Sept. 29th, 2014:
Lament for a lost article.
Years ago I had an idea, a definition of sorts, of what made good fantasy/sci-fi (FSF), at least in my humble opinion. There was enough meat on this idea to write a whole article. I had clearly defined rules with opinions and explanations along with several examples to demonstrate them.
I was going to say that I had come to the realization that, for me, there is one essential element that separates the hackneyed from the masterful. That element is the setting. Nothing matters more than the universe the story is set in. Every story has plot, characters, descriptions, and dialog, but SFS is required to transport the reader to a whole new world. This is what defines the genre.
I even had a formula on how to get started. I was going to say that a good writer will plan the setting ahead of time. What is the land like? What kind of creatures are there? What does magic do? What DOESN'T it do? What kinds of technology do they have? Before you write a single word of prose, get all of these questions answered, get a set of rules down on paper. Next, reveal how the world works. Every chapter should show a piece at a time. Note: SHOW how it works through plots and events, not through exposition. About halfway through your plot structure, new rules should stop. The reader should understand how the world works and have developed a set of expectations. At this point a good author will mess with them, break them, create surprises.
I even had a section on what NOT to do: Do not, under any circumstances, rewrite the rules of the universe. Rules may be bent, or occasionally broken, as powerful protagonists are wont to do, but once you start redefining them on the fly you lose it all. Nothing is worse than a fantasy setting at the mercy of the plot. If an author choses to sacrifice the consistency of the rules in favor of the drama, I close the book. This just stinks of contrivance, fabrication, and artificiality. Star Trek is so guilty of this crime that every show feels like a new universe with a different set of rules unique to that one particular episode.
I daresay, it was a good article. But sadly, before it reached maturity, a writer by the name of Brandon Sanderson did it better. He defined two categories of FSF: hard and soft magic. Under his paradigm, I described "hard magic," where the universe is defined by rules. But he takes it a step further, adding a "soft magic" category, where Star Trek and Harry Potter are allowed to live in a world without rules, where the "sense of wonder" reigns supreme and the author gets to make things up along the way.
On the one hand I feel validated having come to the same conclusions as a master of the craft, but on the other hand my would-be article got upstaged :-(