Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The Promise of Idea

 One of the things that I'm doing as I continue to prep for class, is read through old (and I do mean OLD--it is really clear from the copyright pages, exactly WHEN I was trying to learn about writing science fiction/fantasy,) writing advice books.  

I have nearly the entire set of the Writer's Digest Books that have names like Plot and Character and the one I'm reading now Beginnings, Middles & Ends.

Just flipping through, I came across the idea of the promise the author makes to the reader. This Writers' Digest author, science fiction's own Nancy Kress, suggests there are two implicit promises made to the reader. One emotional and the other intellectual.

I've heard about the idea of the writer/read contract before, of course, but the thought that the emotional promise of a story or a novel is that you will be entertained by (or at least absorbed by) it is a new one to me. Specifically, Kress suggests that when a person picks up a romance novel, they come to it with the idea of what they think a romance novel is supposed to be: fun, sexy, titillating... something that, by the end, confirms the belief that 'love conquers all." 

I don't think she's wrong at all.

It's just an interesting question to consider. When I pick up a science fiction book, what am I automatically expecting as a reader?  

Interestingly, I think that when I pick up a science fiction book, I'm expecting to be intellectually challenged. Like, I want to experience something I've never thought of before. I want something new. I kind of don't have an idea of what that's shaped like. I just want to leave the book with a "mmmm, that was fascinating."

I don't think I'm alone, either.

I suspect a lot of science fiction readers just want to be wow-ed, but they have no real criteria for how that's meant to be done by the author. I think this is why you see a lot of experimentation in format of short stories, in plot, in character, in theme... the only promise science fiction readers expect is that you surprise us, keep us on our toes, be innovative in some fashion or another.... sometimes even in mundane ways, like a plot twist or clever maneuver in an otherwise standard military sf novel would be enough for me, you know?  We want a nifty idea, but the shape of it is wide, wide open.

Fantasy is a different animal, I think. I suspect that one of the reasons I read less of fantasy is because what it offers is kind of opaque to me. Do fantasy novels offer a sense of chivalry? Or, a sense of belonging to a special group? The hope that magic exists in some fashion in the world?  When I find a fantasy book that works for me, it's often one that still trips my sense of wonder and is clever or innovative. 


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