Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The End of the World In Fiction - Writing What Will Entertain

Art:  "Apocalypse" by Chris Martin/Velvet--Glove    
If you haven't already, please take a look at my first post on this topic, "The End of the World in Fiction - Obsessions and Responsibilities." It provides a little background for what I am going to write here. And that post makes it clear that I don't have any desire to hype works of fiction at the expense of the public's true perception of risk in their lives.

People want quality entertainment that appeals to their interests and tastes. When it comes to science fiction, fantasy, and horror, there are a lot of options for very entertaining 'End of the World' scenarios. How can a writer provide the best reading experience for people who enjoy this kind of subject?

Looking at the post from last week, it is clear that we need our main character to lead the reader through some of their own fears and misconceptions. Consider the idea that perception of control reduces sense of risk. If that is true, then our character or characters cannot be in complete control of the situation, or there is no tension, no sense of risk.

The second factor I mentioned was scale. A larger scale event is going to be considered more horrifying. Does that mean the galaxy being threatened is worse than the world? Or the entire universe being threatened is worse than just the galaxy? I am not certain about that. There still needs to be some innate understanding of what is in jeopardy. For most people, the world is everything.  What happens around other stars does not feel real enough to inspire fear. So if a writer intends to use the 'End of the World' scenario at truly huge scales, the reader must buy into the concerns of the characters, and must understand what is at stake.

Religious overtones will work well for some readers, and not others. While it seems that the inclusion of some kind of spiritual element, such as a prophesy, will generally increase the tension, the writer can't count on it working for all readers. Still, if your main character believes it, and within the context of the story prophesies can come true, then the reader may suspend their own disbelief and come along for that ride.

Naturally, the fear of the unknown is a huge driver in all of horror, mystery, thriller, and perhaps everything within the speculative genres at large. There has to be some element of the unknown, or readers will quickly become bored. In my experience, it isn't enough for the character to not know things, the reader must also not know things. Yet, if there is no structure at all, or no information given, the reader will become ungrounded, lost, and frustrated with the story. The writer must strike a balance.

And as a commenter noted on my last post, there are many other items to consider, such as the excitement/thrill factor, and the idea that one is living in a unique time or place. The former will come from a story that handles issues of control, the unknown, etc., with validity and good pacing. The latter is an interesting twist that can be included in any story, but has to be used with great care. It can feel much too contrived if our heroine has been destined from birth to Do Something Great. Writers must be more careful about how they bring the reader along, and make the reader feel special just for reading the book.

Next post I'll take a look at a few classic stories that do or do not follow these issues. Therein may (or may not) lie some insight into how to put together a story like this, and not just write the same old thing.


Image Credit:  "Apocalypse" used with generous permission from Chris Martin, Velvet--Glove on deviantART.

My comments: This work of art is dynamic, full of energy. The tones are of stone and earth, with lightning and a sense of lava. The movement feels like grinding, mixing, breaking, and the results are cracking and fire. The repetitive swirling elements impart a sensation that this continues on and on, or is part of a cycle of destruction. A great conceptual piece that leads to the idea of the 'End of the World' without literally portraying it. That gives us, the writers, lots of leeway in how we let it inspire us.

Artist comments:  " ... as I explored the possibilities of merged trap shapes and textures further it morphed into something resembling an end-of-the-world scenario. Not my usual thing at all but I actually quite enjoyed developing the atmosphere and drama of this image."


Andy said...

I'm not well-read in anything (except maybe non-fiction histories), but it seems that there's also room for another twist here: Sometimes the protagonists are trying to bring about what might seem like the end of the world to the bad guys (or public). For instance, the ramifications of the end of Dune (though I've never followed the sequels and only seen the movie!) for the global economy would be huge. The destruction of Sauron would have led to huge upheaval. In cases where the status quo is evil/unpleasant, "the end of the world (dynasty/country/government)" is in the eye of the beholder...

JA Grier (ee/em/eir) said...

Andy - That's a good perspective. I also didn't mention 'end of the world' scenarios that are potentially entirely of human device, like war or bio-weapons. For governments who have entirely built their societies around coping with a war, natural disaster, etc, the end of that situation will be a major turning point for them. Thanks for commenting!