Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How Subgenres of Speculative Fiction Relate

Sometimes I've kind of wondered about the genre category of "speculative fiction" because it seems to be a collection of seemingly unrelated things. Basically, you can fit into spec fiction if your story can't be "real," but that leaves a broad range of styles. The four most common forms of spec fiction are: fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, and horror. I think most people are fairly familiar with the first three categories and what distinguishes them, so I'll spend most of my post today on the "horror" category. (If you already know the basics of the subcategories, don't bore yourself and skip down until "But...")

  • Fantasy - Fantasy tends to be just that - things that are fake and often magic-based. Usually we think of magical creatures, like dragons, wizards, elves, etc. (think Lord of the Rings). These types of stories tend to have a medieval setting (though not always). There are also stories of urban magical series that are more modernized, but still have a magical feel to them (think Mortal Instruments or Iron Fey series). And a less-known subcategory of fantasy involves a medieval setting without magic, but a storyline that couldn't or didn't happen.
  • Science Fiction (sci fi) - These are the stories where advanced technology plays a significant role in the story. There tends to be two branches: the alien stories (like Ender's Game), and everything else. A subgenre of sci fi that I particularly enjoy is dystopian stories (think Hunger Games or Divergent).
  • Paranormal - These are your ghost stories. Things beyond our world/realm interact with us somehow.
  • Horror is basically a story that "scares" you. That's its whole purpose.  
Now, these divisions aren't perfect. They frequently cross over each other. Which is probably why all these genres are grouped together into one parent genre. More and more modern authors are blurring the lines between fantasy and science fiction (like in Cinder). And is a zombie a case of advanced medical technology or epidemic gone wrong? Or is it a terrifying monster? And many people find ghosts frightening. 

But...

I realized a very fundamental difference between Horror and the other subgenres that is remarkably practical. That's really what I want to share with you. I think what really sets horror apart from the other stories - at least from a writer's perspective - is how a story scares you.

I've been reading collections of horror short stories off and on for a year or so. But it wasn't until a couple of months ago that everything clicked when I read a story that actually scared me.

I was reading a Stephen King story in the book 999. Basically in this story, the main character is intrigued by a strange painting at a garage sale, which he purchases. As he drives home, he looks at the painting from time to time, and the background always changes to show where he has traveled. (I'll tell you no more as I don't want to ruin the story...but it's Stephen King, after all.) I was reading this story in bed just before I went to sleep, which has never made a difference before. (I have a pretty strong constitution when it comes to consuming books.)  

I got halfway through the story, and I got creeped out. I had to put the story down and not finish it.  It wasn't that I was scared of noises in my house or anything like that. But I could see the direction the story was going, and I knew what (roughly) was going to happen. And I knew if I kept reading this story, I would have terrible, strange dreams all night long.

I knew the story was all pretend. And I've read horror stories my whole life, starting probably with the Scary Stories series, graduating to Goosebumps, and finally Christopher Pike and YA R.L. Stine. So if it was all fake, and I knew that, why was I creeped out so badly I had to put the story down?

And then it hit me.

Question: What scares us the most in real life? Answer: The things we don't understand. 
Question: What scares us the most in books? Answer: The things we don't understand.

All stories in the spec fiction genre have fantastical things that happen. But the difference is that horror is the only genre that does not answer how or why.

Don't believe me? Think about all the horror stories you've ever read. I did. And I don't think a single one of them really explained how the monster came to be. Instead it just appeared under the bed, or in the basement, or in the sewer with the sole intent of eating me. Or when terrible things happen to the main character, like bloody words on the wall, or - heaven forbid - a mysteriously changing painting, not once does the author take the time to explain how the blood appeared or what force is acting on the painting. It just happens.With no explanation.

And that scares the crap out of us.

Now think about sci fi, fantasy, or occasionally paranormal. All those genres have lots of space in them for explanation about how the technology works, or what types of magic are controlled by whom, or why there is suddenly a portal between the afterlife and today. In fact, there are classes at conferences and workshops about techniques on how to explain all these elements of your story. It's called world building, or sometimes fostering a magical economy.  

So the next time you really want to scare a reader, have something terrible and frightening happen. And then don't tell them why.