Tag Archives: fantasy

Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story

By Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold

Story is not automatically story, especially when dealing with genre and its tropes. Trope can be a rather difficult concept to grasp, seeing as it includes so many different elements in literature. For the purpose of this article, we are using the term “trope” in the sense of a familiar and repeated symbol, meme, theme, motif, style, character or thing that is common in a particular type of literature. Such tropes are closely related to genre. Examples of this kind of trope in horror include the mad scientist or dark and stormy settings. Tropes can also be plot elements, such as the science fiction trope of an alien invasion that is deterred at the last minute.
The transmissibility of story is dependent on an understanding of (and, we would argue, interest in) the themes, motifs, props, and characters of the genre in question, from the wise old wizard of fantasy, to the plucky gal of chicklit, to the foreign planets of science fiction. But literary and mainstream fiction are not free of tropes either: the gut-spilling, angst-ridden, pseudo-autobiographical protagonist is a figure that appears repeatedly and almost exclusively in stories categorized as literary and mainstream.
When familiar tropes are missing or unfamiliar tropes present, this can lead readers to reject a story outright. Within our field, witness the endless skirmishes between the old guard of Silver Age science fiction and the various innovations which have proliferated since the New Wave arrived – in recent times famously exemplified by critic Dave Truesdale’s emphatic rejection of the Karen Joy Fowler story, “What I Didn’t See.” (2002) For readers who find confessional narrative self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical fiction may strike them as dishonest; for readers who prefer their fiction a step away from memoir, anything that cloaks the story in the kind of tropes used in science fiction and fantasy will be too far away from reality for them to be interesting. The transmissibility of story is dependent on an acceptance of those tropes.
We’ve written before about Samuel R. Delany’s concept of reading protocols and what Gardner Dozois calls “the furniture of science fiction.” To simplify, protocols are the experiences and assumptions that a reader brings to a genre work – the shorthand that enables understanding without repeated explication. “Furniture” refers to the signifiers for these protocols – the standard props and elements that characterize a genre. These concepts are closely tied together and work in concert with each other.
For example, a science fiction writer might use the term “FTL.” A reader with even the most modest experience in science fiction will understand this to mean “faster than light,” and most will be conversant with the basics of Einsteinian physics and the implications of supraluminal travel. A reader with no experience in science fiction might well not even be able to parse the acronym. Those who look up the term and find out what it stands for may still lack the theoretical background to understand the implications a regular reader of science fiction will immediately comprehend.
In genre, we have stockpiles of tropes of varying familiarity. These elements serve to enhance the transmissibility of the story. When a writer takes up a standard trope, either to serve in its stock role or to invert it for their own purposes, they are tapping into the traditions and shared referents of their genre.
One thing that distinguishes genre fiction from naturalistic fiction is that these shared tropes are a result of specific, self-selected reading experiences, rather than coming from the normal course of life in the culture where the story is set. Philip Roth doesn’t have to explain the details of Alexander Portnoy’s life, he merely cites them.
Without these tropes and the shared assumptions they signify to serve as lubrication in the machinery of plot, genre stories would be heavily constrained by the need to explain.

What makes a genre story transmissible, which is to say, accessible and meaningful to the reader, is its use of genre tropes. Viewed from that perspective, the tension for the genre writer lies in the balance between the degree of familiarity of the trope and the degree of novelty of the writer’s innovation within the story at hand.
While every genre has tropes, including mainstream and literary, the tropes of science fiction and fantasy are for the most part unconcerned with the emotional dimension of the story. Where character-driven tropes such the epiphany or the emotional framework of marital infidelity are broadly recognized in mainstream and literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy concern themselves first and foremost with the variation between the first world of the reader’s experience and the second world constructed within the story. These are mechanical, technological, magical, even sociopolitical elements – for example, romanticized feudalism in fantasy, or technocracy in science fiction – far more often than they are internal or emotional: plot and setting-driven tropes, rather than character-driven. Even the character-driven tropes our field does embrace at times tend towards the emotionally superficial – clouded succession to power, romanticization of certain roles (the scientist-as-hero), standard archetypes such the Dark Lord Brooding on His Obsidian Throne.
Examples of this distancing effect in genre abound, especially in the earlier history of the field. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (1951) is famously clinical in its approach to characters and their stories, focusing instead on the concept of future history, which was established as a core trope in the field, in large part due to Asimov’s work. Other major works in science fiction where the genre tropes intrude on the emotional experience of the story include Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and its successor books. The fantastically realized world-building and sociopolitical gymnastics which are the core joy of that book to millions of readers are combined with characters who are either archetypical or lacking depth, depending on how one chooses to view the text. In either case, are not readily viewed as rounded, emotional human beings.
On the other hand, any story strongly felt can use genre tropes to its advantage, creating gut-wrenching emotional experience on the page as effective or more so than some fiction regarded as literary. One of the most famous short stories of post-WWII science fiction is “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, published by John W. Campbell in Astounding magazine in August, 1954. The emotional impact of this story is so profound, echoing across the decades since, largely because it inverts the scientist-as-hero trope to conform to the stark realities of engineering in a deconstruction of the same classic SF tradition that produced such classics as Foundation.
The transmissibility of story itself is not a function of these emotional transactions, however – with perhaps the exception of such genres as romance, which demand the emotional dimension through their very nature and definition. The intention and realization of story moves from the writer to the reader through the tropes of genre, naturalistic fiction no less than science fiction or fantasy, taking here the word “genre” in its looser sense of meaning. Even naturalistic fiction has its tropes: coming-of-age plots, familiar setting, and firm grounding in a recognizable cultural context. Story happens in the context of the shared expectations of writer and reader, and the controlled management (or violation) of those expectations during the course of the narrative.

