How Aspiring Writers Get It Wrong
During the course of a recent writers’ seminar, I was reading a student story in which the first-person narrator encounters an old acquaintance on a clifftop overlooking the sea. The sky is ominous, rain coming, somewhere in the distance a dog barking. So far so good. I was there. I could feel the storm building, could hear the ocean rumbling against the rocks below.
Then, safely within the perspective of the viewpoint character, I turned my attention to the acquaintance, whose name was Michael. Michael was short, mildly overweight, with thick black hair. He delivered pizzas for a living. And the narrator mentioned almost casually that once, years ago, Michael had touched the stars.
I was drawn in. While the darkness gathered and the rain began to fall, I waited to hear in what way this magic had occurred.
Michael was, the writer added, pococurantic.
The storm vanished, as did the clifftop, the ocean, and the magic. I was back in my living room, consulting my dictionary.
The writer was showing off his Random House, and in doing so he’d blown away the illusion that the storm and the meeting were really happening. That illusion is the essence of what writers try to do. Popular opinion to the contrary, we do not tell stories. We construct experiences.
When readers put down their cash for fiction, they are paying to be transported to another place, where they will for a time become someone else and live through a series of significant events. The reader may fall in love, dangle from a balloon, pass a rousing evening with comrades before battle, be called upon to solve a locked room murder.
But if the writer blunders things, allowing the reader to notice that the sentences are too long, or the protagonist so terribly brave as to be unbelievable, or the characters don’t talk like real human beings, the illusion of reality, if it takes shape at all, dissipates quickly.
When people talk about good fiction, they are talking about the ride. Which is to say, the story line, and the illusion of having been there.
Some would-be writers never get their act off the ground at all. Others, who seem to possess the talent to succeed, nevertheless persist in getting things wrong. There are a myriad ways to do that. The blunders that follow constitute only a healthy fraction.
Wait for Inspiration
My Muse Will Be Back Any Day Now
I was sitting in a New York bar with a group of writers some years ago, and the subject of ideas and story lines came up. “Yes,” remarked one eminent writer of horror tales, “I have more ideas than I’ll ever be able to write stories for in one lifetime.”
God bless him.
For me, the initial conception —Where can I lay my hands on a good plot idea?— has always been by far the most difficult aspect of the procedure. Get a narrative idea, and anybody (or almost anybody) can write it. Well, that’s not really true, but if you come up with a notion like the one that explodes on the reader in Arthur Clarke’s “The Star,” or in Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man,” it’s hard to see how you can go wrong.
So we need an idea, a concept around which to build a plot. Where do we get one of those? Harlan Ellison suggests Sheboygan, which is to say that it is a function of the imagination, and we can either do it or not. He’s probably right.
But those who wait for lightning to strike may wait a long time.
Fortunately there are ways to help our imagination along. Read science magazines. An item in Science News several years ago described an experiment at a particle accelerator that included a scary possibility: there was a remote chance that the experiment would create, as a byproduct, a more basic particle than the proton. If that happened, some researchers were warning, first California, and then the planet, might be destabilized. Could such a thing really happen? It sounds unlikely, but I only know what I read in the newspaper. But let’s say there was a distinct possibility of such an event. Wouldn’t the experimenters prepare for it? Of course. They would set up a magnetic bottle in which the Frankenstein particle could be isolated.
But what happens a century or two down the line, when civilization fails (happens all the time, you know), and the power company goes under. And the family that has been pumping the generator for eighty years gets down to its last tired member? How about a story describing how the responsibility gets passed to someone else? Preferably an unwilling victim? More or less like Atlas and Hercules. Here, hold this a second, will you? I have to go to the bathroom.
Another source of ideas can be found in poetry. Matthew Arnold’s “A Picture at Newstead” describes an aristocrat who lost his temper with his young son and struck him with a cane. The child suffered brain damage in the incident and became retarded. The aristocrat, driven by guilt, hired an artist to recreate the event in a mural, so that all could see what he had done. Arnold describes the mural in a few lines: the father with the stick still raised, the child falling forward with the light of reason already gone from his eyes.
So where's the story idea? Look for a fresh angle. Take it a step further. Set up a similar guilt-ridden situation. Bring in the artist, an exceptionally talented one, to paint the scene. And where is our novel approach? Let's ask ourselves what all this did to the artist. Did his work take a darker turn at this point?
