Friday, February 7, 2014

What Is Science Fiction and What Is Fantasy?

First, what is STORY? 

A story tells of characters with a problem in search of a solution. Speculative fiction, in that sense, is like any other fiction. It must have a plot, which is motivated action: the hero is driven by a purpose.


Marion Zimmer Bradley explains motivated action as, “Joe gets his ass caught in a bear trap and tries like hell to get it out.” Dean Koontz provides a more detailed view of story structure: “The hero has a serious problem (or something he wants very badly). He tries to solve his problem (or attain his goal) but plunges deeper into difficulties and danger. His stumbling blocks arise logically from his efforts to find a solution. His troubles increase monumentally. Finally, forced by harsh circumstances to discover a truth about himself or the world, he is enabled to solve his problem or attain his goal (or fail dramatically).”

Without these elements, it’s not a story, but just a vignette—a “slice of life,” where nothing much happens. Or, it’s a case history, a story in which the issue—date rape, drug abuse, spousal battering, terrorism—is more important than the people it happens to. One avoids case histories by writing about particular people; real people, not stereotypes. The character must act for her own reasons, not the needs of the story or the author’s message.

The key to the definition of science fiction is that the problem would not happen at all except for the science context and content. That is, some aspect of technology, or a future or alien environment or society, challenges the characters. If you take these central aspects out of the story, you don’t have a science fiction story.
This is very close to the definition of a fantasy story, where characters face some aspect of the supernatural, or a magical society, or environment. Magic must be coped with.
 When a new technology or magic is developed, people have to deal with the unintended consequences. These unforeseen ramifications make science fiction and fantasy humorous or sobering.

The Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Fantasy stories contain elements that are known to be impossible (for example, a magic watch that stops time, enabling the hero to walk through a “time-frozen” world). Science fiction contains elements that might be possible—the technologies don’t violate the known laws of physics.

If your hero gains the power to read minds through a magical incantation, or by allowing a female wizard to inhabit the left half of his body, that story is fantasy. But if the power to read minds comes from evolutionary mutation, or from genetic engineering, or computer-brain interfaces, then it’s not magic—it is perhaps possible—and the story is science fiction.

So science fiction is based on scientific rationalization and extrapolations of known science—and the story is believable within a rational worldview. (Admittedly, common SF story elements such as teleportation, faster-than-light travel, teleportation, or sub-space communication violate our current understanding of physics—so these are gray areas of science fiction.) Fantasy is built on the supernatural, on magic and gods and goddesses and ghosts and leprechauns and mermaids. It’s rich with the same powers that enliven mythology and religion—and the reader must take the story on faith.

Ursula LeGuinn on fantasy: “Its affinity is not with daydream, but with dream. It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic, but surrealistic, super-realistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction.”

Metaphors may be a theme in both fictions, but they will be differently explored. Take the metaphor, “edge of the world.”

Science fiction might tell of an immense world that rings a star, constructed of material from its demolished solar system. In Larry Niven’s Ringworld, the “edge of the world” is a thousand-mile high wall to hold in the atmosphere.

Fantasy might tell of a village perched on the edge of The Known, and at the end of the village lies a cottage named “Border House” that opens into The Unknown. You enter the front door of the cottage and take a few steps and you are in a realm of magic in which all the laws you have learned to trust—like gravity—no longer apply.

The best science fiction or fantasy is not fiction about science or magic, but stories about CHARACTERS who are affected by science or magic. The characters could be humans, elves, aliens, machines, pet rocks—whatever. But since we are human writers and readers, the problems that challenge the characters will necessarily be more-or-less human problems.


A typical flaw in science fiction or fantasy tales written by novices is the lack of a central, motivating human problem. In science fiction, we often encounter a bunch of techno-babble: The jumpship carrying medicine to combat the Vlorg Plague at New Tokyo Colony develops a phase uncoupling in the wave intolerator. Time ticks away as the hero rigs a Rothman wave-bridge out of garbage bags, a laser spectroscope, a rectal thermometer and an ancient Bic lighter. The colony is saved!