The themes of genres vary widely as well. The story of epiphany, for example, is a strong thread in twentieth century naturalistic fiction, beginning with James Joyce’s classic The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and continuing with various related forms of self-revelatory and semi-autobiographical fiction such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). In this tradition we could also count the consciousness-raising novels of the women’s liberation movement in the seventies, such as Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1972) and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1978). Of course, only a small percentage of mainstream and literary fiction is fictional self-examination of this sort, but it is interesting to note that this particular impulse is almost non-existent in science fiction and fantasy.
Our genre has not in general been so concerned with emotionally revelatory writing, certainly not autobiographical or semi-autobiographical revelation. There is a thread of stories built on a strong emotional dimension – novels such as John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981), for example, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968), or short stories such as David Levine’s “The Tale of the Golden Eagle” (2003), but more often than not the genre-related tropes seem to be more important than the emotional underpinnings.
This is not to say that the emotional structure of speculative fiction is suppressed, only that it serves the foreground concerns of genre. Often, the emotional transaction seems to come along for the ride rather than serving as the core driver of the story. Due to the primary payout of the genre experience – the exploration of the second world developed by the author, with the attendant thrill of discovery and sensawunda – few stories in science fiction and fantasy are written to be epiphanic or emotionally revelatory. Rather, they address some aspect of the tropes of the genre, using emotion as an optional tool to reach their point. Many of the strongest examples of the genre, however, do go the extra step and explore the emotional dimension of their subject.
It is interesting to note that a number of genre novels with a greater emotional underpinning appeared during and after the New Wave, when many of the elements of literary fiction were adopted by science fiction and fantasy writers. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) stands out in this regard, as do the novels mentioned previously such as Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
By the same token, when literary writers adopt science fictional language, while still employing their core emotional tropes, the result is often oddly unsatisfying to genre readers. Kirstin Bakis’ Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997), Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) are examples of this trend. Reading them with genre expectations impedes the transmissibility of story because the tropes are misaligned. An experienced genre reader has expectations of genetic engineering, time travel and interstellar travel stories which can impede the enjoyment of such works. Excellent as these books are, genre trope expectations are not met in them.
The story is transmitted to the reader at least in part because of the tropes. Some are emotional, some are external. The transmissibility of story is both enabled and restricted by the tropes of the genre within which the story – and the reader – are functioning.

This article was originally published in the Internet Review of Science Fiction (IROSF) in February 2007. I have made slight editing changes and updated the links.

Works Referenced

Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. New York: Gnome Press Publishers, 1951.
Bakis, Kirstin. Lives of the Monster Dogs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1997.
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: The Viking Press, 1968.
Crowley, John. Little, Big. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
French, Marilyn. The Women’s Room. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Fowler, Karen Joy. “What I Didn’t See.” SCI FICTION, July, 2002.
Godwin, Tom. “The Cold Equations.” Astounding, August, 1954.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965.
Joyce, James. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1916.
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker and Company, 1969.
Levine, David. “The Tale of the Golden Eagle.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June, 2003.
Niffenegger, Audrey. The Time Traveler’s Wife. San Francisco, CA: MacAdam, Cage, 2003.
Piercy, Marge. Small Changes. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1972.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. (1963) New York: Bantam, 1972.
Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: Random House, 1969.
Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Villard Books / Random House, 1996.

Big 99c sale of Science Fiction and Fantasy eBooks, Jan. 7-8

We have another big sale coming your way to start the new year, over 100 eBooks in science fiction and fantasy genres, all for only 99c each.

January promo

Just go to http://pattyjansen.com/promo/ and click on your favorite retailer to see what’s available! The promo officially begins tomorrow, January 7, but a lot of books have already reduced the price.

