Thursday, July 23, 2009

Speculative Fiction Writers Must Set Ground Rules for Their Stories

Fantasy, horror and science fiction authors serve their readers best by knowing the rules of the worlds they create.

The old saying is "truth is stranger than fiction," and there is truth to that. Even though fiction, especially speculative fiction, isn't about real things, it must seem so for the reader. Otherwise, the reader will lose interest and will go on to read something else. Writers don't want that. They need to keep their readers.

But how does a writer make things like wizards and ghosts and spaceships seem real? By setting some ground rules for the story the author is writing, and knowing and sticking to those rules.

For example, let's say you are writing a horror story. Our hero locked in a house is being chased by a big, bad monster with gigantic teeth and fur running down it's back. Your monster seems unbeatable. The hero has stabbed the monster, shot it, shoved it down some stairs, beat it over the head with a shovel, all kinds of things. But the monster keeps coming. Eventually, tedium will set in for the reader if this goes on too long. There hasto be a way to defeat this monster. And the hero of our story has to figure out how to do so, but only after many trials and tribulations for building tension and reader sympathy for the character. Finally, the hero figures out the monster chasing him is a werewolf. Oh, where is that gun the hero used earlier? Down in the basement. The hero runs down, grabs the gun and loads it with the only silver bullet he has, a family heirloom left by his great-great-great grandfather who was a Civil War general and had the bullet molded as a memento to mark the end of the war. The hero slams the bullet into the gun, then pops up our monster and BANG! Monster is dead. Totally impossible, you think. Couldn't happen in rule life. But the reader's mind wants to believe this could happen; in fact, the reader's mind needs to find this acceptable to be fully entertained. And how is the reader's mind convinced this story could be real? Because of the rules set down by the author. What rules? Well, rule one is that werewolves can only be killed by silver bullets. In fact, that's probably the most important rule in our little story. But there are plenty of other rules here, too. Where did the silver bullet come from and why does our hero have it? The plausibility of this has to sound rational.

Speculative writers shouldn't have antagonists who are too powerful and seemingly invincible. This is even more important for protagonists. Where's the fun reading about a monster the reader knows can't be defeated no matter what? Where's the fun in reading about a protagonist who passes his or her trials far too easily? It's unrealistic and it's boring. On the flip side, you don't want a hero who fails all the time and a villain who is incompetent all the time.

Striking a balance is what can help your fiction. You can have a bad guy who seems invincible, but somehow the protagonist has to figure out a way to save the day. You want that balance between the good guy and the bad guy of your story. Even if you're writing a tragedy, a tale of woe where the hero fails, there at least has to be the impression that the good guy could have won. Otherwise, the reader won't be interested, and you as a writer won't have an audience for very long.

Knowing the rules of the universes you create can help strike that balance, and draw and keep readers.

1 comment:

Carole McDonnell said...

Amen! Totally agree. -C