Monday, February 11, 2008

Plot Twists and World Tapestries

Among my regular haunts, which have gone largely unvisited as I play the $2 window in the Sport of Emperors perform my duty of civic involvement, is Bernita's litblog. Poking my head out, I was so lucky as to find this post on twists, of the literary sort. Literary twists come on any number of scales, from the big one at the end of a mystery novel to a surprise direct object at the end of a sentence. Somewhere in between goes the chapter cliff-hanger, like characters realizing that their private conversation was overheard.

For whatever reason, I have little trouble coming up with twists to get from chapter to chapter in a novel, but I have never been able to write a decent short story. In short stories, the twist is paramount. There is too little time to create a world or build up characters; if the thing is to be more than a vignette it has to smack us between the eyes at the end. I lack this gift, and all my attempts at short stories have been either vignettes or Reader's Digested novels.

This is inconvenient, because short stories are the traditional way to break in to science fiction. In fact there is a longstanding critical argument - I am not sure who first made it - that SF is inherently a short story medium. The speculative assumption, or gimmick, naturally lends itself to the short story twist, whether in the classic bad science fiction story or the classic good one.

More interesting, though, is the corollary, again beyond my powers of attribution: It has been said, he said pretentiously, that science fiction novels fall apart at the end. This it seems to me is often true, especially since the beginning of the end may be less than halfway through the book.

Case in point, Dune. This is a safe place, non judgmental, where you can come out of the closet. Isn't the best part that whole futuro-medieval world, with its corps of assassins and plots within plots within plots? The wheels start to come off as soon as Paul is out in the damn desert, channeling Osama. Yes, a certain maritime hegemonic power could have learned useful foreign policy lessons from the second half of the book, but as a story it went down hill, and set the stage for all those awful sequels. The ecosystem of Arrakis, though a brilliant SF concept, is not enough to carry the weight of a novel.

Foundation Trilogy does the perfect swan dive crash and burn, because its failure is built directly into the structure of the plot. If the Seldon Plan has it all worked out, where's the dramatic tension? Asimov gets through the first few Seldon Crises via a shrewd insight, the role of able leaders in surfing the historical wave. But after about 300 years that gimmick wears thin, and Asimov falls back on complete bullshit - though a brilliant conceived character - the Mule.

Decades later Asimov went back, retconned the Mule (and the whole Foundation-verse) into his robot-verse, and wrote another set of awful sequels that sold like hotcakes. It is too bad he didn't try the alternative approach of having the Seldon Plan simply run off the rails, or better yet fall prey to the inherent tension of prophesies - once people even partly work it out they can start gaming it.

Even this, though, would not quite have made Foundation Trilogy work, because no gimmick can hold up the whole fabric of a novel. (Strictly speaking, no work of Romance is a novel, but use it here in the loose sense of a long story that is not purely episodic.)

For an example of what makes a novel - or at any rate, an epic length Romance - work, I will offer Lord of the Rings. The fantasy gimmicks here are inherently no better than science fiction gimmicks. Yes, it is both cool and Deep that in the end, right at the Crack of Doom, Frodo wimps out, and Gollum saves him by a finger. But please. That is not sufficient satisfaction for reading 17,563 pages, including some of the worst poetry in written English, and even worse poetry in Elvish, and still pressing on not only to scour the Shire but sweep all the way through Appendix xxvi(7)c.

The shortcomings of Lord of the Ring have filled shelves of critical commentary and libraries of bad imitations; it rises above them all by the sheer vastness and richness of its world. This same vastness and richness are everything good about Dune and Foundation Trilogy. That is why they have outlasted their gimmicks, surviving even though they fall flat at the end.

No gimmick can save a world, but a well crafted world will keep going when gimmicks fall by the wayside. I might even ask whether, in long fiction, overall gimmicks are necessary at all, or merely get in the way of creation.

13 comments:

Jim Baerg said...

"It is too bad he didn't try the alternative approach of having the Seldon Plan simply run off the rails, or better yet fall prey to the inherent tension of prophesies - once people even partly work it out they can start gaming it."

Have you read _Psychohistorical Crisis_ by Donald Kingsbury?