My contribution this month is Shadow of Stone, book 2 of The Pendragon Chronicles. The books are standalone novels, though, so you can easily start with the sale-priced one. 🙂

Kindle Unlimited/Free on Kobo SFF promotion, March 5-6

It’s that time of the month again, the next Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Promotion!

March SFF promo

This promotion has two parts. The first section features a selection of books that are available through the Kindle Unlimited program — but for the duration of this promo, most of them are also on sale for 99c. 🙂 My contribution this month is Chameleon in a Mirror.

The second half of the promo is for first in series free books on Kobo. There you can get my story “The Leaving Sweater,” the first in my series “Tales From Far Beyond North.”

Enjoy!

Giant 99c SFF Box Set Sale, Feb. 6-7!

SFF 99c box set sale

For only two days, chose from over 40 boxed sets at a special sale price of only 99c! Science fiction, dystopian, fantasy, and SFF romance, there’s something for everyone who like speculative fiction here. 😉

My own contribution is Yseult, Books 1-4, on sale for 99c through tomorrow, Feb. 7.

Enjoy!

Last chance (for the foreseeable future) to get Dragon Time for free!

I’m slowly but surely taking my short story collections out of KDP Select, and this time it’s Dragon Time. But you have a few days to get it free, if you are so inclined. 🙂

Here the description:

A collection of four previously published fantasy tales by Ruth Nestvold: “Dragon Time,” “Wooing Ai Kyarem,” “To Act the Witch,” and “Princes and Priscilla.”

Dragon Time: In Unterdrachenberg, time has stopped. After the death of his queen, the dragon king is mad with grief. Only a human woman can enter the dragon’s lair to fix time — a magic that is forbidden to women. Katja is the grand-daughter of a clockmaker, and she has watched her grandfather work with time for many years. But can she fix it on her own? More importantly, is she brave enough to try?

Wooing Ai Kyarem: Ai Kyarem calls no man lord. But what if the powerful Kubai forces her to choose?

To Act the Witch: Brilliana is a famous actress for the Duke’s Theatre, yes — but she is also a Witch. And it is up to her to save the Age of Magic.

Princes and Priscilla: As princess and heir to the kingdom, Priscilla really should marry a prince and ensure the succession. Unfortunately, Priscilla has other ideas.

Praise for “Dragon Time”:

“‘Dragon Time’ is a beautifully told tale. It’s easy to feel empathy for Katja; she has just enough flaws that we can love her, and not so many that we lose respect for her. The play of plot and emotion was especially lovely; the ending satisfies completely, and the love in the story positively shines. While the story has ancient treaties, magician-clockmakers, and, of course, dragons—everything needed for a good fantasy story—it’s the love that stands out the most. It’s a story I’ll go back to time and time again—pun intended.”

– Keesa Renee DuPre at Tangent Online

***

When I first started moving from traditional to indie in 2012, short story collections of my previously published fiction could actually make me money. Now, that is no longer the case, on Amazon at least. Short stories, either as singles or collections, don’t even work as loss leaders to get readers interested in my longer works. But on Draft2Digital, I still sell shorter works. As a result, I’ve decided to quit trying to sell anything under novella length through KDP Select for now.

Anyway, Dragon Time will be free until Dec. 14. Enjoy!

“Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

Book View Cafe Blog – Ursula Le Guin on Kazuo Ishiguro:

A wild country inhabited by monsters, an old couple who must leave their home without knowing exactly why, a sense that important things have been, perhaps must be, forgotten… Such images and moods could well embody a story about the approach of old age to death, and indeed I think that is at least in part the subject of the book. But so generic a landscape and such vague, elusive perceptions must be brought to life by the language of the telling. The whole thing is made out of words, after all. The imaginary must be imagined, accurately and with scrupulous consistency. A fantastic setting requires vivid and specific description; while characters may lose touch with their reality, the storyteller can’t. A toneless, inexact language is incapable of creating landscape, meaningful relationship, or credible event. And the vitality of characters in a semi-historical, semi-fanciful setting depends on lively, plausible representation of what they do and how they speak. The impairment of the characters’ memory in this book may justify the aimlessness of their behavior and the flat, dull quality of the dialogue, but then how is it that Axl never, ever, not once, forgets to address his wife as “princess”? I came to wish very much that he would.

Mr Ishiguro said to the interviewer, “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

Well, yes, they probably will. Why not?

It appears that the author takes the word for an insult.

Read more at “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”.

Faerie and Feadh Ree: Developing the magic system for The Pendragon Chronicles (A fantasy blog hop.)

