Friday, May 14, 2010

GUEST POST: What You Don't Know Won't Hurt You

Adam Heine is the author of "Pawn's Gambit," a short story recently published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is the proprietor of Author's Echo, and is hard at work on a steampunk tale that includes air pirates, a vibrant fantasy world, and high adventure.

We all know exposition and infodumps are bad. It's true in most genres, but especially in speculative fiction (fantasy/sci-fi). Somehow, you have to introduce the reader to a whole world -- cultures, languages, technologies, politics, systems of magic –- all without the dreaded infodump.

One solution is to drop context-based clues without the reader being aware of it (known as incluing). Occasionally, though, I'll run across beta readers unfamiliar with the genre, who let the clues stop them cold.

Take, for example, this opening paragraph:*

The netter’s timing couldn’t have been worse. I’d been in Savajinn a week, looking for a knocker named Tarc. A whole bleeding week. When Tarc finally agreed to meet, at the Sick Savaj, that’s when the netter decided to show up.

Two unusual terms are presented: netter and knocker. Readers unaccustomed to SF sometimes get annoyed at this, thinking the author is a poor communicator or the story is being intentionally abstruse. But an experienced reader knows they aren't expected to understand these terms right away. Orson Scott Card calls this the principle of abeyance, where the reader trusts the author to give them the clues they need, when they need it.

The trick for the author, of course, is knowing when they need it. In the example story, both terms remain unexplained until the characters in question appear. The knocker doesn't appear until a quarter of the
way through, for example. Until he does the reader is given very few clues as to what a knocker really is. And they're expected to be okay with that.

But it's not a good idea to keep the reader guessing too long. Netter is “explained” in the next sentence:
Netters were all over Savajinn –- had to be to catch their bounties -– but only one was gully enough to walk into a Savaj pub alone.
As you can see, there's still no infodump –- everything is implied. The word 'netter' itself (i.e. one who nets), combined with the concept of catching bounties, gives the reader a reasonable idea of what this character is. (If you want to know what a knocker is, I'm afraid you'll just have to read the story**).

Incluing can, of course, apply to any genre. The keys are subtlety and necessity. Be subtle with your clues, and only present them when it's absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the story. Do it
right, and you'll never have to infodump again.

* These excerpts, btw, are from my recently published story, "Pawn's Gambit." You can read it here.**

** And if you're an Air Pirates' fan, and didn't see that bit of self-pimpery coming, maybe you don't know me as well as you thought.


Stephanie Thornton said...

I do the same thing with some ancient Egyptian words in my storyline. The words are used in context and I've found those betas who read a lot of historical fiction figure them out, but other betas don't.

Great post!

Unknown said...

In reading books I sometimes don't mind if a term is never explained. So long as it isn't crucial to the plot and I have a vague idea of what it could mean I'm happy to just let it sit there and add texture to the world I am enjoying. Or if its a real term and not the invention of fantasy go look it up . . .

L. T. Host said...

World building is haaaaaaaaaard. I think I pretty much failed at this, which is why I only wrote one fantasy novel :)

There are some limits to explanation, though. It's important to feel out your betas and ask them if the line is too far back in the story. I generally bring up new terms but explain them in/ with context as soon as I can, because I don't usually like to be hanging very long. I can figure it out, but I feel like I'm missing something in the translation.

Adam Heine said...

Stephanie: That's cool. I didn't realize it would be the same in historical fiction (though I should have, having read Master & Commander which has more sea jargon than English words, I think).

Taryn: Agreed. It feels weird, but sometimes just letting the odd terms sit unexplained is the best thing you can do.

LT: Ironically, I started fantasy because I didn't want to have to do a bunch of research to get things right in the real world. I don't think I knew what I was getting into ;-)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Agreed about the betas - you have to be careful with feedback like "What the heck is this?" Context is very, well, contextual for a lot of readers.

I'm doing my (hopefully) last revision (prior to querying) on my middle grade SF story. I think you have to be a little more careful with the kids - they are astute, but don't always have the ability to discern the subtler language cues. Then again, I almost always goof up if I'm thinking the kids can't handle something. They always show me up.

Great post!

(self pimpage expected and appreciated)

dolorah said...

Adam, why isn't your name on this post? I recognized this from Pawns Gambit, otherwise I would have thought it was Matt's.

Anyway: I agree about the explaining. But then, I am an experience fantasy reader, and like to figure out the world and its terms as I read along. For me, the author has succeeded in building a viable world if I just get it from the context.

You accomplished that very well in Pawns Gambit. I think I'll go take another gander at it; thanks for the invite to do so. :)


Matthew Delman said...

Donna -- The short answer to why Adam's name wasn't on this post is because I forgot to do the mini-bio for him like I do for the other guest bloggers. Entirely my brainfart.

It's there now, so hopefully Adam will accept my apologies for neglecting to credit him thus far.

Adam Heine said...

Susan: Man, I don't know how I'd deal with writing middle grade. I would want kid beta readers too.

Donna: Thanks very much. Your comments on the story were also very nice :-)

Matt: Aye, no worries. We're breezy.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Adam - I have 3 kid beta readers in my house, but I've also farmed it out to kid-type-friends far and near. Nothing cooler than getting a crit from a 5th grader who got grape juice on your MS and requests another copy! LOL

Also: You need to teach us all how to talk like pirates.

Adam Heine said...

Pirates or air pirates? My main air pirate character, Sam, once wrote a post on talking like an air pirate.

I might do another one some day, but my head's in a new novel now. Might take a while for me to get back into the skyler cant, aye?

Myrna Foster said...

I worry that I'm guilty of info dumping through dialogue and letters, but I guess I'll let my readers call me on it, if I am. Thanks for another informative post, Adam!