My thanks to Candy Korman for this video about Tolkien’s drawings, paintings, maps and notes about Middle Earth, the setting for The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was, and is, my hero:
My thanks to Candy Korman for this video about Tolkien’s drawings, paintings, maps and notes about Middle Earth, the setting for The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was, and is, my hero:
There are actually two types of timing in fiction – the pace of the story and the passage of time in the story. They are not the same.
Pace has to do with how quickly one event follows the other. For example, in an action story, events tend to follow each other like a ten car pile up, with very little ‘slow’ time in between. On the other hand, in character driven stories, the action is always precipitated by some kind of internal motivation. For example, the serial killer had a rotten childhood and maybe has a flashback prior to choosing their next victim, who may bear some resemblance to their childhood tormentor. Or you could have a more literary style story where the motivation is the story and the action, what there is of it, simply illustrates the character of the protagonist. In these kind of stories, the pace is generally slow, but the immersion is deep.
By contrast, the passage of time in a story has nothing to do with the characters. It’s all about how the Reader perceives the passing of time.
One oft used technique is to provide the Reader with actual dates. For example, in the short prologue to Miira, I used the date and title of the news article – ‘September 22, 2101 – Three dead in Stradwick‘ – to place the Reader squarely in the future. I did something similar at the start of Nabatea – ‘…the voice of the AI seemed unnecessarily loud as it confirmed brain death at 1:46 pm, Sunday the 25th of December, 2101.’ but I was a little sneakier about it.
And that provides me with a neat segue into why writers shouldn’t use dates too often – they don’t always work. I’m pretty sure the date of Alex Tang’s death would have registered with Readers, but I suspect most people would have skimmed over the date at the very beginning of book 1.
A far more effective way to show the passage of time in a story is to make the Reader feel it. Yes, I know, easier said than done. Before the evolution of the current fast paced, smack ’em first and smack ’em hard style of writing, authors used to be able to get away with things like:
There is a place for this kind of technique, but it is [excuse the pun] dated. A more cogent reason not to use it is physiological; the human brain builds memories by creating multiple connections to them. Teachers know this by the name of ‘repetition’. The word strikes terror into the hearts of all students, but repetition does not have to be dull and boring.
Want the reader to see your Main Character as blond and blue eyed? Then show them, every now and then, by some oblique reference that may not register at a conscious level but will register at the level of the subconscious. I sometimes think of this kind of gentle, subtle repetition as painting a portrait in layers of colour and shape and edges. As writers, we have to apply those layers using words instead of paint, but the building of layers remains the same.
Making the Reader feel the passage of time is a bit more complicated than building the image of a face, but changing the chapter and the POV [Point of View] acts as a circuit breaker. The steady, sequential flow of events stops, and the Reader is suddenly elsewhere, looking out through someone else’s eyes. When the story eventually returns to the first character, there is a sense of distance, of time having passed…as in fact it has.
But be warned, constantly jumping from one character to another can be incredibly disorientating. Yes, there may well be a sense of time having passed, but the technique could also cause a nasty case of confusion. Changing the POV just to simulate the passage of time is not such a great idea. Simulating time should be one of many different techniques used to tell a story with the Reader in mind. What does the Reader need to know and what is the best way of presenting that information?
I like using multiple POVs, but I know that some of you prefer to tell stories from the perspective of just one character, so I’d love to know how you tackle the problem of time.
p.s. the free period for Nabatea ends tomorrow at midnight, February 20 for Northern Hemisphere people, or about 6 or 7pm February 21 for Southern hemisphere bods. 🙂
Apologies if I missed your local Amazon website.
I just finished a scifi space opera that could have been very good, but wasn’t. A big part of the reason was the author’s over use of internal monologue. I left a 3 star review, something I haven’t done in years, and a long explanation of why I felt the story only deserved a 3, but it’s still annoying me, hence this post.
For those who don’t know what I mean by ‘internal monologue’ it’s the character, talking to herself, but not out loud, hence ‘monologue’. In books, this internal monologue is usually shown in italics, to distinguish it from spoken dialogue.
When used properly, internal monologue is a powerful tool that betrays the character’s true feelings without the author having to say so. For example, I could say:
Jane smiled sweetly at her boss, but inside she was seething with rage.
Or I could make it more ‘show’ than ‘tell’ by changing it to:
Incompetent fool! Jane thought as she smiled sweetly at her boss.
The internal monologue of the second example provides an inside-outside view of the character that can be very powerful. Unfortunately, like all powerful tools, it should be used sparingly, and only when it actually serves a purpose. The story that earned my 3 star review used internal monologue almost constantly, for the most trivial of reasons. Something like:
Jane walked into the party and surveyed the crowd. Oh my. She was familiar with most of the party goers and did not like them. Then she spotted Tom. Thank god. Someone intelligent to talk to. etc etc etc
In the actual book, sentences like this were not exceptional. They happened with monotonous regularity, even during action scenes when the last thing you want to do is slow things down.