The Engines of God began life as a few lines from A.E. Housman: The poet stands on a late 19th century sidewalk, watching soldiers on parade, headed for one or another of the British colonial wars. Scarcely more than boys, Housman realizes. And there comes a moment when one of them glances his way, and their eyes lock. I do not know your thoughts, Housman reflects, but “Soldier, I wish you well.”
Other, similar, encounters aren’t hard to imagine. Possibly one occurs between intelligent species, passing each other in the night without actually meeting. I put a graven figure on Iapetus, left by an unknown visitor ten thousand years ago. A self-image, the evidence suggests. An alien creature, whose stone glance retains a kind of “philosophical ferocity.” It’s a female, and its tracks remain in the unchanging sands of that airless moon. Humans eventually find it, and the narrator, a female crewmember, follows the tracks onto a ridge. Here the creature had stood for a time watching Saturn, majestic and compelling above a series of hills where, because of the moon's tidal lock, its position in the sky never changes. There, she experiences an emotional link with the visitor. I know not who you were, she thinks, nor whence you came. But I wish you well.
When we are looking for an idea to drive a piece of fiction, the novel presents a more difficult challenge than a short story. But the most effective way to do it seems to be to ask What if? What would really happen if we found out for certain we were not alone? If that elusive message from the stars actually came in? How would that affect, say, people’s religious views? Who would be upset by such a development?
Or suppose Alpha Centauri went nova? (See Charles Sheffield’s excellent Aftermath.) Or a giant intelligent cloud invaded the solar system and cut off sunlight, as in Fred Hoyle’s classic The Black Cloud.
The point is that ideas have to be generated by active engagement. They do not usually arrive on the afternoon train. One must ask the What If question. What if we really could transport living people through space, the way they did originally in the 1938 serial, Buck Rogers, and then later in Star Trek? How would that change the way we live? Airlines go out of business? Security problems multiply? Is anybody safe?
Go for that Smooth First Draft.
And get it right the first time.
A seminar participant recently thanked me for reassuring her that it was okay to turn out a ragged first draft. I’d shown her one of my own and I guessed she was being complimentary. She seemed to have been under the impression that writers should stay with each paragraph until it rose to a professional level before moving on.
The reality is that the first draft is the brute. It’s the ogre that we have to wrestle down, the blank pages that challenge us each morning to get moving. It is the monster that defeats all those people who are constantly saying they have a book in them. Well, we all do. Getting it out onto the computer screen is the trick.
It’s always a good idea to do the hard part of any job first. The first draft is the hard part. Writing rather than polishing. So we’ll concentrate on getting the narrative down, on putting a pile of pages together, on the last of which we can write THE END. When we’ve done that, we can worry about the details. All side effort until that is accomplished not only holds up the show, but has a potential for futility. Why, for example, would we want to spend a lot of time fixing a section that may prove to be unnecessary and in the end have to be cut?
When the draft is finished, when a complete narrative lies before us, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, we can begin the process of upgrading it to a professional level. That’s just a matter of criticizing our own work. Not necessarily easy, but certainly less daunting than what we have accomplished so far.
When we go back for the second run through the work, what are we looking for? Aside from the obvious misspellings, goofy syntax, redundancies, and pieces of illogic?
We’ll tighten up the language. Get rid of any word or phrase that doesn’t have a specific function. We’ll look for shorter, more economical ways to say things. We’ll toss out complicated words that no one uses. Make sure sentences flow smoothly.
We’ll be hard on qualifiers. (“She was exceedingly lovely.”) She is or she isn’t. Be especially careful of words that end in -ly. Most of them are adverbs and they get in the way.
Look for consistency. If Traja the Warrior has green eyes in chapter one, don’t talk about his “blue gaze” during the confrontation with the emperor.
Speaking of consistency, do our characters behave as one would expect? If Shawn is nervous and unsure of himself when we first meet him, does he in chapter XI perform heroic deeds without explanation?
Does the protagonist solve the problem herself, with her own native ingenuity and courage, or do the U.S. Marines show up in the nick of time?
Are our characters believable? Or are they simply too good, or too evil, or too bright to be credible? Are all our scientists “the most brilliant” on the planet? Is our star pilot the all-time champ? Remember that readers tend to identify with the characters. We can make it easy for them by creating characters that are like ourselves rather than like movie heroes who leap fearlessly into action at the first explosion. (Most of us are more inclined to duck and look around for the nearest cop.)
Have we answered all the critical questions for the reader? If we’ve posed a mystery and our heroine has come up with the solution, can the reader see how she arrived there?
