BREVITY in science-fiction and its hopeless fight for survival in a world of unnecessary, gratuitous info dumps and complacent narrative depictions

Science-fiction is a genre prone to overindulgent information sharing. Sci-fi writers spend a helluva lot on worldbuilding, fact checking, researching, background building and speculating. So much information is hoarded around a story that our brains will inadvertently try and smuggle some of it past us and into our drafts. Preferably a lot of it. Ideally every sweet bit of it. Because it’s so darn fascinating and educating and full of potential, it’s almost a sin not to share it with our readers, right?

RROANG!

*angry blaring sound*

There are different types of extraneous wordage that plague science-fiction. But with a bit of deftly pen wielding, they can be kept in check and prevented from ruining the reading experience.

1. Info Dumps

The classic TMI-monsters of the science-fiction realm. Infodumps happen when we writerly folk have researched something so much, the information has begun to alter our neurons like a virus, slowly transforming all our thoughts and memories into more more moar info! I think.

Or maybe we’re particularly fascinated with a something. A device, a place, a hobby, whatever. We’ve discovered this wonderful well of imagination, and using it as a simple brick in the walls of our story-house somehow doesn’t seem to do it justice. Maybe we hope our enthusiasm might be contagious, and we don’t want to deprive the readers from such an exalting experience. Maybe we’re just verbose little scribbler monkeys and every time we think we can get away with it, we expose as much as we can. Regardless. Infodumps must be reigned in, lest our stories become uber-fat greasy Jabbas the Hutt. Or is it Jabba the Hutts? Jabbutts? Hmpf.

2. Backstory

Ah, too much backstory is an ailment that befalls all writers, regardless of genre. But science-fiction is yet again leading the bunch. Particularly far-future sci-fi, where backstory doesn’t just include the characters’ CVs, but also the future history of humanity, of our galaxy and a few neighboring clusters too, of at least a dozen alien races and whatever else we come up with to populate the universe.

There’s nothing wrong with constructing all this backstory. In fact, it will make our story that much richer since we’re not stumbling through the dark but writing from a place of authority on the subject of our world. The problem begins when we include all that backstory into our actual narrative, thinking the readers won’t get our story unless they know as much about it and all the damn rest too as we do. Which is quite wrong, and quite condescending.

We have to trust the readers to understand the story with only the pertinent bits of backstory to give it depth. If they don’t, then we are probably doing something wrong in OTHER areas. The solution isn’t more backstory, it’s more relevant backstory. Or, you know, stellar writing. *ahem*

3. Descriptions

Some writers love descriptions even more than research material and backstory. They love to wax poetic about landscapes, the weather, the beauty of the female body, the creases and folds of undead seamonsters, etc.

But description is a dish best served in small, delicious bites. Like caviar. Like gold-sprinkled truffle-tarts made with molten magic. Not like an all-you-can-eat buffet at a cockroach infested roadside diner.

Just because we can describe something artfully, doesn’t mean we should do it. Especially not in the middle of a nuclear space battle or during an alien torture-interrogation on Devious Prime.

This reminds me of an anecdote about Larry Niven, back when he was writing Ringworld. Dunno where I read it. Anyway. He supposedly spent days describing a lavish banquet in all its savory detail: every exotic food, roasted creature, tasty fruit, bizarre drink, and every bit of strange and alien tableware. He loved it, and was really proud of it. It made his mouth water every time he read it.

Then he presented it to his co-writer Jerry Pournelle for an honest editorial feedback. Jerry reduced the scene down to two words:

“They ate.”

Larry laughed it off and accepted his judgment. And the story was better off for it.

chickenbrevity

4. Speculations

Science-fiction is THE speculative fiction genre. It eats and drinks and poops speculation. Sometimes it barfs it all up and eats its own barf. Bad Sci-Fi, BAD! GAH!

Every element of futuristic technology, societal development, genetic, political or philosophical nature is pure speculation derived from current knowledge (or giddily made-up, like that three-eyed alien bug-monster with furry tentacles that JUST ATE MY PROTAGONIST! chom nom nom).

