Friday, May 18, 2012

Wall of Words Woes

One of the biggest challenges of a science fiction or fantasy writer is the wall of words issue. This is where, in the first few pages, the writer tries to explain how the world of the story is put together. It's an alien planet. They travel on starships. People swallow protein pills and algae shakes instead of eating food. The world is ruled by elves with terrible body odor. Dragons are all licensed lawyers.

See, the writer thinks that, before the story can get underway, the reader needs to know what color the sky is and how ugly the dwarves are. And, for some things, it is important. The writer has made things in the world a certain way for a certain reason (hopefully), so therefore the reader will need to know about them for things to make sense.

The problem is that getting hit hard with all these details is at best intimidating and at worst completely momentum destroying. I've struggled with this problem heavily, especially with my Lower Knight's stories. I have it even when people ask me, in person, what the stories are about! I stutter and mumble and generally have no idea where to even start. The whole world of the story is crammed up in my head, and I don't know how to simplify it.

It's draining, it's annoying, and it can be fixed.

But, before I started on fixing the novel I'm working on (IMPERFECT), I wanted to gather some data on the problem. So, I pulled out a few of some quintessential sci-fi novels from my bookshelf and went through the first three pages.

Here are the test subjects: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick; Dune by Frank Herbert; Foundation by Isaac Asimov; The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin; and last, but not least, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

I'm going to look at just the first three pages of each.

I looked for four different types of word wall issues.

  1. Terms and names: made-up words or unusual names. If it's otherworldly, but common knowledge, it doesn't count. "Obi-Wan Kenobi" would fall into this category in the 70's, but wouldn't now because more people know this word than those who know what "abatement" means.

  2. Concepts: Normal words, or statements, but describing alien ideas or items (like dragon attorneys). Same rule as the last about things being common knowledge. Starship doesn't count, but planet jumper does.

  3. Technobabble: Scientific terms, either real or fake. Interdimentional rift dilation is a good example

  4. Ugly blocks: These are the worst. Essentially just a whole lot of concepts crammed together. Paragraph-long (or longer) strings of obnoxious explanations of things. Tolkien is overwhelmingly guilty of this, having entire chapters--or first halves of books--filled with exposition.

So, here's how the books I mentioned stacked up. If it was a competition to see who had the least amount of these issues, Hitchhiker's Guide wins, with only one sparce piece of technobable in the first three pages. But, that could be because Douglas Adams is a genius, and he has the story start out in modern-day Brittain in very familar settings.

Interestingly, Dune, which I consider to be one of the best-written science fiction novels ever, has the most terms and names out of all of them, 11, but does so in a very clever way. The main character is young, and is just as thrown off by all the terms as the reader, and therefore must process through them carefully.

Foundation, not surprisingly, is a mess with 7 terms and one ulgy block (none of the others have any). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is fairly messy as well, with a fair amount of technobable in addition to a lot of terms and names. I was actually surprised to find how many terms and names were in The Dispossessed, but LeGuin spaces them out well and uses a lot of context clues.

The big shock came when I did this for my novel! In the first three pages I had a total of 5 terms and names and the most concepts out of anyone, totaling 7. Seeing this after looking at the other examples, I saw how much work I have to do cleaning up the beginning of my book. Remember, this is after I've revised and rewritten the first few pages many, many times. Too many times.

Here are all the numbers for all the books:

The Martian Chronicles:
0 terms/names; 4 concepts; 1 technobabble; 0 ugly blocks

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?:
4 terms/names; 2 concepts; 3 technobabble; 0 ugly blocks

11 terms/names; 1 concept; 0 technobabble; 0 ugly blocks

7 terms/names; 2 concepts; 1 technobabble; 1 ugly block

The Dispossessed:
5 terms/names; 3 concepts; 0 technobabble; 0 ugly blocks

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
0 terms/names; 0 concepts; 1 technobabble; 0 ugly blocks

5 terms/names; 7 concepts; 0 technobabble; 0 ugly blocks

So, there you have it. It looks like you can get away with lots of new names and such if you space them out or use tricks to ease the reader into them. Concepts can be easier, if they're done right. Martian Chronicles delivers them very organically, by using strong contextual clues (such as "magnetic dust," which is used to clean furniture. Bradbury simply shows a woman using it).

Still, it is always better to not murder your reader with new words and ideas right out of the gate. Spread them out, but even that may not be enough. One trick is to make them matter, or hook the reader, but that's a whole other issue...

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