Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Paranormal Romance

This post leads up to a workshop exercise in World Building.

A couple weeks ago, Linnea Sinclair asked on the Paranormal Romance forum at goodreads.com if SF Romance should be a subcategory under Paranormal Romance. I've been haunted by the topic ever since.

Opinions varied widely. People looking for "Paranormal" don't want any nuts-n-bolts mixed in with their ghosts, vampires and werewolves.

I can understand that. There are times I want my Paranormal straight up, no ice. But I always like my SF with some telepaths or other Scientific Law Breaking element.

That is one (of the many) things essential to a good SF story, the confounding of all expectations.

SF is about the effect of science on PEOPLE (human and not), about the approach to The Unknown, and about the way that Relationships affect what Science can and can't do.

SF was (not any more) about the maverick kid who solves adult problems by inventing something adults think is impossible. Today it's a much more adult and complex field, so it's much harder to define. Still, there is a unifying pattern in SF that joins it directly to Fantasy and thus Paranormal Romance.

So to set off the train of plot events leading to a unique Relationship, the SF story starts with an Idea.

The Idea has the form, "What if ..." or "If only ..." or "If This Goes On ..." And the idea that sparks the story leaps over all mental and emotional barriers. On internal emotional barriers: see my post from last week about The Tower Card and mental barriers

So SF relies on a story springboard that leaps over all mental and emotional barriers in the reader to suppose something that "simply can not be!" under the current understanding of reality. And right there, the reader is sucked into a world that can't exist. That's what's FUN about SF -- it violates the laws of reality as the reader knows them.

At core, SF is about breaking the rules that confine imagination.

Almost by definition, Science Fiction is about venturing outside your comfort zone.

But what's the difference between SF and Fantasy -- and between Fantasy and Romance?

Today, we're all looking to mix and match genres, to adventure where no woman has gone before, while most readers of Romance of any sub-genre don't want to be dragged outside their comfort zone. The comfort zone may enlarge or change, but the average Romance reader doesn't want to cross that borderline for fun.

Readers are looking for a good adventure into a unique but satisfying relationship, a story with an optimistic ending, HEA or better.

Part of the fun of the Paranormal Romance is finding that great story interwoven into a background that changes the story without distorting or marring it. (What if that hot new boyfriend is actually a Vampire?) The Romance has to grow out of the background, be caused by the background, but still be our own beloved story.

For years the Gothic satisfied that itch. Stories about inherited old houses with resident ghost, brooding mysterious neighbor, or spooky powers held endless fascination because they had endless variations.

And the Regency Romance delved into a period of history that twanged the fantasy nerve just as Western Romance did -- marvelously alien dress codes, women resisting or secretly thwarting the power men had over them, behavior and manners that could be an alien language. Regency England was indeed another planet! SF Fandom gravitated to the Regency Romance and to this day hold a Regency Ball at conventions -- The Regency Romance is SF.

Then the Vampire As Good Guy appeared, venturing over from the adult fantasy lines spun off of Science Fiction where the Vampire was usually a bad guy hero such as Linnea was talking about in her post

Emma Bull's Hugo Award winning novel, War For The Oaks, launched an urban fantasy revolution, and before long we had Laurell K. Hamilton's genre busting Anita Blake urban fantasy. And of course Buffy. Now Harry Dresden in Butcher's THE DRESDEN FILES combines it all - bad guy hunk, angst, magic, even his ex who became a vampire. He's not a private eye. He's a private wizard! (that private wizard part is one of my oldest old time favorites)

But where did it all start? And what is the DIFFERENCE between SF and Fantasy and Romance?

How many of you remember the mid-1950's story which was Marion Zimmer Bradley's first sale, (I think to Vortex Magazine? 1952? Or Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1955?) called Centaurus Changeling which has been widely heralded as the very first SF story that had RELATIONSHIP in it at the plot level -- relationship beyond rescuing the damsel in distress.

Prior to publication of Centaurus Changeling, SF was "Neck Up Science Fiction" -- it was aimed at adolescent boys who didn't want to deal with emotions.

Marion Zimmer Bradley changed that aim of the genre and began to serve the interests of young women, too. But it didn't seem like it for yet another 20 years or so, though her Darkover novels were being published and scarfed up by an ever increasing fandom, mostly female.

So with Darkover as the thin sliver of a wedge, gradually SF with a relationship and emotion driven plot was introduced.

So what is Darkover? It's a story about telepaths who have all sorts of other ESP powers and with those powers on their far-away lost colony planet called Darkover, they do everything that Science does for us from heal the sick to mining and smelting metal, and even making atom bombs.

