theory & meta

The Dulcet Tones of Genre Convention

I’ve been squirreling away blogpost seeds for ages, and it occurred to me that there’s no point in hoarding them if I never use them.

So! Today was prompted by an io9 article from, oh, July 15th, 2013. Ahem.

In this io9 article entitled ‘What does it mean when people say your story’s “tone” is wrong?’, there’s a fairly good breakdown of what tone even is. The definition it settles on is something along the lines of the mix of emotion, atmosphere, genre convention, authorial voice and style that creates the experiential landscape of the prose. More or less. The author, Anders, relates the idea of tone to music (logically enough), and how the whole of a musical piece and the resultant emotional impact is dependent on the sum of its mechanical parts. That’s a fairly good definition of tone, as far as trying to define something so subjective as to how a particular piece of art might feel to an audience.

To put it even more simply: Tone is the gestalt of how a writer conveys events and experiences.

Tone is also a tool, which is what I think the io9 article touches on but doesn’t necessarily drive home. It’s not something that just sort of happens as a result of style/voice/etc. and it’s something you can manipulate. In conveying ideas while aiming for a specific tone, a writer can influence a reader towards emotion, towards expectation, and play with different kinds of tension, among other things. Most writer’s tools are also fractal-like, where each component part is made up of different, other tools, which are made up of others, which are made up of others and so on from deciding who your main character has to be to tell the story you want all the way down to the actual, physical arrangement of words on a page. Even just coloring text or blacking out a page can have an effect on the tone, like in House of Leaves or the Series of Unfortunate events, respectively. Tone is no exception, and I consider it one of the more abstract tools a writer can utilize, which means there’s an infinite fractal contained inside.

So. If tone is a megatool and each subtool consists of a set of choices in how to present ideas, then ultimately tone becomes a matter of tiny choices. And following the idea of choice, even a short list off possible choices reads like the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketch, where every iteration has a new item to consider. For example, amongst our weaponry (with respect to tone), there’s the choice of diction and the choice of structure and the choice what to describe (out of all the possibilities) and the choice of whose opinion the narrative is reinforcing and the choice of when to reveal twists and the choice of when to increase tension and the choice of how long or short sentences are and and and…

If ‘possible choices that impact the tone of a story’ were turtles, it’s turtles all the way down.

So, sometimes a writer just hasn’t considered enough turtles, simply through lack of practical experience, and the tone of a work will reflect that. The tone could be ‘wrong’, as in the io9 article above, or it could simply be bland. A just-the-facts-ma’am mechanical tone that is otherwise absolutely correct with respect to the basic choices of grammar, syntax, and idea conveyance can make an otherwise exciting story very boring. Boring is the kiss of death. It’s this complete lack of tone, rather than a work having the wrong tone, that I consider the reason why most people’s work ends up being passed over, be it fanfiction or a self-published work trying to stand out from the crowd or a manuscript angling to be traditionally published out on query.

And, even better, sometimes in trying to tackle a change in tone a writer (like me) will discover that there are way, way too many turtles. I actually consider ‘too many turtles’ a type of writer’s block that, when confronted with the sheer gonzo number of choices to be made when working with tone, where literally every word can be deliberately placed to provide a certain effect, a writer can get blocked by something between ‘analysis paralysis’, ‘choice overload’, and ‘tyranny of small decisions’, where there are simply too many decisions to make, too many options for each decision, and each of decision influences the whole on a chaos theory level where even a tiny change might propagate to fundamentally alter the entire final product. Yikes.

Insert genre.

The io9 article linked above points out that genres all have their own distinct tone, whether it’s dark or light or sexy or suspenseful or epic or something else entirely, and that reading in your preferred genre is the best way to absorb the tone. I agree, and in spades, because what a writer learns from absorbing the tone of a particular genre is all the myriad different genre conventions that form that genre. Genre convention makes certain choices in structure and how for you, which feeds into tone. With that, genre becomes a powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox, because its conventions break your turtles into manageable hordes.

