Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

Transferability of Genre Techniques

james_nicoll recently asked:

And a follow up question for published authors

Specifically the ones who write in multiple genres and in particular mystery, SF and fantasy: how easily do you find the techniques and ways of thinking transfer from one to another?

[Clarification: for the purposes of this question, please treat SF and fantasy as different genres]

I liked the question so much I wanted to jump it to a blog post of my own, but then life got in the way. So once more I arrive tardy to the party.

This question has two answers for me. The first is to say he's asking the wrong question. Which is to say, when I'm working on a story or novel, I don't concern myself with whether it's SF or fantasy. I tell the story I want to tell, the way it seems to me best to tell it, then sort out the genre question post facto, as a marketing issue. casacorona has described Mainspring as science fantasy. It has explicit fantasy elements, but is set in a word which is highly mechanist, with a whopping great packing of steampunk tropes.

In the writing process, there is no conscious distinction for me in techniques between genres, because there is no conscious distinction between genres.

The second answer is to speak a bit more narrowly to what James asked. This is in effect from my post facto perspective. For example, the world building elements of fantasy and SF can be viewed somewhat differently.

In Mainspring, there are a number of factors which make no sense science fictionally. The earth orbits the sun on a brass track. That track is twenty miles wide, about twenty miles deep, and the size of the Earth's orbit. That much metallic tonnage in deep space would have gravitational effects, and I don't even want to think about thermal expansion. By the time I fixed all that, I'd have Ringworld. Not a bad place to end up, but Larry Niven already did it far better than I ever could.

So I have the element of world building by fiat as an example of fantasy, where the author at some point says, "well, that's just the way it is". As a practical matter that happens a lot in SF, but SF authors have to at least pay court to the notion of logical premise.

On the other hand, between SF and fantasy there is a vast amount of transferability of Second World story telling techniques. The little rhetorical and descriptive tricks that establish setting and character -- Tolkein's exemplar of "the green sun" being practically the reference case -- work well on all ends of the SF/F spectrum. Likewise the "sensawunda" techniques which an important part of the "reader cookies" for both genres.

Another congruency between SF and fantasy is the structure of the second arc. To my thinking, all genre stories have at least two arcs. There's the nominal plot arc, which pretty much any story in the Western tradition usually has in some recognizable form. Then there's the genre arc. In romance, that's the course of the relationship. In erotica, it's the course of the sexual encounter. In mystery, it's the detective work. In both SF and fantasy, the second arc is about that Second World experience. (Note in this model that a story can have more than two arcs, just as it can be seen to fit in more than one genre.)

Anyway, my first reactions to james_nicoll's question. Your thoughts?
Tags: lj, process, writing

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