There’s another reason internal monologue should be used sparingly – a character with too many ‘warts’ is rarely likeable. Instead, they come across as whiny and self-obsessed, or arrogant smartarses. This can also happen with First Person POV – i.e. where the character tells the story from her own perspective saying things like “I did this” and “I felt that” etc.
In fairness I have to say that while I don’t generally like First Person POV, some of my favourite stories have been written from that very close perspective. C.J. Cherryh does it with the Foreigner series, and Audrey Driscoll did it with the Herbert West series. It can be done, and it can be done brilliantly, but First Person POV requires a mastery of the tool that far too many new authors do not possess.
The author of that 3 star story did not use First Person POV. Instead, the story is written in what’s called ‘Close Third’ – i.e. “She did this and she felt that”. There is distance between the character and the reader, but we get to see more of the internal workings of the character’s mind.
One of the tools used to create closeness is, of course, internal monologue, but it is not the only tool available to us. Describing a character’s body language can be a far more effective tool because it allows the reader to picture the scene and come to their own conclusions about what the character is doing or feeling. Showing the character from the perspective of another character is also very powerful because they can often see us as we really are instead of as we see ourselves…
And this is the point at which I have to say…’in my not so humble opinion’. I don’t often write process posts because I truly do not believe there is only one ‘correct’ way of writing a story, but sometimes I can’t help myself. This is one of those times.
Does this annoy anyone else, or am I being a ‘difficult woman’ again? lol Would love to know, but feel free to add any of your own pet peeves as well. 🙂
What, where, when, how and why are the necessary elements of every great story, but in my not-so-humble opinion, the ‘why’ is the key. Without it, the event [what], its setting [the where and when], and the mechanics of how it happened are like the dry pages of a history book – factual but boring. Only the why brings the story to life because the why is always about people.
We are eternally fascinated by ourselves, but most of us are small, insignificant motes living small, insignificant lives. Only in fiction can we become something more. Only in fiction can we live bigger lives…from the safety of our armchairs.
In The Game, a six-part drama produced by the BBC, we are taken back in time to the Cold War when the Western democracies were pitted against the Soviet Union in an undeclared, covert war fought by spies, assassins, traitors, and information gatherers. Both sides had developed nuclear weapons post World War II, so if either side started a physical war, the result would be mutual destruction, many times over. It would be the end of everything.
I grew up in Australia during the Cold War, and although we felt very distant from all the pushing and shoving in the northern hemisphere, the possibility of being wiped off the face of the planet was very real. I remember reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and wondering how I would spend my last hours of life. Trust me when I say that the fear was real, as was the threat.
That is the ‘where’ and ‘when’ in which The Game unfolds. The ‘what’ is Operation Glass. No one in the UK’s MI5 know what Operation Glass is about, but they all know there might not be a UK if the Soviet plot is allowed to succeed. The following is a short trailer from Episode 2:
All of the people shown in that scene are key players in MI5, and you automatically relate to them as the ‘good guys’, but are they? Bit by bit as the six episodes unfold, we learn snippets from the past of each player, but these snippets are not just nice to know background fluff, they are the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Put the pieces together correctly and you discover how Operation Glass took MI5 by surprise.
If you know anything about that period of UK history, you’ll know that deep cover traitors were discovered. To say more would be to spoil a part of the story. Suffice to say that the ‘why’ of each character in The Game is vital to the story.
If I were doing a movie review, I’d give The Game 5 stars along with a recommendations that you watch it on ABC iView [for Australians]. But I’m a writer, and I have to say something more, something about balance. The ‘why’ may be key to any story, but it has to be balanced by all the other elements.
Frankly, nothing bores me more than a work of fiction that reads like a therapy session using fictional characters as the medium. Yes, the deep hurts of our lives are necessary if we want to write strong, believable characters, but great stories require that we sublimate those hurts. Great stories require that we find the universal in the personal. We have to find the elements that are common to us all. Only then can we write three dimensional characters that all of us can relate to.
And then we have to place those characters in terrible situations from which they will emerge stronger, braver, better…or dead. Okay, not always dead, but you know what I mean. 🙂
May your stories grab readers by the short and curlies, and may your characters display motivation we can all recognize! Write well, all you wonderful Indies out there, and may 2021 see you all gain the recognition you deserve.
I don’t usually pontificate about the writing process as I don’t feel qualified to do so, but as a sci-fi writer, avoiding info dumps is a daily hazard, so I thought I’d share.
As the name suggests, info dumps are big lumps of explanatory text that refer to either the background of the story or the past of the characters.
