“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.