Magik & Mayhem Blog Hop and giveaway, July 15-19

Do you like like tales of fantasy? Are you fond of elves, fairies, pixies and kobolds? Do you enjoy stories with magic? Welcome to our blog hop! Here is a chance to read about such creatures, find out about fantasy stories, and win books and gift cards! Summer is more magical already. 🙂

Click here to reach the central page of the blog hop where you can use the rafflecopter and win the main prize: a selection of all ebooks and print books entered in the event plus a gift certificate!

The list of ebooks you can win:

Bundle Season 1 Boreal and John Grey by Chrystalla Thoma
Bundle Dark Elf by Willo Nonea Rea
Caitlin’s Book of Shadows by Juli D. Revezzo
Print book Raingun by John Blackport
Aundes Aura by Ryan Sullivan
Seeking a Scribe by Marsha A. Moore
Her Master’s Madness by J.E. & M. Keep
Wings of Shadow by Anna Kyss
Rune Breaker by Landon Porter
Judgement Rising by Tracy Falbe
The Chosen by Annette Gisby
New Zealand with a Hobbit Botherer by John & Annette Gisby
Yseult by Ruth Nestvold

Some us took part in a group interview to talk about our magic creatures. If you would like to read it, click here.

Now, let me tell you something about how I developed my version of faerie, the Feadh Ree, for my Arthurian fantasy series, The Pendragon Chronicles. If you leave a comment, you will enter my own personal raffle and can win a copy of the first novel, Yseult, as well as a fantasy short story collection of your choice: Dragon Time, Never Ever After, or Story Hunger.

Faerie and Feadh Ree: Developing the magic system for The Pendragon Chronicles

I have a reprint of an old book I picked used somewhere years ago, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, by Lady Wilde (“Speranza”). When I decided sometime early in the last decade to return to my project of retelling the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde, one of the first things I had to consider was developing a magic system. I didn’t want it to be the kind of magic that could solve problems effortlessly, I wanted my Arthurian retelling to have a certain touch of realism and history. At the same time, I wanted my magic to fit in with the legends of Ancient Ireland. One of the main impulses of my retelling, after all, was to give Yseult / Isolde a history. The medieval epic romances always started with the background story of Tristan (Drystan in my version). I wanted to start with the background of Isolde of Ireland / Yseult of Eriu. Which meant I would have to create her world.

I’d been a collector of Celtic lore for a while, and Lady Wilde just happened to be one of the books on my shelf. But what a book it is! Story after story, it was full of inspiration for my magic race. This section in particular was important for how I created my version of faerie, the Feadh Ree:

The Fairy Race

The Sidhe, or spirit race, called also the Feadh-Ree, or fairies, are supposed to have been once angels in heaven, who were cast out by Divine command as a punishment for their inordinate pride.

Some fell to earth, and dwelt there, long before man was created, as the first gods of the earth. Others fell into the sea, and they built themselves beautiful fairy palaces of crystal and pearl underneath the waves; but on moonlight nights they often come up on the land, riding their white horses, and they hold revels with their fairy kindred of the earth, who live in the clefts of the hills, and they dance together on the greensward under the ancient trees, and drink nectar from the cups of the flowers, which is the fairy wine.

… The children of such marriages [between human and faerie] have a strange mystic nature, and generally become famous in music and song. But they are passionate, revengeful, and not easy to live with. Every one knows them to be of the Sidhe or spirit race, by their beautiful eyes and their bold, reckless temperament.

The fairy king and princes dress in green, with red caps bound on the head with a golden fillet. The fairy queen and the great court lathes are robed in glittering silver gauze, spangled with diamonds, and their long golden hair sweeps the ground as they dance on the greensward.

This passage inspired me in any number of ways, including the character of my protagonist, Yseult, who is descended from both the Old Race (Feadh Ree) and the the Gael.

For the magic of the Feadh Ree, I was inspired by Irish legends of “second sight.” This resulted in the three powers of the Old Race: The Power of Knowing (divination and mind reading); the Power of Calling (sending thoughts into the mind of another); and the Power of Changing (manipulating the thoughts of others so that they see something different than what is there).

These aren’t exactly fairies as we know them, but I had a lot of fun developing the rules of my world, and not just going with “received legend.” I hope my readers like the more subtle use of magic as well. 🙂

I hope you enjoy the blog hop, and remember to post a comment wherever you’re interested in winning a book!

Tales of Love and Magic: 99c Fantasy, 3 Days Only, Feb. 10-12!

The latest group promo is underway!

Tales of Love and Magic

Do you like your fantasy with a touch of romance? Do you enjoy love stories that go beyond the bounds of the real? Dancing on the edge between genres, our tales of love and magic–light and dark, happy and tragic–take readers into realms where magic is afoot and love is in the air.

Check out these 10 great books, each available for under a dollar for a very limited time. Celebrate Valentine’s Day with this collection of love stories for all tastes!