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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, November 02, 2007

genre science

My mother and I are having weekly meetings about storytelling. She makes lunch for us and for my aunt Jackie, now also retired, then we crack the books. She's hoping I can teach her something about the art of story--and I hope so too.

It's not a planned course. I'm feeling my way along intuitively, trying to pass on things that I think make sense. I feel much doubt, because I wouldn't necessarily wish my own methods on another person (even if my methods finally turn out to work!). And yet, those are the only methods I know at first hand.

Our text is Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Since 1990 I have tried to absorb and apply his ideas to my own writing. As he stresses in the book, he does not provide a formula for how to write stories, but rather lays out the principles for what makes a story good, along with diagnostic tools to help when one's own work is having trouble. When I read Aristotle's Poetics, I saw that McKee is mostly interpreting and adapting Aristotle's ideas to modern storytelling. Which suits me find, since not only is the Poetics a fantastic short course in how stories work, but my own mind naturally gravitates to an Aristotelian orderliness and keenness on accurately identifying first principles.

As McKee says, the first thing you need to do in telling your story is to work out what genre you're in. Are you writing a mystery? A love story? A fantasy? The word genre is related to genus, and I explained it to Mom as being like the species of animal you've got. You need to know whether your story is an ostrich, a crocodile, or a bison, before you can know what its component parts are supposed to be.

Once you know that, you can address the structure of your story--its skeleton. An ostrich skeleton and a crocodile skeleton are not the same. You need to know what it is you're creating. McKee is emphatic that writers need to do personal research into the genre of their story--to find other works in the genre and do their own cross-analysis of them, identifying their parts. What characters and situations are always present? What kinds of settings are used, and how do they affect the action? What are the basic themes or ideas of the stories? McKee says that you should study both successes and failures in your genre, to gain conscious knowledge of its workings--to gain a better knowledge of the genre than your audience subliminally has.

As McKee points out, there is not much good study material out there on genre. Plus, genres themselves keep evolving and combining. We have medieval whodunits and corporate thrillers and sci-fi erotica. As far as I know, a single book, Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, spawned the whole genre of "chick lit" which overran the fiction sections of bookstores like mountain pine beetle. It is (or was) popular because it touched a chord in an audience. It spoke to its readers. If you seek to write chick lit, you would have to study Bridget Jones and other works to find out exactly what makes them tick--why, in other words, they appeal to readers (and presumably first of all to yourself).

Personally, I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of genre. It seems clear to me that the word is applied to different things--to settings, such as Western; to themes, such as "revenge story"; and to styles, such as satire. "Genre science" (if I can call it that) is still at that early stage in which things are still not differentiated clearly, like a big drawer in which socks are mixed in with shirts, neckties, and longjohns. It needs sorting out, and I for one would be interested in helping with that task. I'd like to become a genre scientist.

I was struck when I read Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale by his discovery that the basic structure of the fairy tale is quite invariant, if you look at it deeply enough. I suspect that all our story genres are similar in this respect, and that this invariance must express something deep about how our minds and emotions work. In short: the genres are expressions of our mythology.

Of course, it says something about my nature that whenever I look around me, I see only research projects...

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  • One of the "genres" that has consistently defied definition has been Science Fiction. By the 1970's, most of the writers in the SF community (a rather tight one, socially)gave up trying to define it, or even to give it loose parameters. Most would probably include "Odyssey" in the genre, though I don't know if you thought of it as such when you were writing it.

    By Anonymous Phil Paine, at November 04, 2007 1:34 AM  

  • Thanks for stopping by, Phil.

    I've never thought of The Odyssey as sci-fi, although it did run on the Sci-Fi Channel in the U.S. and on Space: The Imagination Station in Canada (no doubt among other sci-fi outlets). I've always described it as adventure-fantasy. But before fantasy become such a large genre it used to be grouped in with science fiction in bookstores.

    As for science fiction itself, well, maybe the practitioners of a genre are not the best ones to define it...

    By Blogger paulv, at November 04, 2007 12:16 PM  

  • I thought of Odyssey (a show I was very fond of, I must say --- I found your site because I was looking for information about it)--- as "allegorical fantasy" within the "dystopian" tradition, with some elements of satire. The ancestors would be Swift, Anatole France (his "Penguin Island"), Yevgeni Zamyatin, and the wonderful Czech satirist Karel Capek [who invented the word "robot"]. Orwell's "1984" and Huxley's "Brave New World" created plausible future societies that did not violate any logical or scientific principles at the time of writing, so SF writers consider them to be pure science fiction. Odyssey made no attempt to rationalize it's other-worldly component (was it a dream, a parallel universe, what?) so it leaned more to the fantasy/allegory end of the spectrum. But the border has never been clear. Even "hard" SF writers have ventured into that territory when it suited them. Btw, the term "sci-fi" is hated by professional science fiction writers and serious fans of the genre, and never used by them. It was imposed by the media. The term used in the field is "SF".

    I watched Odyssey when it came out, and liked it because it was providing children with an effective anti-authoritarian ethos during a period when they were otherwise being bombarded by conservative and conformist images on television.

    By Anonymous phil@philpaine.com, at November 05, 2007 2:46 PM  

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