Revision 04.3 — Speculative Fiction Story Templates

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These are the templates.
These are the Themes or Motifs. These are the Categories.
These are Mechanisms. These are Settings.

You may notice that many of the examples are very early specfi. I spent 2008 and most of 2009 reading almost nothing written after 1912. Finding early versions often made the template clearer because the author wasn’t trying to disguise it.

I. Science Surge: inventors, mad science, new technology in our society or the indistinguishable near future:

A. Science Helps: results in good things. In these templates, the science may cause a problem, but then more science or a better use of the science solves it. Otherwise, the science is used to overcome more conventional problems.

i. Creator & Creation: The Airship Boys; any Tom Swift story

ii. Personal Side Benefits: The Mummy and Miss Nitocris by George Griffiths

iii. Social Benefits: “The Moon Metal” by Serviss

B. Science Bites: results in disaster. It is significant that possibly the earliest true scifi story, without a breath of fantasy or satire, is on one of these templates (Frankenstein: The New Prometheus). Speculative fiction often speculates on how things may go wrong, as a warning to us to proceed with caution.

i. Creator vs. Creation: Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau

ii. Personal Detriment: The Invisible Man, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “A Corner in Lightning,””The Diamond Lens”

iii. Social Detriment: The Bacillus of Beauty, “The Displacement Machine”

C. Knowledge is Neutral: results balanced or of no moral import
i. Experiments: The Begum’s Fortune; “Davidson’s Eyes”

ii. Discoveries: When the World Screamed, “What Was It?”

iii. Inventions: “The Battle for the Pacific, Sorakichi — Prometheus,” “The Lady Automaton,” “The Raid of Le Vengeur”, “The Disintegration Machine”

II. Voyages Extraordinaires: Going someplace strange or different is not sufficient to be on these templates. The focus must be on the right thing. For example, Gulliver of Mars definitely goes to a new place, but the story is not about exploring that place (which is extremely Terran) but his adventures with the invading barbarians on behalf of the ineffectual civilized rulers.

A. Terra Incognita: the focus is on exploring the strange place and telling the reader about it. Whatever plot is chosen, the focus requires that the protagonist travel around and see everything in the world-building notebook. This is when templates can wind up layering. However, the Quest mechanism suits this template very well. You have to be careful not to wind up The Tourist Guide to Mars, though.

i. Far lands, unknown continents, hidden places: Odyssey, After London (which is far in time).
ii. Other planets: Somnium, A Columbus of Space, Honeymoon in Space, The First Men in the Moon.
iii. Inside the Earth: Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Coming Race, Black Diamonds.
iv. Under water: Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas.

B. The New Machine: Robur the Conqueror, From the Earth to the Moon, “The Voyage of the Flying Cloud,” “Sunjammer”: the focus is not on where they go, as much on how they get there. They can fly around in the empty sky and do not much of anything except find out the capabilities and limitations of the transportation. Little adventure stories are often picaresque insertions. This can too easily fall into being the Electric Chicken-Plucker Manual.

C. The Surviving Past/Weird Life: “Aepyornis Island,” “The Horror of the Heights,” The Lost World. The template must include how and where it survived/existed, how the protagonist finds it, why it does not become common knowledge (The Lost World, at the very last, blows a raspberry at the template, which makes it worth sitting through that many pages with the obnoxious Prof. Challenger at least once).

D. Lost/Hidden Race: L’Atlantides, The Coming Race, Fugitive Anne, The Changing Sun. A template because it always comes down to discovering them and keeping them secret or, more often, watching their destruction. A sub-template is the Warring Pair of Hidden Races, that in the Tarzan series paid ERB’s rent for decades, though it appears at least as early as Sir H. Rider Haggard’s Quatermain stories.

E. Time Travel: As a template, this did not develop until well into the twentieth century. Perhaps we needed to develop a less conventional concept of time, thanks to the Many Worlds of quantum physics. The Time Travel template (as opposed to the time travel mechanism) requires the use of time travel to try to affect history or events. In Simple Time Travel template, the traveller arrives back or forward somewhere and, whether or not this is a limit of the universe or merely of technology or accident, can only intervene once (The Dancer from Atlantis by Poul Andersen). Complex Time Travel template makes the story hinge on the recursiveness of the method, as the chrononaut who can control the travel tries to loop back in time either to fix damage immediately or prevent its occurence in the first place, or keep messing with things until the character is happy with it (“I’m My Own Grandpa” by Heinlein). Dead-end Time Travel template includes the countless stories about how you can’t change the past because the past is fixed, so the character’s attempt is always cleverly frustrated (but as they always refuse to consider, then your future is also fixed, because the future is someone else’s past, and we are all locked into a mechanism with no free will or action). Time Travel Bloopers template is about how much you mess up yourself by changing the past so that it changes the future you came from.

