On Chekhov’s Gun and the fantastic

Gun

I was listening to Tim Clare’s wonderful ‘Death of 1,000 Cuts’ podcast – which I recommend most heartily – and, in conversation with Nate Crowley, something came up that caught my ear. He said that Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t apply in science-fiction because we, the reader, expect things they don’t understand to be dropped into the background to help build the world.

I take it we’re all familiar with Chekhov’s Gun, the rule which states that you must “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” It has a whole Wikipedia page of its own. That’s how important it is.

Let me just make clear that Tim’s comment was a single sentence that went without consideration – just a passing observation before the conversation went elsewhere. This is in no way a critique of him or his brain, which seems to me both beautiful and wondrous. But, as with all the best things in life, this one idle comment got me thinking: is this true? As a writer of SFF can I lay Chekhov’s Gun aside?

My initial thought is no, you can’t. But we need to dig a little deeper than that, don’t we? This blog won’t write itself, more’s the pity.

The first thing we need to think about is point-of-view. Unless we’re dealing with a fish-out-of-water tale (time-travel, say, or a primitive transported to a technologically advanced world) all the trappings of your POV-character’s world will be familiar to them. It’d be frankly weird for them to explain what a hyperspace drive is if they work with one every day.

It’d be like a character in a contemporary novel describing a television or a bookshelf: we take these items for granted. Only the extraordinary needs description.

Thus we assume that anything that the writer draws specific attention to, especially if the POV character already knows all about it, is significant.

There’s also an element of trust going on. When a writer tosses out concepts like mechs or mer-beasts or strange magicks and then moves on, we as readers have to trust the writer to tell us more if they’re of any importance. Not then and there, for that way leads straight to exposition-ville, but we trust that the writer will slip us the information under the table, as it were, as we get deeper into their world.

mech

A strange mech. As with the rest of the images in this article, I’ve no idea who made it and who owns copyright.

[As an aside, I think writers have got so much better at doing this over the years. Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is my go-to example of how not to do it: it even includes the dreaded sentence “As you know…” which is a sure sign that an exposition-bomb is about to be detonated. And TGT won awards.]

Specific terms and phrases are scattered around in all genres; from underground argot in crime novels, to historical denotations of class, to the ways and means of public schoolboys in literary fiction. These don’t bother us because we trust the writer to explain what matters. The rest is colour.

So the question we should really be asking is this: what’s the difference between Chekhov’s Gun and colour?

And the answer to that is that there shouldn’t be any. Not to the casual eye, at least.
Foreshadowing is vital: the reader must see the crucial element before it becomes significant – if not we’re in breach of Knox’s Commandments. Deus ex machina will swoop down upon us and doom will be our only friend.

Chekhov’s Gun is foreshadowing gone feral. Foreshadowing must be camouflaged; it must be indistinguishable from the background. It must be masked by that ‘colour’ we were talking about before.

Chekhov, however, hurls off his disguise and, slapping his belly to the rhythm of Waltzing Matilda, dances a naked jig before the reader.

Alter Mann.jpg

Be very, very glad that this is the image I’ve chosen to accompany that thought. There were alternatives…

So I respectfully disagree with Tim Clare. Chekhov’s Gun is not excusable in SFF: it’s an error in any genre. Perhaps what he’s really thinking of is jargon – there is, perhaps, a higher likelihood of made-up words in science fiction and fantasy. Let’s not forget that the word ‘orc’ is now widely known where fifty years ago it was practically unknown. ‘Orc’ is jargon that has entered modern parlance. ‘Cyberspace’ is another example, as is ‘hive mind’. Not long ago we needed these terms explaining. Now we don’t.

Characters belong to a time, a place and a culture. They have their own language (and, if you don’t believe these surround us even now, check out Dent’s Modern Tribes) and they think in those terms. We don’t need every single word explained; context will make most things clear.

Context is, as ever, everything. Abandon it at your peril.

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Addressing the elephant

Dapper Cthulu Diana Levin.jpg

Dapper Cthulu by Diana Levin. You can find (and buy) more of her work here

When you’re setting a scene you have to give the reader all the information they need and not a jot more. You must sum up a location’s feel (which might encompass smell, background noise and even air pressure) as briefly as possibly. You can’t overload the reader with detail, but you must give them the vital information.

