Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Obvious vs The Oblique

Over on her blog, the excellent N.K. Jemisin (author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and The Broken Kingdoms) has been ruminating on transparency in narrative:
When I first started out as a short story writer, I had a rough time of it. Some of it was just stubbornness on my part; change is hard. The rest, though, was that I kept making the novelist’s mistake: instead of writing short stories, I just I tried to write shorter long stories. Then, finally grasping that short stories are something different, I went to the opposite extreme. My next attempt was a story full of complex ideas and character interactions in a very strange setting — and no explanation of any of it. Explaining would’ve taken up too much space, I told myself at the time. I’d read several stories at that point which didn’t bother to explain things, so I thought that might be the trick of short story-writing: write it all in media res, toss in some technobabble or magicobabble, bam, done.
The question of how much insight to provide the reader is a tough one.  Some authors, like Steven Erikson, make their audience work to keep a grip on a slippery narrative, others seem to lay our their plot like they're writing for a chromosomal retard.  I think it's a hard balance to maintain: sometimes the story must get ahead of the reader to hook them in and maintain interest, but then the author must also let the reader get ahead of them, now and again, so they (the reader) feel like they're staying on top of things.  I would think, until an author has built up a reserve of experience, a fleet of Beta Readers might be the best test of how well a piece of writing manages this balancing act.

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