Why genre has little to do with what you can and can’t put in a story
Of nerds and narrative
Have you ever seen people get into discussions about sci-fi and fantasy fiction? Sometimes someone will point out that something doesn’t work – a guy in suit of power armour can’t dive into a river from the top of a cliff and swim to the other side to get to the sacred cookies, or whatever. Someone at this point may respond with the idea that whatever the first person is complaining about is fine because the fiction belongs to sci-fi or fantasy or noir or whatever. This sometimes happens with amateur writing – a budding author may paint a character into a corner and, unsure of how to resolve the conflict, do something immersion breaking to solve the problem. When someone points out that the way the conflict was resolved could use work, if the author is feeling thin-skinned they may attempt to excuse themselves by pointing out that their story is part of this or that genre, and so it’s fine.
It’s a bad argument, it breeds bad habits, and sets bad expectations. Genre fiction often relies on the imaginary, whether it’s flying broomsticks, or characters leaping out of tower block windows to escape an explosion to land with a flourish, rather than watching their kneecaps rocket into the sky, the improbable or downright impossible is the bread and butter of most genre fiction in any medium. Just because the impossible does happen in fiction, this doesn’t mean that anyone is entitled to do anything at any time, and what’s more, genre has nothing to do with it. The ‘genre fiction handwaves god-modding’ argument doesn’t work because the issue being argued is about suspension of disbelief and narrative cohesion – two elements of a story that are somewhat more fundamental than the broad characteristics that identify a work as belonging to a genre category.
The following contains spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones book/season one and Stephen King’s IT, Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series. You’ve been warned.
You can create a world, but that doesn’t make you a god
If you could do anything at all simply because a story fits into one genre or another, then you’d lose genre entirely. The argument is: if it can be done then it should be done if that thing is immediately gratifying, categorised by the veneer of a theme-fitting aesthetic. Because this genre category applies then no justifications are necessary. It should be no surprise to anybody that in the commodified and financialised consumer-consumed world, that the image is mistaken for content. However, if you run that idea forward slightly you conclude that if you can do anything at any time in any setting, specifically without a framework for its existence, then genre becomes entirely nebulous if not irrelevant.
For example: if your main character suddenly fires a black hole gun in a setting that has, until that moment, presented itself as archetypical Tolkien-inspired fantasy, then you will need to find a way to integrate that event into the setting and make it work in your narrative. This is not prohibitive, it’s not impossible. You can do something in the vein of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire and set it in a post-collapse/second dark age world; but you need to flag up well in advance and seed the idea that some long-lost calamity has occurred, as Lawrence does. But you also need to, in the extreme case of a black-hole gun (won’t you come), find a way to fire the thing, which you can’t do.
“What?” say you, “sure I can, there’s a trigger right there.”
Sure. You can put two triggers on it, if you like. Three even. Hell, go wild, make the whole damn gun out of triggers. Whatever floats your boat. You still can’t fire it. Why not? Because introducing a black hole into a setting is a world-ending event, regardless of circumstance. But you want to save your character in the most badass way ever, and prove how cool they are to the world, so you turn around and say, “actually, go to hell, I can shoot a black hole and the world doesn’t end because it’s science-fantasy, so I can do whatever I like.”
Ok, go ahead and write it. Then watch your audience leave. The genre being science-fantasy doesn’t mean you can just ignore the fundamental laws of physics. Not because ‘it’s too imaginative’ or something regressive like that, but because your audience knows how gravity works and that black holes are the psyche-frying eldritch horrors of real life. As before, it’s not completely impossible – you can have a black hole-firing hand cannon. However, you’re going to need to do one or two things:
Know how a technology that subverts our understanding of gravity works, and then work out the various broader complications that such a technology introduces into your setting. You don’t need to write a theoretical physics paper to do this, you don’t even need to explain it to your readers, but you do need to know how it works yourself because if you don’t, then you will inevitably introduce inconsistency into your story and your audience will – not might, WILL – pick up on that. The more fundamental the change the greater the impact on the way the world functions, so it might be advisable to avoid deciding that gravity only works when and how you decide it works. If you do that then you’re going to need to indicate to your audience why your world doesn’t just fall apart because gravity is suddenly a choice. Things that get your character out of scrapes don’t exist in a void – so if your medieval world has technology that can alter fundamental cosmic forces, then it’s going to have severe ramifications on the entire world, and by extension how your characters perceive reality and their experiences.