On Darkover, technology is driven by ethics. Morals. And passionate love affairs as well as passionless arranged marriages.

See my comment on Linnea Sinclair's post which is about Moral Hazard -

So what is the Darkover series? Is it SF? Or is it Fantasy? World Wreckers is certainly one of the best Romances I've ever read and it's about ecological warfare. (she wrote it in response to Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness which is SFRomance too -- or more exactly Alien Romance which is the topic of this blog. I expect all of you have studied and dissected Left Hand of Darkness -- the Worldbuilding she did with that won her both the Hugo and the Nebula with one book.)

In Science Fiction, the scientific laws that are challenged or broken by the story premise are from the physics, math and chemistry we all know and love. The plot mysteries are solved by applying laboratory science.

The Fantasy field split off from SF, and for decades the only Fantasy readers were SF readers too. But gradually it came to be that only women wrote Fantasy and mostly only women read it. Then that changed too. I think there may be more men writing adult Fantasy today then women. (by "adult" I don't mean sexually explicit).

But I'm still looking for the DIFFERENCE where the split between SF and Fantasy occurred.

I see a similarity so glaring it wipes out all differences.

In Fantasy -- Paranormal, Urban, whatever -- in Fantasy the scientific laws that are challenged or broken by the story premise are from parapsychology, mythology, archeology, anthropology.

The thinking that generates that Law Breaking story premise is precisely the same as the thinking that goes into an SF story premise.

From the writer's point of view, Fantasy and SF are identical.

"What if were-creatures had legal rights?" (Laurell K. Hamilton created what is called in Hollywood a High Concept with that one.) And all of a sudden, Earth becomes a galactic civilization in microcosm with dozens of sentient species co-existing.

Both SF and Fantasy do alternate history and parallel worlds and time travel.

I see no real difference except in the backgrounding that delineates what is "real" and what is "not real" -- what can and what can not exist in the story-universe.

Which brings me back to the Tarot posts and the Astrology posts I've done on this blog. I've shown how I see Science as a branch of Magic, or of Philosophy. Science studies 1/44th of the reality structured by the philosophy illustrated by the Tree of Life.

Science is a special case of the much larger subject of Philosophy in which you can account for the Soul and all kinds of ESP type powers.

Neck-Up Science Fiction, Science Fiction pre-Marion Zimmer Bradley, deals with 1/44th of the realm of storytelling.

And clearly, from the discussion Linnea Sinclair stirred up on goodreads.com, the largest coherent market for novels (Romance Readers) cares as much or more for the BACKGROUND (i.e. the rules of science or magic behind the story) as they do about the Romance itself.

BACKGROUND is what readers see. WORLDBUILDING is how writers put it there to be seen.

Readers see a distinction based on the setting and background. Enjoyment is at least as dependent on the background as on the story.

A distinction which I see as no distinction at all is of vital importance to a huge readership, Paranormal Romance readers.

I think I see a reason for this. It is often referred to as "accessibility" -- and I'm not entirely sure what exactly that means.

But here's a blog post from 2005 discussing the accessibility of science fiction today. This pertains directly to another issue we've discussed on this blog, how to elevate the reputation of Romance in general but Alien Romance or SFR or PNR in the eyes of the general population.


He makes the point that SF just isn't "accessible" the way say Harry Potter is.

And I don't think it's the STORY as such that isn't accessible. It's the background that isn't accessible to the typical Romance reader.

Romance Readers aren't uneducated. They just have a different education, one that emphasizes philosophy, mythology, literature, sociology, psychology (Marion Zimmer Bradley's education was in psychology) -- the soft sciences.

Reading for relaxation, you want to play with what you know, not stretch to learn something new which is what you do at work all day every day. When your brain is tired, you want to stop learning.

So the challenge in Scalzi's blog is to create SF that's accessible like Harry Potter.

The challenge for us then is to create Alien Romance or Paranormal Romance with a background that's "accessible" to the sort of reader who would like the story.

And as we've seen with Laurell K. Hamilton, what it takes to reach a large audience is a High Concept (a trick I'm not good at.)

So when you're not good at something, you practice. Let's practice.

On my writing workshop blog, I'll put up a story opening and a challenge to wrap WORLDBUILDING around the story to make it accessible. This will call for OUTLINING which is what Blake Snyder calls a BEAT SHEET.

The BS Beat Sheet works perfectly for novels, and at this stage of developing the Worldbuilding for a story, it doesn't matter if it's a novel or a movie or TV Series, the essence of the craft is the same.

