~1,850 words, including a set of recommendations with books to explore.
(Fun facts: Almost all of them are queer, over half of them can be considered indie books, and there’s only one cis dude mentioned in the whole piece. :O)
4 Core Traits of Plotted Slice-of-Life Fiction
Over the past few years, I’ve seen the same type of discussion come up fairly regularly, most notably among fantasy readers and writers. It’s a discussion asking for more stories that don’t feature epic narratives and focus more on the mundane side of living in a fantastical or futuristic setting and draw more strongly on the concept of slice-of-life than more well-known commercial narratives.
In literature, slice-of-life is a narrative technique that is said to lack plot development, conflict or exposition. This is, however, not the way modern authors frequently use the technique. Slice-of-life stories can be any length and they most certainly have a plot. It is just that the plot looks more like those found in general contemporary fiction than those found in contemporary commercial science fiction or fantasy.
Examples of this type of slice-of-life fiction are Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to Small, Angry Planet, Joyce Chng’s Water into Wine and M.C.A. Hogarth’s Dreamhealers Saga. My own work also draws heavily on the concept of slice-of-life most of the time and I’ve always enjoyed writing and reading it immensely. As people expressed an interest in hearing what I thought were some of the core components of a good slife-of-life story, I sat down to write up a short essay1 containing my thoughts.
Slice-of-life fiction, in my experience, has a few common traits that may help writers looking to create their own novel-length narrative in this vein. The following traits are not an exhaustive list of Things You Must Do To Write Slice-of-Life, but they are a list of what I, personally, consider core traits of SFF fiction that employs or relies on slice-of-life to convey its narrative to the reader. If you’re looking for a good idea of what to look for as a reader or a writer, this is a good place to start, if I do say so myself.
1. Small but incredibly personal stakes. If you’re stuck for ideas on what I mean by small and personal stakes, look at a contemporary general fiction novel2. SFF slice-of-life fiction usually has similar plots and tropes, it’s just the setting is SFF.
While the stakes in these stories are often much lower than one might expect from fantasy or science fiction novels, just like with general fiction these plots can be extremely rewarding. The emotional connection readers form with the characters is where these stakes draw their strength and impact from. If you want a slice-of-life story to have an impact, readers need to care about the protagonist’s personal stakes, not just the sweeping stakes revolving around overthrowing an evil government or saving countless of implied lives by defeating the Dark Lord or the like.
For example, Hogarth’s Dreamhealers Saga has relatively low stakes. Even when they’re at their highest, like in Mindline or Dreamstorm3, the vastness of the setting serves to emphasise how small the scale of the narratives actually are. In Mindline Jahir’s life is in danger as he tries to help drug victims in a hospital. In Dreamstorm both Jahir and Vasiht’h end up helping local authorities to save as many people from an unexpected storm as possible. In both cases, however, the Pelted Paradox verse has dozens upon dozens of inhabited worlds and Hogarth highlights this in both books, resulting in the scale seeming much smaller when cast in the light of the setting as a whole.
In Chng’s Oysters, Pearls and Magic, by contrast, the vastness of the world is downplayed and the focus of the book is on the protagonists finding their place in their communities. The narrative giving tantalising hints at the background of the world, but doesn’t explore them since it isn’t what ultimately concerns the protagonists.
2. A focus on the characters’ emotions rather than on the ‘plot’. In these stories, characters’ emotions are the plot. These stories explore how people are affected by events in their lives.
That doesn’t mean a story can’t have elements of a more expected plot line. Both Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Chng’s Water into Wine have this as a backdrop to exploring how the ordinary people, uninvolved with the day-to-day machinations of the politicians and generals deciding the fate of nations, live and how these larger events impact their lives instead of how they affect larger events.
3. Though it often focuses on emotions, slice-of-life fiction does actually have a plot. It’s worth rephrasing that because readers who are raised with strict ideas on what an SFF plot looks like will miss the subtlety inherent in slice-of-life plots that focus on emotions and relationship dynamics. These plots don’t look like you might expect. Hogarth’s Mindtouch focuses on college life, just with a science fiction setting. Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is about a crew being contracted to build a wormhole just as much as it is about its newest crew member finding her place on board the ship. Chng’s Water into Wine is about the trials and success (or failure) of a single vineyard run by an inexperienced vintner.
Just because the stakes aren’t what you’d expect them to be or because the questions the books ask are about how individuals relate to one another rather than grand questions about humanity, moral scientific quandaries or whathaveyou, that doesn’t mean there is no plot4.
Even Oysters, Pearls and Magic which is closest to slice-of-life’s “mostly unconnected and random scenes” has a plot. It just doesn’t look the way a Western audience is taught a plot ought to look, because its conflict is so much less visible than readers are used to. Arguably it takes until the second half of the story to pick up, much like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy spends the vast majority of its first book with the intended protagonist not even being born yet.