It is, in other words, bloody difficult.

My general guide for description is to put in anything the protagonist/POV character would notice in the order he or she would see them. Thus: people first, then obvious abnormalities, then temperature/smells/sounds and then, if we get that far, into the mundane.

But there are so many exceptions. It’s almost a trope now, but I’m noticing more and more the delayed surprise:

It was a totally normal park. Playground with its swings and slides; bowling green with its perfectly manicured surface, and standing proud in its midst, bearing the pavilion roof like a parasol, the Great Lord Cthulu in all his glory. As His tentacles dismantled the remnants of the Eastbourne Ladies’ Bowling Team, I knew it was going to be one of those days.

In less ridiculous setups you’ll have the POV character entering a room; you’ll have every single detail lovingly described, and then some sort of dismissive comment: “of course, I couldn’t take it in properly as I was distracted by the eviscerated corpse lying in the middle of the floor.”

This sort of thing works for humour or for situational irony but it breaks the rules of common sense. As soon as you go into a new space the most important thing will immediately catch the eye: to deny the reader this sort of elephant in the room is something you can do once, maybe twice a novel, no more.

I recently read a novel where the climax was set in a wedding. The cheat started several scenes before, however, when the wedding invitations turned up without the name of the groom. That information is so basic that its omission because the largest, most obstreperous elephant in the history of pachyderms. Lulu got nothing on this papa.

But it got worse. The wedding arrived – and the groom still wasn’t named! He became a sort of giant, floating question mark that dominated proceedings without doing a thing. The longer it went on the more ridiculous it became. There was no way the eventual reveal could have been anything but a disappointment.

So: don’t try and be clever. Address the elephant.

I don’t actually mean that. Do try and be clever. Take risks. Experiment. Just be aware that there’s a damn good chance it won’t work. Not the first time you try, at least.

The problem with scene-setting is that it takes time: not time in the writing, though that can be considerable, but in the reading. The easiest way to kill excitement is to take time to describe the surroundings, thus:

I turned into an alley and was brought up short by the sight of three skeletons mugging an old lady. The alley was thirty feet long and narrow enough to touch the sides with a bit of a stretch. The cobbles underfoot were treacherous, mortar long-since eroded and slick with grime. The first skeleton was the tallest; the second had only one leg but sported a pith helmet of the sort adored by Victorian explorers. The third seemed to be that of a dog walking on its hind legs. The old lady was about 5’2” and wore a bonnet decorated not with ribbons or flowers but with a hedgehog of tiny blades.

I hoisted my riding crop and stepped forwards…

At which point the reader is wondering what the hell the skeletons and their victim doing whilst the protagonist was itemising every item in sight (plus smell and sound, of course). Were they looking impatiently at their watches (I assume all skeletons have waistcoats and fob watches. It’s practically a law)? Were they bitching with the old lady – “Ooh, protagonists today – You remember that nice young Conan? I’d have been scattered across the floor already…”? Did they do the old Police Squad freeze?

It’s an alley. Unless there’s some crucial plot-thing – maybe it turns a sharp corner that someone’s hiding behind – it’s an alley. Add in one smell, one texture and move on.

My sanity is slipping away. I can feel Cthulu’s dread appendage on my shoulder and I fear I begin to rant. Time to do something mundane like make a potion a nice cup of tea*.

If you survive the Dark Lord’s attentions I’ll see you next week. Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter @RobinTriggs.

*A sure sign of madness as I don’t drink tea. Sorry. I wish I did, but there you are

(Don’t go back to) Badsville

Priestess of the White

So: bad books. Welcome back to my occasional series on my amazement – nay, bewilderment – that so many trad-published books fail even the most cursory quality checks. Today we’re looking at Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan.

First, let’s get this out of the way up front: a bad book is not the same as a bad author. A long time ago I read her ‘Black Magician’ trilogy and really enjoyed it. Granted, it was a decade or so past and maybe I’ve become more sophisticated since. Maybe. But I don’t think I’d have lodged her in my brain as an author I enjoy if it hadn’t been good.

