Monday, September 24, 2007

Exotic Writing, Part 2

Are these the rules and principles for salting your stories with exotic imagery that works? Let me know what you think.

1: The exotic is anything that readers haven’t directly experienced, but given the expansion of the media in everyone’s life the exotic is getting harder to find. A decade ago a burkha would have seemed exotic to most Americans. Much less so now. Modern writers must work harder to find the exotic. This may mean turning established imagery on its head. For example, vampires began in literature as villains, but increasingly have become heroes.

2: Any scene must be primarily realistic and not exotic. Just like a small child wants to know where its mother is before it begins to explore, so a reader needs to have the comfort of the familiar before being introduced to the exotic. In horror fiction, the monster is typically depicted as coming out of a realistic setting. People know what woods look like. They know what an old house looks like. The monster is the exotic element.

3. The more realistic a scene is in general, the greater the impact the exotic element(s) will have.

4. The exotic quickly becomes the familiar. There was a time in America where men found the sight of a woman’s ankle terribly erotic. There was a time when any sexual position other than missionary was considered terribly kinky. That time is not now, unless someone is having sex with someone else’s ankle in a bathroom.

5. Although magical realism may be an exception, the exotic works best when it has a logical explanation, even if it is a slender explanation. I wonder, however, whether this is more something in me than in the average reader. To this day, for example, I can’t buy Kafka’s Metamorphosis because the guy just wakes up and he’s a cockroach. I can buy a shape shifting alien, a demon from Hell, a vampire far easier. There is at least some conceivable explanation for such things, although they require the assumption of things that we have no scientific evidence for. There is no possible explanation for how a guy living in a normal everyday world would wake up as a giant cockroach. Thus, to me, the Metamorphosis is far less realistic than any other fantasy I’ve ever read.

Well, I think there are more principles/rules but this is all I have time for today. Will there be a part 3? Who knows. Maybe one will magically appear on my computer overnight while I sleep.


steve on the slow train said...

Since Kafka was writing allegory rather than fantasy (which really hadn't emerged as a genre in his time), I'd cut him a little slack. But otherwise I think your arguments are well-reasoned.

Michael D.C. Drout says that science fiction requires a logical explanation for everything , where in fantasy, you can just say, "I have a magic ring." Maybe that's explanation enough, but the Harry Dresden books seem more believable because the author explains magic as a channeling of natural forces.

I like your idea of contrasting the realistic with the exotic, and your rule that the exotic can quickly become the familiar.

As for having sex with someone else's ankle in a bathroom--does the bathroom or the ankle make it kinky? Or was that what Larry Craig was trying to do?

Angie said...

Charles -- I generally agree with number two but I think there are various values of "realistic." :) In SF, for example, you can make quite a lot about your setting exotic if you also make it clear just how we got from here to there. That is, if it's clear that what's different is different for logical reasons and that everything fits together somehow, even if some of the exact hows and whys aren't revealed till later as part of the story.

With one and four, I think a lot of it has to do with your audience. Like in your last post, you mentioned that you were a country kid and I said I grew up in cities. So a story set on a farm or in a downtown area, deeply immersed in its setting, would strike us differently because of our experiences. Or would've twenty years ago, at least.

But it's like, an SF story published in Analog needs a lot less explanation, and can assume a lot more knowledge of science and tech on the part of the readers, than say an SF story published in Playboy. Although the Playboy story will pay a lot better. :)

The different audiences will have different experiences and expectations, though, and what would be perfect for the Analog audience, with a lot of familiar features and just enough of the exotic to be interesting, would have your average Playboy reader lost and confused, drowning in too much unexplained exoticness.

About five, I'm with you on Kafka. I know it's a classic and all, but I just have a hard time buying that sort of thing. A fantasy editor once said, "You want your readers to suspend their disbelief, not hang it by the neck until it's dead." :D


Travis Erwin said...

