Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ships & the Ocean in Fantasy

Occasionally I will open a new book, and, within the first few pages, I’ll notice something different: the salty tang of the ocean breeze, the soft splash of waves breaking against the prow of a ship, the creak of the rigging—in short, the story is set at sea.

Fantasy stories set in or around the sea are somewhat rare, but a few authors have produced lovely stories of ships, islands, and voyages. Some prime examples are C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Chronicles.

Today, we’ll discuss several things that make sea stories powerful—and then, some warnings and cautions when writing tales set at sea. First, the positives.

The most important aspect is how rare oceanic settings are in fantasy. So few fantasy stories are set at sea that it’s always refreshing to read one. (Mind you, other elements—such as air—are even more neglected and deserve a few well-crafted fantasies of their own.)

Second, stories of voyages always possess a lovely old-fashioned medieval atmosphere. Ships and the sea possess a nostalgia as we moderns become ever more confined to cars, airplanes, and our electric-lighted-GPS-guided cities. To be out on the open sea, able to gaze up at the Milky Way (or, rather, the constellations of your own galaxies)—it’s a beauty we seldom enjoy. (That’s not to say that everything about sailing was golden. Remember, sailors sometimes had to eat rats! Don’t let life on board the ship get too comfortable!)

Next, stories of voyages have the potential to explore any number of fantastic settings in the form of islands along the way. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there’s a desert island inhabited by a dragon; a prosperous and independent island tyrannized by slave traders; an island with little invisible dwarf-like creatures each possessing a single enormous foot; and more. The possibilities for variations of culture, dress, language, and so forth on various islands are nearly limitless.

Furthermore, oceanic tales afford the possibility for underwater fantasy creatures. Among the possibilities are merfolk, nereids, talking seahorses, krakens, or some species of your own design. If you do write a sea story, be sure to include some sort of fantasy sea creatures so that your readers are reminded that this is no ordinary oceanic tale.

Finally, stories set at sea can offer the dual sense of discovery and danger. Voyages have defined goals or purposes (traveling from point A to point B is common, but exploration—say, for new lands or for lost people or for gold—are often used as well) that serve to give the story united thrust. There’s constant tension in the form of the potential of running out of food or of being shipwrecked or lost at sea. The sense of direction and danger in sea stories give them a hidden power.

However, before you run to your pen/computer to begin writing, let me warn you that oceanic fantasy stories have severe flaws that we as writers must face.

The first and most crucial warning is that stories of voyages have the potential to get very boring, very fast. Because there are a limited number of characters on ship, there’s not as much suspense. Readers can guess the source of the conflicts, and thus they don’t have the sense of “what’ll happen next” to keep them turning pages. Just as the ocean starts to look the same after a while, so too do stories of voyages.

Furthermore, oceanic stories are often episodic, with each stop on an island like a “mini-story” in the middle of one long, boring voyage. Unlike most stories, which possess a cohesive narrative that makes the story flow smoothly from one scene to the next, stories of voyages often jerk the reader from one island to the next in a series of unconnected adventures.

Finally, stories set at sea are predictable. The same obstacles seem to come up in all of them: hunger, storms, shipwreck, sea monsters, drowning…the list goes on. Again, this will leave your reader bored and without suspense.

However, there is redeeming potential in oceanic fantasies. As always, my recommendation is to invert the expected elements to make them the opposite of what readers will be watching for. For example, try making the sea bright pink instead of blue. I guarantee that your readers will be at least momentarily diverted. You could also have portals inside the ship that transport characters to other places, making the ship a transportation device on the inside rather than the outside. Or you could place the ocean in the interior of a ship rather than its exterior. Once you begin looking for ways to contradict the expected norms, the opportunities are endless.

What about you—have you read any good fantasies set at sea? Have you ever written any oceanic fantasy tales? Any pros or cons or helpful tips to add to the list above?

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