Scene Geography

Where things are is almost as important as the things that are being said. Oftentimes it is enough to address objects or terrain or the layout of a structure as these are met by the character who is moving through them; sometimes, it is even necessary. Detailing the scene in sum before the characters have started moving through it can lead to the reader getting lost among all the corridors and rooms that the movement has not reached yet. Conversely, the same hiccup occurs if a writer does not efficaciously—if not succinctly—lay out one of those rooms or corridors in a manner conducive to the flow of the narrative and the movement of the characters. I like to call this “scene geography”, which I’m sure someone else has come up with in a much more thorough and technical style.

Usually it’s a slip of the mind, committed in the first draft and corrected in the second, but chances are if you’re reading this: you might not know yet to look for it. So let me do your work for you. Let me live your pain.

I’ve run into this a lot while going through some old drafts the past couple months, and it’s left me chock full of examples for this kind of thing. In my own work, it often happens in passing. I’ll be in the thick of some bit of exposition—describing the movement of a character through an alleyway, say—and suddenly something appears.

But not in the way that you might think. I don’t mean a thug pops out from behind the corner or a cat darts into the gutter. I mean the character opens a door that they were not said to be looking for and steps through, takes or searches for something from the gutter that wasn’t shown to be there, turns that undescribed corner at random and gets plowed with a club.

These are instances where the geography of the scene was not sufficiently solidified before the action in the scene took place. Instead, highlight the cat running into the gutter and then show the character searching for something in it. Show the character keeping an eye over his shoulder, hurrying for the corner, then getting clobbered for watching behind him when he should have been more careful about his blind escape.

Scene geography is all about giving precedent to action. Your precedents act as highlights for forthcoming action in the scene. I’m not advocating to give an exhaustive rundown of every item in the character’s vicinity. But if there’s a knife on the table that the character will momentarily be picking up to stab an intruder with, then show me the knife. Show me the money, in other words. Then put it in your mouth. I guess?

End the Cycle of the Saga Chronicled by the Archive

Since the reintroduction and consequent explosion of the Lord of the Rings in the United States during the 1960’s, the vaunted trilogy is something that has haunted the genres of fantasy and science fiction. It became almost a rite of passage. You weren’t a serious practicer of the craft if you hadn’t a trilogy to your name or some other long-running series. Forget duologies, tetrologies, quintologies. It was three or as many as it took for you to die of natural causes a la Robert Jordan, then someone else steps in to finish your dirty work. How many narratives were structured – naturally or purposefully – by this unspoken rule, none can say. We may say with some certainty, however, that the trend has definitely shaped the market.

Historically an affectation of the fantasy genre, the trilogy has started to parasitize science fiction as that medium starts to take on more and more of the tropes of its cousin. Indeed, the genres themselves have seemed to start blending together and not in the healthy and interesting ways that lead to crazed tales of cybernetic trolls and spell-flinging bounty hunters. More than anything else, they’ve become conventional distillations of the all the worst elements of genre writing with the simple backdrop of this or that loosely-related piece of technologic or magical fabric. That’s a topic for another time, though. Right now, we’re talking cheap gimmicks and marketing strategies.

The structure has limped along through the years, surviving on waxing nostalgia for its place as a hallmark of the genre(s) and by changing its terminology. These days, you don’t see Trilogy much anymore. And, if you do, it’s something applied after the fact by critics or the community. No, more common are its failed offspring that are much more egregious for also being overwrought: Cycle, Chronicle, Archive, Saga, etc. In addition to this being a nice and cheap ploy to map out butcher-paper knockoffs, consistent repeats of the narratives we’ve been reading for 50 years, it’s also an easy way to grab an extra $30 off a prospective buyer. Some might just grab the first volume and call it a day, choosing not to continue with the tripe. But I’d be a rich man if I received the sticker price every time I heard or read someone detailing the experience of reading this or that trilogy in such starry-eyed language as “struggled through to the end; started the journey, so I might as well finish it; skipped over the boring stuff and the good parts were pretty entertaining”, and so on. You get the idea. It isn’t hard to miss.

Is this really the standard we want to hold ourselves to as readers and, dare I say it, writers? Is our time really so cheap that we can afford to throw hours and hours away on something we feel compelled to skip through? The answers should come easy. We all deserve good entertainment for our time and money. Let’s be honest: we only stand to gain when hacks are forced out of the medium and into some other corner of the creative tent. Give them a SyFy original series to ejaculate over the airwaves, if wasting our time is the height of their achievement. Throw them the doomed run of a sideline superhero to rehabilitate. Make them come back for more, if they want more. Make them prove they deserve the keys to the city and, for the love of God, make sure they don’t know the doorman.

A Nifty Trick

I picked up Hugh Howey’s Sand earlier this month and, apart from enjoying it immensely, noticed a convenient tactic he employs to expound upon the setting without really adding to the text. One of the more egregious faults of any poor work of fantasy or science fiction is to interrupt the narrative with a long-winded explanation concerning an article of the world in which that narrative is set. To lace the same information into the narrative without doing so requires a great deal of effort and skill, which (depending upon the complexity of the article) can sometimes seem impossible. Take it from one who knows; I have more failures to my name in this regard than I can count or would want to count.