III. Survival and Destruction
A. Disaster, Sudden Catastrophe template: The Thames Valley Catastrophe, The Second Deluge, Stand on Zanzibar; Hollywood uses the template for things like Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, Titanic, Airport, but in specfi you need a speculative disaster. Atomic War can be considered a special subset by its mechanism (Alas, Babylon), though it has been supplanted in popularity by super-plagues (The Stand, World War Z)

B. End of the World template: “The Poison Belt,” The Star, On the Beach; not popular, because it’s a downer. “The Poison Belt” is the more common cheat around this.

C. Societal Apocalypse template: Caesar’s Column, Olga Romanoff until the comet section, when it turns into Disaster.

D. Last Man template: The Last Man, The Purple Cloud. Distinct in that it is not about the suddenness of catastrophe, but living in the uttermost isolation. Thus, “The Poison Belt” does not qualify. In The Last Man by Mary Shelley, the decimation is slow, taking months. The climax is when this last person decides what to do with the rest of their life, whether leave a final record for whoever might find it or hole up in a distillery’s warehouse and to hell with the meaningless future.

E. Adam and Eve template: Olga Romanoff. End of the World or the Last Man but with a hope of species survival or restoration through the survival of a tiny core group. If it’s a really big group and several groups, it’s just wide-spread Disaster.

F. The Dying Earth template: Le dernier homme, The Night Land, Zothique. The end of the world is not sudden, and it is not just humanity going extinct. How do people adapt and how does this doom change anything, especially for those who are truly the last million?

IV. Future War.
A. Invasion Literature: These focus on the violation, outrage, and patriotism induced by invasion of the author/reader’s home ground, in the near future, and often concentrate on the sense of resistance or lack of it. The second version, with tech advances, is rare and usually, though not always, involves an outside or hidden society.
i. Current Tech only: The Battle of Dorking; When William Came; The Battle of Mordialloc; The Great War in England in 1897; The Invasion of the United States; “The Bombardment of the Golden Gate. How the Attack on San Francisco was Repulsed.”
ii. Tech Advance: The War in the Air; The War of the Worlds; How John Bull Lost London or, The Capture of the Channel Tunnel; All for His Country.

B. Conquest Literature: Frequently includes the tech advance that makes the triumphant conquest by the author/reader’s group possible against literally the whole world. In early SF, this is usually full of loony racism, like vaunting the “Anglo-Saxon race” that hasn’t existed for a thousand years if ever (half-Celt, then invasions of Danes, Normans, French, etc). At the very least, lots of jingoism, though a few manage to avoid these attitudes (The Coming Conquest of England, whose actual German title was simply The World War). Many Conquest stories begin with a long stretch of invasion as a way to whip up the anxiety and justification for a conquest, at the very least “so they won’t do that again, ever!” Some set up a new “international” state headquartered in a fortress wilderness to do the conquering for right-thinking folks (in The Angel of the Revolution, the Aerians conquer for Anglo-American culture, though of course the British are in charge and the Americans happy to be under a British king again).
i. Current Tech only: The Coming Conquest of England, Hindenburg’s March into London, Chapters from Future History: The Battle of Berlin.
ii. Tech Advance: The Great War Syndicate, The Angel of the Revolution, The Final War, The World Set Free, Edison’s Conquest of Mars.

V. Farther Futures: a new world once the technology or social change has settled in. Exploring it usually runs on one of several adventure templates. Particular is the setting of Utopia/Dystopia, non-satiric: “As Easy as ABC,” or “The Machine Stops.” The story set in the u/dystopia may vary in template: redemption, apocalypse, future war, revolution, revelation, mystery, and so on. However, a few templates require this setting:
A. Dystopia Must Be Destroyed: “When the Machine Stops,” City of Endless Night; the Outsider or a member of the society sees the problems and brings down the regime. The climax is when we start to see what happens afterward, if only the survivors climbing out of the dome to look at the outside world.

B. Utopia Must Be Saved: Watch the North Wind Rise; Utopia can usually defend itself — it’s perfect, after all — but sometimes barbarian hordes or disasters threaten of a kind it cannot deal with but the Outsider can. Rarely, members of the society have to discover the forgotten defenses. The climax is not just when the threat is stopped, but when Utopia realises it still has a flaw or two left to deal with and starts to deal with it.

C. Utopia is Dystopia: At first attractive and not obviously horrible, the protagonist discovers the dark underbelly. It may end on the revelation, or proceed to Dystopia Must Be Destroyed. This could be considered as a special form of the Revelation Template, except the revelation usually is by mid-point, making it not a good climax, only a good Act III reversal. Because of the way it mixes Revelation and action templates, over and over, it makes itself a new one.