Have we foreshadowed events where necessary? If the good ship Exeter is going to malfunction at a critical point in chapter six, have we shown it having engine trouble in chapter four?
The things to look for are nearly infinite. We must have a solid grip on what we are trying to accomplish, and look for anything that detracts from or confuses the objective. And we should have someone else take a look as well. Preferably someone with good taste, and who will tell us the truth. More on that later.
Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of actually getting the writing done, we might want to avoid setting aside a given period of time each day to work. That sounds good. And it may work for you. My experience was that I spent a lot of time rummaging through magazines, staring out the window at the cardinals, and occasionally wandering into the den to see how the Phillies were doing. (Usually not very well.) It did not lead to much progress.
Better is to set a goal of writing a specific scene. Today we will write this section, we’ll do the conversation with the AI, and when we’re finished, we’ll reward ourselves by taking the rest of the day off. We’ll get more done that way, in less time.
Ask for Criticism and Go Home Angry When You Get It.
“Everybody I know who’s looked at the manuscript thinks it’s terrific.”
I sold my first story in 1980. It was “The Emerson Effect” and Ted Klein bought it for Twilight Zone Magazine. An earlier version of the story had been rejected a couple of times by other publications, and I was ready to give up on it. Like most people I don’t take rejection well.
My wife Maureen wanted to invite a friend over to take a look at the story.
“What good will that do?” I asked.
Maureen argued that the friend was smart, that she hadn’t seen the story previously, that she had no idea what it was about, and that she could be relied on to say what she really thought.
Most writers need an at-home editor, and Maureen’s friend had all the critical qualities. She read the story and made a few suggestions. I thought about it, incorporated most of her ideas, sent the result off to TZ, and a few weeks later had my first sale.
Why do we need an at-home editor?
The writer may be the worst judge of the quality of his/her own work. We’re too close to it and tend not to see the problems that are apparent to others.
The difficult part of the process is finding someone who can be objective, and who will then tell us what she thinks. Most people, given this type of commission, are friends or relatives, and convince themselves beforehand that whatever you do is just dandy. That notion colors their feelings and warps their judgment. If they do see deficiencies, they are usually inclined to hide that fact. Or downplay it.
The situation is often compounded because the writer, despite what she says, may not want to hear the truth. This is especially so when we are at the beginning of our career, and we have insufficient confidence in our ability. Consequently we take offense at criticism. We may not say anything, but we let the at-home editor feel the sudden chill in the room. Be assured that individual will never again tell us what we need to hear.
People sometimes approach me at cons with their work. They have a story or a couple of chapters and an outline, and they ask whether I’ll read it for them. Give them my honest opinion. I discovered quickly that my honest opinion could provoke a fair amount of hostility. A couple have warned me against trying to steal their ideas. One person who had been a casual acquaintance stopped speaking to me.
I used to conduct management seminars for a living. One of the key pieces of advice I offered to would-be managers was to take one of their senior subordinates aside, someone whom they trusted, and ask her to function as a combination conscience and stupidity detector. When the subordinate noticed that the manager was doing something dumb, or selfish, or counterproductive, she was to take him aside and advise him of the fact. This is invaluable information to receive. But the key to it is that the manager must avoid getting angry or resentful with the subordinate, must in fact be appreciative of bad news. This attitude, of course, runs counter to human nature, but unless the manager can pull it off, the subordinate will back off very quickly and return to telling him what he wants to hear instead of the truth. It’s one reason that presidents get in trouble.
When people criticize a writer’s work, it’s important to remember they are criticizing the work and not the writer. That isn’t easy to do, but it’s an attitude successful writers try to cultivate.
My wife Maureen is my in-house editor. Her help is invaluable, because she usually has a sense of what I’m trying to do, and because she’ll tell me what she really thinks. That’s what I need.
Each of us needs to have someone like that, and when she tells us that we’re overwriting, or that our protagonist sounds like an idiot, we need to listen. We might disagree, but we should take her suggestion into account. And if we decide she’s wrong, then we’ll persist. But we do it at our own risk.
And by the way, when she tells you something you don’t want to hear, take her to lunch.
Get the Narrative off to a Slow Start
But I have to introduce my characters first, set the scene, and establish the mood.
It was an axiom at the old Sycamore Hill Writers’ Workshop that one never starts a story with a weather report.
