Tue 29 Jul 2014
by Julie Duffy
In this series, we’re taking a ‘back to basics’ look at Genre: what certain genres encompass, what readers look for in a particular genre, how to write well (and terribly) in that genre. We’re talking to writers, editors and publishers to bring you the tools you need to succeed in genre flash fiction.
Science fiction is big. Really big. Both in terms of audience and the many ways you can write fiction and have it called ‘science fiction’. It is also a mature genre, having come of age in the first half of the 20th century. Since then, its vast audience has had time to form strong opinions about what is and is not science fiction.
“Friendships have been forged and broken over the question ‘what is science fiction,’” warns writer Linda Nagata, with her tongue only partly in her cheek.
The good news is that, with such a large and popular genre, there is room for all flavors of story: from Star Wars-style ‘space opera’, to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘hard’ science fiction, to ‘science fantasy’ time travel tales. Then there’s your post-apocalptic, near-future, military and sociological fiction, not to mention, cross-genre, bizarro and slipstream, all of which can end up under the ‘science fiction’ banner.
Is your head spinning yet?
What Are the Basic Requirements for Science Fiction?
Linda Nagata provided us with a good definition of science fiction,
“Loosely, science fiction is a story that involves some speculative or yet-to-be-invented technology.”
She goes on to qualify this: not every story involving gadgets counts as ‘hard’ science fiction.
“If magic or supernatural elements are present, I think of it as fantasy, even if technology is part of the story.”
The Twilight Zone is an example of this. Many stories revolved around technology, aliens or space travel, but there was never a technological ‘answer’ to the story’s puzzle. The mystery was supernatural, and so, while it appeals to the kind of audience that likes science fiction, The Twilight Zone is more properly called ‘fantasy.’
What Readers Want
Again, let’s remember that genre definitions have more to do with ‘helping the audience find stories they like’ than they do with ‘defining your work.’ With a focus on the reader, it’s easier to see how all these sub-genres fit under ‘Science Fiction.’
Science fiction readers tend to be looking for action (physical or mental), a story that challenges assumptions, and stunning, thought-provoking ‘what ifs.’ At the very minimum, says Nagata, readers will;
“…have a curious mind and be open to stories set in worlds that are not outside our front door.”
Most of all, however, readers want stories about interesting people who are facing up to new challenges (or perhaps old ones) in the face of the technology in the story.
How to Squeeze Science Fiction into Flash
In flash fiction, there is very little room to build a realistic world. Genres and sub-genres can help readers make mental shortcuts and understand what to expect.
“A reader has to have some common shared background with the writer in order to understand what he reads,” adds Mark Budman of Vestal Review. “This background comprises the language, the vocabulary, the experience, the culture, the history.”
Of course, relying too much on a genre’s tropes leads to clichés.
“If you’re seriously interested in writing science fiction,” says Linda Nagata, “you need to be aware of [the] diversity, at the least so you’ll know what the clichés are, and also so that you’ll understand the needs of different story markets. So read widely, and read a lot.”
She suggests that, because of the tightness of flash fiction, science fiction flash writers might rely on standard settings — “a present-day laboratory, a space capsule that has lost power, a post-nuclear-apocalypse wasteland—something the reader has seen before and can grasp without much explanation.”
Another way to make room for world-building is suggested by Michael Arnzen, flash fiction author and Professor of English at Seton Hall University.
“Start as close to the end as possible. Perhaps we are just one character decision away from an outcome, or one clue away from solving a mystery.”
Both approaches allow you to spend time following the characters through their emotional journeys.
And, to satisfy a science fiction reader, it’s not enough to throw in a bunch of gizmos and technobabble: the events in the story must make sense. Even in the champion-of-weird sub-genre of “slipstream,” the plot (and the technology) must follow the story’s own internal logic.
The weird is important, but it must make sense. Stay with me—if a writer puts together a story that isn’t coherent, readers won’t be able to get into it. Plant dragons that breathe methane and fly through space? Cool, but make sure it serves the story. Telling us about your plant dragons and then writing a bit of grandma’s apple pie recipe into the story for “weirdness” isn’t going to fly, most of the time.
Just as in any science fiction story, one might say, ‘The science is important, but it must make sense.”
How to Write Science Fiction Badly
As with any genre, the worst crime a writer can commit is to be boring. It’s especially true in science fiction. As E. S. Wynn points out;
“Fans of the genre look for…newness, novelty, voices and perspectives they’ve never heard before.”
The second-worst crime is to unwittingly use clichés that make readers groan. Luckily, this second crime is easily avoided by, as Linda Nagata suggested, reading widely in the genre.
Reading voraciously in your genre also helps you develop a deeper understand of what it means to write in that genre.
“There’s a common misconception,” says Nagata, “that hard science fiction (my specialty) is all about the technology, with little good characterization. That simply isn’t true…the story needs to be about people living in those story worlds and the challenges they face because of the technology around them.”
Without interesting characters facing fascinating challenges, stories in any sub-genre of science fiction flash will fail.
As for the how to end a science fiction flash piece, Mark Budman cautions against “moralizing, clichés, puns for the sake of puns or poorly-executed jokes.”
And with that, I’ll resist the temptation to end this on a pun and simply invite you back next month for the next in our series on Genre.