Tuesday, October 28, 2008

It has to make sense

Here as a result of this week's work-reading is a tip to all writers and would-be writers of fantasy, spec fic, utopias, dystopias and any other genre or sub-genre that involves creating an imaginary world: the internal logic of the workings of that imaginary world has got to make sense. Causes and effects need to be consistent, because a sequence of causes and effects is what adds up to a narrative, and if your causality is not logical then your whole storyline will fall into disarray and incomprehensibility.

An obvious example: the first question a lively child reader would ask whenever anything goes wrong in the Harry Potter books is 'Why don't they just fix it with magic?' J.K. Rowling goes to great lengths in various places to anticipate this question and answer it: because they're too young, because it's against the rules, because the castle is protected, because the other person is a more powerful witch and so on.

Fantasy is a very popular genre with students of Creative Writing and this question of internal logic in created worlds is where they most often come to grief: either in failing to think fully through the implications of whatever laws and circumstances pertain to their imaginary worlds, or in failing to communicate that logic clearly enough to the reader for their stories to make sense to anyone but themselves. I often get a strong sense, reading Creative Writing theses, that the student is very clear in his or her own mind as to what the rules of this imaginary universe are, but has failed to externalise and articulate them properly in the writing process.

I wonder what the Bronte Sisters would say. One of these days I shall wake them once more from their long sleep.

11 comments:

Ampersand Duck said...

OOOHHHH yes please! I like those gals.

Anonymous said...

Le Guin says something very similar in her book of essays. Lucy Sussex

Penthe said...

Yes indeed. And publishers who publish children's fantasies where everything is resolved because suddenly the main characters have more magic than the witchy villains for no good reason other than that they are children and all children are magical lalalala should be given counselling and a warning. Or sent to that island where annoying people must go.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I've not read LeGuin's essays, but obviously I must.

Penthe, I love the idea of an island where annoying people must go -- is this so that they can all annoy each other and then the rest of us can say 'Good, now you know how I felt.' (Note how I am ranging myself with the non-annoying. Hubris if ever I saw it.)

Word verification: 'spore'. I suppose the odds of it making an actual word would shorten along with the word itself.

Anonymous said...

I think it's the first book of essays, the Wind's Twelve Quarters. But she made it clear she worked out the rules of Earthsea first. Lucy

Kathleen said...

Just a quick comment to say my word verification was: noutings.

Which sounds fittingly Brontesque. I can hear Nelly dourly pronouncing it.

TimT said...

'Noutings' is particularly good - an anagram of Snouting! I think blogger has changed the word verifications lately because they've noticed bloggers enjoy this 'describe my word verification' game. (Mine is soentle).

I enjoy those fantasy books where the making up of deliberately arcane or bizarre/paradoxical rules happens frequently. Presumably this was one of Lewis Carroll's jokes in Alice in Wonderland. I think these books probably bypass to an extent the need for cause-and-effect structure because all the strange events/supernatural occurences happen in passing, and are 'local' rather than 'global' effects if you like. The overall narrative is based upon the appearance/reappearance of certain characters, not the working out of the logic of certain events. But nonsense literature is only one example, and certainly not the most popular or common type of fantasy literature available today.

Pavlov's Cat said...

TimT, I don't suppose you are a devotee of Calvin & Hobbes? They often play Calvinball, which consists entirely of making up the rules as you go along.

The Alice books make an interesting comparison, because Alice is our point of reference to an ordered world, and what a narratologist would call a focaliser: although it's not her actually telling the story, the reader sees it through her eyes. As with Calvinball, the whole point of Wonderland and the land beyond the Looking-Glass is that they make no sense -- but the nonsense is very much by contrast with a world whose rules both Alice and the reader understand and that contrast is where the amusingness lies.

The difference between that and the wholly made-up worlds of spec fic and fantasy is that with the latter, the reader needs a way to make sense of the imaginary world, without any point of contrast and without the help of a hyper-rational little girl in striped stockings.

Sarah said...

It's not just students who have problems with expressing, and then sticking to, the internal laws of their worlds. Some of Anne McCaffrey's recent books have been extremely annoying because she has blithely ignored the ground rules she laid down in her first Pern novels.

Anonymous said...

I should have realised Lucy would bring up Le Guin's work as she utilises a magic rule set that is relatively consistent - every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I think Rowling, on the other hand, plays fast and loose with her character's use of magic. To the point that I kept on thinking, during the last few boks I read: "why doesn't he just...?" and "didn't he use that spell over there so why can't he use it here?" Very jarring.

Anonymous said...

I'm really going to have to fix up my Blogger account someday so I don't keep forgetting to put my name on my comments. The previous one re Le Guin and Rowling was by me.

Perry Middlemiss