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3 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break

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Posted on August 15, 2017

Science fiction and fantasy are genres where almost anything can happen — as long as the author can make it seem plausible, and as long as it’s part of a good story. But that doesn’t mean there are no rules. If anything, the fact that these genres are so wide open mean that there are tons of rules out there, some unspoken and some written in black and white.
And sometimes, breaking the rules is the only way to tell a really fascinating story. Here are 3 rules of SF and fantasy that more authors should consider breaking from time to time.
We’re not saying you must break any of the rules below. You can craft a brilliant work of fiction while still following all of the rules below. And most of these rules exist for a reason — because if you break them without knowing what you’re doing, you can screw up horrendously. Some of the rules below represent things that may have been done to death in the past, so it’s best to make sure you have a fresh spin. But at the same time, too many rules can be a creativity-killer, and sometimes it’s good to bust out some illegal moves.
Third-person omniscient used to be the default mode for a lot of novelists — a lot of the classics of literary fiction as well as science fiction are written in third person omniscient. This means, in a nutshell, that the narrator can see what’s going through any character’s head, and can flit around as the story requires. But in recent years, fiction writers have opted for first person or limited third — in which only one person at a time gets to be a viewpoint character. The thing is, though, when you have tight third person with multiple viewpoint characters, it often feels like an omniscient narrator who’s choosing to play games.

1) No third-person omniscient.

And actual third-person omniscient can be fantastic — you need look no further than Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which freely lets you know what Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect and assorted other characters are thinking at any given moment. Or countless classic SF writers, for that matter. But I also want to put in a plea: anyone who’s serious about writing genre fiction should read Henry Fielding, who makes third-person omniscient into an art form. In novels like Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, Fielding draws these brilliant tableaux where he pauses to show what everyone’s thinking, and how much at cross-purposes everyone is. It helps him be a keen observer of people, and also creates these beautifully funny set pieces.

2) No prologues
This is one I’ve been hearing for years — some agents and editors say they stop reading immediately if they see that a book has a prologue. But prologues have their uses, especially if you want to set a mood or establish some crucial backstory before you start introducing your main characters. Like most of the other things on this list, prologues can be done well, or they can be done horrendously. Luckily, we don’t have to reach far to think of an example of prologues done well — George R.R. Martin starts every one of theSong of Ice and Fire books with one, and it’s clear why these prologues are there. They help set up the conflicts of each book, via the experiences of a throw-away character.

3) No portal fantasy
The “portal fantasy” is a mainstay in both science fiction and fantasy, even though it’s mostly used in the latter. (You could argue that Hitchhiker’s Guide is a “portal fantasy.”) In this type of book, someone from our world discovers a pathway to another world, where he or she is our relatable everyhuman explorer, and we discover this new world through his or her eyes. It’s a tried and true notion, and Lev Grossman gets a lot of mileage out of it in The Magicians — both Brakebills and Fillory, in different ways, are strange worlds that Quentin visits from the “real” world, and there’s a lot of portaling. But we’ve heard many people say that “portal fantasy” is over, and so is the neophyte who learns about the magical world over the course of a book. Now, everybody wants stories where the main character is already steeped in the magical (or science-fictional) world as the story begins.

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