Using Themes And Focus To Innovate In Genre Fiction – A Ramble

Well, I thought that I’d talk about one way to make your genre fiction (eg: horror, sci-fi, thriller, detective, fantasy etc.. fiction) story stand out from the crowd. I am, of course, talking about using different themes and/or having a different focus than many other stories in your chosen genre.

This was something that I ended up thinking about whilst reading a really interesting sci-fi novel from 2014 called “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers that I’ll probably review fully in a couple of days time. Needless to say, this article will contain some mild SPOILERS for this novel.

One of the interesting things about this novel is that, although it contains all of the stuff that you’d expect from a traditional sci-fi story (eg: futuristic technology, spaceships, alien civilisations, galactic alliances/politics etc…), the focus and themes of the novel are surprisingly different to what you’d typically expect to see in traditional sci-fi.

Whilst the main focus of many sci-fi stories is on “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and maths) stuff, this novel tends to focus more on “the humanities” (eg: languages, empathy, culture, introspection, imagination, art etc..) and this makes a surprisingly large difference to the story.

It changes the atmosphere, mood, style etc… of the story in a really interesting way. To give one small example, when the main characters’ spaceship is boarded by space pirates, this situation isn’t resolved with a dramatic laser battle or through technological trickery.

Instead, it is resolved by the fact that the ship’s clerk can speak a second language and has just enough historical/cultural knowledge to come up with a way of persuading the heavily-armed pirates to steal much less than they’d originally planned to. It’s a really tense and dramatic scene that catches the reader off-guard whilst also coming across as more “realistic” than many things in the sci-fi genre do.

And all because the author made a decision to write a sci-fi story that focuses more on humanities than on STEM. It’s a brilliantly subversive take on the genre – especially given that we live in an age where STEM stuff often tends to be valued more and seen as more “useful” than humanities stuff.

Even the fact that this is a novel (eg: a “low tech” storytelling medium that requires the audience to think, empathise and imagine) is a part of this change in focus – since the structure, style, pacing, tone, atmosphere etc.. of the story is designed specifically for the strengths of the written word. In other words, it does loads of subtle and large-scale stuff that can’t really be done in more “high tech” storytelling mediums like film, television, videogames etc…

So, one way to tell an innovative genre story that will surprise your readers and linger in their memories is to look at the themes and focus of your chosen genre and try to do something a bit different with them. But, not only does this require a good knowledge of the genre you’re writing in (so, get reading) but it also has to be done for a good reason too.

In order for your reader to not only get used to the change, but to actually consciously notice it, your reason for changing the genre’s themes/focus has to matter to you enough for it to shape the entire story in a profound way. It has to be something that is important enough to your story that your story wouldn’t really “work” without the change.

But, how do you think of an interesting change? Well, the easiest way of doing this is to look at what is wrong with the genre you are planning to write in. When you spot a large enough deficiency, oversight or problem that annoys you enough to actually make you notice it, then you have the beginnings of your story’s change.

But, although changing the themes and focus of your story can be a great way to innovate, you still have to handle this well. In other words, you still need to write your story in a way that people will still want to read even if they are a bit surprised or confused by the changes you have made. Things like characterisation, atmosphere, worldbuilding, good writing etc… matter even more than usual when you’re doing something innovative.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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