Travels in Genre Fiction (Part II – Why Less is Once Again More, Why Tolkien Needs his Poems and What You Can Learn From the Greeks)

Previously in this series I talked about the importance of moderation and restraint in writing a SF or fantasy novel. I touched on the ideas of “absurdist” genre fiction, and why they run the risk of obscuring or actively harming the created world and the narrative being written. This led on to raising the question of whether a plethora of genre elements are key to genre fiction’s success, or whether it’s better to deploy them more carefully to embellish and improve a story. My view is that a work of genre fiction should have precisely as many genre elements as are needed to tell its story; treat them as tools to be deployed as needed, rather than things that need to be included without fail.

It sounds from this that I’m advocating a very ascetic and moderate kind of genre fiction, but that’s not true. It is the difference between a novel which has fantastical elements that improve the plot, and a novel where the plot is trying to make itself known through the flashy elements. The plot should not be the dull little thing that the author is actively working to hide within a cloud of dragons and magic. It should be front and centre. A novel should be proud of its plot; or more accurately its narrative.

How does this apply on a fundamental level then? The answer is authors should not only show not tell but really consider not showing at all if it’s not relevant. Tolkein uses his poems and mythological interludes in The Lord of the Rings to make a point, or when they are relevant to the narrative. It’s a form of exposition and giving the impression of a wider world with history that is done so when characters would ordinarily do it. And the presence also of drinking songs and folk tunes alongside grand epics makes it believable. You can imagine characters in a vaguely medieval world having a strong oral folkloric tradition. Whether or not you like them is immaterial; their presence within the text is well-justified and so the novel remains internally consistent.

By contrast, other works of genre fiction simply throw swathes of poetry or prophecy or legend at the reader as chapter headings or long monologues to the waiting heroes (a block of italic text labelled Book of [Name] for example) to try and create the illusion of a well-developed world. But this fails because it’s not naturally incorporated into the narrative and doesn’t often improve it. It’s feeding the reader exposition in a way that can’t easily be fitted into the plot, which in my view is a weakness of an author. Any exposition vital to the plot should be conveyed in a way that doesn’t break the flow of the prose, and doesn’t make itself obvious as such. If this means that there isn’t a good position to throw in an epic genealogy, or information about the great history of a city, then don’t do it. Having a character supposedly of the setting need fundamental elements of it explained to him in order to inform the reader is a sign of a weak setting. Nothing breaks narrative more than someone who’s supposedly lived in this fictional world all his life go “Hmm, what’s an X again?” – it is sinking into the realm of a video game tutorial and making it entirely clear that that character is sitting in for the reader, the entire purpose of the scene to provide a lesson. Learning a setting’s details by context and through realistic character interactions is always going to be superior. Have some faith in the reader’s capacity to fill in the gaps, rather than spelling everything out.

This goes double for describing technology. Someone who’s grown up using lasers or spaceships won’t need that explained to them. So how, you may ask, does one inform the reader? Don’t. As long as a reader knows what something does, they don’t very often need to know how or why unless that’s relevant to the plot. A fetishistic level of description of the innards of some futuristic machine is only necessary or interesting to read if it directly relates to the plot. If a character will need to know it to make the story work, then it’s worth including. Otherwise it almost certainly isn’t.

Perhaps I’m being unusual here in not wanting painstakingly fleshed-out worlds; indeed I do really enjoy the act of worldbuilding so this almost seems like a selfish “do as I say not as I do” pronouncement; but there’s a difference between enjoying writing this stuff and assuming people want to read it. There’s a theory of writing that says cut the things you like the most because they probably aren’t what your readers will like. I broadly agree with this. When I was writing my novel I filled notebooks with information about command structures, mock-science on how weapons worked, what uniforms looked like in incredible detail and more. Very little of this, though, went into the book itself. Knowing how the laser rifle was supposed to work was useful to me because it meant every time I described it I was working from the same baseline. Taking time from the plot to explain to the reader how it works if it’s not going to be important later achieves nothing. Treat worldbuilding as a sort of Chekov’s Gun In Action; if you mention something in detail, make it relevant to the plot. Don’t throw stuff at the reader because you found it interesting.

So how do the good old Greeks fit in with all this? I’ll point to Greek tragedy, in which some jolly nasty stuff happens offstage. All the action in a Greek play is offstage, and there’s a lesson to be learned from this. It’s a simple one. The audience’s imaginings will always be better than anything you describe and there’s often more to learn from how characters react to something that has happened than from plainly depicting it. If you want to establish a villain as evil, rather than have him go about killing people, have the protagonists come across the effects of that; maybe not even the bodies, or anything as obviously manipulative as that. But seeing how the main viewpoint characters respond to the actions of others is sometimes better than switching viewpoint to the villain, or another faction, just to make a point about the setting. So not so much about the Greeks themselves, but there’s something to be learned from them; the Greek tragedies epitomised showing over telling by not showing anything at all. They credited the audience with being able to fill in the gaps and ultimately were focused on the effects of actions rather than the actions themselves.

I don’t mean to say this is the be all and end all of writing good genre fiction; in literature, it’s impossible to lay down hard-and-fast rules. But at the same time the things I’m talking about here are ways to make a genre novel stand out as doing something really interesting; consider this article a response to Part I. In Part I I talked about why a superflux of exposition and gimmickry can detract from a good plot. Here I’m trying to explain how to find the right balance between genre elements and narrative.

I hope you’ll join me in the future for Part III, in which I continue looking at ways in which genre fiction can stand out from the crowd and really make a reader sit up and pay attention; and how that’s not always a result of overloading it with content.


One comment

  1. Digibro

    Very nice points. There are fantasy readers who do get really into the intensive world-building and stuff, but you know what? That’s what supplementary material is for. Put it in the back of the book, or in a guide online or something. Because those of us who don’t give a damn are just gonna get bored, and those who do give a damn will go read the supplementary material.

    I admittedly am not one for “showing not telling,” though I also don’t write genre fiction. I also don’t expect a lot of people to enjoy my writing. I write into a very narrow niche of bizarre, diatribe-driven stories with little in the way of sensory detail. But I have similar reasoning behind it: I have faith in the reader’s imagination. If I have a character, say, walk into a bedroom, I can count on the reader’s experience with bedrooms to get by on just a couple of basic descriptors (it’s big, there’s a bed (if the bed is necessary to the scene)). This probably makes me a “bad writer” but it’s just the writing style that is interesting to me.

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