4. A vibrant world. You don’t have to have an answer to every worldbuilding question, but it does need to feel alive. This is a given for speculative fiction in general, but the smaller the scale an author is working on the more readers will notice when the details aren’t there.
Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Chng’s Water into Wine are both set to a backdrop that involves wars that affect the characters’ lives in small ways, but the story doesn’t need to be set in the background of larger events.
Think of it like drawing on the ideas of fantasy of manners/mannerpunk. Fantasy of manners is a specific genre focusing on not on fighting monsters but on dealing with one’s peers. This is not a requirement of slice-of-life fiction, as can be seen in both Hogarth’s Dreamhealers Saga and Chng’s Oysters, Pearls and Magic.
Hogarth’s Dreamhealers Saga can be divided into roughly four stages of a relationship. Mindtouch and Mindline follow the lines of a relatively conventional romance novel plot in a college setting, except that it is set in a far future setting. Dreamhearth, the third book, explores a couple just as they’ve finished college and are settling down to start their adult lives together. Dreamstorm, meanwhile, is set a few years later and deals with the troubles an established relationship may deal with and have to overcome. Family is the culmination of the whole series when the couple finally formalises their relationship. The closest to a fantasy of manners/mannerpunk setting is Dreamhearth which deals directly with Jahir and Vasiht’h’s attempts to settle on a starbase because one of their peers opposes their method of therapy.
Oysters, Pearls and Magic is set in a science fantasy world, revealing the background of the setting slowly and only through carefully wrought glimpses. While natural disasters affect the characters, there are no great monsters to fight, no evils to defeat, no battles to fight, no political minefields to be navigated. It’s a story that focuses on the daily lives and the relationships of its two protagonists.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is pretty well-contained in its own little social bubbl, due to the social isolation of a starship crew traversing space. While outside events do affect the crew, it is usually on a personal level and does not draw the characters onto a larger stage with stakes beyond looking after each other.
Worldbuilding is important in these novels because it helps ground the setting and give readers a sense that the world is alive and breathing outside of its smaller, often domestic spheres. Smaller details, for example, of where and how wine is produced might come up in a slice-of-life narrative in ways it wouldn’t in a story that spans multiple countries and/or the political and tactical aspects of a war. They might very well appear in fiction focused on people’s everyday lives.
In conclusion then, if you’re looking for slice-of-life fiction in speculative genres, these are the traits I would recommend you look for or keep in mind if you want to write it yourself. Above all, though, I would stress that these stories do have (and, in my opinion, should have) a coherent plot5.
Some examples of enjoyable slice-of-life speculative fiction that I would heartily recommend include the books mentioned so far (obviously), but I’ll include them in this short list anyway for completeness’ sake. These books are in no particular order.
- M.C.A. Hogarth’s The Dreamhealers’ Saga
- Joyce Chng’s Oysters, Pearls and Magic
- Joyce Chng’s Water into Wine
- Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet & A Closed and Common Orbit
- Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya series (excepting The Tea Master and the Detective which is a mystery)
- Katie O’Neill’s The Tea Dragon Society
- Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace and The King’s Name (technically this is Arthuriana)
- A.M. Blaushild’s Good Angel (though the plot becomes more important partway through in a tonal shift)
- Shira Glassman’s Mangoverse series (excepting the first which is queer quest fantasy; technically each book has its own subgenre, but they’re a nice example of how to combine slice-of-life with a more easily recognisable plot)
- Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (at the very least the first book is arguably an example)
There are undoubtedly more. Search terms you can use include, of course ‘slice-of-life’, but there’s enough overlap with ‘fantasy of manners’ that you can find similar books using that search term. You can also use ‘cosybright’, though this term is new enough that you’re not likely to find much yet. Some hopepunk books may also contain strong slice-of-life elements, so be sure to check those out too.
And now… What books would you consider to be slice-of-life speculative fiction? Which would you recommend to others? Did I miss any elements you consider important? If so what were they? Let me know! 😀
1I really don’t know what it is with me and essays. I struggled to reach word count at university and thanked my lucky stars that contractions weren’t allowed and nowadays I can’t be concise enough to stay below word count even giving myself the 10% wiggle room that was always customary.
2Tip: Pick a book with a plot similar to what you’d like to tell or, if you’re not that far along in planning your story, pick one with a plot that you’d like. If general fiction is so much not your thing you don’t know where to start: contemporary YA and NA will work nicely, so see if there’s a very popular book in those age brackets that sounds interesting to you.
3The highest stakes depend on reader interpretation of and engagement with those stakes. For me, for example, it’s Mindline because the emotional stakes are so much more intense than in Dreamstorm. Another reader, however, may feel differently.
4The plot of my The Passage of Pearl, for example, is best described as “Poor university student attempts to complete courseload and return a book to the library’. Small stakes.
5Honestly, if you’re a writer and take nothing else from this essay, please let it be this, especially if you’re a plotter.
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