Just as with descriptions, sci-fi novels can suffer from too much speculation. What I mean by that is NOT that some writers speculate too wildly upon our condition (that’s very welcome in sci-fi), but that they write too much speculation straight into the story.

For example: the protagonist is facing a dilemma, mystery or new civilization, and doesn’t have enough facts to go on. So what does he do? He speculates. Perfect place for the writer to insert all the versions she came up with that didn’t make it into the actual plot. Or go on endless tangents and sneak worldbuilding galore into the character’s guessing. Or construct dialogues full of “Maybe it’s this or this or this,” “No, Bob, it can’t be that because it’s in fact this and this and blurbgh blearh prrfffttpp.”

And there’s another danger here, besides boring the reader. One of the versions the character(s) speculates on might be more promising than what’s actually going on, which leaves the readers bitterly disappointed. And every time a reader is disappointed, a unicorn dies in brutal agony. Or something.

You know you’ve failed your readers when they can come up with a better story built on your premise than you did.

The solution to this? Only include speculations which are weaker than your story’s truth, and only include enough to let us know your character’s at a loss as to what’s really going on. Don’t elaborate. Don’t build parallel universes out of viable alternatives, even if you’re great at it, or the entire space-time continuum will collapse and all the unicorn babies will explode.

5. Redundancy

The wordage issues covered so far are large scale issues. But there’s also a small scale issue that relates to our inherent urge to blabber.

I’ve recently started editing my MS, and I realized one of my biggest weaknesses is redundancy. My draft is riddled with multiple adjectives, synonyms, similes, metaphors and echos. If I can describe something one way, I also describe it two other ways. If I show you something in action, I’ll also tell you about it in dry narrative. Possibly in the same paragraph. *groan* 

The cure? Stick to the showing, weed out the telling. (Except when telling is adequate, like in narrative summary, in passages that shouldn’t draw too much attention at themselves lest they take over the main plot, or in internal monologues. Telling has its place in fiction, and it shouldn’t be extirpated ruthlessly without reason. But that’s fodder for a future post.)

Damn this post got wordy.

Heh.

You know, brevity sure is one of the things I immediately notice and admire in science-fiction novels.

If only I could incorporate it into my DNA… That would presume an awesome genetic engineering machine, able to code artistic finesse into one’s molecular building blocks. What else could it do? Could it code in just any talent, like, say… political shrewdness? Criminal proficiency? PERFECTION?

* * *

          This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.          

   In 2012, my B post was — Are You Branding or Bragging?

30 Replies to “BREVITY in science-fiction and its hopeless fight for survival in a world of unnecessary, gratuitous info dumps and complacent narrative depictions”

  1. Spot on. I particularly liked your diatribe on description, having just read C S Lewis’s ‘Silent Planet’ and ‘Perelanda.’ I read them out of interest – and then duty – as the descriptive passages went on and on and on. : )

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    1. Ugh. I always skip those when I read. But the problem is, once I begin skipping, my engagement with the story is already cut in half. From there on out, I need even more good stuff to stay invested.

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    1. Yup. Fantasy suffers from the same ailments as sci-fi most of the time. Sometimes it’s even wordier, because the language tends to be more convoluted to portray the speak of the lands.

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  2. Brevity, speaking of which Twitter said I must cut your title, Veronica. (Sorry for the sacrifice.) 😉

    I envy you wordy people!
    I always need to scrap some extra material to fill my story, because BREVITY.
    So I’m guilty of detailed alien species and universe descriptions. 😀

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    1. LOL Yeah, the title is too long for Twitter. 😀
      Wordiness isn’t something to be envied. Excessive economy isn’t either. The golden middle is the best. If only it were so easy to achieve…

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    2. “Because brevity” – love it!
      Great blog post all up. Useful, creative, but not dry (except perhaps the wit..).
      Sadly some of the best sellers and their editors may have missed it.

