If you read my first blog An Introduction in Five Titles, you may have noticed that four out of five of the books I mentioned fall under speculative fiction, or narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. 1984 could be counted among these, though personally I classify it as dystopian, not speculative…
Though, I suppose, dystopian literature is, by nature, speculative…
To begin again: If you read the first blog, then you may have noticed my inherent fondness for speculative fiction (see definition above). Neil Gaiman was not my first introduction to the genre, but he was certainly the one who had me the most intrigued. Until then, my narrative fiction focused on mental illness, love, poverty – all those common depressants, and my fantasy focused on worlds beyond our own. Speculative fiction marries the two into a delight that satisfies even the most troubled souls.
Speculative fiction allows us to take our world and infuse our dreams directly into it. In this world, we know a bus without the author describing it intricately, while in other worlds there could be objects or commonplaces that the readers have never encountered, requiring more work on the author’s part. We’re freed of these explanations when we use our world. The pages open for us to continue with plot and characterization. While genre writing – high fantasy, horror, etc. – relies heavily on plot and what is happening around/to the characters (see Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien), narrative fiction, or literary fiction, is entirely about your protagonist and his desire (see The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway). Of course, as the author, it is your job to stop him from achieving his goals as often and as creatively as possible. It wouldn’t be much of a story if everything was easy for him; what kind of lessons would he learn then?
Speculative fiction also focuses on character. The characters propel the plot, not the other way around, but you still get dragons or demons, the magic of Harry Potter in your local pizzeria.
I’ve only recently started to play around with this kind of writing, but still, I’d like to offer you some tips, if I may, as someone who has now drafted a novel in the style and who reads it more often than most other genres.
Though I am not an outliner, I have come up with a process to approaching writing or editing a speculative fiction narrative (short or long form):
- What’s your setting? Make it vivid, make it real. Give us visuals for era, place, and culture. Referencing specific landmarks early on, especially if you’ll be using them later, is a good idea (see Neil Gaiman’s use of the London Underground/Tube in Neverwhere).
- Are your supernatural elements known or unknown to your protagonist? Either way, you must introduce them to the reader – remember, these elements are not commonplace in the real world. If you’ve set your story in the future (see Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or “A Pail if Air” by Fritz Leiber), then you must set the rules differently because, most likely, all of your characters will be familiar with the world that is foreign to your reader.
- What are the rules of your elements? If you have ghosts, are they traditional spirits haunting people and places? Are they individual entities unconnected to humans? Can everyone see this or just the protagonist? Work out the world and how your elements interact with it; this will help blend the real and unreal.**
- How is your protagonist connected to the real world or the supernatural? This will depend which end of your genre he’s situated on. How will you connect him to the real world if he is the supernatural element? Likewise, how will you pull your ordinary human character into the supernatural? Be sure to work out the logistics of this meeting before you base a whole story around it. You may find it doesn’t work the way you thought it would.
- Why? Why are these worlds colliding? Why this protagonist? What does he want that makes him go through one or the other? Or what does someone want with him that forces him out of his own world? We need to see the collision, and something must spark from it.
These are my five steps to establishing your foundation or reviewing something you’ve already written. Speculative fiction can be a lot of fun when you let yourself go and imagine the possibilities inside our own world.
Don’t be afraid to make something your own. Don’t like the idea of vampires becoming bats? Fine, they don’t; it’s just a myth. Want your ghosts to have actual physical forms inside of phasing through walls? Cool. The only rule when it comes to twisting beliefs and superstitions is to address it – your human characters (and readers) know these myths and would have questions if the creatures didn’t match up with the stories.
Some speculative fiction recommended reads:
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Slade House by David Mitchell
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Animal Farm by George Orwell
I haven’t read the Mortal Instruments series, but it’s come very highly recommended as well written young adult fiction. The blend of supernatural elements in the real world, I hear, is superb. It’s something to consider if you enjoy YA novels.
Reader, I do apologize for mentioning Twilight and hope you will not judge me too harshly for what I read in middle school. I mention it here because of the gaping hole left in the narrative. As a warning for you: Speculative fiction is no easy feat. It requires precision that takes years to learn. So, watch your steps like the ground may give way at any moment, scrutinize your story and your characters. And you may just avoid a sinkhole.