Category Archives: Plot Structure

When Setting Defines (or Defies) Genre

There’s a rule of thumb I’ve referenced in multiple posts here at Fictorians regarding how the kind of universe your story exists within helps define its genre. The rule was brought to my attention via Daniel Abraham in a Clarkesworld post on grimdark fantasy that’s well worth a full read. Mr. Abraham in turn attributes the rule of thumb to Walter Jon Williams, and I’ll quote the relevant passage of the Clarkesworld piece (one of their “Another Word” series of posts) below so that no meaning is lost in the paraphrase:

“In fantasy, the world is essentially benign; in science fiction, the world is essentially amoral; in horror, the world is malefic. Put in terms of illness, fantasy evil is an illness from which the world must recover. In science fiction, evil is a social construct put on a universe that simply is the way it is. In horror, evil is the natural deformity of the world from which there is no way to recover.”

— Daniel Abraham, “Literatures of Despair,” Clarkesworld, 2013

Now, as with any rule of thumb, there are grains of truth to this surrounded by sand-hills (salt-mountains? I’m not clear on what kind of “grains” this metaphor refers to, and so my metaphor is collapsing) of wiggle-room. I’ve spoken at length about how genres tend to bleed together and how often works of fiction fail to fall squarely into one genre or the other.

But for the sake of argument, let’s take this rule of thumb at face value. Close examination of the physical (or metaphysical) underpinnings of what makes your fabricated world tick can help you decide what kind of story you should be telling, and even how that story ought to end. For those authors who have an easier time coming up with fantastically detailed worlds than they do defining a particular story to tell within them (you know who you are), here is one way to narrow down the multitudes of options. It can also be a useful set of guideposts to pantser-style writers who find their story getting away from them in ways they don’t like, as opposed to ways they do.

And that’s not all the rule is good for. Like all rules, it’s good for breaking. Say your goal is deconstructing a popular genre. Well then, perhaps your Tolkienesque epic fantasy story can run afoul of a universe where everything is horrible all the time and the heroes can ultimately lose or the horrific truths forming the foundation of your world can be unexpectedly defeated by the actions of the protagonist, fundamentally restructuring everything that came before. Nothing can be as exhilarating (if done well) or as frustrating (if done poorly) as a twisted expectation.

If you do go this route, I recommend a “frog in boiling water” approach, even though that particular metaphor is untrue (it turns out frogs are not that stupid). Begin with the obvious notes of one genre but quickly introduce a discordant note that points to the genre your story will eventually more into. Gradually shift from one to the other as the plot progresses, so that the transformation feels necessary by the very end. This is particularly effective in shifting from fantasy or science fiction into horror, particularly if you can ramp up the dread while staving off the final realization in the reader until the last possible moment.

In the end, it’s best to think of this rule of thumb, like any rule of thumb, as a tool rather than a boundary. Just remember another saying I’ve become fond of: don’t tear anything down before you understand why it was built in the first place.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

Well, that was Unexpected

 

I have a confession to make-I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until after my husband and I started dating.

I know, I know, most self-respecting geeks are at least familiar with the Doctor. Me? Nope. As a matter of fact, two friends and I went to England a few years back. Naturally we went to watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. I’d seen it before, but the others hadn’t, so we went.

During the rather dull ceremony (sorry, it’s the truth) the band played some great sci-fi music, including Star Trek. A number I didn’t recognize received thunderous applause from the crowd. Lucky for me, the friend standing next to me at least knew that it was the Doctor Who theme song.

While we were dating, my soon to be husband finally talked me into watching. The first season of the reboot is rough, and I didn’t particularly love Rose as the companion, but once I’d made it through a handful of episodes, I started to get it.

Then The Empty Child happened.

If you’re a fan, you know what I’m talking about.

The entire two-part story is based in World War II London, and through the whole thing a little boy in a gas mask keeps appearing asking if anyone and everyone is his mummy.

Seriously creepy.

I spent the entire episode trying to figure out what sort of wretched creature would do such a thing. Then the reveal at the end blew my proverbial socks off. It went so contrary to where I thought it would, that I probably sat with my mouth hanging open for a good fifteen seconds.

While my boyfriend pointed and laughed at me. (He’d seen it two or three times.)

The writers of Doctor Who have pulled this off a number of times. My personal favorite is Gridlock:

The Doctor takes Martha to New Earth, where she is kidnapped by two carjackers and taken to an underground Motorway, where the remainder of humanity on the planet live in perpetual gridlock.

What is left of humanity has been circling on the futuristic freeway full of flying cars/motor homes for who knows how long (years? Decades? Centuries?) trying to find an exit open. About half way through the episode we, the audience, figure out that they’re never getting off the freeway. It’s some sort of sick trap.

Well, the Doctor won’t stand for it (he’s got a very insistent need to protect humanity) and he and Martha set out to figure out what’s going on.

Adventure ensues.

But once again, when we expect to find a creature that is both parts cheesy and foul, we find something totally different. A friend of the Doctor’s who moves through time at a different rate than most. And he didn’t trap humanity underground on the freeway because he was mean, but because he wanted to keep them safe from whatever catastrophe happened on the surface of the planet..

It’s brilliant. In so many places the writers allude to something, and then allow the watchers to come to their own conclusions, which are totally wrong.

For me, this is one of the best thinks a story can do. Not so much trick the reader, but provide an insight that can truly delight them at the end.

True lies

Since joining the Fictorians last year, I’ve found my post for each month’s topic was pretty easy to put together. The ideas would flow quickly and I would have a very strong idea of what I wanted to say and do.

This month, well I’m not going to lie to you. It’s a bit trickier for me. I’ve struggled to come up with books I’ve read that contained outright lies or shocking twists. Maybe I’m just not a fan of the right types of books. I don’t read a lot that is in first person, and I think that had shielded me from our friend the unreliable narrator. If nothing else, this highlights for me and area I should explore more.