VI. Motifs Found: “Development of Humanity” may be the speculation in the specfi, but it isn’t a template. Having posited, say, a super race, it may be Lone Hero template to stop them, or Lost Race template, or Dystopia Must Be Destroyed template.

i. Extraordinary Individual: “Mortal Immortal” by Balzac

ii. Super Race: The Coming Race, The Food of the Gods

VII. Mechanisms Found
A. Long Sleepers
i. Long Sleep/past to now: “Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman” Used to comment on past society vs. the present.

ii. Long Sleep/now to future: A Crystal Age, Looking Backwards from 2000 to 1887, The Time Machine: Usually used to comment on our present or future barbarism, though it may be the starting mechanism of a Utopian/Dystopian template.

iii. Long Sleep/past to future: The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. Rare and a bit sophisticated in that the reader must supply the contrast without having it pointed out and spoonfed.

B. Tourists: The British Barbarians: whether aliens or time-travellers, to comment on our primitiveness.

C. Time Travel mechanism: “The Clock that Ran Backwards,” The Time Machine: as remarked on in the Time Travel template, time travel can be merely a mechanism for some other template. Most time-travel romances use the mechanism to bring people into other periods to meet their mates, but not to do TT template things like try to change “fate” or save a lost situation by looping back. One recognizes that in The Time Machine, for example, the Traveller does none of this, or he would go back to try to rescue Weena or prevent the splitting of the race or something. Instead, it is a Long Sleeper story with return in time only to complete the true-story frame (part of its weakness is its dithering over three templates). Equally, The British Barbarians uses unspecified time travel for social commentary, but the tourist can’t or doesn’t use it to change anything that goes wrong, including that no one shows up to rescue him. Time-travel is only a mechanism in these stories. The Traveller could be dreaming future memories, and the tourist could be from any distant utopia, including Islandia.

VIII. Settings Found. These are perfectly legitimate settings, just don’t confuse them with templates. For example, they are no more templates that the era of an historical novel is its template.

A. Future Life/Society: The Mummy!, “With the Night Mail”, not in other categories like u/dystopia, but a blend of good & bad; uses many templates.

B. Post-Apocalyptic World: After London, A Crystal Age, Star Man’s Son. Not about the disaster (it is often fuzzy), but what culture arises afterward. May be general or local apocalypse (Beyond Thirty). Often uses the Voyage Extraordinaire or Quest templates, but may go for Future War, Lost Race, Lone Hero, or others.

C. The Far Past: The Lost Continent, The Romance of Atlantis, any Conan story. This may provide the setting for the u/dystopia that goes down in flames; however, the one thing it can’t do is go beyond its historically possible limits. There may have been a super race then.

D. Planet Stories: There was a pulp magazine with this title. This differs from the Voyage Extraordinaire by very little, and the overlap could be considerable. We might say that the planet story emphasizes the characters, intrigue, adventure, and/or mystery, but so does a well-wrought VE. Jack Vance wrote a lot of good ones, like the Planet of Adventure books.

E. Space Opera: A lot of people have defined this different ways, some emphasizing that like opera it must be grandiose. I rather think the original term originated in parallel with the earlier “horse opera” for a Western movie, a term of slight denigration for the science fiction or science fantasy which wasn’t terrible scientific. In this case, they meant all those stories of high adventure with swift and easy interplanetary or interstellar travel, interacting with alien races or just human societies gone way off the map. Sometimes they are big Imaginary War stories (the Lensman series), and sometimes they are classic mysteries or suspense (the Demon Princes novels).

IX. Failures of art. These are the templates you want to escape immediately: get a plot and quit Melvilling us.

A. The Electric Chicken-Plucker Manual: “An Express of the Future,” listed as by Jules Verne but Michael Verne often borrowed his father’s name; lectures on present or postulated science development squash a thin little line of story, or it has no plot at all.

B. The Tourist Guide to Mars: Off on a Comet, Islandia; lectures on an imagined place squash a thin little line of story, or it has no plot at all. After London escapes this because after the encyclopedic opening (actually rather charming), it then doesn’t have to infodump and can stay in the adventure story.

C. PoliSci 666, the Course of the Beast: A Week in the Future, Looking Backward from 2000 to 1887, Equality; lectures on the society squash a thin little line of story, or it has no plot at all. These tracts can be horrifically boring beyond the other two as the characters walk around fake-modestly preening about their wonderful society, and generally have no more sense of humour than the sort of persons who only laugh at their own jokes. In fact, in most cases they are not really fiction at all, but modern versions of the philosophical dialogue, known since the ancient Greeks.

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Revision 04.2 — Templates: Over 6000 Years and Still Going Strong | hollyiblogs

  2. Pingback: Time Travel Stories | hollyiblogs

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