I’ve said more about the difference between bad authors and bad writing in my post on Mike Shevdon’s The Road to Bedlam. Check it out if you’re so inclined.

So what’s wrong with PotW? Well, let’s start with…

• More exposition that you can shake a stick at
• Dialogue so stiff you could use it as a stick to shake
• Characters… well, I don’t want to criticise too much too soon; I’ve not got that far through it. But the characters haven’t set me alight to far. Similarly I’ve not got deep enough into the plot to comment on that
• A lack of tension
• A plot remarkably slow in its arrival

A note on exposition: if you ever start a line of dialogue with ‘As you know…’ you’re in trouble. If you’re interrupting action to give us information you’re in trouble – especially if the reader (me) can see that this information can be simply woven in to the story through dialogue and dramatisation.

Let’s follow that with a confession. I’ve used a variation of the ‘as you know’ in Night Shift. I think (hope) you can get away with it if you phrase it as a question: ‘you know that we’re powered by an oil lake..?’ I’ll let you decide if that works or if I’m just a massive hypocrite.

As for dialogue, PotW’s main sin is the ‘call and response’:
“Shall we do this?”
“I don’t like that.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I think this is a good idea.”
“But that leads to this.”
“Yes. But that is preferable to the other.”
I hope I don’t need to say that this isn’t a quote. I’m listening to an audio version and extracting chapter and verse isn’t worth the effort. But this is how it feels. No subtext. No interest.

People don’t speak like this. People interrupt each other, they dissemble, they say one thing but mean another. I’ve tried to get away from this in my writing by having lots of sentence fragments; people tailing off (using ellipses) and cutting other others (using dashes).

The danger of this technique is that, by omitting sentence endings, the meaning is sometimes lost. I went too far when I first tried this – it was a conscious decision after being criticised for my own stilted dialogue – and now I’m trying to find a middle line.

Poor dialogue kills tension. It replaces drama with melodrama. We’ve just met the presumably major villain in PotW but it feels more like I’m in a pantomime than a serious, world-threatening conflict.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m quite enjoying Princess of the White. I can’t recommend it; there are a lot of great novels out there and this isn’t one of them. But, like watching a horror movie or a slow-motion car crash, finding all the errors is providing me with a certain amount of entertainment.

I don’t set out to hunt bad writing. I love stories. I want to be transported. I don’t want to carve them to pieces to make myself seem big and clever in comparison, but neither does that make me oblivious. Like The Road to Bedlam and – for different reasons – The ‘First Law’ series, Princess of the White is appearing here for all the wrong reasons.

On theme

Theme vs main idea.JPG

I’ve been reading about writing. I don’t know why I do it. It only makes me think, and question – and no good can come that.

One thing I’ve never really got to grips with in the idea of a theme. What’s your writing really all about, when you get down to it? I’ve always constructed a story through character, setting and – perhaps especially – mood. I’ve never used an overall, over-arching ‘concept’ to keep my writing focussed.

But I’m always interested in learning and if there’s something I could use to make myself a better writer then it’s past time to bring it in.

A theme is the controlling idea of your story: a bold statement that sums up what the novel is truly about. It takes message of the final act and then qualifies it. Examples (stolen from Robert McKee’s Story):

  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more violent than the criminal’ – Dirty Harry
  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more clever than the criminal’ – the Columbo TV series
  • ‘Hatred destroys us when we fear the opposite sex’- Dangerous Liaisons

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Your big idea at the front (‘justice prevails…’) and then the qualifier that makes your work unique. Well. I don’t know about you but I’ve not found it so straightforward. I’ve got things like:

  • Chivalry: ‘States collapse when internet loyalties transcend national boundaries’
  • Night Shift: ‘Survival can only be achieved when inner unity is gained’
  • Oneiromancer: ‘Justice prevails when your heroes’ will is more than the enemy’s’

The idea is that you write the first draft, work out what the story is about, and then rewrite with this idea in the forefront of your mind: or come up with the idea first. Whichever you choose, this is supposed to help you keep your story focussed, to not get sidetracked.

