Posts Tagged ‘story structure’

As readers we crave closure. When that is threatened, as when an ongoing series is cancelled or its author dies, we feel disappointed or even cheated. And as writers we work toward closure, using structures that will provide readers with a satisfying ending.

But is there another sense in which, with science fiction and fantasy in particular, one aim is to avoid closure and open up a never-ending imaginary world?

Tolkien and Openendedness

In his essay ‘The Interlaced Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘*, Richard C West argued that Tolkien’s novel created an effect “that might be called openendedness, whereby the reader has the impression that the story has an existence outside the confines of the book and that the author could have begun earlier or ended later, if he chose”.

I think West’s argument ignores some essential features of the book he’s discussing, but it still raises an interesting point. Part of the appeal of Tolkien’s work is that it implies a far larger world and history, one which readers could explore both through his appendices and through their imaginations.

In a sense, Tolkien provides firm closure, seeing a great threat ended and Frodo leaving Middle Earth. But in another sense, The Lord of the Rings leaves many questions unanswered in the reader’s mind.

A Tradition of Imagination

We can see this in many other works of fantasy and science fiction. They lead us to imagine a world far beyond the borders of their narratives. In a sense, their stories usually have clear, decisive beginnings and ends. But in another sense, the best leave their worlds open through the wealth of barely explored detail they provide.

Perhaps this is part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy – that it invites us to imagine beyond its boundaries in a way not all fiction can.

What do you think? Do science fiction and fantasy somehow avoid closure? And is this distinctive to these genres?

* Published in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell.

I enjoyed the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower fantasy series, with its broken narrative and its intriguing ideas. I loved the second volume, with its intense study of a small group of characters, their personal struggles and their developing relationships. So I was really looking forward to the third volume.

Unusual setting, decent story

This story, which follows the Gunslinger Roland and his companions on the way to the Dark Tower, is very much a quest story. More coherent than the first volume, and a more conventional fantasy narrative than the second, the most interesting aspects lie in the details of the world. The characters take a familiar journey from A to B through various dangers, but the details of the world are unusual. It’s a mishmash of fantasy, science fiction, western and modern settings, with some horror elements in the mix.

More conventional makes for less interesting

The problem for me lies in the expectation set by the previous two volumes. By comparison with the intense character studies of the The Drawing of the Three, the familiar quest narrative is just OK. Like Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics, this is combining familiar and comfortable structures with more unusual elements, but in a way that doesn’t excite me.

If this had been the first volume I probably would have been excited by the novelty of the setting, and let the quest story carry me through that. But as a third volume it felt disappointing.

The awesome bits

I still enjoyed this novel a lot. It may not be great, but it is good.

And King’s ambition here is great. Like the new weird, this combines elements in unexpected ways. Questions are raised about the relationship between the real world and that of the Gunslinger, a relationship which is complex and currently unresolved. We see how people respond when their world falls apart. The disparate genre elements unsettle and excite, promising exhilarating new experiences that they come within a hair’s breadth of delivering.

I read a blog post yesterday in which Jacqui Murray identified an optimistic view of the future as a feature of steampunk. While I’m not sure that optimism is essential to steampunk it is a common feature, a way of making the problems of Victorian society comfortable, shunning the darkness of colonialism and factory labour in favour of bold excitement. Steampunk can explore darker places, and can become more interesting by doing so, but it’s a more risky approach, and so less common.

In the same way, it feels like King has taken the safe route with this volume, and in doing so created something I enjoyed but wasn’t blown away by. I’m hoping for more next time.

Anybody else read this book? What did you think?