For SF&F Writers: Being Selective with Speculative Elements

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So submissions for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores reopened recently, and I’ve already spotted a trend in the Slush Pile irritating enough to make me jump back into the blog, despite still being on holiday. Unconvincing and poorly written characters and settings can ruin any story. I covered various ways to avoid this in my recent Building Believable Worlds posts. As a First Reader and lover of all things speculative, a deciding factor for me in rejecting a story is when the science fiction or fantasy elements of are poorly developed and unnecessary to the actual plot.

Writers looking to avoid this should ask themselves what the point of their given element is. For example, why is a story being set on a space station if it just has the characters walking around and talking to one another? They could still do that very easily if they weren’t in space. They may be talking about stuff that has to do with space, but that isn’t the same as actually having an adventure in space of some kind. Oh look, there’s a robot passing by, or perhaps an alien. Turns out they have nothing to do with the plot at the moment, they’re just on board to lend a futuristic air to things and remind us we’re reading what the author is trying to pass off as science fiction. Maybe later they’ll be revealed as the conspirator behind some intricate plot that will start a war to destabilize the Galactic Empire, but we probably won’t hear from them again until then. This does not a good sci-fi yarn make. Consider whether or not the setting and elements you are introducing contribute anything of substance. If not you should probably re-think them, or you’re likely to disappoint your readers.

The average fantasy story has a different problem. So much fantasy is set in another world governed as much by magical systems as much as fantasy realm’s King or Emperor or Council of Learned Wizard Elders or whatever. The problem is that many authors still begin their stories in some simple and probably impoverished feudal village, old growth forest, monastery, or something else that says “Hero’s Humble Origins” with equal subtlety. All too often, they never leave. What can I say, I work with short fiction, which lacks the luxury of travel time that the epic ten-book sagas enjoy. This is all too frequently compensated for by having magical creatures emerge from around every bush and tree, and by having artifacts likewise endowed stashed around every corner. As I’ve previously mentioned, this tends to rob the story of it’s impact.

So what’s the answer? Call it speculative minimalism. Plow through your first draft without worrying, but then, go back and ask yourself which speculative elements you really need to say what you want to stay. If you’re looking to create a wider universe, don’t just fill it to the brim with the same cliches we’ve all read in Tolkien or watched on Star Trek, put a bit of time and effort into making it your own. The genres have matured beyond that. Even in a universe populated by wildly different beings, magic, and advanced technology, human (or for that matter, non-human) interest should be the real driving force of any story.

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