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  3. I love you, Veronica. You’re a treat to read. This made me laugh out loud: “You know you’ve failed your readers when they can come up with a better story built on your premise than you did.” Oh, man, *yes*! Got that six-inch stainless steel mortar nail right on its shiny head, you did.
    Guilie @ Quiet Laughter

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  4. Great post! Nice to know it’s not just me who finds it much too tempting to try and ‘insert’ all the wonderful and interesting backstory, world-building, items etc I’ve spent all this time researching/devising 🙂 I realise when I’m actually reading other novels though that I find the ‘less is more’ approach much more engaging. There is a skill in just providing enough information to hold someone’s attention and tantalise them into wanting more (someday I’ll hopefully master it lol!)

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    1. Ha! We’d all love to achieve that perfect balance. Unfortunately, only very few of us do. Most everyone else (including many successfully published authors) still slip into telly chunks now and then. 😉

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  5. You are a wordsmith! Loved the banquet story. That’s the job of a great editor. It’s hard for the writer to give up even a tiny bit of their lovingly created work!

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    1. That’s true, sometimes it feels like having to cut your little finger off. You know you don’t really need it, and it’s not like you’re going to miss it or anything, but I mean, come on, it’s your pinky. It’s so cute!

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  6. I disagree with you about descriptions. That’s a matter of personal taste. Some people love tons of description. Down to the minute detail description. Nathaniel Hawthorne levels of descriptions. I know it’s true because The Scarlet Letter is a beloved book despite all of my efforts to have it eradicated from the time stream. People loved Wheel of Time, and he would go on for pages describing ONE DRESS! So description is relative.

    The thing I hate most is when a character explains how something works that is in his natural environment. I mean, do you think about how TV works every time you turn it on? I don’t think so. If you want your readers to know that kind of stuff so badly, make an appendix full of all the devices you’ve come up with.

    (And, um, that brevity thing from Shakespeare? Totally out of context. It’s a new peeve of mine that we use it in a way that has nothing to do with what it meant.)

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    1. Everything is a matter of taste. But I wager most wordy books are loved despite tedious, endless descriptions, and not because of them. I think it’s reasonable to say that overly long descriptions are generally a bad idea, even if some isolated literary heavyweights from centuries past have managed to get away with it at the time, and continue to do so based solely on them being taught in school and thus forced upon people. 😛

      Also, what Shakespeare thing?!

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      1. No, I’m pretty sure some people love those long, droning descriptions. I say that because I’ve had people tell me, “Oh! I love those long descriptions telling me exactly what everyone is wearing. It makes it all so real!” So I’d say there’s a significant percentage of people out there that thrive on that stuff.

        “Brevity is the soul of wit” is from Hamlet and meant, essentially, “Let me get right to the point.”

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      2. – Andrew said: “So I’d say there’s a significant percentage of people out there that thrive on that stuff.”

        Jeezus.

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  7. Love your posts. I was revealed as being a school teacher in a former career because I kept repeating things in my writing. I would tell or write something, then repeat it and finally say it one last time to make sure it was understood. I realized that that is how teachers often teach to get the lesson learned.
    So I had to stop it. Right. Not easy.
    I have found that fantasy writers/readers and romance writers/readers like description more than science fiction types. My fantasy writer person was constantly urging me to put more description in until a science fiction editor said for me to stop it. That science fiction was more action or geeky and the description was distracting.
    Comments?

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    1. I agree. There is a place for descriptive prose, but it’s not in science-fiction. That’s sometimes really tough to handle.

      I usually get the urge to overdescribe whenever I introduce a new urban setting. I think of so many cool buildings, machinery and vehicles, I have to really throttle my fingers from spluttering wordy-words all over the page. 😀

      I also hope I’ll get the show-and-then-tell under control in future first drafts, ’cause if I keep writing like this, I foresee a future of countless rewrites upon rewrites, and I’m not sure I’ll survive that quantity of overhauling with each book.

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  8. Nice to read another wordsmith’s perspective on creative writing. Some solid points you have there. I love worldbuilding, but it’s easy to get carried away, ha. That’s the beauty of whimsical imagination.

    Cheers.

    Like

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