But this whole thing is taken from advice to screenwriters, not novelists. Does it really help people like me? Does it not just reduce the whole thing beneath usefulness? A single sentence can’t convey the richness of a story. Maintenance of aim – yes, I can see how determining your theme would help focus the mind and stop too many side-tracks. But all my novels have multiple foci and are about more than a single sentence can carry.

Take Chivalry as an example. The theme could easily be any of the following:

  • Tragedy unfolds as a father realises just how dangerous his daughter is
  • Madness will destroy if it can’t be channelled
  • Honour can only be achieved when maturity is gained

Which is right? Could these threads be tied into a single sentence – and is it worth even trying? Do we worry about subplots?

Theme. Complex, contradictory, contrary. I’d welcome your opinions as I’m yet to be convinced that it’s worth the mental effort.

And also, just to prove that nothing is simple, I took the image above from a blog on teaching that explains that main idea and theme are, in fact two wholly different things. The theme, then, of this post? Clearly it’s one of ignorance and stupidity.

Rob out.

The kindness of strangers

Hug

Whether you’re looking to publish traditionally or do-it-yourself, you’re going to have to do-it-yourself.

Unless you have the massive good fortune to land a top agent or publishing house who have ‘people’ to do these things for you – and I suspect that streamlining (another horrible phrase, like downsizing, which means ‘we’re no longer going to pay people to do important jobs’) means that there are fewer and fewer bodies that so do – you’re going to have to write your own publicity and provide your own copy.

A few weeks ago I wrote about having to give journalists your own Q&As, but it’s more than that. You also have to write your own book description: not merely the blurb but the longer document which is used to sell the book to wholesalers. You have to write your own biography. You have to provide your own author photograph.

This maybe isn’t such a surprise. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. At least you keep control – perhaps it’s best to do these things oneself rather than let somehow who knows neither you nor the deep themes and undercurrents of your work.

But there you are, having only just mastered synopses, cover letters and a new year of neologisms, and here’s something new to learn. Can’t they see that all you want to do is write?

Well suck it up, laughing boy. You’re an author now. Ain’t no-one to blame but yourself, and no-one else will do it if you don’t.

A long, long time ago I wrote a piece about the way we’re no longer simple creators but fully-fledged business-twonks. It’s still true. But don’t get too discouraged because there is help out there. You have to do the work, it’s true, but you’re not alone.

First and foremost, you have friends. If you’re reading this then you’ve already stretched out a little and have a greater awareness than just that of your own four walls. You’ll have connected with authors and editors and – whilst they may be strangers to you – most people are willing to give advice, even if it’s only  280 characters long. People like to help. They’re nice like that.

Secondly, other people want you to do well. If you’re working with a publisher or agent they have a vested interest in your success. Got a problem? Ask them. They may not have all the answers but they’ll point you in the right direction. And any self-publishers who’ve used any outside services – editorial, cover design and so on – have people to ask too.

Then there’s the internet. This – as you know – can be a double-edged sword: not only may you be receiving bad advice but you can spend as long hunting down information as the original task should take. And – to my surprise – the internet doesn’t have all the answers. I haven’t been able to track down any information on what’s wanted in a long-form book description. But the internet is a resource. It’s there for you to use.

For my money the best option has always been to rely on the kindness of strangers. There’s always someone willing to help. Just remember, when your turn comes, to pay your debts.

Helping others isn’t such a hard thing, is it?

 

Cutting the great scene of doom

film-photo-eisenstein-editing.jpg

Sergei Eisenstein in a photograph appropriate to a post on editing

This is a little story about problems, about editing, and about idée fixe. There may be a moral. I make no promises.

I had been planning Oneiromancer for years before I set metaphorical pen to paper. When I did actually start to write it was because I had an idea: a vision, almost, which involved two entirely new, off-the-cuff characters watching one of my old heroes – term loosely used – fighting a monster. This became the novel’s first scene: it seems I always begin at the beginning, when a scene is so strong in my mind that it burns onto the page.

In this case it’s proved to be a problem. Through four drafts I’ve laboured (and you can an early effort here and a rewrite here) and tinkered and hammered it around the steel anvil of dogged determination. But I’ve never been quite satisfied. So after a first-ten-pages feedback, which suggested the novel started in the wrong place, I decided to cut the damn thing altogether.