The mechanics of story
It seems like this is less a problem of genre misunderstanding, so much as it is a fundamental problem of not understanding how stories work. It is no surprise that the people who claim that genre fiction allows one to do anything apropos of nothing are either consumers or excited novice creators.
The consumer doesn’t understand that they won’t like what they’ve asked for – they are the archetypal customer who does not know what they want. It’s not their fault, either – they’re probably just following the direction of the creator. The novice creator is most likely just answering their latest problem with a solution that looks cool in their head, before moving onto the next scene. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these scenarios – they’re entirely understandable. Unfortunately, a little bit of insider knowledge and experience on either part can serve to illustrate the strange dynamics at play between fiction and audience.
Consider the end of the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, ‘A Game of Thrones’ – specifically the outcry it caused when the first season of the series ended. Despite viewers seeming to go through the five stages of grief in a couple of hours over social media, if Martin had written that Eddard Stark had survived King’s Landing, then nobody would have been remotely as invested. You can get him out of that situation legitimately, but it would require a fundamentally altered novel and a fundamentally altered series because Martin would have had to account for the survival of Eddard, and arguably his survival would have indicated a fundamentally different story and tone for the series. A Song of Ice and Fire can be read as a deconstruction of the fantasy genre. Martin gave the audience an archetypal hero in Eddard Stark, obsessed with truth and honour and some other lofty words that don’t mean a lot in reality, followed by a classic ‘hero escapes death by the skin of their teeth’ scenario setup. So most people were expecting that arc to play out as it usually does, with a ‘save the day’ ending. A deconstructionist looks at that series of events and concludes that the only reasonable end in sight is Eddard Stark dying, because he’s playing by a completely different set of rules that don’t apply to this story.
So you couldn’t save Eddard if you’d wanted to, because there was no indication that it wouldn’t end the way that it did. Because there was no foreshadowing of a last-minute save, the save him would have been perceived as random and the entire world would have stopped making sense. There’s a reason deus ex machina is looked down on: it’s cheap. An author cannot demand emotional investment from their audience and then just ignore the things driving that investment. This is not a genre-related issue, this is an underlying fundamental of storytelling.
It’s no real surprise that this is the case – arguably, if everyone knew how stories worked, at a mechanical level, then entertainment and media would not entertain as much as it does. Half of the draw of a story is just seeing how the narrative unfolds – it’s why for a while everyone became obsessed with wild and inexplicable twists, characterised by M. Night Shyamalan’s memetic status. If everyone knows where the hooks are and which strings are being pulled where and to what effect, then a significant portion of the reason anybody pays attention to stories at all is completely lost. Which is to say that because the audience and new writers do not necessarily understand what’s going on or why something is done in the way that it is, and to what effect, they’re more likely to do things that, counterintuitively, make stories worse.
Take Steven King’s IT, for example. There are several moments in the story that only work if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief quite heavily, and the evil clown is the least of them. In one instance, Tom Rogan attacks Kay McCall and threatens to carve her face off with a piece of a vase if she calls the police. She’s tells him where Beveryly went and off he goes. The most logical thing anybody could do in that scenario is immediately call the police and then relocate. She has everything on her side in that scenario: she can tell them who attacked her, where he lives, where he’s going, which airport he’s likely to be at within the next few hours. She’s well connected so she doesn’t have to worry that he can follow up on his threat and wealthy enough to rent a room in a hotel or two for a while. He’s very obviously of sub-standard intelligence so the most minor of changes is likely to completely stump him.
The problem with this very obvious solution is simply that it would work. Wait, what? Yes. If you have Kay McCall do anything other than nothing at all, then you immediately remove Tom Rogan as an antagonist. Well surely you want to stop the antagonist? Yes, but not at that point. Even though Tom Rogan’s character is repulsive and would inspire joy if he were alive and swinging by the intestines from a church bell, if you solved him in the first couple of chapters then, against all intuitive logic, the reader would feel conned. So you have to let him continue being repulsive.
A similar thing happens with Henry Bowers. He’s a persistent problem in the story, but at only 12 years old his objective threat to the entire town is far more than it realistically should be. There’s a scene where he stares down an adult shop keeper and the shop keeper runs away because Bowers is obviously mentally ill. Ok. But a 12-year-old boy, no matter how big he is, or how good at mad dogging he is, is not a threat to an adult man. If the 12-year-old boy attempts to physically attack the adult man, the adult man wins. Easily. And, given that nobody in the story likes Bowers or his lunatic father, and given that he is obviously going to be an ongoing and escalating issue for everyone in the setting, never mind the main characters, then it would make sense to simply stab him and be done with it. Problem solved.
