Friday, May 15, 2015

Narrative: Do You Overuse It?

Does This Character Frequent Your Fiction?

Narrative! It's very useful in its place, but as SF/F fans we've all read those behemoths whose narrator is the most prevalentand the most boringcharacter in the novel.

Don't get me wrong; I love detailed, long, involved novels. However, length shouldn't be a license to spew every detail of every happening in every country or planet of your universe all over the page. Instead, length should be used to develop your actual characters and reveal the plot.

"You don't have to hit your readers over the head with a huge iron chunk of narration to prove you've thoroughly conceived your world."

So, how to know if you're overutilizing The Evil Narrator?

Well, take a look at your first chapter, especially your first several pages. Are there huge chunks of paragraph? Is there no dialogue in sight? Then you may be overusing narrative. When does your MCor any charactershow up? If your answer is the first page, then you are probably getting right to your story. If there's no character for your readers to engage with, then you may want to rethink your first chapter approach.

In some ways, especially at the beginning stages of writing a novel, I find narrative to be easiest to write. I will sit down at the keyboard and out comes all this detail. It's fascinating, and I have a great time writing it, but in the end most of this narration is never used in the finished work. I'll either reveal the details in dialogue and action, or I'll keep it in mind to explain the structure of the world.

If you are confident in the structure and sense of your own SF/F world, your readers will trust you. You don't have to hit them over the head with a huge iron chunk of narration to prove you've thoroughly conceived your world. The most amazing novels are ones where the details of the worlds are revealed throughout the entire novel or novels. This takes patience and aforethought.

An example of excellence in world- (or galaxy-) building is Jack Vance's Oikumene. This galaxial structure is revealed throughout the five Demon Princes novels he wrote over the course of 17 years. A specific example of Vance's patience is the Rigel Concourse: 26 habitable planets orbiting the sun Rigel. Since such a solar system is probably impossible even in our vast galaxy, Vance explains it by saying that the planets were towed into perfect orbits by some advanced, now-vanished race. Yet, instead of instantly telling us ad nauseam about all the planets in the Concourse, he saves details of many of them for subsequent novels.

This patience can also be a gift to you, the writer. By leaving a few, choice details nebulous in your own mind, you can have the luxury of filling in those informational gaps with details that will best suit your evolving story.

Narration. Is it fun to write? Yes of course! All that creativity without the bossy characters getting in there and mucking around messing things up. Is it necessary? Yes, at some points narration is definitely vital. Yet, it's better to use characters and action to reveal most details of your well-conceived world rather than having your narrator brag all about it. Narration is best when it's a minor character.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Flashback: Keeping it 'Offpage'

This is the third post in a series entitled Backstory: You Need It More Than Your Readers Do

Yes, flashbacks can actually be useful!

Yes, here is that dreaded word, flashback!

And yes, I think it can be used to advantage in stories. Especially in SF/F where the backstory is huge and sometimes crucial to what is going on in the present.

I do use flashbacks, sometimes as a character's musings about the past, less often as an actual flashback plopped into the story (this is the least effective and smooth option, in my opinion, but also useful at certain points). The most elegant solution, though is employing a flashback the way it naturally occurs in your own daily life.

Does this ever happen to you? You're walking down the street with a friend. You see a car parked on the side of the street that looks exactly like the first car you owned. Suddenly you're transported to the past for a full five minutes, remembering the first time you drove alone, that sense of freedom you gained when you were able to go wherever you pleased, or that time you ran out of gas. Meanwhile, your friend is standing there bored out of his skull because you're immersed in your flashbackimmobile, unresponsive, lifeless. Does it?

Well, of course not. This doesn't happen in real life. Why should it in your novels?

What really happens:

Tim and Helen were walking down the street one evening in June, on the way to their favorite pizza place. Helen paused beside a rusted Pontiac, shaking her head and smiling.

"What's up?" Tim asked.

"That's the same as my first car," Helen said, motioning with her chin.

"It's an old beater."

"No kidding. Once I got pulled over for driving without a back license plate. Turns out the bolts had rusted through and the plate fell off without me noticing. My dad had put the fear of God into me about never being pulled over, and yet here I was being cited. Don't laugh! It wasn't funny."

"Yes ma'am." He made a mock serious face.

She nudged his arm with her shoulder. "Come on. I'm hungry."

This sample scene is relatively benign in its topic. Yet this technique could be used for all sorts of important reveals. Dialogue is a speedy way to reveal past events, for it's natural for people to talk to others about important things that happened in their past.

If your character is alone, though, or with people that she doesn't trust, then she can think about past events instead of speaking about them. However, to keep this from becoming a dreaded info-dump, it's crucial for your character to think about these past events in relation to what's going on in the present moment!

"The most elegant solution is employing a flashback the way it naturally occurs in your own daily life."

There are many ways to weave the past into the present in your novel or story. Honest to goodness flashbacks, however, are not always—and I would posit not usually—necessary. Revealing the past while keeping the immediacy of the present is always good writing.

Backstory: You Need It More Than Your Readers Do is a series of posts that will explore how much you need to know about your story versus how much you need to tell. It's that old show versus tell conundrum explored in a new way.

Danielle Ste. Just is the author of several short stories including The Forgottens and The Effect-Displacement Assassin. Her new novel, Lethe, is forthcoming.