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Thoughts on Writing Fiction
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One thing that irritates me about science fiction writing is that so many authors use the device whereby one character doesn’t know about—say, how laser pistols work—and so the other character explains it to him, thereby letting the reader in on the secret. I suppose it’s related to the asides spoken by actors in plays. It’s just plain boring to read long passages explaining a pseudo-scientific invention (or even a real one). I would much prefer as the reader to find out by the results of actions taken what this pistol can do, what the settings are, how heavy it is, what is its range, etc.

On the other hand, I also dislike science fiction novels and stories in which there are numerous unknown devices and aliens and what-have-you, and the events, murky to the characters, are totally impenetrable to the reader, because actions and descriptive passages give no clue. The reader might as well be reading Dylan Thomas, for all the sense it makes. So explaining nothing doesn’t work, either, particularly if the setting involves imaginary science, imaginary sentients and imaginary physical settings. Eventually there aren’t enough referents for the story to make sense.

The best writing seems to go from the familiar to the extreme, gradually leading the reader into the complexitites of the weird, while the characters (and the reader) figure out what’s going on together. Sometimes it takes only a word or two to make it clear that things are different. If you say, for instance, “The city floated two meters above the glassy water”, you’ve established 1) a city culture; 2) an unknown physical effect—maybe anti-gravity? and 3) that the planet has water and therefore probably carbon-based life. Come to think of it, that there are at least some times when there’s little or no wind. All in one sentence, And none of it had to be explained by one character telling another or coming upon a manuscript which he dutifully reads out loud. Or some other hokey, hoary literary device.

If, later on in the story, the writer introduces a major storm front, the reader has already a picture of a large, calm body of water as contrasting weather embedded in the earlier sentence. Makes for a concise writing style and allows the action to move unhindered. This was one of the first things I taught my students. I would ask them about their stories—not that the writing was wrong, but how could you have inserted this in the story with a word or a phrase instead of a long explanation as an aside? It wasn’t hard to teach and it wasn’t hard to learn for the readers in the class; the non-readers (I mean the ones who didn’t read much for pleasure) usually didn’t catch on. They weren’t writing science fiction, but the same principles of good writing apply.

Next time you're reading a really good story (not your own) see if what I've said holds true. I'd be interested in your comments.

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