Problems with suggesting stabbing a damaged preteen aside, you can argue, “but it’s fiction, so why not?” Because if you solve the problem while the main arc of the story is still going on, your audience feels conned because you haven’t run through those sub arcs. You have to overlook the obvious solutions and suspend your disbelief, because if you do not it actually makes the story worse – even though on the face of it you would be fulfilling the ultimate aim of the story arcs. You can truncate a character’s arc, and solve their problem prematurely, but you’d need to position or portray it in such a way as to be the point of the thing – as in the way that Eddard Stark’s death cuts his traditional arc short, thereby signalling to the audience that the fantasy story they are reading/watching is not necessarily what they might expect. But that is the arc in itself. That end point is a natural end to the previous series of events, no matter that it may not be what the audience expected. Ultimately, you can only conclude an arc if that arc has reached a point of conclusion. Much like sex, if you climax prematurely nobody is satisfied.
Consistency vs novelty in fiction
Isn’t this just policing what people can and can’t create? No. If it were I might argue that there were hard limits on what could and could not go into a story. There would subsequently create an arbitrary border, no gopher-powered spider tanks, no crustacean-adhesive auto-shovels, no soil-combustible horseshoes. The policing would rely more on subject rather than continuity. However, as it is not, there are, conveniently, no hard limits on what you can introduce into a setting. The hard limit is dictated by your setting and whether you can integrate and justify doing whatever it is that you want to do into your setting without issue.
For a real-world illustration, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw wrote the book ‘Jam’ – featuring a world under siege by a carpet of sentient carnivorous jam. Is that surreal and absurd and ‘unrealistic’? Absolutely. But realism isn’t the point. Consistency (if, given the context, you’ll excuse the term) is the point. By all means, have a gopher-powered spider tank, but also perhaps make some passing mention of the gopher-farms that exist to provide the power for these spider tanks. Consider why the world is using gophers as a source of power and what else in society now runs on gophers. Does this contradict anything else you’ve said previously? Nobody needs – or wants – a ten-chapter technical breakdown of your gopher-powered spider tank and the economics, logistics, and mechanics of that supply chain. Unfortunately, you can’t just throw one into a story because the protagonist needs to storm the local supermarket and snatch the last cabbage from the twitching fingers of the local peasants, before riding off into the sunset, purely because you’ve just decided that doing this on a gopher-powered spider tank would be the single coolest way in which to achieve that goal. You can get away with just about anything as long as you’re willing to keep it all working together. If your gopher tank is just a random inexplicable anomaly in the setting, then it’s probably doing your story more harm than good.
Genre fiction: Aesthetics vs mechanics
Genre doesn’t dictate whether you can put something into a story or not – in fact the genre you’re working in is almost irrelevant. What decides whether you can do something or not is, ultimately, your contract with the audience – the likelihood of something breaking the suspension of disbelief or their engagement with the narrative determines whether you can or can’t get away with it. The reason you can’t just deus ex machina your way through a story is because deus ex machina breaks the suspension of disbelief. It is the author shoving their hand through the fourth wall in plain sight of the audience and interfering with the story in a clumsy and unnatural way. The same idea works with rule of cool – you can get away with a lot with the rule of cool, but it cannot break the setting. Even authors like Neal Stephenson, who run on nothing but rule of cool know that you can’t just introduce cool things out of thin air. You have to establish them in advance if they can have plot-altering consequences, and you can’t change the pre-assumed rules of reality at a crucial moment if you have not previously established that the rule you’re breaking works differently in your story. You can’t just solve problems for your characters, because although many stories are effectively about solving a problem, or the attempt to do that, breaking the narrative arc of those problems actually creates a counterintuitive result whereby the success of the solution undermines the success of the story as the resolution doesn’t feel earned.
Great points you bring up here. I myself can’t stand stories that shake me from my suspension of disbelief due to the way things are done. One example is in the Three Body Problem, where the game seems to have no rhyme nor reason, and anything goes, and I’m like ‘This isn’t the way games work!’
But to each their own I guess. Anyway, thanks for this post!