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Earning/Maintaining a Reader’s Trust: World-building, Story Structure, & Consequential Plotting (part 2 of 3)


NOTE: This is the second installment in a three-part series on earning and maintaining a reader’s trust. The previous installment focuses on earning initial trust just at the start of a story, while this part focuses on how world-building, consequential plotting, and story structure/pacing affect the reader’s trust. The third and final installment dealing with character consistency/reliability will be was published on Tuesday, December 6th, 2011.

Early Days: The Importance of Accessibility

Getting the reader to turn past page one is only the start of the battle. