Another Thing Not to Do


And I say this who have written them.  In my defense,

  1. I was a much younger writer, then.
  2. I believed that the story demanded it.  And
  3. I think I got away with it.

Of the above, #3 is probably the most important.  Good writing is all about what you can get away with, and one of the big lessons to learn on the way to becoming a good writer is figuring out how much, and what sorts of things, you can get away with.

Usually, the answer to “how much can I get away with? is “not nearly as much as you think.”  On the other hand, sometimes your muse doesn’t leave you with any choice except to say, “what the hell” and go for it.  At which point, you do your best and take the consequences as they come.

So, anyway, prologues.  Not nearly as many stories need them as have them, and entirely too many failed stories – especially in the Epic, or Doorstop, Fantasy genre – start out twenty years or so before the main action, with the portentous birth of the main character, or the portentous death of somebody important to the backstory, or the portentous prophecy of some future birth, death, or general catastrophic doom.  For this reason, if you find yourself feeling the urge to commence your novel with a prologue, at least stop first and ask yourself, “Can I put this same information into a flashback somewhere around chapter five?  Or into a couple of paragraphs of dialogue between the Young Protagonist and his/her Wise Mentor somewhere around chapter two? Or will this section work just as well if I label it ‘Chapter One,’ and commence the next chapter with ‘Twenty years later’?”

If you can answer any one of those questions with “Yes,” then you should probably take the hint and revise your no-longer-prologue accordingly.

Worldbuilding: Implications and Consequences

Writers in the science fiction and fantasy fields talk a lot about worldbuilding, mostly because it’s a necessity in their genre.  Stories set in past or contemporary consensus reality don’t need it, or at any rate don’t need it in the same way — they may need to show the reader a new or unfamiliar part of the world, but the writer doesn’t have to make that part up from scratch.

Building a world from scratch is hard work.  Most writers, being only human, tend to concentrate on the aspects of the world that are of the most interest to them, or of the most importance to the story.  A writer of hard science fiction might not be able to rest until he or she has got the orbital mechanics of their fictional planet’s fictional solar system all worked out to five decimal places.  A different writer might be content to leave the moon and sun and stars set on “default”, but will insist on figuring out all the finer details of the local banking system and exactly how letters of credit work in the absence of faster-than-light interstellar communication.  And yet a third writer may not care very much about either moons or money, but will be as thoroughly conversant with their imagined society’s rules of etiquette as the local version of Miss Manners or Emily Post.

The trick — one of the tricks, anyhow; there’s lots of them — is to think about the day-to-day implications and consequences of the worldbuilding bits that you’re concentrating on.  For an example of the kind of thing it pays to think about, the blog Hello, Tailor has a post on the way worldbuilding in film is implicit in — or fails at being implicit in — the costuming.  To quote the author:

The visuals of movies like Equilibrium and Gattaca (and Aeon Flux, and Ultraviolet…) are, to me, the costuming equivalent of all those thousands of hard sci-fi novels that concentrate on the science fiction but forget to give the characters human personalities. Even in a world where everyone is genetically engineered to perfection (Gattaca) or everyone is drugged with emotional inhibitors (Equilibrium), it’s never really articulated why people look so similar. And if they were pressured to wear identical outfits every day, they wouldn’t be dressed to the same degree of neatness, a trait that varies enormously from person to person. Not that this really makes much difference to the overall quality of the film: it’s just something that bugs me, personally.

Because in the long run, everything in your fictional world is connected. The length of your planet’s days and seasons, and the rise and fall of the tides in its seas, will have an effect on how long or short the working day is, and how hard the seasons are, which will effect in turn the way the local economy is set up, and who is hardworking but poor and who is rich and idle and what the politics are that arise from that division, which will in turn influence the social customs and the unwritten rules of behavior that are an etiquette-writer’s stock in trade.

You can’t trace out all of the connections — you are, after all, only human, and this world you’re making is only words — but you can trace out the ones you’re interested in, or that influence your plot, and that will be enough to convince your reader (at least for the length of time it takes to read a story) that you’ve seen them all.

A Weather Eye

It snowed today in parts of New Hampshire, and in other parts the Connecticut river is over its banks and the flood warnings are out for local streams . . . which is  a good enough reason to think about the use and misuse of weather in fiction.

For example, there’s emotionally appropriate weather: whenever the protagonist is depressed, it rains; whenever the protagonist is happy, the sky is blue and the sun is shining.  You can get away with this maybe once per novel, if you’re lucky and if your readers don’t notice what you’re doing.  Use a light hand, and don’t milk your effects.

Then you’ve got ironically inappropriate weather:  your protagonist is depressed, but it’s a glorious day out; your protagonist is deliriously happy, but the rain is pouring down.  Again, use a light hand.  If your narrator or viewpoint character feels obliged to point out the irony, you’re probably overdoing it.

There’s also plot-complicating or plot-resolving weather.  The rule of thumb here is similar to the rule of thumb for luck or coincidence:  weather effects that make things worse for your protagonist will be more readily believed than weather effects which make things easier.  (Also, be parsimonious about these things.  Readers will buy one instance of bad weather-luck; you’re pushing it if you expect them to buy three or four.)  With weather, remember also to keep your weather patterns appropriate for the region and the season, and don’t forget to lay the groundwork in advance.  A thunderstorm at the end of the chapter needs a hot afternoon and thunderheads on the horizon at the beginning of it.

Finally, there’s weather that’s gone missing — stories where every day is neither overcast nor blindingly sunny, neither excessively hot nor excessively cold, neither excessively windy nor a dead calm, neither swelteringly humid nor parchingly dry.  We’re writers, people; we don’t need to wait for good weather to film our stories; we can give our chosen locale its full range of seasonal effects.   And we had better, because if we don’t, our readers will notice that something is missing.

Too Much of a Good Thing

As I said in my previous post, there’s another big way in which description and scene-setting can go wrong, and that’s through a superabundance of detail.

You don’t want to describe too much of the scene, forcing your readers to tally up detail upon detail.  With no way to sort out the important details from the unimportant ones, the readers get swamped, unable to build a convincing mental picture out of the material supplied.  A handful of judiciously-chosen details, on the other hand, will give your reader the seed crystals from which they can grow their own settings and scenery.

A version of the handful-of-details technique is useful for historical or alternate-historical fiction as well.  You don’t have to have to give your readers all the information you could possibly gather about everything in the period you’re writing about.  Give them enough interesting and world-illuminating details, and let them do the rest of the work.  And nobody but you needs to know that you’ve structured the description around the interesting details you were able to collect, rather than researching every possible detail that the description might possibly include.

But because you’re relying upon your readers to do their share of the work in the matter of world-building and scene-setting, you don’t want to give them more of a burden than they can carry.  Every time they have to stop and recompile the scene in their heads to incorporate yet more details, you run the risk of losing them for good.

It’s All in Your Head

Or too much of it is, anyway.  When it comes to stating — or not stating — the obvious, it’s possible to be too subtle for your own good.

I’m talking here about the kind of excessive subtlety that leads to what are sometimes called “head stories” — which is to say, the particular kind of flawed story you get when there are elements of it that are so obvious to the writer that they aren’t mentioned in the text.  They never make it out of the writer’s head; hence the name.

But readers can only read texts, not minds.  If you don’t put that material down on the page — or don’t at least put down enough of it that they can reasonably infer the rest — then they won’t ever know that it’s there.

If you’ve got something crucial to your story that you want the reader to work out by inference from the clues supplied, then you need to, first, make certain that you have in fact supplied enough clues for the reader to draw the desired inference; and second, make certain that you give the reader confirmation at some point that he or she has interpreted the matter correctly.  (This confirmation is one of the strings that can be usefully tied up in the story’s denouement.)

How many hints or clues are enough?  As always with writing, it depends — but three is a nice round number.  Western-influenced people tend to regard three as significant and memorable; we show it in sayings like “Third time’s the charm” or “Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action.”  If something is called to our attention three times, we’re going to assume that the writer had a reason for waving it in our faces like that.  Also — when supplying the clues, remember that you have privileged knowledge that the reader does not; therefore, what is screamingly obvious to you may not be so to anybody else.

As a general rule, the answer to the question, “Am I being too obvious here?” is usually, “No.”  If you are being too obvious, your first reader or your editor will probably tell you.

What the Eye Takes Note Of

You can’t describe everything — everything has too much stuff in it.  And even if you could describe everything, your readers wouldn’t stand for it; their minds would buckle under the weight of all the stuff there is in the world.  So you have to pick and choose.  Give your readers not all that there is about something, but two or three things about it to hang their mental image on.

But how are you going to decide what those things are?

Start by thinking about your readers.  They’re going to assume that if you’re directing their attention toward something, then it has to be something important, something that they’re either supposed to be using now or saving for later.  So don’t let them down by wasting their attention on something that isn’t one of those things.

Stuff that they’re supposed to be using for the scene they’re reading right now would include:  a detail that conveys important information about a major character (this one is left-handed; that one is carrying a pistol in a shoulder holster; the other one has one brown eye and one blue eye; and so on); details that help to establish the setting (the floor of the grand hall is polished black marble and the ceiling is painted with a fresco of the apotheosis of King Egbert the Eighteenth); a detail that moves the plot forward (the golden apple has a tag on it saying “for the fairest”; the third red lozenge from the left on the lid of the enameled jewel-box opens the secret compartment.)

Stuff that they’re going to want to save for later might be:  the left-handed man’s ebony walking-stick (which he will use for self-defense in a later chapter); the velvet-lined secret compartment in the jewel-box (which will be used in the next chapter to hide the forged identification papers); the polished black marble floor of the grand hall (where the character with the one brown eye and the one blue eye will slip and fall while running to escape the character who’s carrying the pistol in a shoulder holster.)

You’ll note that some of the details up above are doing double duty — they’re establishing something about the “now” of the story and at the same time planting something that will be useful later.  Good writing is economical like that.

(And no, I have no idea what the story might be that would involve pistols and walking-sticks and forged papers and an odd-eyed fugitive in a land ruled by the descendants of King Egbert the Eighteenth.  But I’ll bet it’s a lively one.)

Music to Write By

Some writers need absolute silence in which to write.  This post is not about them.

Other writers like to have some background sound.  Usually, these days, that means music.

Writers who love their background music have a variety of different tastes and requirements.  Some writers prefer orchestral music, finding the intrusion of human voices distracting, while other writers can’t do without their vocalists.    Different time periods appeal to different writers as well.  One writer will have a preference for Baroque concertos, another for heavy metal, a third for show tunes.

I like writing to vocal music with a steady beat —  not surprisingly, there’s a lot of classic rock in my playlists.

What about you?