Saturday, April 30, 2016

Narrative Convention as Setting

            I’ve been thinking lately, since I read Mishell Baker’s Borderline about how use of narrative conventions or tropes can reinforce the setting they occur in. Borderline is a perfect example of this: it’s a story about Hollywood, with a protagonist who used to be a director and almost all the characters, humans and fairies, are deep into the film business. One of the very elegant ways Baker folds the reader into that setting is to have the book follow the narrative conventions of film. Forgive me if I get some details wrong, since I’ve had to send the book back to the library. The film convention I’m talking about is mostly that of coincidence: of course our hero’s greatest directorial hero turns out central to the plot, of course she meets the sinister private eye as soon as she wanders to a coffee shop. The layering of chance meeting and narrative coincidence might feel forced or lazy in another context, but as I read, my only thought was everything was like a movie; it’s the kind of story Hollywood tells about itself.
            It’s something I think I’ve done a little in my own stories, unconsciously, but this idea that narrative conventions can reinforce a particular setting is something I want to start thinking about much more seriously, and I think it’s worth that kind of attention. The idea of a destined hero is a tired narrative trope, but it’s almost unavoidable when I write pieces inspired by celtic mythology; doom or geas is part of the story and characters in such a setting shouldn’t be surprised by it. That sort of awareness is key for using the narrative to reinforce the setting: it doesn’t feel like part of the milieu if characters notice and comment; they should take it as natural for things to proceed as they do. It’s that elegance which makes great cyberpunk so oppressive: the characters’ tacit acceptance that their struggles are futile, that the house will always win in the end. You don’t want to get cute with this and break the fourth wall with characters who know what kind of story they’re in, unless you’re aiming at humor or are Elizabeth Bear, and handle it much more elegantly than I can.

            So what’s the point? Really, the point is that I’m still figuring out new things about writing with every great book I read, and this is what Borderline helped me figure out. It’s a little different from simply following the genre conventions for the style of story you’re trying to tell. It’s more that a clear sense of place, both the place of the narrative and the place of the story in the spectrum of genre and style, opens up moves that wouldn’t work in other places. Heroes fated to destroy each other in tragic, glorious battle works in ancient Greece, but leaves a reader feeling cheated in prohibition-era Chicago. It’s just another little tool for hacking the brain, and it runs both ways. Moves that fit the setting reinforce it, setting that fits your moves make them seamless.

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