A writer whose name is unfamiliar to the editor doesn’t get much time to sell his product. Editors and editorial assistants do not have time to read all the material that comes in over the transom. The aspiring writer must engage their attention quickly and with impact.
There’s a story told about Isaac Asimov that illustrates the point. A would-be writer confronts the good doctor at a con. “I sent your magazine a story,” he says, using a gotcha tone. “I clipped the last twelve pages of it together. They rejected it, but when it came back the pages were still clipped. What do you have to say to that?”
Asimov smiles benignly at the inquisitor. “You don’t have to eat the whole egg,” he says, “to know it’s rotten.”
Lack of technique is evident from the beginning of a project. The writer doesn’t know how to handle dialog. The writer inserts redundancies. The writer babbles on, instead of getting to the action.
The writer takes forever to arrange the furniture.
We live in a televised, digitalized age. Everything moves fast and no one, neither editor nor reader, is going to hang around while the writer gets his narrative in gear.
Getting the engine running without wasting time is particularly critical if we’re trying to sell a piece of short fiction. The editor has a stack of stories from people who want the same piece of space in the magazine that you do. We have maybe to the bottom of page one to engage her interest. If it’s a novel, and everything else is in order, we might get a chapter or two.
Does that mean we have to start every story with an explosion? Or a gunfight? The answer is a ringing yes. Not a literal detonation, of course. But something to pique the interest.
Pick up a random copy of any of the top SF magazines, and scan the opening lines. The September 2000 Asimov’s serves as a good example. We have:
“The fierce blast uncapped the wormhole, wrenching open a fragile and temporary passageway into the past.” (Robert Reed, “Father to the Man”)
“All I wanted was a safe landing.” (Rick Wilber, “To Leuchars”)
“Minda didn’t even see the volcanic plume before it swallowed up her flitter.” (Stephen Baxter, “Silver Ghost”)
The others are similar. Even David Langford’s short-short, “Comp.Basilisk FAQ,” which pretends to be simply a report composed of questions and answers, gets quickly into high priority warnings and mandatory death sentences for improper postings.
Novels may take somewhat longer to get rolling, but even here the writer should be careful not to stretch the patience of his audience. By the end of the first chapter, the reader should have acquired an interest in at least one of the characters; and he should already be caught up in the narrative.
If we’re concerned that we need some time to set up our central narrative, we can insert a prolog to get things moving quickly. The prolog is an excellent device for providing early suspense and involving the reader. Mystery writers often use prologs to dramatize an aspect of the murder which the detective is eventually called on to solve. In Infinity Beach (HarperPrism, March 2000), much of the action flows from an event that occurred twenty years before the main narrative. The event cost a lot of lives and ruined some reputations. What more natural then than to open the book by dramatizing it?
Incidentally, one does not need a multitude of pages to establish character, set a scene, or establish mood. A Greg Bear or a Nancy Kress can do it with a line.
Driving the Narrative:
Nobody Would Care about This in a Million Years.
Why yes, if I can pull it off I’ll get a promotion and the corner office.
So our protagonist is engaged in a rocket race from Venus to Mercury. And we’re going to take the reader through the thrills and spills of the race. Okay.
But why is it important? What hangs on the outcome? Writers frequently go wrong by assuming that if they produce a competition of some sort, the reader will automatically hop on board.
This is not to say fiction always has to be about love and death. But the stakes should be high enough that the reader cares. If we’re going to run a race, there should be more to it than simply getting to the finish line ahead of everybody else. If that’s all it is, there’s probably better stuff on ESPN. So possibly the protagonist has something to prove. Maybe he’s bet the mortgage and if he loses the mob will be around to talk to him. Maybe he’s going up against Willie McKay, who wins every year and loves to laugh at the losers.
Even if the narrative is about securing a promotion and the corner office, a notion far less exhilarating than a race, that’s okay too. But in itself, it’s not enough. We need to know why the goal is significant. Jeremy wants the corner office because he’s lied to his girl friend about his importance and is about to be called on it. Or because his father had the same office for thirty years and always told Jeremy he’d never amount to anything. The point is that we have to get the reader on board, enlist his sympathies in the pursuit of whatever objective the protagonist hopes to achieve. When we reach the climax, and our characters either succeed or fail, the reader has to share the emotional impact. He cheers, or he is saddened. Achieving that effect, inducing a sense of elation in the reader, or reducing him to tears, will be the gauge of the writer’s success.
Use Wooden Dialogue.
By Altair, Miranda, no man has ever loved a woman the way I love you.
