A message arrived this morning from a reader of my book Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy:
The part of your book that interested me most is on plotting. Over some years, I have accumulated materials dealing with atmosphere, decor (futuristic), and ideas (on painting). I am now trying to convey those through fiction, so I was reading attentively your advice on the matter (which I partly knew from your site).
I already found storyboarding and letters to myself useful. But I am having difficulty with some of the principles of plotting: following thrust and counterthrust, the hero must finally take charge, and throughout the story, scenes must strive towards this end.
I am not very familiar with SF, but P. K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle," for instance, does not quite fit this mould. There is not much plotting, or even, in this case, a 'hero'. It looks like PK Dick is more concerned with describing a world and exposing some ideas through characterization. Isn't it also the case in Gibson's "Neuromancer"?
When the goal is to describe an atmosphere, set a (futuristic) decor, and expose ideas through fictional characters, plotting is not so important, it seems. I was looking for guiding principles that would help keep the story flowing, rather than disperse in a bunch of scenes loosely put together.
I should start by confessing my bias: I'm a very plotty writer. I subscribe to Northrop Frye's view that the first half of a story is a prophecy about the second half. So I like to make sure that even the minor details in a story have some kind of "payoff" before the end.
For example, I went to some trouble in Henderson to establish a local night patrol run by the homeless people squatting across the street from Mike Henderson's building. Such a patrol seems like a logical development given the economic mess that my world is suffering in the year 2030.
But I don't want just a plausible detail; I want the night patrols to play some part in the outcome of the story.
Anti-Plot Elements in SF
But I know that SF comes from a genre with almost no interest in plot. Menippean satire, also known as "anatomy," was originally a kind of scholars' game: a literary examination of the world as seen through a single idea. More's Utopia is such an anatomy. The plot is almost non-existent: A European traveler, returned from his journeys, tells some friends about the remarkable island of Utopia and its unusual social customs.
The same is true of other anatomies, from Gulliver's Travels to Erewhon to modern satires like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home. Orwell could be a master plotter, but he was also quite prepared to hit the brakes when he wanted to deliver a lecture. For example, Winston sits in his little love nest reading "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism" for pages and pages while O'Brien is about to pounce.
(This is another convention of anatomy, by the way: documents are always critically important to the story. In Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, the novel is itself written by a survivor of the world disaster, and it discusses a religious text, "The Book of Bokonon," at great length. And in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the narrative written by Offred is the subject of an academic conference centuries later.)
Getting Beyond Plot
Of course modern SF isn't just anatomy; it's a hybrid, with ancestry also going back to the kind of Beowulfian romance where the hero is larger than life and battles inhuman foes. That's where the plottiness comes from.
But you could consider a more sophisticated kind of plotting.
The basic purpose of plot is to dramatize an array of character traits, attitudes and skills that the hero must have if he (or she) is to face the climax fully equipped. Every scene should show the hero meeting a challenge and responding in a way that shows one or more of those traits, attitudes and skills. And every scene therefore leads us (as every story does) from a state of ignorance to one of awareness.
Can Frodo cast the One Ring into Mount Doom? Well, he sure couldn't if Mount Doom were located as close as Bree; he needs to face a lot of smaller challenges first, against increasingly difficult opponents and circumstances. Only then can he face the worst opponent of all, himself. We follow his progress from self-ignorance to self-awareness.
Well, it ought to be possible to go back to the Menippean roots of the genre and carry our readers from another kind of ignorance to another kind of awareness. We might construct a plot in which that trip to awareness does not depend on a hero's challenges, but on the reader's discoveries.
Perhaps we want to show a future world whose decor, culture and art are all extrapolations from our world, but which throw a very different light on what we might take for granted. Our protagonist might be (for example) a museum curator or gallery owner who is simply going about his business. He may be no more aware at the end of the story than he is at the end of any typical day.
But as we look at his world through his eyes, we do indeed move from ignorance to awareness. The art on the gallery walls has evolved from ours in ways that we (but not the owner) recognize.
To take an example from More, the Utopians speak a patois of Greek and Latin, acquired from ancient castaways. This is a throwaway line in the book, but it would have had great significance to More's highly literate contemporary readers: the implication is that if pagans speaking pre-Christian languages could order their affairs so well, Christians should be ashamed not to have done much better.
(A morally significant language is another convention of anatomy; consider Orwell's Newspeak as an example.)
In such a story, the reader actually knows more than the characters do, which makes the story ironic. The gallery owner may gloat over a genuine Campbell's Soup ad from a Life magazine circa 1952. He thinks it's a superb achievement of its time, on a par with the Sistine Chapel ceiling. (I recall a Star Trek movie that did something similar: Having returned to the 20th century, Kirk and Spock congratulate themselves on being in the era of literary greats like Irving Wallace.)
When we move from ignorance about the dealer's taste to awareness, we feel shock and perhaps contempt. But we should also re-examine our own assumptions about what makes great art, and that may bring us to sympathize with the dealer.
This is what anatomy tries to do: To make us reconsider what we usually take for granted about our world. In its classical form, anatomy doesn't need a traditional plot; it only needs to lead us from one shock to another, until we have either changed our minds or found better reasons than we used to have for accepting the world as it is.
Would a story with such a plot be publishable in today's market? If so, it would have to rigorously avoid being classed as science fiction. Instead it would need to appear as "speculative" or even "avant-garde" fiction; something that Borges might have dashed off, or Calvino. Commercial SF publishers still want Beowulf clanking through a routine plot, slaying routine monsters.