For the most basic of basic examples, convention for a book in the romance genre is that the conflict with be romantic in nature. If the writer’s genre of choice is romance, this gives a boundary and a framework, limiting the number of turtles they have to wrangle to ‘how to write a specifically romantic conflict’. The terms are set, and it’s a narrow enough area that it gives somewhere to grip in the attempt to gain mastery over the form. The end goal is defined (these idiots fall in love), the conflict is defined (these idiots have hang-ups that prevent them from falling in love), and the rest is nuance and detail and complication that makes each romance unique. Tone, here, will end up having elements of suspense, angst, and interpersonal tension. It will feel like a romance novel.

In this particular example, genre defines tone. Tone, however, can also turn around define genre conventions. If you want something to encourage a lot of tension and have a very action-oriented sort of tone, you can put a time limit on it (race-the-clock conventions in spy thrillers), or have the story build up to a do-or-die event (sports and heist stories), or have the stakes be astronomical (superhero and most fantasy). You can make decisions about what genre you want to utilize by examining what sort of tone would be ideal for your story, reading within a genre that has that tone, and stealing the conventions–or, more precisely, the techniques that those conventions are made of. There’s nothing that says a writer can’t make use of other people’s turtles to help create something entirely their own.

Meandering aside, I just want reiterate that tone and genre (and genre’s ever-so-useful genre conventions) are all tools to tailor a reader’s experience. I know I’m repeating myself, but this cannot be stated strongly enough. I think, too often, that there can be a sense that tone (and to some extent genre) is something that simply arises from the process of bringing a bookbaby into the world. Tone is a tool! If someone tells you your tone is wrong, or it’s bland and your writing is mechanical, ask yourself: what tone am I aiming for? Hopefully that’s a question that will give you ideas of what sort of turtles you want to be looking for.

Good luck with your tones, and happy turtle hunting!

Sketching Science

This morning, I stumbled across this post on io9: Yes, It Matters If The Science In Your Science Fiction Story Is Accurate.

It’s an interesting read, if a bit abbreviated on the subject, and it links to another article internally that it quotes. You can read that one here at the Berkeley Science Review, or find the link in the io9 article if you’re so inclined.

The general theme of both of them is that making sure the science is as accurate as possible is actually more about how far you can stretch the suspension of disbelief before it snaps. It’s about plausibility, rather than accuracy. It’s part of the idea of verisimilitude, of faking it just enough to get across the point and the purpose without wading in and showing off how very little you actually understand.

The idea of verisimilitude is actually something trained into me through my years in theatre, because it is very much understood that you’re not going to make an exact replica of… pretty much literally everything. It’s all suggestions. I’m going to suggest a doorway by putting a frame downstage and letting you assume that the house has four walls. It’s putting a boat on wheels and attaching it to a rope and giving your actor an oar to play with while you drag them from left to right. It’s not accurate, it’s the suggestion of accuracy. There’s an artistry to providing just enough detail, in just the right ways that makes the audience buy in.

And part of why that works, especially in science fiction is a part of a quote from the end of the Berkeley article that says:

Science fiction merely takes the variables that we know to be important, changes the values a little, and sees what stories and relationships are important to that believable, but mutated, world. – David Litt

It’s an over-broad generalization, unfortunately, but it does say why science fiction works: when done right, it’s the suggestion and support of various aspects of the story that make them real enough to be plausible. Yes, it’s about tweaking details, but more it’s about following the science to its furthest logical conclusions.

And – to elaborate somewhat in a different direction, this actually reminds me about how similar Science Fiction and Fantasy are as genres. At their hearts, they’re both about presenting the (currently) impossible or (currently) improbable, grabbing firmly ahold, and running with it as far as you can, all in service to the type of story you want to tell. Sometimes that story is about how the scientific or fantastical element facilitates or complicates the story you’re trying to tell, and sometimes it’s simply about the impact that element has on humanity (or the society upon which you’ve inflicted your story).