If Miranda has any sense, this declaration of passion is going awry. How better to do it? (See midway through this section for one suggestion.)
The writer may simply not have an ear for the way people really speak. If that is so, he needs to find another line of work.
Among those who do sense the rhythm of language, there are still ways to go wrong. The writer may simply have listened too closely during the grammar classes and get caught up trying to use formalized language. Or he may be trying to provide information to the reader, so the characters begin to sound like encyclopedias. “If we lose forward thrust, Kam, we’ll be sucked into the gravity well beyond our capability to escape.” And good luck to you all.
Real people interrupt one another constantly, deliver irrelevancies, squint, change the subject, shake their heads, often fail to use complete sentences, sometimes lose their train of thought altogether. We can’t really allow our characters to behave in this way or the reader will lose patience. After all, we have a narrative to advance. So we seek a middle ground, strive to keep the characters in line while creating the illusion of living conversation. Marta, we might say, thought for a bit. Then she adds a comment about the sunset. “But what about the macroswirl?” insists David. “Yes,” she says finally, “we’ll have to do something, won’t we?”
Most studies indicate the bulk of face-to-face communication isn’t done with words at all, but with nonverbals. A romance breaks up painfully, and one does not remember the words so much as the look in the eyes of the bored former lover.
As to the profession of love that opened this section, how about an alternative:
“Miranda.” Her gaze locked on him and the surf was loud. “I love you.”
Don’t underestimate the significance of that surf. There is something about highly emotional events that ratchets up our perceptions. Heightened senses come into play. A child dies and we remember a dog barking. A friend takes his final farewell while the wind blows through a stand of oaks. A quarrel takes place outside the Quimby Bar and Grill. Afterward, we are never able to shake the emotional content of the barking, the wind in the oaks, or the bar. These are always special. And they are by the way effective methods for the skilled writer to rouse similar emotions in the reader.
We want the reader to suffer and celebrate, to share the emotions of our characters. We can’t do it by telling him flat out that our protagonist feels pained by the course of events. We have to recreate the experience in such a way that the reader lives through it. And one of the most effective ways we can do it is by getting the reader onto the parking lot at Quimby’s, where the interior lights (as if from another time) spill into the street, where a car pulls in and a young couple emerge to laugh and embrace before entering. It has grown dark and the first sting of approaching winter is in the air. And our protagonist, taking the reader with him, has retreated into time.
A good way to check for effective dialogue is to read it aloud, skipping the intervening material. How does it sound? If it’s awkward, long-winded, pompous, formal, get rid of it. One of the pro writer’s most valuable attributes is a willingness to heave material over the side.
We must put ourselves in place of the characters. Have them speak as we would. If one of the characters is exceedingly different from us, a serial killer say, then we are driven to use our imagination to get into the part.
Major Events Take Place Offstage.
“We’ve decided to abandon ship.”
“What, out here? We won’t have a chance.”
“Kosh, the survival of the species depends on it.”
Conflict is the soul of good fiction. It is what sets the reader’s juices going. Especially when the conflict arises between two apparently reasonable but mutually exclusive views. This, by the way, is the reason that narratives dependent on villainous characters have a hard time rising to a very sophisticated level. Ming the Merciless doesn’t provide much of an argument for his view. He’s simply there to throw up obstacles for the good guys. And in the end, everything comes down to a gunfight.
We now have in our hands, let us say, a means to make everyone young. To ward off death. Do we use it? If we do, if people stop dying, if they stop aging, there are going to be some serious social dislocations. Bosses won’t retire, ex-presidents will hang around forever, yesterday’s sports heroes will all be back, gobbling up huge contracts. There’ll be no room for anybody else. So whoever has it in his hands to grant this boon needs to think things over very carefully. We will not want to have a character who simply says, unilaterally, okay, we can now grant everybody indefinite youth. That takes too much of the fun out of things. What we need is an opponent, someone with reservations, who can point out why it might be a terrible idea to give immortality to human beings. Let them shoot it out —with weapons more sophisticated than guns— where the reader can watch.
Why do aspiring writers often tend to create simplistic conflict? Sometimes I think we’re so programed into the notion that, in fiction, we are looking at good versus evil that we miss the potential for drama, which sets in when good people defending equally valid views oppose each other. Do we terraform the world that we desperately need, or delay another thirty years so the archeologists can finish their work? Do we make the truth known about a given historical event if it shatters people’s delusions and robs them of comfort in their last hours?
