowley’s Little, Big or Jeffrey Ford’s The Physiognomy: on the one hand, each story clearly employs the narrative conventions of disparate traditions of fantasy (interstitial/wainscot fantasy in one case, and secondary-world fantasy in the other). And yet both incorporate stylistic techniques more common to mainstream literary fiction.

When done poorly, the result is a story that is impossible to interpret or that fails to satisfy its audience. In one sense, this ties to the concept of the author’s contract with their reader: the reader goes into the story with a particular set of expectations, and if the story neither conforms to those expectations nor distracts the reader sufficiently to change them, then the reader will be dissatisfied. One example that comes to mind is the criticism often leveled against Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which in its attempt at existential philosophy broke with the prevailing thematic conventions established by the television series that preceded it while maintaining its aesthetic and structural conventions.

So what, then, is the trick to merging genres? I think the answer is to focus on the core of each genre. Though the creation of genre is an accretive process, at the heart of every genre there lies a kernel of convention so intrinsic to that genre’s function as to be indelible. That kernel is the core of the genre, what makes that genre distinct from its siblings. More often than not, that kernel even forms the root of the genre’s name: thriller, romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, realism, etc.

The narrative devices that comprise the conventions of each genre contribute – in some fashion – to that kernel of genre truth. Identifying what that kernel is, and then determining particular narrative techniques that contribute to it gives us techniques that can be ported across genre lines.

For example: looking for a faster pace and heightened tension in your fantasy? Many commercial thrillers use short chapters, short paragraphs, short sentences, and cliffhanger chapter-endings to contribute to that effect. Looking for a hint of the numinous in your realistic novel? The language of realized metaphor found in fantasy and myth might be just the ticket.

Though these are just two simple examples, the same principle can be adopted at all levels of storytelling: linguistic, structural, thematic, emotional, etc. So long as we focus on techniques that contribute to the genre’s core, I believe those techniques will play well outside of their “original” genre.

Maps Are Not the Journey

While genre conventions provide us with techniques and guidelines for how those techniques interact, they are no substitute for skillful storytelling. I do not advocate turning to genre conventions as a “paint-by-the-numbers” guidebook for aspiring writers. If that’s all you want, then I urge you to check out Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook (which, incidentally, is a fascinating morphological study of classic pulp plots – an interesting theoretical read in its own right, even if one doesn’t take its prescriptions to heart).

No amount of theory can make up for poor execution. The quality of our execution comes from a variety of factors, not least being our own creativity, the vibrancy of our imaginative vision, and our ability to communicate that vision to our audience. Without the skillful application of whatever genre-derived techniques we employ, we risk stories far less interesting than Victor Frankenstein’s eight-foot tall, yellow-skinned monster (though, to be fair, writing stories that interesting is hard!).

It is not the quality of the map – nor even that of the roads – that determines the quality of the journey. It is the skill of the navigator.

Information Density and Selecting Planks for Story Scaffolding

Information density, or the “I had to do a lot of research, and now you, dear reader, must suffer for it” tendency, is one of the perennial challenges of good fiction, and over the past several days Alec Austin and Marie Brennan have posted some interesting thoughts on the subject (also, check out the ensuing discussions in their comments sections). Since I love history and tend to write alternate history or heavily historically-inspired stories, this is something I’m usually really sensitive to, both as a reader and as a writer. But the lens through which I view this problem tends to be one of narrative purpose.

What is the story about?

Fiction at its heart is a representational art form, which means that the words we write are not the objects/events we write about: they are facsimiles, symbols which evoke a sense of mimesis in our reader. When we sit down to write a story, we must consciously choose which details (historical or otherwise) to include, and how to portray those details. Alec and Marie refer to this as “simplification” and “flattening,” and while I recognize the value in such terms, they are the diametric opposite to my own way of thinking. Rather than “simplification”, I prefer to think in terms of “selection”. The end point may be the same, but the mental path I take to get there is a little different.

Here’s a writing exercise to illustrate my point: try to completely describe everything in your immediate environs over a five second period. Actually, don’t: to do it right, you’d be there ’til the heat death of the universe.

It is a physical impossibility to capture every aspect of even a limited scope in symbolic representation (and that’s without getting into the details only observable by electron microscope). When we write, we choose the salient details, those that are relevant to our artistic purposes. We might use motifs, or facts, or events, or emotions and more besides. But we choose what we portray, and leave the rest of our imagined reality in the empty spaces between our words. We rely on the reader’s imagination to fill in those blanks. Our job is to use our words to give the reader enough of a scaffolding on which they can hang their imaginings. And the process by which we do so relies on choosing the right words, the right details, to erect that scaffold.

The complex messiness of history, sociology, economics, anthropology, biology are the planks through which we assemble that scaffold. But not every plank is interchangeable: depending on the nature of our story, depending on our artistic purpose, depending on our narrative structure, different planks are needed in different points.