The thing is – and I think this is absolutely missing from both of the linked articles above – you can’t just slap odd or unique or bleeding-edge and experimental science into your story and expect the whole thing to hang together. Part of the underlying reason why verisimilitude and plausible suggestion even works is because you commit to building the foundation for it within your story, just as you commit to exploring the idea to its full limits.

(Side note: there is actually a difference between novel-length scifi and short-story scifi in this. Novel length absolutely needs foundation and that’s where most of the length comes from. In scifi shorts, there’s only really time to run with one idea, so the commitment to the idea becomes the story center.)

Here’s the thing, though, even a very ‘scientifically accurate’ story can fall flat on its face if the narrative, the characters, the world-building and all the rest aren’t committed to support of the science. If there’s no foundation, if there’s no story-support for the fact that this thing is happening and it’s real for the purposes of the world inhabitants, then everything falls apart. It’s a lesson learned when writing the fantasy genre, where world-coherency and whatever fantastic element you’re trying to sell lives or dies by how well you set it up.

Just because a thing is ‘real’ in a scientifically objective sense doesn’t mean you can be any less lazy with the set up. For example, Interstellar’s ending comes to mind. I won’t spoil it for those that haven’t seen it, but the ending and the events of it are simply not supported by the narrative at all. Things happen, and even if they’re based (possibly vaguely) off of prevailing scientific theory, there’s no hint in the narrative that the science parts are anything but made up whole-cloth. If it were billed as a fantasy story, all of those hard-core into the genre would be vocal about how poorly the setup was executed. As it was, even though the end veered off into the fantastical, there was still talk about how accurate the movie was with respect to the science portrayed.

To be a proper science fiction writer, you don’t need to be an expert in the field, but you do need to be able to fake it for an audience so that even someone relatively well versed in scientific theory would nod along and buy in. (And possibly launch into an in-depth analysis of the science with way more expertise than I could ever muster, which is honestly one of the best things about being a writer. I could listen to people enthuse over their passions all day.) The point is that you’re mocking up a house with painted flats, and you’re using eyebrows to give otherwise blank-faced robots emotion. You have to understand what you’re suggesting enough to convey it, but in the end it’s all about handing your audience their bag of twos and waiting for them to combine them into fours. The twos, however, need to be solid enough–plausible enough–that not only do they support your climactic idea or central conceit, but also that it’s clear to the audience what they’re even for.

Time Travails

So I’m sort of shin-deep in meta for Station, and besides the ending (it’s… incorrect and I need a new one), I’ve also been wrestling with the time travel aspect. Time travel is very tricky in novels, because it’s very easy to do it wrong. Not wrong in that the theory is wrong (though it often is), but that it’s used wrong. Often, there will be a fatal flaw or a plot hole regarding it, a reason why it the time travel element didn’t work. I think it ends up that often, any piece of media that grapples with time travel starts to come with not just the suspension of disbelief that the method of time travel actually works, but also that the theory of the time travel is also solid.

And, friends, there are a lot of theories. Just take a look at the Time Travel page on TVTropes, for starters.

Side note: I’m linking TVTropes for the simple reason that, while scifi is rooted in scientific advances, time travel is one of the topics where writing fiction about it is more about perception of time and interrogating the meta-narratives and tropes permeate our media than, uh, science. A lot of writing about time travel deals with the concept of an immutable history, or how cause-and-effect can be unpredictable (ala the butterfly effect), etc. It talks about what would happen if we had time travel and handwaves the how.

I’m, personally, very interested in the conceptual underpinnings of how to represent time travel. Not necessarily delving into strictly how, because prevalent scientific theory involves a lot of quantum theory and is very hard to actually explain to people reading your adventure scifi novel, but into how time is viewed by the characters. Again, the ‘how it’s viewed’ throws back to fate, and just how static is time, really, and how do we as people finally learning to manipulate the 4th dimension even deal with that ability.

What struck me as interesting, is that very many time travel stories treat time as a static series of cause and effect. If you’ll look at the tropes, you’ve got ‘Stable Time Loop’ and ‘Can’t Change The Past’ as two very prominent ones. That, and there is also this idea posited in the more scientific areas of time travel study that if you change time, then it will have always been that way and all memories will be modified to match.