I suspect new writers sense that such conflict is difficult to carry off well, not least because there is no satisfactory resolution which stands out clearly as being correct. But that’s okay. It’s the lack of clear definition, the moral ambiguity, that lends heart to good fiction. Characters are like real people, or should be: They do their best, try to get it right, and are prepared to argue devotedly for their opinions. All the while, by the way, wondering whether they are indeed right. This lets out those who have no doubt about being on the money in those issues which have puzzled us for years. Does life have meaning? What is the appropriate code of ethics for a rational being? And so on. People who’ve never doubted their views on these issues have never thought about them and are consequently dull models for characters.
Make It Hard on the Reader I: Have Fifty Characters All Named T’challah.
Matt stared a long time at Mark, who sighed, checked his revolver, and glanced at the line of trees. “He should have been here by now,” said Matt.
Mark nodded. ”Not like Martin to be this late. Something must have gone wrong.”
Naming characters can be a tricky business. For one thing, names have to be sufficiently different that the reader will not confuse them with each other. Anyone trying to keep track of Matt, Mark, and Martin (and maybe Jack, Fred, and Karl) is going to have his hands full. In this group, we need a Whitaker. And maybe a Satch. Diversity pays.
They should also sound like real names. One of the more irritating problems for the science fiction writer is that of inventing names for characters advertised as being from another culture (one not currently known on Earth), or, even more difficult, for characters who are aliens.
Almost any name one chooses to give an alien sounds made up. We tend to throw in apostrophes and odd combinations of consonants, unpronouncable by human tongues, and probably by any other kind. It doesn’t seem to matter. They’re the vocal equivalent of the rubber suits and heavy makeup actors wear on the space shows when they’re playing aliens.
I confess I have no easy solution. I personally avoid the problem by default by not allowing aliens onstage unless absolutely demanded by the plot. If they do make it out in front of the footlights, their appearance is so fleeting, or so circumscribed that the audience never has much of a chance to catch a name or say hello. I’m not necessarily recommending this technique, but simply confessing to it.
I don’t operate this way because I want to avoid the name problem, but rather because there’s a larger issue. Aliens are delicious material to work with. They are mysterious, romantic, compelling, the heart of the kind of science fiction so many of us have learned to love. But only as long as they remain distant. As soon as they get a name, or begin describing their peculiar social institutions, all that fades away, and they become like us, only more boring.
If we must have an alien in the mix, joining in the camaraderie on the starship deck, we’re probably best advised to keep the name simple, with some sort of curve thrown in. Like avoiding the human custom of multiple names (giving us, e.g., Spock). Or using an exotic configuration, but something with human rhythm, which is consequently not difficult to pronounce. Tars Tarkas comes to mind.
Make It Hard on the Reader II:
Introduce Characters Who Don’t Really Do Anything.
But the inspection team needs a physicist, a mathematician, a computer technician, and someone to take notes.
A narrative may need a bartender. It may also need an old friend that our protagonist can go to in difficult times for a little bit of cheering up. And maybe an ex-cop who has “seen this sort of thing before.” And possibly someone to behave in a fatherly way to the love interest. But this doesn’t mean we should add four characters to the cast. (Here, we’ll define a character as someone with a name because that means the reader will have to remember who he is and what purpose he serves.)
It’s far easier on everyone to combine the functions in one or two characters if there’s no pressing reason not to do so. It saves the reader from taking notes; the writer does not need to create a team of persons who have to be carefully differentiated from one another; and the internal gears of the plotline will work more smoothly.
Sometimes new writers are tempted to create characters simply because they think it would be a good idea to have a befuddled physicist, or a witty clone-sister in the mix. But every individual in a narrative should have an explicit function, a reason to be there, and that function should be articulable. If it is not, if the character is just along for the ride, get rid of him.
Demonstrate How Much We Know:
In the Info Dump.
“And precisely how does your FTL drive work, Professor?”
It always seems a pity to do a lot of research and then fail to show the reader how much we know about a given subject. Have our characters arrived in the neighborhood of a pulsar? Then surely we should go into chapter and verse, explaining how pulsars function and why they do what they do and why they don’t have much in the way of a long-term outlook.
In fact we do have to include a certain amount of information along these lines. The reader has to get a picture of the neighborhood around such an object, and should understand in general terms why it flashes a giant searchlight around the cosmos. But if we’re prudent, we keep in mind that most readers bog down pretty quickly when we go into technical detail. We walk a fairly narrow line here, between giving too much and too little information, and we have to be careful not too stray too far to either side.
