Literature and Genre-Fiction or Why You Shouldn’t Write About Flying Cars When Regular Ones Will Do
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
One of the first stories I wrote for a Fiction class concerned two brothers and a flying car. In the story, the older brother attempts to teach his younger brother how to drive the car before he is old enough, as parents or older brothers will often do. The younger brother in a panic crashes the car and kills his own brother. In his own guilt, he takes drugs to wipe his memory, but accidentally recovers the very memory some years later.
For those of you unfamiliar with a workshop class, you sit quietly as your peers discuss your written work, having read it beforehand. Did the piece do what you intended it to accomplish? If it was intended to be humorous, did you laugh? If it was supposed to be horrific, were you frightened? They might go on to offer advice on how to achieve your goals or muse about what they would have liked to happen. How you take the advice is up to you, but you cannot object. You simply listen to it all and wait for all the notes, the copy-editing done on your piece, to come back to you.
"Every car must fly."—Jeff Kaplan
Towards the end of the workshop on my piece, one of my peers piped up, “Well, Why does it have to be a flying car. Why not a regular car?” To my horror, my instructor agreed. She said, “There’s some more world-building that needs to be done to justify the flying car.” Why did I think it was necessary to the story? I think to some degree, it was the idea of a world where forgetting trauma was more important than the rest of your memories and that needed to take place in the future. Flying cars said “future” without the world building. It said “fun” without the work of explaining the logistics. I’m not the only one that ever thought this, I’m sure. Some years later, Jeff Kaplan would say that he and his team created the game Overwatch with a single rule, “Every Car Must Fly.”
In pursuit of making it work, I took up a book by Orson Scott Card called How to Write Science-Fiction and Fantasy. I read all about milieu and world-building and all the logistical choices you have to consider based on your genre—namely “how does space travel work when you consider speed of light travel?” and “what is the role of magic when you have much to lose from using it?” With all these ideas about milieu floating around in my head, I did a rough outline of what I wanted my first fantasy novel to look like.
While writing out the initial scenes, I had my main character dispose of something. I thought, into what? In the middle-ages they tossed their trash out onto the street, yes? Do they have wastebaskets in fantasy-land? In fantasy-land, where everything goes, loosely based in the middle-ages, where do they put their trash? I just couldn't settle on it. Doesn't that seem silly? But you have to make decisions like this between the real middle ages and our sort of collective fantasy idea of the middle ages.
In all honesty, I learned that I was not interested in the world-building aspect, all the writing that goes into a universe before you can write your story. But to write fantasy and science-fiction, you must be interested in these steps or it’s going to be carried by uninspired tropes like “flying cars.”
The point of fantasy and science fiction is just that—you recognize the themes and tropes that make up the genre, and you put your own spin on those pre-existing ideas. New writers love this, as I did, because much of the story has been done already. In a Romantic Comedy, the guy and the girl must dislike each other at the beginning and get together by the end. In your epic, the band of friends must defeat the evil empire. In your horror story, the lone virgin must learn about the monster’s origin and overcome it. Deviating from this and going outside of the genre, besides in parody, betrays the fan-base who expect certain things to happen in the reading.
This is the reason why one of my professors put at the beginning of his syllabus, “No elves!” It’s not that you can’t write good speculative fiction, but for it to be “literary,” it must have an original theme, not a pre-conceived general one. It must have character development and not just ride on interesting plot hooks and static characters. The fundamentals must be open to discussion. The point of a workshop class is, after all, focusing on the fundamentals of writing: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, the setting, the point of view, the conflict, and so on. If the genre prevents you from improving your fundamentals, then it makes it impossible or simply too difficult to critique. You would be better suited by reading a book or taking a class on world-building rather than showing up to a workshop that you are unable to listen to.
So, to return to my flying cars, I recognized on that day in workshop, the drama and energy of my story was not coming from the world I was creating, but from the relationship of the brothers and the conflict of childhood guilt. To tell that story, I needed cars to crash, but I did not need them to fly. In some stories, the speculative is necessary. The main character needs to find himself as a “horrible vermin” instead of just being unable to get out of bed one morning. For now, it seems that my stories are better off when they don’t stray into the speculative so much. Vermin remain vermin, and salesmen remain salesmen.
About the Author:
I'm a short fiction writer currently working on publishing all the short fiction from grad school that I still very much like. In addition to reading and writing, I love playing games, cooking with my wife, and hanging out with our two cats—D'mitri and Ophelia. If you got something out of my article, or if you just flat-out disagree with it, feel free to leave me a comment below.