Six impossible things

Eight million or so

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” –The Naked City by Malvin Wald

The thing about those eight million stories is, they’re all different from each other. And trying to make them be the same is a mistake.

This is something that a lot of people – readers, writers, and editors alike – tend to forget a lot. In online blogs and forums, in writing workshops, in how-to-write books, in reviews and reader discussions and recommendation lists, you find comments that boil down to the same thing: do it this way, not that way; do this kind of thing, not that kind.

These recommendations are particularly insidious – and confusing – when they focus on one specific aspect of storytelling to the exclusion of everything else. Because while characterization, plot, and worldbuilding are important to all stories, the balance among them does not need to be the same for all stories.

What set me off on this was a rant I read recently from a reader who disliked science fiction because it was “too technical” and didn’t pay enough attention to characterization to suit that particular reader. There were some good points made, but by the end of the rant I was left wondering why on earth this person wanted to read SF at all; it seemed to me that his/her taste would be better suited by mainstream or literary fiction.

The gadget story and the idea story have been staples of science fiction from the very beginning, and yes, in many (though not all) cases, doing justice to the worldbuilding, the idea, and the extrapolation may not leave enough room for the author to do detailed, nuanced, in-depth characterization (especially in a short story). Obviously, if you demand detailed, nuanced, in-depth characterization in your stories, you won’t find these stories as satisfying as less idea-heavy stories that use the extra space for characterization.

But there are plenty of readers for whom the in-depth characterization that the ranting reader loved is something that gets in the way of the stuff they love – the ideas and extrapolation and worldbuilding. Or the slam-bang action plot.

What I don’t get is why the plot-lovers and the action-lovers and the idea- and gadget-lovers can’t happily read the action-plot books and the idea-centered books, while the character-loving readers read the character-centered books. Instead, you see people ranting at each other because “science fiction needs to return to its roots in hard-science-based stories because science is what real science fiction is about” or “science fiction needs to pay more attention to character arcs because characters are what makes a story satisfying.”

From where I sit, these statements are equally nonsensical. What makes a story satisfying to that second reader is the character arc, but quite obviously, what makes the story satisfying to the first reader are the ideas and the scientific extrapolation, the “gosh-wow” factor. Or, to restate a writing truism, you can’t please everyone.

This debate has been going on for decades, but I think it’s entering a new phase. The advent of the Internet and the growth of ebooks makes it possible (not easy; possible) for work to find an audience even if it is not “commercially viable” (i.e., that won’t make enough money to be worth the time of a major publishing house). That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Internet also makes it possible for a small number of readers with decided opinions about what constitutes “good” books or “real” science fiction to browbeat authors and especially would-be authors into believing that whatever standard they’ve set is the One True Way, and that they can’t write without doing X (whether X is hard-sf developed ideas, character arcs, action-centered plots, or whatever).

Ideally, of course, one would have it all: ideas and worldbuilding and plot and character growth and a hero’s journey and chocolate cake with ice cream and sprinkles. But sometimes, that’s not the story you’re telling, and something has to be left at the bare minimum standard. Or to put it another way, every story has to have as much plot, as much background, as much characterization, as much symbolism, as much dialog, as much action, as much description, and as much of every other possible story element as that story needs. And sometime, a story doesn’t need much of one element at all.

Putting in things – even really basic story elements – that a story doesn’t need is a good way of ending up with a jumbled mess that nobody will enjoy reading. Figuring out exactly what things a particular story needs and doesn’t need is, of course, not easy. A lot of it is a matter of practice and taste, and chipping away every part of the stone block that isn’t an elephant (or a duck, or whatever it is one is carving).

There are hundreds of SF novels published every year; why insist that all of them do the same things in the same way? I don’t see any value in trying to turn the eight million stories into eight million versions of the same story. It kind of defeats the purpose of having eight million stories in the first place.

  1. Without agreeing with their argument, I think, perhaps, one way to look at it is to pretend their complaint is thus: “It’s too hard to find the kind of story I want to read.”

    Such readers have evidently not learned good filtering mechanisms that line up well with their tastes. We could pity them.

  2. I’m glad everyone likes different stories, because that leaves me free to write the kinds of stories I like. It’s annoying when someone expects you to write a certain way (like my mother, who can’t see any merit in what I write because it’s not literary fiction, and in her opinion, I have one too many dragons). This world would be boring if we all wrote and read the same thing.

  3. Perhaps what we need is more information about what is in the books. More gatekeepers perhaps to give us third-party opinions. It’s hard to keep a philosophic view the umpteenth time you’ve tried a book and found it was not what you like because there’s insufficient info for anyone to filter.

  4. Possibly Pat’s reader is someone whose nephew keeps pushing Star Trek novels at her.

  5. This reminds me of the penchant of the Disney corporation to be unable to conceive of a story being exciting without a scene in which the main characters are being menaced by a raging waterfall. So whichever story they adapted for the screen, they dragged in a waterfall scene by hook or by crook. “Winnie-the-Pooh”? Waterfall scene. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”? Waterfall scene. Whatever happened to “variety is the spice of life”?
    And @Tiana Smith, please keep writing about dragons. Literary fiction is boring (doesn’t everyone know that?).

  6. On a completely different tangent, are there any chances that the Enchanted Forest Chronicles or any of your other books are going to go to ebook format? I have the original books, but I’d love to be able to read them on my Kindle. I haven’t bought a proper book in ages.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,