How far is that? There’s no easy way to answer the question. Possibly the best approach is to keep in mind that we’re telling a story, first and foremost, and that relatively few of our readers have an advanced degree in physics.
When I first started reading SF, back in the forties, there was a tendency to deliver lots of explanation. But we’ve come to accept certain tropes now. Superluminals glide gracefully from star to star, jumping in and out of something called hyperspace (or some variation thereof). If this is Wednesday, we must be orbiting Procyon.
We do the same with time travel. The machine works, and we let it go at that. No need to bore the reader with a bogus explanation about wormholes or some other unintelligible method. He doesn’t care how we do it anyhow. What he’s interested in is getting onto that beach at world’s end, when the sun is fire red and swollen beyond recognition and giant sea creatures lie in the surf.
A variant of this kind of blunder, the tendency to use eight-syllable terms, has already been mentioned. Remember the purpose of fiction: To create an illusion of reality, to place the reader within the experience, to have her live through it with the characters. Anything that scrambles the picture, any unusual word, any long-drawn explanation, any attempts by the author to call attention to himself, serves only to shatter that illusion. Hemingway suggests that if a writer has created a line of which she is particularly proud, she should get rid of it. This basic requirement of maintaining the illusion is what he had in mind.
Forget Pacing: On with the Action.
“No time for that now, Uncle Jim.”
Jack Armstrong was an extraordinarily popular figure on radio during the late thirties and forties. Jack was a high school hero (“Raise the flag for Hudson High, boys”) who rambled afield with kindly uncle Jim and his two pals Betty and Billy, chasing down smugglers in South America, pursuing gun runners off the coast of Madagascar, exploring mysterious ruins in Yucatan, fighting Nazis during the big one, and generally doing all the good stuff that real guys wanted to do except that the rest of us had to go to school. (I was never sure how Jack and his friends managed the attendance problem at Hudson.)
There was always something happening, but the writers knew how to keep the kids coming back. It was a fifteen-minute show, designed so that the crunch always came just as they signed off. The chase was on throughout the episode, Jake Morgan and his cutthroats pursuing in an armored launch, but with Jack at the throttle, the Mayfly was pulling steadily away. But there were occasional gasps and coughs from the Mayfly’s engine.“It’ll be okay,” Uncle Jim assures us. But the sounds of misfiring pistons grew constantly louder. And as the theme music signaling the end of the show began to rise, Uncle Jim would cry out in a choked voice that there was a leak in the main fuel line. And suddenly the engines sputtered out altogether. We’d hear Jack trying desperately to restart, and the announcer coolly asking, “Well, what now, boys and girls?”
It was delicious stuff, and it impressed on me the sheer electricity that could be imparted to a narrative by drawing the cord gradually tighter while the audience watches.
If the thing from Brogan’s swamp is stalking Professor Dexter’s home, red eyes lit with fire and madness, the reader should have an opportunity to watch it approach through misty, moonlit forest. He should also see Dexter in his living room, unaware of what’s coming up the driveway. He might be explaining the nature of recent biological oddities to a couple of graduate assistants. (These oddities, of course, define the existence and explain the origin of the Thing.)
We could write it that way, if we keep it short. And simple.
Better though, it seems to me, is to create a situation in which Dexter is getting ready to leave. The reader knows if he can just get out of the house, get to his car and drive off, he’ll be safe. (For this to work properly, by the way, the reader should like Dexter.) He’s headed for a party in town, say. After which he plans to tell his daughter Linda that it’s okay to go ahead and marry Wendell. That he shouldn’t have made a fuss, and that he loves her.
We see him pocket his automobile keys and start for the front door, but the phone rings. It’s one of his friends, with some trivial detail or other, tragically unaware that he is increasing Dexter’s danger. He needs the professor’s input on the Odyssey project.
Of course, he says. First thing tomorrow. I’ll be in my office.
Outside, sixty yards away, the creature emerges from the woods, sees the lights of the house, sees movement in one of the windows, and lumbers forward.
Dexter hangs up. Wonders if he’s turned out the kitchen lights. Stops for a glass of orange juice.
Achieving the appropriate element of suspense is essential. In Flashman in the Great Game, George MacDonald Fraser’s rogue hero is caught up in the Sepoy Mutiny. He finds himself trapped with a small British force, with women and children, in a cantonment surrounded by rebel Indian troops who have already demonstrated they will take no prisoners. Even the children have been massacred along the way.