You can download Snyder's Beat Sheet for free here


If you're a writing student, consider this part of your million words for the garbage can. If you're a publishing writer, come play with us and see if you can do something you've never done before.
I will dare to predict that one of you will learn something from this exercise that will solve the acceptability problem for SFR.


Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Great blog, Jacqueline. I started reading it three hours ago and have finally finished. Talk about interesting side-journeys!
    I did read the Scalzi blog then the one it linked to mentioning "gateway" SciFi. That lead me to checking to see which of those books were in the local library lol......
    But back to your point about the difference between SciFi and Fantasy, one blogger WizarDru wrote:
    It's not just that SF is like math...SF HAS TO SHOW THE WORK.
    Fantasy: I then used the magic circle to teleport to his dark realm.
    Science Fiction: The device then created a miniature event horizon behind us, changed the value of Planck's Constant and allowed us to fall forward into a near-void allowing us to instantly bridge the gap between the two intervening spaces. It was a complicated process, utilizing a minature force-field of immense power that was powered by....[zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz]

    And at another point, Scalzi points out: Fantasy writers ...(a)re not pushed to reinvent the wheel every single time they write a book
    I think it is the difference in the World Building that keeps traditional SciFi and Fantasy apart.
    Some SciFi/Romance tends to follow the "fantasy" style by adopting concepts seen elsewhere eg droids, translocator beams so that they can avoid this need to "show the workings".
    It could be described as being plagiarism or derivative, but in fact it is using shorthand that is accepted in fantasy writing to set the world so that what happens in the world becomes paramount.
    This is where SciFi/Paranormal/Fantasy/Romance converges. Where the world the writer creates is familiar enough to set a scene for the interaction between the main characters and is not the main character itself.
    Still thinking about the girl in the trunk.....

  2. For some reason I found the girl in the trunk anoying and didn't really care about how or why she was there.

    I sat down to try to do the exersize but couldn't get past that.

    What does that say about me?

  3. Mfitz,

    I haven't got around to looking at the exercise yet, but seeing "girl in the trunk" out of context makes me think of Caylee Anthony, which is a very upsetting thought.

  4. Ozambersand:

    Oh, you went on the whole adventure ride! Thank you for the feedback. And yes, there's a lot to think about on several levels.

    Consider solving the worldbuilding problem of Trunk-ated as one level -- just a writing exercise.

    Consider though examining how this composition explaining the genre relationship and worldbuilding at the heart of that relationship is put together, the structure of the thinking behind it.

    Try to replicate that structure using news items and concepts on various other subjects you come across next week.

    Make it not about what Jacqueline Lichtenberg thinks, but HOW she thinks. Replicating how someone else (than yourself) thinks is the best way to learn to characterize.

    Oh, and I've read a lot of fat fantasy novels that are almost primers in magic (real and otherwise) -- where "the work" of the magician is shown as the quote says SF shows "the work."

    That kind of fell out of vogue recently -- people who really know magic wouldn't ever put such real knowledge before the uninitiated, and people who don't know just make silly mistakes. So now it's all what scientists call "hand waving" with a little worldbuilding in between.

    Oh this is an endless topic! I hope we can revisit it when more information surfaces because it relates to the "djinn" part of this blog's title.

    With the meltdown in publishing (Gannett's bonds were downgraded yesterday!) we have an opportunity to re-make the whole fiction delivery system if we can develop something better to replace it with.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. mfitz:

    Ah, well "upsetting" is the objective of most writers. Fiction should reach into the subconscious and trigger a deep disturbance. That means I did the "art" part of this exercise correctly.

    However, for the sake of the exercise -- I did say in the directions that you could rewrite it.

    How about starting with Trish strolling along the car, stroking it, suppressing a smirk (it's long enough to stroke and smirk!) then maybe - mmm -- how about she picks the lock on her own car because her attacker stole her keys? She gets in, hotwires around the onboard computer (AI?) and takes off down the deserted road after the guy who attacked her and (kidnapped her baby? Her partner in the Time Police? A valuable art object from Alpha Centauri? A weapon of mass destruction? An egg from a parallel universe that's about to hatch?)

    Once you've rewritten the opening to one you want to deal with, THEN wrap a bit of worldbuilding bunting around your new baby.

    This would upgrade your points earned by re-doing the template.

    I'll talk more about how this exercise relates to the previous one and what the objective of doing it is if someone (or several) actually do it.

    No deadline. Blogger emails me when someone posts a comment.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  6. Jacqueline, I left a submission about Trunk-ated at the Editing circle blog, but it hasn't been attached as a comment. I also sent you an email querying if there was a problem and step I missed? But not sure if that made it past your spam filter? Help???