I complained once about flash fiction. I don’t remember which post it was, except to say it hasn’t been all that long ago. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a story that I can invest in. Since flash fiction is so short—generally less than a thousand words—I feel like I’m just getting settled in and figuring the character(s) out when it’s over.
Reminds me of eating cotton candy when I was a kid: it looks so sumptuous, but then you take a bite that feels like flavored air, and it melts in your mouth and is gone before you really taste it.
But there’s something to be said for flash fiction: it moves.
I bring this up because of two books I’ve encountered this past week and the realization they brought with them: a story needs to move, but please oh please don’t tell me every movement it makes.
Let’s start with making the story move.
I’m trying out a British author (there’s a clue for ya) named China Miéville, and the book, which I’ve just started, is Perdido Street Station. It shows promise, if you’re into speculative fiction. I’m only to chapter four, but it looks to be a grab bag from sf and fantasy: there are several different races of beings, steampunk is present, along with science, chemistry (which he spells chymistry) and God knows what else.
Let’s make this clear at the outset: I realize it’s unfair to judge a book after reading three chapters. I’ve read some that looked absolutely crappy at that point in the story, but kept at them and, by the end, I was glad I’d read them. Miéville’s prose is good, if a bit thick, so it could get better. Story is very important, and it is a long book—the kind I prefer, as a rule. I’ll have lots of time to get invested in the characters. No flash fiction here.
And I’d probably enjoy it thoroughly if not for the fact I’ve read crime fiction, and I’m aware of the kinds of things readers want these days. In both cases, it’s better to stay somewhat sparse on details. Let the reader fill in the details. Just give ’em a good idea of setting and let their imagination supply the rest.
Here’s a paragraph of description of a being from Perdido Street Station: The great creature stood more than six feet tall, on cruel clawed feet that poked out from under a dirty cloak. The ragged cloth dangled down almost to the ground, draped loosely over every inch of flesh, obscuring the details of physiognomy and musculature, all but the garuda’s head. And that great inscrutable bird face gazed down at Isaac with what looked like imperiosity. Its sharply curved beak was something between a kestrel’s and an owl’s. Sleek feathers faded subtly from ochre to dun to dappled brown. Deep black eyes stared at his own, the iris only a fine mottling at the very edge of the dark. Those eyes were set in orbits which gave the garuda face a permanent sneer, a proud furrow.
Well, at least we have a full picture of this garuda being. In fact, he goes on for another paragraph talking about the huge wings the garuda has hidden under the cloak and the descriptions of them Isaac has read. It’s not as long a paragraph, and it leaves you with the unmistakable picture of a sentient bird of prey.
This is the kind of thing sf, and British sf in particular, is known for: long descriptions. On the one hand, they’re somewhat necessary. The author has to give the reader a good picture of beings he’s never seen in real life and likely never will. In most cases, he also needs to convey the alienness (I know, that’s not a real word, but it is a concept, so bear with me here) of the being in question. As a reader, you’re becoming acquainted with something that might never have occurred to you.
British authors are more descriptive than American writers. I think it’s the difference between English and American (we do not speak English here. English and American are all but two different languages). It may also be that English authors are still unduly influenced by the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare. Nothing wrong with that per se, but there is a difference in writing styles. Many American Victorian era authors write the same way. I once tried to read The House of Seven Gables, but gave up when Nathaniel Hawthorne spent the first chapter describing the damned house, leaving me wondering when the story was gonna start.
In short, the story itself doesn’t move very fast. I remember reading a review of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, in which the reviewer (and I wish I could remember who it was to give credit) said that one of the things The Hunger Games did that every novel should was introduce the main plot by the end of the Chapter 1. In fact, this might not have been so much a review as an example in a How-To on writing. I’ll say more about The Hunger Games in a bit.
The next book up for consideration is The Buntline Special by Mike Resnick.
The Buntline Special is a Weird Western, and Mike Resnick is an old hand at sf. I learned of him back in the ’90s with his book Paradise, a novel of an Africa-like planet and its exploitation. Mr. Resnick is, as a rule, the kind of author who starts right out with action, and The Buntline Special is no exception. The central character is Doc Holliday, who is traveling to Tombstone at the behest of his friend Wyatt Earp. In this alternate reality, the US stops at the Mississippi River due to the strength of the Indians’ magic, and because of Geronimo and Hook Nose, a Cheyenne medicine man, in particular. Both are exceptionally strong, though they have yet to join forces.
It turns out that Tombstone is the only country in the world to have electric lighting, thanks to Thomas Edison. However, it seems that Geronimo is afraid Edison will find a way to counter his magic, so he has put Edison’s life in danger by motivating the Clanton gang, called the Cowboys, to kill him. The Earps have called in Holliday and Bat Masterson to help them, but Masterson ends up being a liability when Geronimo puts a curse on him.
It’s an interesting concept. Weird West tales are gaining in popularity, and I picked up this book partly because I’d like to write a Weird Western, partly because I’m a Resnick fan.
Unlike Perdido Street Station, The Buntline Special (yes, Ned Buntline is also in the book, but I didn’t want to get too detailed in my synopsis) moves. Description is sparse, just enough to give you the setting without weighing you down with details. Until, that is, the author starts telling you what his characters are doing. Time after time, we’re told in detail what they’re doing. Here’s a short example: Morgan got up, walked to an adjoining room, and returned a moment later with a chair.
Isn’t that nice?
I hate to be sarcastic, especially toward an author who’s won numerous awards and been in the business longer than I’ve been alive. But couldn’t he just say Morgan got a chair from another room or Morgan went to the next room over and retrieved a chair, something like that? Why do you have to tell me he got up, walked to the other room and returned with the chair? Isn’t that implied in my renderings? I realize mine are rough because I composed them on the fly, but they get the point across.
If this was the only or one of the few times Mr. Resnick does this in his book, I wouldn’t complain, but he does it numerous times, telling me in one instance that a character walks through the kitchen, out through the parlor, and onto the street. Why not just tell me he went out to the street? I’m smart enough to know he has to go through the kitchen (the room he was already in, by the way), across the parlor and out the door to get to the street. I’ve left a house, too, you know.
I mentioned before that long description—and lets’ face it, Mr. Resnick’s are long descriptions, even if they’re short sentences—is a forte of sf. I think many sf readers revel in the stuff, and since I’ve started reading crime, I’ve become somewhat impatient with it. One thing to keep in mind is the different conventions genres use. What’s acceptable in one will never fly in another.
The Hunger Games finds a comfortable niche in between these two books. In fact, it argues for some sf authors maybe taking some lessons from YA writers. Hunger Games is Young Adult but, like the Harry Potter books, is appropriate for adults. It doesn’t weigh you down with description, and you’ve got a good idea of the world and the plot by the end of the first chapter, as I’ve mentioned. You don’t know all the details, of course. If you did, the rest of the novel would be a waste of time.
The Hunger Games takes me back to what I consider good science fiction: an intriguing setting that lends itself to the story, rather than a weak story that’s there just to take me through loving descriptions of the setting. Unlike the paragraph I quoted above. Ms. Collins doesn’t use 124 words to describe a single character. She gets on with the story.
And isn’t that why we read in the first place? Isn’t that why authors should write, to tell the story? Why get wrapped up in words? If you want to do that, go write poetry. That’s what poetry’s all about, in a way.
Make your story move, just don’t tell me every move it makes.