The situation is desperate, and a reluctant Flashy helps man the front lines during a cavalry charge. The sequence is gripping. Fraser takes time to describe the characters around Flashman. We feel their fear, see their desperation. Muskets are popping from the rebels. There’s enough movement to determine that a charge is imminent. The British commander barks detailed orders. Someone runs up the Union Jack. Flashy hears the clicking of bolts. Watches one of the women take her place behind him to help load the weapons. Sees a couple of regiments of rebel cavalry take their place and begin moving forward at a steady pace. The British commander tells his troops to hold their fire until he gives the command. Sunlight glitters on the rebel sabers as they bring the weapons forward.
And so on. The reader is made to wait. But the joy of anticipation is very nearly too much to bear.
Forget The Payoff.
But it’s a cautionary tale. If we don’t do something about nuclear weapons eventually we’ll pay the price. So sure I killed everybody at the end.
You can wipe out the protagonist and most of the planet, if you choose, in a story. But in longer pieces of fiction, when readers have stayed with you through a series of crises, they tend to become fond of the lead character. They identify with him, and they come to see the action through his eyes.
Kill him off if you must, but you do it at your peril.
Don’t take this as a knock on Hamlet, or even on 1984, but readers who stick with a character through a rousing adventure, who watch him struggle when things go wrong, who worry when he gets trapped at the climax in an abandoned starship and the air starts to run out, don’t generally have a good time when the author just lets the character die. They may show up outside the house.
More memorable that way, one first-time novelist remarked to me. Get the reader emotionally involved with the protagonist and then kill him off and it just hits them right where they live. That’s true. They’ll also not buy your second book.
There’s a variant of this sort of approach, in which we set up an unstoppable alien, or an unbeatable disease, or, as I recall from my early days reading Startling Stories, the sun is going nova and of course no one can do anything about it. Can’t even get out of town. The writer may use this type of scenario because he wants to show how people behave when doom is inevitable.
I won’t say it can’t be pulled off. It has been done with varying degrees of success. But it’s extremely difficult, and I’d suggest not trying it until one has risen to the top of the profession. And probably not then.
A novel needs a payoff. When the reader arrives at the climax, she wants to see the protagonist win through. The odds have been stacked against him throughout, but he hangs in there, and eventually emerges victorious.
Another variation of the non-payoff deficiency occurs when the writer sets up a problem whose solution he himself cannot resolve. What is the appropriate resolution to be adopted at the end?
An example occurs in the original Hercules Text (Ace, 1986). A stream of scientific information has been mined out of an extraterrestrial radio signal. The source is outside the galaxy, much too far to allow any two-way communication. There is simply a single burst of data, an encyclopedia of sorts, with considerable potential for both good and ill. It contains, among others benefits, shortcuts to major medical advances. But there is also data that would lead to superweaponry. What should the small group of scientists who are reading the signal do? Make it available and hope the government will use it wisely? Destroy it and watch birth defects and cancer and heart problems continue?
I really didn’t know how they should proceed. Both courses of action were replete with the potential for serious consequences. So I allowed them to hide the information, store it away for a time when the human race would be wiser.
I had an opportunity to correct the problem when Steve Pagel at Meisha Merlin requested permission to reprint The Hercules Text. The second half of the novel diverges substantially from the original, and I made sure, this time, that my characters faced their problem squarely. Incidentally, the new version can be found in Hello Out There, published September 2000.
I was laboring under the notion, beloved by Americans, that if you have a problem, there should be a solution. The reality of course is that some problems don’t lend themselves to solutions. We simply have to cope. Examples: teen-age sex. Hypocrisy in politics. The fact that if you have a First Amendment some people will abuse it by making godawful bloodthirsty films. And so on.
The writer’s obligation is to guide the way through whatever tangle he has created and provide, if not a solution, at least a decision. A course of action which the protagonist decides upon, and which brings a satisfactory conclusion to the action.
This by the way is one of the reasons it’s so much simpler to have characters clearly labeled good and evil. It is then only necessary to shoot down the starships belonging to the bad guys, and the denouement is happily complete. But it just doesn’t engage the reader the way a legitimate moral dilemma does.
The reality is that life itself requires constant ethical choices, and they are not always clear. If they were, good fiction would be almost impossible to produce.
Copyright © 2000 by Cryptic, Inc.