Gene Wolfe has for a long time employed footnotes and glossaries to provide quick elucidations of archaic terms or in-setting terminology without stopping the story. This is, however, often justified by the way in which he writes. The Latro novels, which I highly recommend, are pseudo-historical fiction narrated in the first-person by a Roman mercenary in Hellenistic Greece. The Book of the New Sun, also highly recommended, is likewise narrated in the first person and is rife with unexplained titles and terms native to the post-apocalyptic society in which the story is set. These instances are readily justified. Sand, however, is the first I’ve seen a third-person novel use footnotes to clear up questions over terms, as a narrative technique rather than an extension of the story’s immersion factor (a la Wolfe).

Some of the appeal inherent in reading Wolfe lies in being taken into a world you do not fully understand – and won’t, if you keep yourself from flipping to the glossary. It’s mystifying, intriguing. The reader is pulled into the narrative as through a window that only looks on one part of the courtyard at any given time. That is also the intent of the stories in which he employs the technique. Howey’s use of footnotes in Sand gives an answer to any author struggling to convey their world in passing, using omniscient voice and without devoting pages and pages to dry exposition. Certainly, if every speculative fiction author starts relaying the details of their world or universe in this way, the tactic starts to smack less of judiciousness and more of laziness. But that’s how it bears out with anything in the creative field. No matter how pioneering, from the tiniest introduction of footnotes to the imagination of a genre, any  can become commoditized and tasteless. Still, we might as well jump on the train while it’s in station and see how comfortable the seats.

How Many More Doors Need Stopping?

I’ve never picked up his stuff, mostly because I’m forever whittling down a massive backlog, but someone finally tried explaining the appeal of Brandon Sanderson to me. I’m not sold.

The person’s love for his books, namely the Stormlight Archive series, stemmed from his non-traditional style. I was not aware he had one, much less that he departed from the norms of door-stopper fantasy, but I’ll try to do it justice. The story is non-linear, you see, and kept interesting despite the lack of purposeful plot by a complex and interesting cast of characters. They talk like real people, take coherent and deliberate action in a richly imagined world that tries its best to match the depth of our own.

“No one knows where it’s going,” the fanboy doth told me. “But you don’t care, because everything else is so good. I mean, he writes women better than most women do.” I was forced to call bullshit, as I’ve tried to get into him multiple times, but that might come later and in another post.

Leaving alone what I think of Sanders’ work on its own, I was left wondering the merit of his narrative style as it was relayed to me. I wasn’t surprised, given the length of his books, but their success hints at the continuity of a phenomenon local to fantasy as a genre. That is, huge tomes comprised of meandering plots and info dumps with little purpose for the form. Usually when these sorts of things are encountered in the literary wild (I’m looking at you, David Foster Wallace), there’s some narrative purpose behind it. It’s an instrument or an element of the author’s style. Not so with most works of fantasy.

In fact, the proliferation of the practice in the genre runs contrary to most norms or givens of quality in traditional literature. “Show, don’t tell” certainly goes out the window with most fantasy as a determination of skill. Yet its transgressors achieve critical acclaim and success, which I do not brook them. It’s almost as if there’s an entrenched construct of what the genre’s consumers and thus critics (by extension of capital) consider quality but which is not quality in and of itself. That might be getting a little off course, though.

I personally don’t see the merit of wayward narrative and textbook-dense explanations, even from the perspective of entertainment, and I read translated primary historical sources for kicks. I just can’t help but feel that it is what we do in limitation that shows prowess, the restraint we show to the reader, and door-stopper fantasy elicits even from its fans a groan of persistence rather than enjoyment. Then again, maybe everyone knows something I don’t. Maybe I’m a scrooge, too young. All I know is, I’m going to give the guy another damn shot the next time in the aisle.

Oh, good, you made it.

Now you might be wondering: who the fuck am I? And I don’t want you to worry. I ask myself this all the time. Never the same answer. In truth, I’m just a simple man. A simpleton, really. Nothing I say deserves any latitude. But my beard is impressive, and that entitles me to a certain amount of consideration. Alright? I think it does. So don’t bother disputing it. These are known quantities.

What’s important here is that we get to know each other. So, you know, just pull up a seat. I’ve got a warm fire going. The dogs are hot. The mallow is toasted. I promise you will not find a better time. What’s your pleasure? That’s all I’m asking. Books? My life revolves around them. I write them, I read them. Nerd shit? Got it in spades, just ask. Musings on pompous, philosophical bullshit? I live for you here, okay, not the other way around. If I ain’t got it, you don’t want it.

All of this boils down to a single point: I am yet another dickhead proffering my unproved expertise and general meandering knowledge to the world’s largest peanut gallery. Only I, too, am the peanut gallery. It’s a very complex riff on the camera obscura. A theatre of the mind where I am you, you are me, and neither of us knows what’s going to happen. I hope you stick around for the veritable ride.