Surprisingly I use twists quite a bit in my own fiction. I think they are a lot of fun to pull off, and a lot of fun for the reader to experience. I think we want to be lied to, as long as its fair. The plot twist that comes out of nowhere with no foreshadowing is frustrating, but the surprise that we had the clues for and just didn’t expect is very enjoyable.

I think the plot twist I enjoy the most come in two general categories: “I DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING” and “OH, I HAD THAT WRONG”. I’ll give an example of each below. For me, I think the former is a lot easier to pull off and mostly involves putting a few signposts (but not too many) on the way to the reveal. The second is much more like a magic trick, relying on misdirection.

I DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING

If you’re my age, there’s no example of this more burned in most folks memory than Darth Vader’s reveal at the end of Empire Strikes Back. There is no scene in the movie (or for me, in the series) that carries as much emotional weight as this moment, and I am lucky enough to have experienced it live in the theatre. It also makes so much of Luke’s arc make sense, and introduces a great deal of peril to his future.

(For being a famous twist, it did feel like a bit of a cheat though. Even as a pre-teen, I immediately thought back to Obi Wan’s story in Star Wars, which now seemed untrue. I love Obi Wan, but his ‘from a certain point of view’ speech always felt like an attempt to rationalize the mis-truth.)

OH, I HAD THAT WRONG

I think this model is even trickier. You have to actively steer the audience in one direction while getting them to avoid the second option, all without that action seeming so heavy handed that they catch on. Pulled off correctly, there’s this wonderful moment where the reader or viewer feels this moment of satisfaction that you’ve tricked them, but it was fair. The stakes are higher here though, since you are actively trying to deceive and manipulate your audience. They *want* you to do this, but only if they can’t tell you are doing it. It’s a delicate dance.

A very good example of this is in the first X-Men film, where everything leads up to the moment where Magneto comes for the mutant he has been tracking. At the moment of the reveal, everyone thinks the target is Wolverine. Wolverine thinks it, the other X-Men think it and the audience thinks it. Magneto then reveals the trick: “My boy, who ever said I was looking for you?” Rogue is his target and the viewer goes back and does the math. It all adds up, makes sense and is fair. We just assumed Wolverine was the target because of how the film presented him as the primary character. The filmmakers played on our assumptions and used them against us. As I said, done well I find this very satisfying. We do, after all, want to be lied to.

In my own fiction, I have used both of these models. I particularly enjoy hiding my main antagonist in plain sight, only to reveal his or her true nature and intentions later in the story. To what level of success, well I’ll have to wait until after publishing to get some real feedback on that.

See you next month!

 

Amnesia

Why are books better than their movie counterparts? There are several reasons, but I believe the strongest has to do with insight into the mind. We are given a telepathic link to the point of view character’s mind. But that link streams data in bits instead of a massive info dump (in good writing anyway).

This can be problematic if not done right. We all love a good twist ending. That mental whiplash, once everything seems to be resolved, can be an exhilarating experience. I remember watching the Sixth Sense when the child psychologist discovers he’s dead.

I immediately wanted to watch the movie again. When I did, it was a totally different experience. But the twist wouldn’t have worked if he knew he was dead all along. Consider that for a moment. In twists where the characters know what is going on, but not the reader, a twist comes across more like fraud than hand-clapping thrill.

That’s because there is an unspoken agreement between the reader and writer. The writer promises a good story, an exciting tale, an emotional journey. The reader promises to go along with the ride and believe the words and trust the characters as they are presented. When the reader discovers that the characters were withholding critical information, even though there had been an apparent telepathic link, then that trust is broken and the reader feels deceived, not entertained.

There are many ways to help the reader discover along with the POV characters so that discovery becomes a journey. The one gimmick I’d like to discuss is amnesia.

The Maze Runner did it well, forbidding the reader much of the world where juveniles run mazes. Because of Thomas’s amnesia, the reader is sucked into the story, waiting with baited breath every bit of information they can glean together from the world before them.

I recently read a book where amnesia was used well. Sleeper Protocol by Kevin Ikenberry was a fantastic sci-fi novel where the main character discovers his identity and memories through a series of scientific supported phases under the supposition that rediscovery (integration) can be detrimental to the mind if it happens too quickly.

The sixth sense was essentially an amnesia story, disguised. That’s why it worked so well.

Others, like Dan Brown’s Inferno, use amnesia as a tool to propose a purpose and deciding event for the character in order to up the stakes, or increase the drama and embellish the character arc.

Arguably one of the best amnesia tales is Jason Borne whose head wound left him with no prior memory although he had exceptional skills, spoke foreign languages, knew martial arts and spy craft and so on. Also it allowed the reader to empathize with someone who killed people for a living.

Fifty First Dates used amnesia to tell an incredible, funny, and yet heart-wrenching love story.

I myself have an amnesia novel in the works. It’s temporary and as it wears off, the reader discovers the apocalyptic world, as fascinating as it appears, isn’t at all what it seams and instead turns into an exciting thriller.

To write the piece, I did extensive research on the brain and memory loss. In my world, it has to be, believable. Basically there are different parts of the brain where memory is stored. Episodic memory involving experiences and events are different than Semantic Memory involving facts and concepts. These two types are stored in separate parts of the brain. This is why Jason Borne doesn’t remember any specific event but he knows at this altitude he can flat out run for thirty minutes and not break a sweat.

This is also why is would not make sense for Thomas of Maze Runner to recall his name but nothing else. Unless of course there was some medical, scientific, magical reasoning for it that James Dashner covers well.

What are some of your favorite amnesia stories?

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.