Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

Mapping the Genre Device

On the plane I've been working on my portion of the next column specficrider and I need to deliver to the Internet Review of Science Fiction. We're talking about the anatomy of an idea. It led me down something of a rabbithole about ideas and story elements, and I've run into something I'm having a lot of trouble characterizing. Since I'm pretty certain we're not going to embed much of this discussion in the column, I thought it might be interesting to toss it out here and see what other folks think.

Basically, I was noodling with the concept that there are three ways of looking at a SF/F story. (For the sake of discussion we'll talk about short stories here, but I'm not sure this is much different from novels. See my earlier comments on that subject .) Let's call it the three axes-of-story.

The first axis-of-story is the story elements themselves. These are the things we can elucidate with a fairly simple critical reading. Classically, in Western fiction, this is a character in a setting with a problem, who makes multiple attempts to solve that problem with increasing stakes for failure (three is the magic number here), before coming to a resolution. Resolution is often followed by validation. I'm cribbing mercilessly from Algis Budrys here, and many other folks have explained this over the years far better than I can, so I'm going to presume this isn't subject to much, if any, argument. Please, suggest refinements or extensions of this in comments.

Story Elements
  • Character

  • Setting

  • Problem

  • Try/Fail Cycle(s)

  • Resolution

  • Validation

The second axis-of-story is craft techniques. These are the things we can elucidate with a fairly simple critique (as opposed to critical) reading. Here we're talking about voice, point-of-view, structure, style -- all the narrative and technical choices that a writer makes to build a story. This list is less well-defined than the previous list, and it evolves over time as a writers' skill improves and their meta-ideas about storytelling change. Just for the sake of some yayas, I'll lay something out here. Again, please suggest refinements or extensions in comments.

Craft Techniques
  • Voice

  • Style

  • Point-of-View

  • Structure

  • Person/Tense

  • Punctuation

  • Paragraphing

So far, so good, though the craft techniques could probably be argued about ad nauseum. That's fine, that's what writers do. As someone once said to me, "You people can talk about commas for an hour." (I don't think it was meant to be praise.) With those two axes-of-story, we can talk about most fiction, achieving the two dimensions of analysis which are often used by writers seeking to improve their own work and understand the work of others.

Here's where I got in trouble. It seems to me in some murky way that in genre fiction there ought to be a third axis-of-story here, a third dimension of thought. Call them genre devices. These are the things which make a genre story what it is, rather than naturalistic fiction. It's quite clear to me this ought to be true, and I think that as both a reader and a writer I have an instinctive grasp of the idea of a genre device, but when I try to outline a list of genre devices, I fail. It's the ultimate Potter Stewart moment.

It then occurs to me that it is precisely this failure to be able to define genre devices which leads to the endless fighting at the barricades about what SF really is, about what fantasy really as, about what the difference between the two is. We don't have a handle on this question as a group or as individuals, so we're all responding to those questions in ways which don't necessarily align well.

Here's what I'm throwing out to the Mighty LJ Brain: what would constitute a list of genre devices which are roughly parallel to the story elements and craft techniques list? Can those devices even be defined? If not, why not?

I've already rejected plot elements as a way to look at it -- ie, "time travel," "epic quest," etc. Maybe that was wrong of me. Likewise looking at subgenres -- ie, "alternate history," "urban dark fantasy." Again, maybe the wrong approach.

But how to approach?

I'm going to keep thinking about this. I'm curious what you think.
Tags: lj, process, writing

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