To riff off of Marie’s excellent example of the English Civil War (the history of which she knows infinitely better than I do), the economic pressures on the Crown are at best only marginally relevant if I am writing a fairy tale set during Charles I’s England. A little child who enters the woods and encounters a witch would be unaware of those economic pressures, and they would be irrelevant to the narrative’s overall trajectory. To switch to the European mainland for a moment, it is hard to imagine Hansel and Gretel pausing to explain the economics of the 17th century Black Forest farming communities. It is equally hard to imagine the narrator of Hansel and Gretel doing so because those economics are irrelevant to the story’s goals.

This isn’t a “simplification” or a “flattening” of the detail any more than is the omission of unrelated events halfway across the globe: it is simply the selection of salient information. When we write, our job is to select the salient, relevant pieces of information that the reader needs to perceive in order to achieve our narrative goals.

Illustrative Information versus Explicative Information

However, even if the story is not “about” the economics of 16th/17th century monarchy, the inclusion of such details may add to the sub-textual content of our narrative: to its verisimilitude, or to its tone, or to its broader themes. To run with my Hansel and Gretel example, I can imagine a modified version of the story where the economics of the Black Forest are relevant (the upwardly mobile step-mother desperate to ensure her own children’s future in times of famine, say) to the story’s narrative purpose. If the history, if the detail, is relevant to my story’s overt or sub-textual purposes, then the question is no longer whether to include it or not, but instead morphs into how to do so.

In my reading, I’ve found two different strategies for this, which I think of as the illustrative versus the explicative approach. And interestingly, I find classic fairy tales to provide excellent examples of both strategies. Both are equally valid, and can be equally effective, but they work in different ways. To some extent, these strategies can be thought of as “showing” versus “telling”, but I think that grossly over-simplifies them.

Consider my hypothetical modified Hansel and Gretel example, where I have determined that I must somehow communicate a modicum of the economic context to my reader. I can choose to do so in an illustrative fashion, by depicting the consequences of those economics. I have a vast number of ways to illustrate those economics, but the two easiest are to either (please forgive the quick-drafted examples):

A: allude to them in the step-mother’s dialog

“But Hansel; but Gretel,” said their new mother, “you wouldn’t want your new baby brother and sister to starve, would you? Please, fetch some berries from the wood.”

B: imply them through my prose description of their farm/farming community.

With the pox so recent, and the winter so cold and hard, most of the neighboring farms sat fallow: untended, untilled, unloved. Hansel and Gretel’s farm, though scarcely large enough for the three of them in the lean months, was one of the few that bloomed that year. Still, however tight their belts, Father always found an apple for the widow next door, and for her baby boy and toddling little girl as well. With their own mother in Heaven, God rest her soul, the whole village knew it would not be long before Hansel and Gretel had a new mother, and with her a baby brother and hungry little sister.

In each case, I would concretely depict the consequences of the economics, so as to show their effect on characters and setting. I would allude to or imply the broader economics, and I could do so with greater or lesser narrative economy which would in turn be determined by the story’s narrative structure.

Whether I do it in dialog, or in prose, or in both, and whether it happens in one sentence or six paragraphs depends on the point-of-view it is told from, and the narrative voice in which the story is written. The illustrative technique, however, communicates the relevant economic context through implication derived from action.

An explicative approach, where the background is explicitly explained to the reader, would be equally valid. It might be as simply done as the classic “once upon a time” fairy tale opening, where the relevant facts are stated and accepted as given. This might be accomplished through a distant or even omniscient narrator (check out Olaf Stapledon or Mervyn Peake for awe-inspiring examples of this), or the explanation might be heavily inflected by a narrator’s subjective point of view (think Raymond Chandler).

Of the two approaches, I think the explicative is the more difficult to pull off for modern readers. The illustrative approach relies on character and narrative voice to pull the reader along, leaving the intellectual dimension as subtext. As a result, it is more accessible and “less dry” for most readers.

The explicative approach, by contrast, relies on the intellectual dimension and voice to make its content interesting and compelling. Alec mentions Kim Stanley Robinson’s infodumps, and for me they are an excellent example of relying on the intellectual dimension to carry the reader through the relevant background. They are very hard to pull off, and arguably only effective for a limited audience, precisely because this explicitly intellectual approach is “dry” by modern standards of fictional narrative. Explicative approaches that rely on voice, such as Raymond Chandler or Damon Runyon, tend to be more accessible because the narrator’s voice itself connotes character.

Historical Fantasy and Narrative Structures

Given this framework, I think one can communicate just about any level of complex background, economic, social, or otherwise. But it does affect the complexity of the underlying narrative structure. It may lead to more perspective characters, or to a different narrative voice. And those, in turn, may further limit the audience or otherwise decrease the story’s accessibility.

But that’s a fact of life: every word we write limits our audience to some extent. Which is why selecting the right word is all that matters.

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