Occasionally writers will ask me, “Am I writing science fiction, fantasy, or something else?”
Science fiction is more than advanced technology, spaceships, or aliens, and fantasy is more than magic or supernatural creatures. Genre elements attract readers aliens, dragons, spaceships, elves, and zombies are fun. But for your book to get its hooks into readers, those genre elements need the support of a genre plot.
Successful science fiction and fantasy books tend to have similarities in their plots. In most popular fiction, and I’m talking broad strokes here, this is not a hard and fast rule but a set of guidelines, characters go through some variation of these events, generally in this order:
-A conflict shows up right away in the main character’s life, usually on page one or shortly thereafter
-The character (or characters) must actively seek out solutions to their problems
-Problems get worse, and disparate problems turn out to be related, or even aspects of the same problem
-The main character must make a hard choice with serious possible repercussions this is the climax of their external problems and their emotional journey and things generally turn out well in popular fiction, but there’s often some sense of loss to balance out the win
-Possibly there’s some winding down of emotions and external problems, perhaps leaving an opening for a future book to pick up. And that’s a complete, emotionally satisfying genre novel.
But don’t despair, if you’ve realized your plot follows a different course!
Unless you’ve meticulously outlined and structured the novel before you wrote it, chances are you needed to get the first draft out and you learned about the characters and the world as you went. Plotting by the seat of your pants can be the most fun way to write, but it’s not necessarily the most efficient way to keep your readers on the edge of their seats.
That’s where craft comes in, when writing popular fiction.
But if crafting your work into a science fiction or fantasy plot doesn’t feel right, it may be that you’re writing literary fiction with genre elements. The problem (at least in terms of traditional publishing) is that literary fiction with genre elements is considered to be a harder sell. Readers tend to have certain expectations about the kind of plot they’ll get when they see genre elements, and I find that writers are often learning how to plot as they go. So I recommend that writers consider the above formula as a tested way to meet reader expectations when writing popular fiction.
Former Locus editor, AMY BENNETT is a critically acclaimed and agented novelist with knowledge of both the craft and the business of science fiction, fantasy, and horror publishing.