Story Illusions — For the Hundredth [or so] Time!

I have been known to stand and lecture from soapboxes. I have even been known to pile soapbox upon soapbox and reinforce those soapboxes with yet other soapboxes… and I’m certainly going to reinforce that impression with what follows.

Point number one: There are no new plots. Heinlein said this almost forty years ago, and all too many readers, and even some writers, don’t understand this. There are twists on basic plots; there is window-dressing of all sorts; but the basic plots are still limited. They are: (1) the love story [all kinds of love stories]; (2) the man/woman/AI/alien who learned something; (3) the little shot who becomes a big shot [and the reverse is the classical tragedy]; and (4) the mindless adventure story [otherwise known as the video/board game or James Bond plot, although some would claim it isn’t a plot at all]. The first three plots can be combined; the fourth plot cannot be combined with anything except box office or other receipts.

Point number two: Books without plots have a strong tendency not to sell.

Point number three: The majority of readers prefer books with recognizable plots and characters that appeal to their individual tastes. Because individuals do differ in tastes, there are a number of genres, subgenres, and the like in fiction, and different authors often have differing reader bases.

Point number four: The vast majority of readers want to be entertained, and that entertainment is usually based on plot, characters, events, and structure that meet their needs. Some readers prefer their entertainment to be thought-provoking, but usually it’s only thought-provoking if they happen to agree with the author.

Point number five: Entertaining readers is not a crime; it’s not even a sin. Not entertaining them is occupational suicide, because successful writers must appeal to a certain minimum number of readers, or publishers will no longer publish and distribute their books.

There are scores of good and competent authors who are no longer published because their books did not sell. There are even authors who, editors claim, are exceptional and who do not sell commercially. But, exceptional or not, to survive, an author needs an audience.

Behind all these points is a simple overriding one. Taken in terms of a world-wide perspective [or a galactic one], there are not that many different approaches in basic structure in the books written in any given language, nor in plot. The differences lie in the skill of the writer in presenting the story… and in the receptivity of the readers.

So… when a reader or reviewer claims an author used a hackneyed plot, that’s a cop-out. All plots are hackneyed. What they’re trying to say is that they didn’t like the way the writer presented the plot, or perhaps more accurately, that the writer wasn’t successful in creating the illusion of newness or difference, at least for them… or that they really don’t know why they didn’t like the book, and opted for a convenient excuse for a reason.

There is also a certain faction among readers and reviewers that decries the “endless series” and/or “doorstopper” fantasies, yet I certainly don’t see that criticism in the cases of endless sitcoms, endless TV series, or forever dragged-out miniseries… or in other genre fiction. The only real differences are that there’s a lot more money [and special effects] in the television series… and that generally the science or the fantasy in the endless books is better. As for the criticism that “endlessness” shouldn’t apply to F&SF books… why not?

Along this line, there’s essentially no difference between an author who writes an “endless” series and one who writes the same characters, structure, and plot time after time with different character and place names and different settings. In fact, sometimes the “series” author might be the more honest one, because he or she isn’t trying to give an illusion of difference that doesn’t exist.

And… finally… readers and reviewers who complain that books whose plots and characters they have just dissected in detail are “unreadable” are either lying or don’t understand the meaning of “unreadable,” which, in turn, suggests strongly that their comments should not just be taken with a grain of salt, but that they and their comments should be interred in the salt mine.

And now… it’s time to put away the soapboxes… for at least a while.