Vital Elements or Decorative Features?

Confession: today’s blog post is brought to you by procrastination.

Yes, I should be writing something else. To be fair, I’m doing my best to write something else, but that something isn’t quite cooperating at the moment. This doesn’t often happen to me with short stories. Normally they tumble out in a rushed heap of ideas and plot connections. Then comes the editing. But the one I’m writing at the moment isn’t playing by the rules.

It’s a sort of urban fantasy piece. Maybe part of the issue is that it’s been a while since I wrote a story I’d classify as fantasy. My last half-dozen or so stories have been science fiction. And there’s quite a difference in the execution of those two genres. The issue I’m struggling with is the fantasy element and how it contributes to the story as a whole. You can’t just throw in something weird/magical/otherworldly and call it a fantasy story. That aspect has to shape the story itself to the point that the whole thing would fall apart without it. If you can remove the fantasy (or, for that matter, science fictional) aspect from a story, yet still have a perfectly workable tale, then you’re not writing a fantasy (or sci-fi) story.

Imagine Star Wars without space travel or the Force. Doesn’t work. Imagine The Lord of the Rings without dark, all-powerful magic. Doesn’t work. Imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer without vampires or Battlestar Galactica without Cylons. Nope. Those elements aren’t just thrown in for fun. They’re crucial. There is no story without them.

But sometimes you have an idea which involves one of the aforementioned weird/magical/otherworldly elements, and along with it, you have the idea for a story. The two may interweave nicely, but not necessarily depend on one another. Or they might not interweave at all. Either way, you have a problem. You might have a story about high school kids, some of whom are vampires, but if, without changing any aspect of the plot, you can replace ‘vampires’ with pale, introverted outcasts, you just have a regular high school story. The speculative elements, be they sci-fi, fantasy, or horror, have to be more than props. They can’t just be superficial details that look shiny and intriguing on the surface but contribute nothing beyond that.

That’s what I’m trying to address in my current work-in-progress. The fantasy element is there, and it’s playing a role, but I’m not sure if the role it’s playing is enough. At the moment, I could remove it and still have a story. That’s not good. I’m mulling it over in the hope that I’ll figure out the story’s ending (which is currently sketchy) and in doing so, validate my speculative element.

I’m sure I can get it to work. I’m almost 4000 words in and committed to this thing now.

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4 thoughts on “Vital Elements or Decorative Features?

  1. Maybe it’s time to step away from it for a bit, or look at it from a different angle? I often find that brainstorming around the core concept, looking for takes on it that aren’t related to the story I had in mind, helps create new connection that weren’t there before, as does leaving it for a week or so to percolate in the back of me brain.

    1. Great advice. I tend to go the percolation route and normally get hit by a solution out of the blue, but brainstorming is another excellent method when really stumped. I think I’m working on a combination of both at the moment…

  2. I say that you can write something that isn’t genre if that’s the idea that’s coming to you right now. Could be a future sale to a mainstream literary mag if you’re worried about markets! 🙂

    1. Very true! It’s always great to keep one’s options open. This particular piece does have a distinct fantasy element, but it kind of went off in another direction at the same time. If I can get the two to interweave properly, I think it’ll work…

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