Except I didn’t. What I decided to do was to move it. Because it wasn’t at all bad, and also contained useful information. It served to

  • Give character, both in background and in personality
  • Set out some info about the world and the rules thereof, and thus…
  • …helped tell the reader what sort of book they were reading
  • Set up some causality: two characters now knew of a third

All valuable stuff. So I lifted it wholesale, did some rather painful abbreviation and set it down later on.

Except that didn’t work either. The only place I could find to place it – to maintain cause-and-effect and internal logic – was as a memory within a dream. This isn’t as odd as it perhaps sounds, because dreams are central to the story (you know what the title means, right?). But placing it here was much difficulter. I now had problems with tense (one past within another past – I’m sure there are proper terms for these, but I don’t know them) and with the same character watching ‘herself’. It also slowed down the story.

But the scene had to stay, right? It contained important information. It added depth. It set up future events. And it had to be in that place…

Wait.

Hang on a second.

Let’s just think. What’s actually important? The only things that matter are character and that thread of consequence. So the question should not be ‘how can I crowbar this scene into my novel?’ but ‘what’s the best way to give the reader this information?’

Cut the scene. Cut the whole damn thing. It’s not working. Rewrite around the problem, and suddenly everything flows again.

Sometimes working on words helps: you can always make something read better, always polish, hone and sharpen. But sometimes you’re just scratching at the margins. The whole situation needs to change. Step back. Think. Everything you want to achieve can be achieved in a variety of ways. If what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe you’re not trying the right approach.

Here endeth the lesson.

Reading for pleasure and profit

book art 3

I’ve read a fair few manuscripts in my time. Not books; they’re two-a-penny. But manuscripts: works-in-progress; proofs. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the mind works differently when faced with a sheet of paper – even on one of those new-fangled e-reader-y type things – rather than a packaged work.

As you struggle as a writer you’re going to come across much advice and instruction, and one of the oft-repeated suggestions is that you read your favourite novels critically. You try to dissect your friends, in essence, to see what makes them tick. I’ve never, ever, managed to follow this advice. When I read a book I want to be absorbed. I want the flow of words to wash me away.

It’s true that sometimes I see things that the author wouldn’t want me to. Especially in the first few chapters – before I’m totally immersed – I can see dialogue I think of as hammy, and there’s nothing worse then that ‘why don’t they just talk’ moment of stupidity for breaking me from the flow. But mostly a published book just transports me. And I want it to. If it doesn’t then it’s not worked.

That’s not to say that I don’t learn from books. I most certainly do. But the learning is mostly subconscious; absorbing lessons deep within the skin, many-time repeated patterns of plot (and grammar, and punctuation, and form) that slowly soak into me.

But manuscripts work differently. If someone hands you a manuscript it’s either because they want validation – nothing more to say about that – or because they want to get better. So you read more critically. You’re looking for errors. You’re looking for ways their work can be improved. You’re seeing roads the author themselves never saw. You’re asking questions in a way you simply don’t when reading a published work.

Maybe it’s the sense of completion you have when you take up a novel: this is what the author and publisher wanted. Of course this isn’t necessarily true, but that’s the illusion. With a manuscript you’re looking at a stage in development. This, I think, makes you read in a different way. It’s easier to spot errors – not just typos and grammar-sins, but plot-holes and mis-characterisations.

I guess it’s similar to the role of the professional critic, or maybe even the book-club reader. You forego the experience in order to have something (vaguely) intelligent to say.

Which is why I advise all writers to engage in manuscript exchanges with others. You don’t have to sacrifice the joy of reading to improve as an author. I’ve learnt how others see plot, and dialogue, and setting – all the individual components of a written work. Even comparing feedback helps: it’s remarkable how one reader will notice poor grammar or dialogue, for example, whilst you’ve been looking at motivation and character. You’re also likely to encounter other genres and to grow both as a reader and a writer.

So don’t lead your favourite friend to the abattoir. Instead seek out opportunities to help other writers with their work. Don’t see it as a waste of valuable writing time because you’ll be helping yourself as well as them.