Let me tell you something. Trying to write stories that stray from established conventions is hard.
The standard for fantasy adventure stories in the 21st century so far seems to be complex plots with multiple character arcs revolving around mysteries and escalating series of unexpected twists and reveals. I think Marvel movies and Game of Thrones are certainly not without blame in this, but I think you find it also in the other big stories of our age like Lost, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, or the Star Wars reboot. Shocking surprises are the name of the game and these tend to rely on multiple competing factions with unclear plans. Which isn’t a bad thing in any way, but not something that I care much for personally.
But when you set out to create your own work with an ambition for depth, strong themes, and cerebral content, it can be very difficult to not instinctively fall into this pattern that we encounter everywhere in contemporary media discussions.
As a critic, and when discussing writing with others, I have pretty clear ideas of what I consider high quality stories. Plots should be simple and effortless to follow. The core of a story really is the relationships between main characters. Twists and surprises are vastly overrated and generally only obscure the aspects that really matter. And as a reader I also know what I am really looking for. Evocative and wondrous places and creatures. Mythical encounters and situation. Abstract and surreal magic. And characters who display an insightful awareness of themselves and the situations around them. (Yeah, I think Princess Mononoke gets the full score here.)
But then I look at my current outline and it does not do any of these things. It’s just been three weeks since I wrote about how my appreciation of Sword & Sorcery with it’s short and simple plots has been a weight at me feet for years now, misleading me to try to make my ideas fit into a structure that is very much unsuited for them. You’d think putting my thoughts into writing this way would cement them into my brain, but apparently it didn’t. Not sure if I consider that particular outline to be still salvagable.
But all is not lost. Instead I see this as an opportunity to once more take a good look at my earliest ideas for what I really would want to write. Plot has always been my great bane while I see my greatest strengths in setting, locations, and creatures. Over the past half year, I had frequently been investigating the idea of writing stories that are not really about plot. But this very notion goes straight against conventional wisdom what story is. And it would be the complete opposite from the kind of storytelling that is currently dominating.
However, this weekend I did remember one very highly regarded, though today somewhat obscure writer, who did just that. Clark Ashton Smith wrote a sizable number of stories set in different strange worlds, like Hyperborea and Zothique, that consistently lacked anything worth mentioning regarding to plot. You can sum up almost all of them as a character walking through a strange place and then suddenly getting eaten by a grotesque monster. I like Hyperborea much more than Zothique (and have to admit never read anything about Averoigne) but they are all without a doubt some of the most imaginative and fascinating things you’ll ever come across. It doesn’t really matter that there isn’t any real point to any of it when the sights alone cause wonder and amazement.
While Smith was one of a kind, there is another important one of a quite similar type. Lovecraft also wrote lots of stories that only have the barest excuse of a plot and instead rely entirely on the unique and unsettling strangeness of the places, events, and entities that the main characters behold. They do all end in a big twist, but over 80 years later the same ideas have been repeated thousands of time and when you read them now you know exactly what kind of story you are reading and can spot the reveal at the end from miles away. But even without the twists having any impact left, they are still really entertaining and compelling stories to read. Simply by experiencing the places and events the protagonists are encountering.
Like Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock are the quintessential writers of Sword & Sorcery, Lovecraft and Smith are really the core of what they called the Weird Tales (which also was the name of the most famous magazine that published them, as well as Sword & Sorcery). While Lovecraft is today more usually described as Cosmic Horror, the horror label is much less fitting for Smith, though his stories were also usually gloomy and grotesque, but also much less serious. Many of them are genuinely funny, and not just in a macabre way.
It makes me wonder if perhaps the genre of the weird tales might be a better guideline for a way to put the ideas from my mind into a story form. Plot is not the be all end all to a story. Relying on revelation of setting seems to be a viable way of writing a readable story, though the question remains open whether this also works for settings outside of the general horor sphere. I am also interested in the reveal of character through actions and I think the two should combine very well into Man Against Nature narratives. The biggest challenge I see with this form is how to get to a propper resolution at the end. Both Smith and Lovecraft never really figured that out either. Their stories simply just end at some point with nothing really having been resolved.
Is there even an audience for it? I guess to get people interested in such types of stories in this time they would have to be really good. But then, if they are good, when you write it, they will come. But what it really makes it a very inviting idea to me is that it should help me getting out of the outline hole and maybe finally getting some actual story written. Even if it just ends up practice, it would still totally be worth the time and effort.