Fun sidenote: this memory modification is a little like the whole Berenstein Bears vs. Berenstain Bears thing. I distinctly remember BerenstEin bears growing up, but it’s always been BerenstAin. It’s a neat little phenomena that happens more than in just this sort of thing, but it’s a useful idea to steal if you want to play with this idea of ‘change one thing, change all things’ of time. I am certain I simply read it wrong when I was kid (I did that a lot, like I have a hard time spelling binary and partition because I very much read them wrong.), but the possible beliefs of how and why this phenomena occurs is absolutely something you can play with as a writer. Why do some of us remember these sorts of things objectively wrong? You can play the what-if game all day with that kind of question. What if it’s a simple memory fallacy, but it’s indicative of a broader human stubbornness against being wrong and to what lengths can that be taken? What if some of us are some of us more immune to timeline changes than others? What if the ones who remember it ‘wrong’ were part of a different AU that was spliced with ours somehow? What if this Mandela Effect is part of the Many Interacting Worlds (MIW) theory? The possibilities are endless.

Right! Ahem! Back on track. We were at static time and the idea that any ‘change’ to spacetime will propagate, and that those living within the spacetime frame will have no idea there was a change. I would like to further explore the idea that spacetime is a static ‘object’, which means research. A lot of prior media treats history and future as static. See TV Tropes above.

But most (not all, but most) media stops there.

To that end, I’ve been investigating the mapping of four-dimensional objects upon three-dimensional space, like I’ve found here. I’ve also taken a peek at the book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, which is remembered (thanks to Einstein) more for describing how 3d objects look to those living within 2d space than for it’s social satire, but both sources describe how a more-dimensional object can be viewed in a less-dimensioned space by utilizing time.

I’m only at the start of my investigations, but the idea is that to static 2d space, time is the 3rd dimension, and to static 3d space, time is the fourth dimension. Which leads me to ask: if 4d space is ‘static’ and time is the 5th dimension, what does that look like and how can I use it? And if I decide that static 4d space is actually spacetime like I mentioned above (in a way that uses an entirely different set of assumptions) then what does that look like and how can I use it?

In ‘how do I use it’, I am basically exploring how I represent a narrative sense of “five dimensions” (very much quote-unquote here, this is an adventure novel at heart) while only have the words to project four of them to the reader. I don’t even get pictures to help.

And – as a crucial follow-up question: can I get away with using ‘time’ twice?

Decisions Decisions 1

There is something to be said for pulling as far back from your project as you can and taking a good, hard look at the metanarratives and themes incorporated into the most stripped down version of the story.

The original version of the story that I’m deconstructing was written in 2012, and despite the fact it was only now just barely 3 years ago, the change in my writing style and baseline assumptions is marked. Some of the decisions I made subconsciously I have needed to re-examine, to tease apart and consider their guts. I’ve discarded some major elements already and my conceptualization of just who the main character actually is has radically shifted.

However, some stuff that I’ve examined I’ve decided to keep, and I think the why is just as interesting as how it’s going to be used in my novel. For example, here are a couple of the questions that my examination of Station has brought to light:


Q: What commentary does it have that chose a very Cold War version of an negative future, of a blasted and razed planet, rather than the modern negative futures which are predominantly dystopian?

A: My central idea is that this is a society frozen in time, literally and figuratively.

Important because:

The type of apocalypse chosen for a work of science fiction is influenced by all sorts of things, and mine is by far an away affected by the 80s. lot of the written scifi I cut my teeth on was 70s and 80s stuff, plus scifi television operating on vanishingly small budgets. Other planets, even ones with life on them, look like dusty, soundstages full of foam rocks, or like quarries in Wales, or like the uncomplicated interiors of spaceships where the walls are all sheet metal or painted flats. My mental image of the future is theatrical, and where it’s not, I am predisposed to view far off planets as devoid of life, looking far more like the images sent back by Curiosity from Mars. So, from the outset, this other planet I’m creating began life as a barren, radioactive world.

