Monday, July 6, 2020

Quickies: The Centrality Of Story

     This one is for the “writers” who think all that matters is a profusion of the trappings of their selected genre: ray guns and rocket ships in SF, elves and magic items in fantasy, werewolves, vampires, and zombies in horror, and so forth:

     I do see a lot of scripts where the “message” of the movie is given more importance than the story, and those scripts are predictable and boring. The heart of movie-making is story, no matter the issue you are attempting to address, and if you don’t make the story work, your message will flop anyway. -- Nick Searcy

     Bravo, Mr. Searcy. That needed to be said. But it isn’t just “message” that can deflect the creator from his proper aim.

     I recall a missive I received long ago from an agent. He described a novel he’d been sent in which protagonist “Bart Preston” had holstered his “proton blaster” and set forth in his rocket ship to head the villain off at the Horsehead Nebula. There was more (and equally ludicrous) detail, but that should be enough to clue my Gentle Readers into how that tale had emerged. The writer had taken a piece of inane Western drivel and substituted space-opera paraphernalia for those of the Western genre, hoping to get a foot in the door his Western had previously been denied. Needless to say, it didn’t have the desired effect.

     A worthwhile story is about people changing in response to some problem or problems. It’s why a good book takes time to conceive and to write: The author must live with his protagonists, and often with his antagonists, long enough to feel how they’ll develop in response to the stresses he plans to impose on them. There is no eluding this requirement, or the time it takes to meet it.

     The just-churn-‘em-out types that simply keep pushing mountains of genre gingerbread, without bothering to address character development in a setting that features significant challenges for those characters to surmount, are nothing but hacks. No matter how many books they sell to semi-adolescent readers of whatever age, I will never respect them.


Margaret Ball said...

Well said, Francis! Sadly, it's a lot easier to pick out genre-specific cookies from a book blurb than to identify the small percentage of books that actually tell a good story. Which probably reinforces the trend to serve up lavish helpings of gingerbread with nothing much else.

Back in the days of the dinosaurs, publishers' practice of buying books based on three chapters and an outline produced a lot of books with really good openings that tailed off sadly beginning with Chapter 4.

Those of us who still like story should probably be more diligent about reviewing good ones (looking at myself, here) and making sure the review emphasizes the best features of the book.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Funny you should mention the buy-on-three-chapters practice of ancient days, Margaret. I have a book of essays by various well known SF writers on "The Craft of Science Fiction." It includes an essay by Frederik Pohl, in which he counsels the reader that three chapters is all you should write until you have an advance in hand!

It struck me as strange advice even then. Today it would get you nowhere. But that's all past and gone, now that the direct, unmodulated, un-gatekept connection of writer to reader we call indie has flowered.

Paul Bonneau said...

I don't know, I think proton blasters are pretty cool.

But just to expand slightly on your theme, there is nothing that irritates me more than books (usually in the apocalyptic fiction genre) with protagonists who are fully developed, but antagonists who are caricatures. It's harder to take a book like that seriously.