When info dumps refer to the background of the story, they can include copious descriptions of the political, historical, biological, philosophical or cultural underpinings of the ‘world’. In contemporary stories, much of this world building can be taken for granted. We all know what a light switch is, or a four wheel drive [car], or a computer, so we can reference these known parts of the world without having to explain them. In science fiction and fantasy, however, everything in the world is new, so there is very little common ground between what the reader already knows and what exists in the make-believe world. As such, information about the world is a necessary part of the story. The question is…how much?
Something similar applies to background information about the characters. We need them to be well-rounded, three dimensional people, but real people have pasts. They don’t just appear in the world, ready made and raring to go. They have baggage, and that baggage has made them who they are at the start of the story. Yet as with the world building, how much do readers need to know, and how should they find out? Constant flashbacks can become very boring, very quickly.
Nevertheless, there is one person who absolutely must know every single detail, no matter how small, and that person is the writer. We need to know everything because events do not happen in a vacuum and characters need reasons to do what they do. Actually, that’s wrong; the world and the characters are not separate. They create each other. They constrain each other. They exist as a whole that is constantly in flux.
Let me give you an example. If you create a world that has only half the gravity of Earth, then the people of the world are not going ‘walk’ the way humans do. In fact, they may not walk at all because they will have evolved to suit their environment. In the same way, a world ravaged by war is not going to be all pretty and bucolic. There may be pockets of beauty but the environment will reflect what humans/aliens have done to it.
So…if we agree that information is necessary, how do we avoid presenting it as an info dump? I mean, sure, there will be some people who are so into the lore that they will enjoy the info dumps and look for more. But…you do know how few of them there are…right?
One of the saddest things I discovered during my thirteen year apprenticeship as a writer was that very little of my beloved research needed to be in the final story. Sadder still, I learned that even that little had to be presented in teeny tiny portions, around the edges of the action, or snuck in as an emotional flavouring to the motivation. Not because readers could not ‘understand’, but because they would be viewing the story from the outside.
I’ve use the words ‘viewing’ and ‘outside’ deliberately because that is exactly what happens when someone starts reading a work of science fiction or fantasy. They step into the world with brand new eyes, like travellers to a foreign country where nothing is like it is back home.
These intrepid travellers want to be there, they want to experience that newness, they want to immerse themselves in the world through the experiences of the main characters, but most of them want it to be an emotional journey, not an intellectual one. And that means no info dumps!
But how do you create a brand new world, a realistic world if you’re never allowed to talk about it?
This gets down to the how, and the how will be slightly different for every writer. Some writers, such as Martha Wells, ease readers into the newness very gently. I’m thinking of the Books of the Raksura here. The first book, although obviously not of this earth, is not all that alien either, and the main character comes across as almost human. But the world and the characters become more alien as the 7 book series continues. I enjoyed the entire series, but I think I enjoyed the later books more, precisely because they were more alien.
Another familiar strategy is to present a new world through the eyes of a human who ‘translates’ the strangeness for the reader. C.J.Cherryh accomplished this to perfection with her Foreigner series. Yet as much as I loved this series, I will always believe that Cyteen was/is her greatest work, despite the fact that it’s damned hard to read. I also have a great fondness for her Chanur series. The first one I ever read was Cuckoo’s Egg.
And then there are the stories that drop you in at the deep end and expect you to keep your head above water until you learn how to swim. Ahem. In these kinds of stories, the background of both the world and the characters is doled out a little at a time. Only just enough to explain the ‘moment’, if that. The idea is that the reader gets a feel for the world via the context.
To work, this particular type of storytelling has to provide the reader with just enough of the familiar to carry them over until the alien ‘bits’ start to coalesce. If the strategy works, the reader experiences a shift in perspective and starts to see the world as the characters see it. Deep immersion. When it doesn’t work, the reader gives up in disgust.
I suspect that all science fiction writers create one throw-’em-in-the-deep-end story because we get sick of the same old, same old and want to show that we can do better. Then we realise that readers would much prefer to read about people. Ahem.
But the all or nothing technique is an extreme way of avoiding info dumps. A similar effect can be achieved by:
Because I love my research, no. 1 is a constant bug bear and my editing usually consists of ‘killing my darlings’. 🙂 No. 2 I find fairly easy because it’s how I teach. When people are confronted with the new, unnecessary, peripheral details just get in the way of understanding.
