Breaking Things (#SFWApro)

I read a post last year (now down so I can’t link to it) that argued the key to writing great speculative fiction was to take your premise and then break it: Figure out what happens if the premise technology/magic/whatever fails.
I wasn’t terribly impressed by this. It seemed mostly just a way of saying something has to go wrong for you to have a story. Your foolproof tech breaks down, your perfect robbery goes south (they’ve installed new guards, put in a time-lock safe, whatever), your perfect marriage falls apart, your perfect government shows flaws, etc.
But reading Jim Hines’ Codex Born it strikes me “break the premise” can be an effective trick in a fantasy (or SF) series (detailing it requires some spoilers. You’ve been warned)
(Art by Gene Mollica, rights with current holder).
Hines’ first libriomancer novel established the premise: Isaac, the protagonist, has the power to draw magic out of books. He belongs to an order, the Twelve Porters, founded by Gutenberg. The world has no idea they, or magic, exist. Something evil and nasty is trying to reach our world through books and Gutenberg has assigned Isaac to investigate.
Codex Born turns most of that on its head.
For one thing we learn that Gutenberg is a lot darker than he looked. The plot of the book is propelled by an Asian libriomancer sect that predates Gutenberg and that he personally wiped out centuries ago (he insists it’s for the greater good).
For another, Isaac ends up losing his magical abilities at the book’s end. And the magical battle has gone so public, even libriomancer mind-wiping can’t hide that something impossible went down.
And Isaac finds his own understanding of magic challenged in the course of the book. People keep doing things he thought were impossible, such as using ebooks for libriomancy (as explained in the story, it’s not supposed to work).
I’m not suggesting “break the premise” should be a rule for series. Plenty of series I enjoy follow the same premise book after book, but I still like them. Others change things over the course of the series arc but without violating any fundamental premise. And changing the premise may make things worse. Part of what turned me off Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books was that the premise changed from hunting supernatural threats to Anita becoming increasingly supernatural herself. The more she moved away from the human, the less it worked.
As mystery novelist Lawrence Block once put it, if the same thing keeps selling, there’s no reason for a writer not to keep writing it. Having a steady income in this business is a rare thing.
But I’m glad Hines decided to shake things up some.


Filed under Reading, Writing

2 responses to “Breaking Things (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Recent reading (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Should magic have a price? Revisionary by Jim C. Hines | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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