Kingsbury's story is set in his own 2nd Empire run by psychohistorians. I think you can guess the nature of the crisis of the title from what I quoted from your post.

I might note that the richness of the background in Kingsbury's story is a major plus for the novel

Rick said...

I thumbed through the hardcover at B&N, but I'd forgotten the author and exact title. It looked like he essentially changed the names, then wrote the sequel Asimov should have - pretty cool. I should hunt it down; I suspect I'd love it. I did get the sense he'd textured the galaxy in a way Asimov only hinted at.

Carla said...

I like some of Tolkien's poetry, she said in a small voice.

I'm not familiar with Dune (heresy, I know, especially here). I agree that Tolkien's world is (several) streets ahead of many a fantasy world, and that's one of the reasons I gravitate back to Lord of the Rings time and again. His Middle-earth feels like a different world, rather than a shadowy version of ours. I think the much-maligned Appendices contribute to that.

Rick said...

Carla - That is permitted, he said gently. Part of the greatness of LOTR is that there is plenty for everyone not to like, and still find a whole lot more that they will.

I agree with you about the appendices. A created world is always like a movie set, false front buildings. It is the little touches that create the illusion - like paved-over streetcar tracks, giving a fake city the illusion of a past.

The also much maligned opening and closing sections in the Shire are also important, I believe, in ballasting Middle Earth, giving it an earthy substance.

Anonymous said...

I think that you are missing the point about literary gimmicks, surprising for a writer. They form the basis of a story, whether long or short. When I write a short story, it is to showcase the gimmick. The gimmick in a novel is usually the starting point; you don't have to keep it throughout the story, even though most do. I know that a lot of writers view the literary gimmick as a spice in the stew of their stories. Without it, it may be too bland; too much, and it becomes unsavory. Most writers don't even realize they're doing it. I didn't until some one pointed it out to me. Talk about embarrassing! You're right, though, about the endings of most fantasy and SF; most of us are unsatisfied with them. But, then again, they do inspire some of us to write the stories we want to read.
Ferrell

Kedamono said...

If you like short stories, let me point you to the 365 Tomorrows website.

It's a collection of short stories, short shorts in fact, 600 words long. It's an amazing collection of different SciFi stories, some great, others, well, a nice short read.

I already have an idea for a short short, so I might end up there one of these days.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you, I'll have to check it out. I like to read and write short stories.
Ferrell Rosser

Rick said...

Ferrell - every story is full of gimmicks, including novels. It is certainly legit and common to use one as an opening hook. My argument is that the one thing gimmicks can't do is sustain the weight of a novel.

What sustains a novel is world building, where "world" includes the characters and immediate setting. Characters are what really carry most long fiction, but a rich setting in SF/F has much the same effect as good characters do.

Anonymous said...

Well, yes, character, plot, and setting are paramount in any story. I agree with you on that point. However, I also think that to spark an idea for a story, you have to start somewhere and the literary gimmick is where most writers start from. But, yes, again, you are right about gimmicks not being able to carry a story. Sparking the initial idea, giving the story some spice, leaving the reader with intreguing thoughts;those are the real function of the literary gimmick. At least, that's what I've always been tought. I sometimes get caught up in what I'm writing and get overenthuseatic about things. I don't do enough revisions when posting to blogs. (I still like my stew metaphor for stories, though)
Ferrell Rosser

Rick said...

Gimmicks carry short stories just fine - in fact, most successful short stories hang on a gimmick in some form or other. It is long fiction that falls down if it depends on a gimmick.

Long fiction is like a long trip - the destination alone is never enough. What you really remember afterwards is the road trip.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Rick.
I'm working on my gimmick.

Anonymous said...

Now that is a good metaphor! And, of course, you're right about the long story not being carried by the literary gimmick, even if it sparks the original idea. As you know, long fiction needs to have several elements to be successful; depend on any one element and the story falls down. I enjoy these discussions; I learn so much!
Ferrell Rosser

Bernita said...

Rick, have you ever read The Year the Yankess Lost the Pennant?
The story is a version of the Devil and Daniel Webster and I think it's based entirely on a gimmick - that not even the devil can change an umpire's mind.