Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Paula Fleming
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So you're writing this incredibly cool story, but to understand it, the reader first needs to know quite a bit about how aerodynamics would work on a heavy planet. Because your protagonist is a bastard son of the emperor, the reader also should understand the history of this planet's ruling family, the social status of an acknowledged bastard, and this young man's ambiguous relationship with his lower-class mother. Of course, the impact of the denouement will be lost unless the reader knows his legitimate half-sister was killed in a water-skiing accident exactly a year ago. Plus, what's the point of setting the story on a high-gravity planet if you don't show it to the reader, including what water-skiing feels like? Let's take a look at using imaginary settings--without making the world-building the whole story!
This is the first, last, and most important question. If you don't provide enough information, the reader becomes too confused about where-when-why-who-how to enjoy the story. If you provide too much, the reader becomes impatient and frustrated, unable to find the story for the dissertation. The subtlest writing techniques can't disguise too much or too little information.Get the first draft on paper.
Some writers say it's easier to sketch out the story -- characters and plot -- without explaining much about the world, then fill in the details in a later draft. Other writers prefer to lay out every bit of world-building in the first draft and pare away the unessentials when they rewrite. Use whichever method allows you to finish that first draft. If research sidetracks you from writing, then put [describe water-skiing here], start a new paragraph, and charge onward. If writing on uncertain ground just feels wrong, however, then by all means, firm up your world-building first.Too little information? Get input.
When you've got a coherent draft together, a great way to find out if it needs more information is to have someone else read it. If you're not in a critique group, or don't feel comfortable giving them a story that may still need a lot of work, I recommend finding someone who reads and likes SF/fantasy. You need a reader who's familiar with the tropes of the genre and won't be confused by the mere fact that, "The Shire isn't a freestanding nation-state; it was an administrative unit of the English Crown." One of the most useless critiques I've ever received came from a mainstream writer/reader who read my dark fantasy and stated, "I don't think most of this stuff could really happen." Well, duh.
A test to find out if you've put too much data in the story is to read it yourself and, paragraph by paragraph, underline any background information and write in the margin what question it's intended to answer.
So now that we know what information supports the story and what we should just leave out, how do we present the information that needs to be there? Again, we want to tell an entertaining story, not make the reader wade through a dissertation.
Use the right point-of-view character?
Most genre stories are written from a close third-person or first-person point of view. That means that we're in someone's head: we get their interpretion of events through their frame of reference, and we're in on their thoughts. Short stories are almost always written from a single point of view; novels sometimes choose two or more point-of-view characters to cover everything that goes on in a tale of that scope. The pov character is often the protagonist but doesn't have to be: Sir Conan Doyle's most effective Sherlock Holmes stories are written, not from the detective's pov, but from Dr. Watson's.
Looking at the passages you underlined earlier, which contain background information, analyze them for point of view. Are you having to jump out of your pov character's head to describe things that happened in the past or to give the reader information that character doesn't have? If so, you may be telling the story from the wrong point of view. Picking the right pov character lets necessary information flow naturally into the story without stopping the flow.
An exercise: Try writing the same story from the pov of three or more of the characters in it. Another fun thing to do: Watch or read Shakespeare's Hamlet and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in close succession.
Start and end in the right place.
Start in the right place. Does your draft begin in the right place? If it starts with three pages of exposition or, usually, even one, there are a couple of explanations. One is that you can chop the entire section, scattering its splinters of information throughout the text as needed, without harming the story in the least. In general, breaking up large blocks of exposition (called infodumps) or eliminating them altogether is almost always a good idea.
Another possibility is that the really interesting story is in your introduction somewhere. Maybe our bastard imperial son with the dead half-sister isn't as interesting as his then-young father growing up in the shadow of the redoubtable Archibald IV. If descriptions of family history and dynamics are taking up pages of text, then maybe we're not telling the story that explores the truly interesting themes. Alternatively, perhaps the really juicy story on this planet revolves around how a maverick scientist discovered how to use the planet's high gravity as an energy source for flight. If explanations of physics and aerodynamics are taking up pages of text, then again, maybe a better story lies somewhere in that arena.
End in the right place. This is tricky, and here I'll just offer a few thoughts. One reason you might be cramming infodumps into your story may be because you're ending it too abruptly. Letting the tale come to a natural end, giving it time to introduce and resolve all the relevant elements, may help. As you let the story relax, it may spin out beyond the length you'd planned. Some writers just naturally write novels instead of short stories, and some write trilogies instead of novels. The point is that if you find your tale getting longer and yet longer, you'll have to make a decision: either strip down your story so you're not trying to tell such a big one, or commit to writing to a longer length than you'd planned.
Introduce an uninformed character.
Isaac Asimov did this in many of his stories and novels. A "new guy" comes in, and a knowledgeable character explains what's going on. This technique avoids the "as you know, Bob" problem -- that's where one character tells another character stuff they already know, just so the author can put it on the page where the reader can see it. "As you know, Bob, last night you were in a car accident that left you paralyzed." And in real life, Bob would say, "Yeah, I'm paralyzed, not stupid!"
However, infodumps are still infodumps, even when enclosed in quotation marks. Asimov put a lot of infodumps into his dialogue -- his characters sometimes lecture each other for pages. It worked for him in the time he was writing, but it won't work for us. Dialogue needs to follow the rules of good dialogue.
New employees and new students make excellent prospects for a guided tour of your world, as do journalists. Just don't introduce a character only for them to disappear once they're no longer useful to you. If you introduce someone to receive knowledge, then they should have a part to play in the rest of the story.
Use telling details.
One "word picture" is worth a thousand words. Consciously experience your story through the point-of-view character's five (or more) senses. What unique sensual picture sums up the attractive person they just met or the beach they're walking on? Do we need a history of court politics or of infighting in academia, or can we get by with a sentence about the courtiers' or scientists' body language? To put it another way, if you were trying to teach the scientific (or magical) application at the heart of your story to a freshman physics (or wizardry) class, what would work better: filling three whiteboards with scribbled formulae, or capturing the gist of how it works through one vivid simile?
Make your world matter to the story.
In Contemporary Fantasy: Setting the Fantastic in the Everyday World, I explored why an author would choose a contemporary setting for a speculative or fantastic story. The same question pertains to made-up settings: why is this story set here? For a brilliant example of world-building that is absolutely integral to the story, read Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars novels. If your story could be set anywhere, don't feel justified giving the reader a tour of the incredibly cool world you've created, no matter how incredibly cool it is. If the story doesn't require SF trappings, consider the possibility that it fits better in the mainstream genre.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.