No. 3 however is something I still struggle with. When I start a scene, I usually have some idea of what I want the scene to accomplish, but that initial idea is rarely very good. Often it’s not until I’ve written the scene that I realise what the real point should have been. This is particularly true for characters as motivation is rarely cut and dried. In the following short excerpt, I wanted to show why Kaati thought it could get away with impersonating one of the Healers’ acolytes, despite knowing very little about the Healers or their acolytes:
‘Kaati had no desire to impersonate a Healer, but it was determined to steal one of the small starrock beads worn by their acolytes. In an eyrie teeming with Healers, acolytes were almost as ubiquitous as drudges, and far less visible…
…if stories of Messenger being true…
The sudden doubt made Kaati’s hearts pound, but it refused to countenance failure. Even if the Messenger had exaggerated the antics of its fellow acolyte, it would have had no reason to actually lie. Besides, it made sense for acolytes to play pranks on the Healers. Younglings always got up to mischief of some sort…
The soft skin around Kaati’s eyes crinkled in amusement as it remembered dropping a live taptoh into the Second’s gruel. The big Teller had not noticed until a small, many-legged lump crawled from the bowl.
The taptoh incident had been punished, of course, but the punishment had been remarkably mild, and it was not till much later that Kaati realised why. Stealth and cunning were the tools of the Tellers’ trade, so pulling off a prank like that would have been seen as a rite of passage, at least for some. The Second was dead, and its own journey had taken a sharp turn from the familiar, but some things never changed. Younglings were always the same, whether they were apprentice Tellers or acolytes to the Healers. They played pranks and avoided chores where possible.
So long as it wore an acolyte’s bead and looked busy, none of the Healers would give it a second glance…
Apart from the references to characters who appear earlier in the story, there’s actually a lot of background in these few paragraphs. There’s what Kaati wants to accomplish, there’s an acknowledgement that it doesn’t really know what the Healers and acolytes are like, there’s a snippet from its past, a hint that things have changed for the worse, and an intimation that it’s basing a heck of a lot on guess work. Yet I think each bit of information moves the story along in some way rather than bogging it down. One hopes…
Vokhtah saga falls into the category of ‘extreme’ storytelling, but it does illustrate how much background you can sneak in while the reader isn’t looking. 😀
Whilst I enjoy reading most genres [except horror], I don’t know much about the techniques used to write them so I’d love to hear how other writers handle the dread info dump.
Music has always been a vital part of my writing because it speaks directly to the emotional and creative side of my brain. In a very real sense, it puts the logical side to ‘sleep’. For me, that is a necessity because technical writing comes so much easier.
But finding the right music for the right story has never been easy. Until today.
I give you, ‘The Journey of a Scarecrow’, by Indie composer – Jean-Gabriel Raynaud:
The instant the Scarecrow track began to play [on Soundcloud], I knew precisely who it was for. The quirky playfulness screamed ‘Acolyte’!
For those few brave souls who read my scifi/fantasy novel, ‘Vokhtah’, you may remember the small iVokh who worked for the Healers in Needlepoint. The Scarecrow is its signature song.
For everyone else, here’s a short excerpt from the book that introduces the reader to the Acolyte:
The Female was fast asleep when the steady drip, drip of the timepiece was joined by the scrape of wood across sand.
It was a small sound, as was the gap that appeared between the edge of the door and its frame. The gap was just wide enough to admit two twiggy fingers tipped with blunted claws. The fingers strained at the wood to no avail.
A dull thump sounded from the other side of the door as something heavy hit the sand. Two more fingers appeared and four blunted claws dug into the wood as the fingers jerked at the door. Each jerk widened the gap a little further until persistence finally triumphed, and the opening became wide enough for a small black face to appear.
Everything about that face was small, except for the eyes, which glowed huge and golden in the soft, blue light of the chamber’s single glow-worm.
After darting a timid glance from left to right, the face disappeared only to be replaced a moment later by a small black rump. Over-sized, jet black wings swept the sand as the hunched shape of the small iVokh backed into the chamber, dragging a sloshing leather bota. The water sack was almost as tall as the iVokh itself.
Diminutive by any standard, the healers’ acolyte looked more like an iVokhti than a fully-grown iVokh. In fact, the only parts of its anatomy close to normal size were its wings, and they seemed far too large for its small frame.
The Acolyte’s lack of stature was accompanied by a corresponding lack of strength. The Junior mocked its weakness at every opportunity, but the young iVokh prided itself on never failing in its duty. Clever and resourceful, it compensated for the weakness of its body by using the power of its wings. Only rarely did it have to rely on brute strength as it did now.
Bent over the bota, struggling to regain its breath, it stiffened as derisive hoots sounded from the outer cavern.
The Acolyte’s hide took on a hot, yellowish tinge. It did not like being closed in with the female, but it liked listening to the Junior’s oh-so-witty barbs even less. Pulling itself upright with a jerk, it grabbed the leather handle of the door with both hands and pulled. Embarrassment was a powerful motivator, and the door closed quickly.
The Acolyte features in Book 3 of The Suns of Vokhtah. Unfortunately, I’m still on book 2. That means I mustn’t allow myself to listen to this new music until I’m ready to write the Acolyte’s story… -cries quietly-
I hate these games I have to play with my subconscious, but my muse is temperamental at the best of times. At least now, I have a lot to look forward to.
Anyone else play games with their muse?