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Posts tagged ‘Yasunari Kawabata’

Why do we love science fiction, fantasy, or horror?

Over on the Absolute Write Forums, GreenEpic posted a fairly thought provoking question:

Does anyone have a theory as to why science fiction and fantasy are so popular?

While the thread there has a bunch of really good answers, most of them tend towards the anecdotal. And as this is the Internet, and I have a generalized opinion, I figured I’d share it for public consumption. Here’s what I think:

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all marketing categories. They loosely describe a set of fictional conventions that can be expected within a given work. Does a story have robots? Odds are it is science fiction. Does it have magic? Most likely fantasy. Does it have undead monsters out to eat your flesh? I’d guess horror. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification. As a lot of my earlier posts on genre observations suggest, the reality is a heck of a lot more complicated. But your typical reader or movie-goer isn’t terribly concerned with the minutiae of genre theory (which I think is unfortunate, but I’m both nerdy and pedantic). Why do so many respond – in one fashion or another – to speculative storytelling?

Psychological, Physiological, and Neurological Levels of Storytelling

Rational, Emotional, Physiological, and Neurological Responses to Storytelling

Levels of Response to Story

Experiencing a story affects us on both psychological and physiological levels. Have you read stories that put you on the edge of your seat? They tugged on your subconscious emotions to increase tension. That sensation of your palms sweating or your heart beating faster? The story, and the tension it engendered, elicited a physiological response. Or have you ever fallen into a story so lovely that the world around you and the passage of time faded into mere background noise? The story produced a neurological trance-state, not unlike meditation or hypnosis. Have you ever read a book and realized you might be wrong about something? The story’s rhetoric affected your rational thoughts and values.

There’s a connection between our brains and our bodies that good storytelling can powerfully manipulate. It is simultaneously a positive and negative feedback system, where if a story affects one aspect of our beings it has ripple effects that impinge on every other aspect. When a creator manipulates this system skillfully, the effect is transparent and immensely powerful. And here’s why this is important: a story’s marketing category has no bearing on the audience’s response.

That’s right. Whether we’re reading mainstream literary fiction, watching Blade Runner, or flipping through a comic book, our brains and bodies will still respond to the underlying story. When we participate in ludic reading (reading for pleasure), we are looking for a certain configuration of those four responses. Of course, we can’t possibly articulate what that configuration might be (I can’t imagine anyone looking for a story that produces a 40% emotional, 30% physiological, 20% neurological, and 10% rational responses). And the components of those configurations are likely to have fairly fuzzy borders, because they are greatly affected by our state of mind/body at the time of the experience. But when we experience a satisfying story, when a story has elicited a satisfactory configuration of responses, we know it. We say “That was a good story” or “That was fun” without trying to really take it apart and understand why. And a story’s marketing category does not affect how it manipulates our responses. Instead, it describes the conventions appropriate to correctly interpreting its plot.

Basic Modes of Storytelling

Put away your Northrup Frye. I’m talking about something much more essential than mimesis or myth. If we just focus on a story’s plot and how that plot is constructed, we find several different modes of storytelling. Each of these modes relies on a certain configuration of those responses I mentioned above.

For example, an adventure story is going to produce a certain kind of physiological response. Our heart rate might increase, our breath might grow short, we might be eagerly looking to see how the hero will get out of a particular jam. But a mimetic (for the sake of simplicity, let’s call it a representative or slice-of-life) story is unlikely to produce that kind of response. Instead, it is more likely to be quieter, slower.

Basic Modes of Storytelling, with Realistic & Fantastical Examples

Basic Modes of Storytelling, with Realistic & Fantastical Examples

These responses have nothing whatsoever to do with whether a story has fantastical elements or not. Consider two adventures: Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards. They make for an interesting comparison, in that the latter is explicitly modeled on the former. But while Dumas’ most famous work has no fantastical elements to speak of, Brust’s novel is replete with them. Yet both stories produce similar responses in the reader, particularly if we are familiar with both works.

So if a story’s fantastical elements (or the lack thereof) has no bearing on the mode a story is told in, then why do some folks prefer speculative fiction over realistic fiction?

Gateway Drugs, Sense-of-Wonder, and the Multitudinous Genre

I believe that fantastical storytelling has an inherent advantage over realistic storytelling. There are no boundaries on what we can do with it. If a concretized metaphor (*cough* the one ring *cough*) adds value to our story, then why not run with it? Just because it isn’t realistic does not mean such images or metaphors are valueless.

Realistic storytelling is actually a subset of fantastical storytelling: by design, it chooses to limit its images and narrative devices to those which can be found in real life. If we love good storytelling, then it’s perfectly natural that we would love the speculative genres. Like Whitman, they contain multitudes. Every single realistic story, from Shakespeare to Joyce, can be presented using fantastical imagery. That a particular execution of a story remains realistic is merely the consequence of an authorial decision as to its ideal presentation.

Yet despite the fact that good stories do not need fantastical devices to remain good stories, plenty of folks out there read exclusively in the fantastic genres. Why? If they can find equally enjoyable stories among the “realistic” shelves, why stick with SF/F/H? I suspect it is because of a positive feedback loop imprinted on our brains early on. When we first consciously encounter storytelling, we look for patterns. It’s a consequence of our highly-developed simian brains. So if in those formative years, we learn that science fiction, or fantasy, or horror is statistically more likely to produce a particular configuration of responses that satisfies us, we treat it like a drug. We learn to love it, and to equate that particular marketing category with the pleasure it produces. And then sometimes, we never stray beyond that gateway.

This gate swings both ways, of course. The same holds true for many readers of realistic fiction, or for many movie-goers who never pick up a book. It’s all about the positive feedback loop that gets imprinted on our neurons at a formative age. I suspect (on the basis of absolutely zero neurological knowledge) that this imprinting can be changed as our experiences change us, but it remains a powerful driver of our experiences.

I suspect the tough-to-pin-down “sense of wonder” is actually a consequence of this gateway drug. If we are adequately self-aware, we learn to recognize (through a meta-cognitive experience), the response we are seeking. That recognition produces that scintillating sense-of-wonder fans of SF/F/H use to justify our genre habit. Speaking for myself, I can elicit that same sense-of-wonder reading outside of genre (Patrick O’Brian’s books come to mind, as do Yasunari Kawabata’s). I don’t believe wonder is genre-specific, although the experience is statistically more common among the fantastic shelves.

And this brings us to the core reason why the speculative genres are so popular: they are a marketing category that encompasses all of the basic modes of storytelling found in realistic fiction. You’ll notice there is no such marketing category as “realistic fiction”. If we want to balance “SF/F/H” we would need an equally broad “realistic fiction” category. But instead, the “realistic fiction” section is fragmented into literary fiction, thrillers, romance, mystery, historical fiction, etc. If you want to find a realistic story told in the romantic mode, well your odds are pretty small looking under literary fiction. If you want a piece of mimetic fiction that deepens your understanding of the human condition, you should probably avoid the thriller shelves.

Yet all of these storytelling modes can be found side-by-side in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror section. Fans of genre fiction need never wander outside of those shelves to find stories that satisfy their every need. And that’s why, as a marketing category, it is so popular. It contains multitudes. And those increase the odds that a story from that marketing category will produce a satisfying response. Of course, much as I love fantastical fiction, I still think folks should read outside of their beloved genres every now and again. But if they don’t, well that’s fine, too: speculative fiction’s got a lot to love.

What do you think? Why does speculative fiction push a lot of our buttons and keep our attention the way it does? Why does it produce such fervent loyalty on the part of readers and viewers?

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

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