So that’s where I started, mostly subconsciously, in building a world where the last remnants of the population have been forced underground to scrabble for vanishing resources.

I’m choosing to keep this construction, though, because it IS a Cold War fear.

In contrast: There’s a trend right now in apocalyptic science fiction that it’s going to be a massive natural disaster that kills us, or we will be deliberately murdered by our creations spun wildly out of our control by our own abuses (okay, that one’s not new). It’s indicative of how much more we’re connected and how much faster we can communicate globally, that fears that our failures will cause widespread destruction in the form of the inexorable power of the elements. It’s the sea levels rising, and cities sinking. It’s about earthquakes and pandemics and the inability to out-science crop blight or nuclear winter or just straight-up meteors falling from the heavens. The predominant theme to a lot of the more modern apocalyptic scenarios is ‘this is us, we screwed up, it’s our fault and now things are irreparable and wildly beyond our control and it might have actually snuck up on us while we weren’t paying close enough attention.’

For the sense of Cold War destruction, on the other hand, in this idea of an irradiated planet wracked by war, it’s tied up into fear of the other guy, of annihilation at the push of the button the moment that the factions become unbalanced and the whole game board tilts and everyone’s dumped off. It’s helpless fear that somewhere, someone might nudge something out of place and all you’ll be able to do is put on your sunglasses and sit on the porch to watch the fireworks as your planet flares into ashes one metropolis at a time. It’s the idea that action (stepping forward OR stepping back) is the doom of the human race, and that we’re two minutes to midnight.

While this concept of aggressive tension is, absolutely, relevant to today (the doomsday clock is at 5 minutes to midnight, updated 2014 if you believe wikipedia), the global narrative has changed. Stories attempting to avert apocalypse or even (on a smaller scale) citywide disaster, are not about stealing the codes for nuclear missiles so that Enemy Nation can bomb Some Capitol, but about averting terrorist plots of mass murder. And the plots are not about winning any sort of war, it’s about destroying people because ideological reasons, or about much more personal greed or power. Even nuclear threats and international power dynamics are couched in terms of terrorism rather than superpowers at odds.

Of course there are exceptions, there are always exceptions, and what I’m describing is very much Western-centric. The narrative has had to change, especially for the US, for various reasons. What I’m driving at, however, is that I want to use the idea that mutually assured destruction is deeply reactionary. It arguably freezes escalation and – at the same time – it also freezes deescalation.

So, in my choice to use this type of apocalypse, I become most interested in one primary question: what happens when deescalation (the usual better choice) also assures destruction?


And moving on…


Q: What sort of idea am I exploring by placing emphasis on toxic responsibility?

A: Even if someone is doing what they feel is right, is honorable, or is the responsible thing, they can become a worse version of themselves if the environment (or any other factor) is toxic.

Important because:

Even though you’re the person who should have the resources, the skills, and the experience to accomplish something, you could still be exactly the wrong person for the job. Responsibility, depending on what it is, hits different people in many different ways, and not just responsibility. Toxic factors – relationships, environments, expectations – can also warp the efforts and emotions of someone who is trying the best they can.

The choice of what to do with those efforts and emotions, in a toxic environment, is very much indicative of what sort of person the character is. It’s an offshoot of a trope, actually, the one where pain or fear will reveal the true nature of a person. A toxic environment, however, isn’t quite pain – at least not physical. It’s also not quite fear – at least not in a direct sense.

Taking someone out of a toxic environment (or leaving them in because of circumstance) can have a profound effect, and not even the nature vs. nurture sort of way. I’m talking about how adults, with all of their unique scars, can respond to these environments when introduced to them late in life.

This is a fascinating subject to me and to be honest I don’t have a lot of answers yet. This is a newer question and I’m still exploring it. (That’s also why this elaboration is much shorter.)


Moving on once more, what I’m saying is that there a lot of things I added to the original version of the book that have further-reaching implications that I’d previously understood. I’m rather glad that I’m doing this now as opposed to after I’d finished this draft.