VI. Beauty And Truth And All That Jazz
A successful metaesthetic formalism has scalar consistency between mechanical, narrative, and thematic elements.
Generally when we speak of consistency in fiction we mean temporal consistency. The rules should stay the same from beginning to end. If you have dragons in a story, then the entire story has to be dragon friendly. You can’t bring them in at the end without letting the audience know from the first that this is the sort of story that might have dragons in it.
There are basically two reasons that temporal consistency is violated, either the author (or authors) don’t pay close attention to the work and forget the rules laid out in chapter one by the time that chapter twenty-seven rolls around, or the author is trying to come up with a shock/twist/unearned happy ending to make up for weak storytelling. Both are unforgivable.
Scalar consistency, however, is an entirely different kettle of bloodsucking electric eels. It’s apples and oranges all the way down and we can’t say why certain things go together, except that they do.
I’ve divided the stylistic elements that must work well together into Mechanical, Narrative, and Thematic, but be advised that those are broad categories with fuzzy edges.
Mechanical Style refers to such things as word choice, sentence structure, sentence length, paragraph length, dialect of vocabulary and grammar.
Narrative Style talks about the kind of story that you’re telling, Cozy Romance, Survival Horror, Whodunit, Wilderness Adventure. It’s also about how you tell the story, whether it’s boy meets girl and the rest is history, or you tell it like a murder mystery.
Thematic Style is the big picture stuff. It’s what Aesop’s Fables call “the moral of the story” or old style situation comedies mean when they say, “I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson today…” And while it doesn’t have to be as blatant as the title of Berenstain Bears book, there is an applied ethical calculus that is conveyed by the metaesthetics of a work of fiction. (Even when it is as simplistic as “Don’t Look In The Basement”.)
You’ll notice that I don’t mention such things as character and setting here, because they cross stylistic lines. A trope like “Republic Serial Villain” includes mechanical issues (how the character speaks and is described) narrative issues (the part the character plays in the story) and thematic issues (what the character symbolizes and how the character ends up).
Setting is likewise cross-stylistic. One certainly could write a story set in Utah in 1883 that featured a protagonist who betrayed his comrades, shirked his obligations, and ran from any hint of danger. You might even claim it was a “Western” based on the setting. But would it be a story that would make you want to strap on a pair of cap guns and a tin star and ride your broomstick horse into the hills to chase Black Bart?
I’m thinking not so much.
Big Sky Country just goes with a Heroic Ethos in the same way that peanut butter goes with jelly. One could argue about whether that’s because of the work of John Ford and other Western filmmakers has created that connection in the mass consciousness or whether those directors tapped into a connection that was already present (I tend towards the latter explanation, myself) but the question isn’t really relevant. It’s a time tested formulation, and you can work with it or work against it (Sergio Leone comes to mind as a director who managed to swim upstream and make it work) but you must understand the connection to either fulfil it or subvert it. You can’t simply ignore it.
In the same way an abandoned mental hospital during a thunderstorm carries with it loads of thematic and narrative baggage. The reader develops a sense not only of what will happen, but of what should happen and the divergence between the actual and the ideal creates emotional impact from the sense of injustice conveyed. You don’t want the innocent to suffer and die, but you are sure they will.
My point is that the process of a metaesthetic jelling in such a way as to invite readers to explore it and authors to create in it, to become a “genre”, is an irreducibly holistic process. It’s not just “a great idea”, it is an interlocked weave of ideas. Everything is connected, and most of the connections are subtle matters of tone and mood. This is why so many deconstructions of classic works fall flat–the authors try to change one single element, like substituting tofu for lamb in a kabob, without altering the entire recipe globally.
Also, like cooking, there is a huge degree of latitude for personal taste. There are, for example, people who don’t believe that a grilled sharp cheddar cheese sandwich is improved by a healthy dollop of Remoulade Sauce. I can’t say that they are wrong, they are entitled to their own opinion. Provided I don’t have to touch them or anything.
So, in practical terms, am I really saying anything at all with the long series of rambling posts? Yes, I am.
What I am saying is that what we call genre is neither an inflexible set of rules that must be followed slavishly, nor an arbitrary list of conventions that can be mixed and matched at will. Genres are recipes that have been shown to work for a large number of people over a period of time. Looking at the recipes, taking them apart, trying new variations on old favorites, that is how art progresses, how new flavors are developed.
But first you have to understand and appreciate what has gone before.