Thursday, June 24, 2010

Maybe I Didn't Say Every Single Little Tiny Syllable, No...

Think of Bruce Campbell and you’ll have an idea what the title--and this week’s rant--refers to.
So, imagine flipping open a book or a script and reading that Ognaron took his airepulsor carriage out for a twenty wobosa drive along the neerwoks of Qin’nixxia on the Crossing of Terafils.

Does that even mean anything? I mean, you could probably sit down, diagram the sentence, and get some very rough ideas of what one or two of these words refer to. Maybe. More or less. How often do you want to do that, though? Can you imagine weeding through a whole paragraph like that? Or multiple pages?

Of course not. How could you keep track of any of it? You’d probably go mad. I know a few script readers who have. Heck, there’s a reason most professional readers will tell you their least favorite kind of screenplay is the dreaded sci-fi/ fantasy script (well, maybe tied with the “based on a true story” script). A large percentage of them take hours to slog through for reasons just like this.

No, we’d all rather just read that Ognaron took his hover car out for a twenty minute drive along the ocean cliffs on Father’s Day. The fact that the writer isn’t wasting time with silly or pretentious words tells us they’re more interested in getting to the story. As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, what every reader wants to see is forward motion. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story, a script, or a novel, the last thing the reader wants is to get hung up on something that just doesn’t matter.

Here’s a helpful hint. Try to sum up your story in two pages. You don’t need to do it on paper or anything, just get the whole thing organized in your head so you could jot it down or explain all of it to someone in five or ten minutes.

Got it?

Okay, if at any point you find yourself simplifying some of your terms for the summary-- referring to your character’s airepulsor carriage as a hovercraft, for example--then just use that simpler term in the actual story. Don’t use interlobal trans-psion pulse communication when you can just say telepathy. There’s no need to overcomplicate a term people are already familiar with. Let’s just call a pistol a pistol and be done with it. You’ve got better things for your readers to spend their time on, right?

Likewise, if at any point you find yourself saying or thinking something like “In this dimension, X is called Y,” then just use X. Why force the reader to remember an awkward name for something common? Like using said, it’s more likely they’ll skim past something common than ponder its use on an alien/ alternate world.
I’ve mentioned this little tidbit before. In the preface to his novel Nightfall, Isaac Asimov explains that he uses miles, hours, and years not because the planet his story is set on is somehow related to Earth, but because he didn’t want to overcomplicate things. Sure, he could’ve made up new names for everything but, seriously, what would be the point?

Another related problem in fantasy or future worlds is when the writer attempts to create their own slang or idioms. I read one book that decided a few hundred years in the future no one would say God and Jesus--everyone used Yahweh and Kristo instead. The problem with this is that I went through the first 50 pages of the book thinking Kristo was the name of one of the main characters (who would sometimes refer to herself in the third person).

Y’see, Timmy, if I don’t know the name you’re using, or the ideas behind it, I have to assume it’s the name of a character. Let’s take a look at a few simple sentences.

--“Christ, what are you doing here?”
--“We’re going to have another child, if God is willing.”
--“Jesus, it’s good to see you.”
--“God knows what Marc’s up to this time!”

These all make sense, right? No confusion about what any of these sentences mean. However, what if I switch the names like this?

--“Sarah, what are you doing here?”
--“We’re going to have another child, if Catherine is willing.”
--“Tim, it’s good to see you.”
--“Gillian knows what Marc’s up to this time!”

See what happens? The sentences are conveying different information. With these more “casual” names, the bits of dialogue shift from expletives or figures of speech to people being directly addressed or referenced. And if you don’t know which category the names fall into...

--“Tokar, what are you doing here?”
--“We’re going to have another child, if Neeva is willing.”
--“Grothlaxia, it’s good to see you.”
--“Ostarix knows what Marc’s up to this time!”

Do you have any idea what these sentences are saying now? They’re almost impossible to decipher without a frame of reference for those names. Is Neeva someone’s wife, husband, or deity? Heck, Tokar and Ostarix might not even be names at all. What if they’re alien curses or swear words that are only capitalized because they start the sentence?

So, as readers, when we come across something like this it usually does one of two things. It either brings us to a grinding halt as we try to figure out what this word means, or we make assumptions about what the word means and the story comes to a grinding halt later when we figure out we’re wrong. On very rare occasions, we make the assumption, guess right, and the story flows on without incident.

Really, though... Why would you risk drawing attention to yourself like that? As a writer, do you want your story to hinge on the reader possibly making a correct guess? Are you so certain the reader will keep going afterward that you’ll risk bringing the narrative to a dead stop?

I didn’t think so.

Don’t overcomplicate your story with details that are just going to slow it down and drive readers away. If you don’t need to make up a word or a phrase or a term... then don’t. Just keep it simple and they’ll love you for it.

Next time, I think I’ll either prattle on about something funny or try to shock you all somehow. Not sure which yet.

Until then, go write.


  1. Where may i contact you so we can discuss my review of Ex-Heroes?

  2. I'm reachable either at the Permuted Press message boards (via thread or PM)

    --or directly at--

  3. you have a new email address! how convenient, now we can stalk you with more efficiency. ;)

    Good point with the rant this week! every time someone brings up this point, the first thing i ALWAYS think of is the preface to Nightfall. I think i remember more about the preface than i do the whole rest of the book. :)

  4. I'm ridiculously easy to stalk. The downside of being a semi-public figure before writing a book. Heck, look at that big list of links on the right side of the blog... :)

    Yeah, Nightfall is such a great example of this--or perhaps cautionary tale is a better way to say it. I wish more people who wrote sci-fi/ fantasy could be bothered to read their chosen genres. It would save so much time on everyone's part.

  5. Hm... good post, but it leaves me with a question, or a trilemma, rather.

    For a sf story I got two types of wormholes, one leading from planet to planet, and another connecting universes.
    Now if I call both of them wormholes, things will look inconsistent with respect to world rules, if I don't, people will wonder what I'm talking about, and if I only call one type wormholes and the other one something else it feels completely wrong.

    I'd be grateful for any suggestions.

  6. Hey, Lex. Hopefully you'll see this response. I only just noticed it today when I was linking back to this post.

    I actually don't see a problem with calling them both wormholes. After all, a lobster trawler and an aircraft carrier are both ships. We just understand that this one term ("ship") can cover many similar things--some at such extremes that they don't seem similar at all.

    Try explaining it that way and see how it works. Assuming you didn't solve this problem yourself a few months ago... ;)