This was an interesting read for me since I've never tackled this type of writing.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

For me exotic comes from stories set in different countries or different times. It is why I love historical fiction. It is a time unknown to the reader but which becomes familiar during the course of the reading. When you are using the term exotic, are you meaning strange or unrealistic action which jars the reader from his/her complacency?

Stacia said...

This is excellent! I especially like your analogy about a child seeing its mother before it can explore.

Erik Donald France said...

All good points. I'm with Steve on the Kafka, though. I guess it could be akin to waking up and realizing one has a debilitating disease -- something I hope never to experience.

alex keto said...

I think "exotic" is relative.

For Americans, taking part in a Japanese tea ceremony could be seen as exotic but it's run of the mill for the Japanese.

Likewise, you mentioned you grew up on a farm. For something like 96% of Americans, this is unusual.

But clearly if you can bring something across well that people are not familiar with, whether it is a Japanese tea ceremony or the Planet Beta-Test-Drive, then it will be intriguing to readers. Plot and characters are just two facets of a good story.

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve, all I can is, "ankles are underrated."

Angie, I like that editor's comment. And you're right, what is exotic for one group of readers is mundane for another. The audience has to be considered.

Travis, I started out having a hard time writing anything else, although now I do some realistic fiction as well.

Ello, by exotic I mean something that is unfamiliar and generally attractive or exciting to us for that reason. It doesn't have to be unrealistic. In fact, it should probably 'seem' realistic even if it isn't actually.

december/stacia, yes, I think readers have to start out grounded in a kind of familiarity. At least most readers most of the time.

Erik, I think you and Steve are cutting Kafka too much slack, although you are certainly in good company doing so. I have friends who consider it a masterpiece. I'm missing that, I'm afraid.

Alex, yes, you're right. Kind of like with the Burkha. I know a lot of Americans who are fascinated by such things as the Japanese tea ceremony. I believe the exotic nature of it is a major part, exotic to us that is.

SzélsőFa said...

To me, exotic is when something not-so-much-expected happens, like out of nowhere, like a man, turning into a giant nasty insect. The ultimate of horrors.
That said, I'm not really a fan of Kafka :)

I like all the other reasons.
I vote to have part 3.

Bernita said...

Not sure I would define exotic as merely the unfamiliar. I think it may also have to be largely unknown or semi-secret.
But I generally agree.
The beauty of magic realism is that, despite some assumptions, there is not one magic code of laws or rites of observance - so a thin colour of logic is sometimes all that is necessary - as long as there are no obvious internal contradiction in the "science."
Really like Angie's quote.

Drizel said...

hahahah...humping ankle in a bathroom, that can be a comedy. I do not even venture my poetry I try and depict some stuff, maybe one day.
Great points Charles:)

Lisa said...

It's interesting that exotic is usually something I think of as being of "foreign" origin, foreign being relative. With mass communications it's getting harder to find something truly exotic in reality, although I still find anything different from Western culture to be in that category for me specifically.

I have to go with Steve and Eric on the Kafka -- but I think you and I have disagreed on this particular story before :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Szelsofa, thanks for dropping by. I think there's a tie between exotic and surreal at some level, although I need to think more about it.

Bernita, I thnk the exotic has something sensual about it too. Obviously I need a lot more thought on the subject.

etain, yes, I shouldn't have ventured there myself.

Lisa, yes, foreign or alien is an element of the exotic. You are forgiven for siding with Steve and Erik on Kafka. You're all three young after all. ;)

cs harris said...

Good post. I think you're right, so much is taken over the top these days--the violence in slasher movies being only one example.

A long time ago, a writer friend recommended Steven King as someone who does a wonderful job portraying a safe, normal world into which creeps horror. It may be a big part of his huge success.

Michelle's Spell said...

I love your comments on this stuff. I once read somewhere that readers want to know what is strange about what seems normal and what is normal about what seems strange. Seems like good writing advice to me -- and maybe helpful in thinking about exotic versus familiar.