Big deal. The problem was imaginary and so was the solution.

On the other hand, one could imagine a story about a ship rushing medicine to a colony infected with a deadly virus, in which the crew must deal with the real problem of the damage to the human body caused by high acceleration and deceleration. (If you can only tolerate accelerating at a constant 2 Gs, you can’t “put on the brakes” at 40 Gs. But a more gradual deceleration will make the ship reach the colony too late.) The rescue ship lands on auto-pilot carrying crates of needed medicine and two dead crew members, crushed by the deceleration. The colonists are saved, not by techno-nonsense, but because of the tragic personal sacrifice of heroes.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Who Can Best Tell Your Tale?

You have two basic choices for narrating your tale: in the first-person or third-person. 

Writers have used both to tell great stories; which is best for your short story or novel? 



First-Person Narrator
In first-person narration, one character (usually the protagonist) tells the whole story in her own voice, “I.” The reader perceives and understands everything through this single storyteller’s personality, memories, attitudes, expectations and motives.

First-person narration is often the choice of novice writers, because it’s the everyday mode in which we talk about our lives. It has the advantage of immediacy and intensity, because the reader is always inside the storyteller’s head and heart, living each scene directly as that character.

If you choose to narrate your romance using the first-person, you must ask: Why is this particular character telling the story? Who is her audience? Is she talking to friends, a lover, a therapist, a judge, a diary?
The biggest snag with writing first-person narration is that the narrator must be physically present for every key plot event. If your storyteller merely reports hearsay about an important scene that she did not experience firsthand, the dramatic power is lost.

Another drawback is that your first-person narrator can only guess at another character’s inner life and can never directly know what’s going on in any other character’s experience—unless she’s telepathic! Also, because readers will deduce from the outset that the narrator does not die, any scene in which the narrator’s life is threatened will be less suspenseful. (To be sure, writers sometimes betray this presumption with a shocker ending.) Of course the fact that the narrator does not die doesn’t mean irrevocable things—sweet or painful—cannot happen to her. And some tales thrive on the inverted dramatic tension of knowing the end from the beginning (How did such fierce enemies become adoring newlyweds?).

Third-Person Narrator
Third-person storytelling comes in two types, “omniscient” and “limited.” In the omniscient third-person, the narrator is a disembodied witness who hovers over the characters and their actions, telling the reader exactly what’s going on externally and also inside each character’s head. Thoughts, memories, fantasies—any moment of the past or future—are all available to the narrator’s godlike view. The writer is free to jump to any character’s viewpoint within a scene; for example, if two couples are arguing, you can reveal the interior experience of each of the four people. As the all-knowing author you can write a scene in which none of your characters is aware of an important secret that you have disclosed to your readers.

By contrast, limited third-person narration tells the story through only one viewpoint character at a time; the reader experiences and knows only what the current viewpoint character experiences and knows. The writer can switch among viewpoint characters but must provide a clear transition—a scene or chapter break—and make it instantly clear which new viewpoint the reader is now inhabiting. Limited third-person narration gives the reader intimacy with multiple characters, and unlike omniscient third-person narration, it avoids the sense of a remote intelligence that is outside looking in.

How to make up your mind?
The most common choice in bestselling novels is the third-person limited narrator, followed by first person. Third-person omniscient narration is far less common. (There is also second-person narration, but it is rare. It addresses the reader like this: You are not the kind of girl who would normally be at a place like this at 3 a.m. yet here you are, talking to a woman with a tattooed head.)

If you feel confident that your story is compelling, but you’re less sure that your prose is original and dazzling, you may want to tell your story in limited-third person, the form in which the writer is least visible. But if you think your chief talent is a clever or lyrical way with words, you might prefer to tell your story in the omniscient third person, which offers the best showcase for the author’s own musings. And if your main character is such a dynamic, unique personality she absolutely must tell her own story, then let her have her voice in first person.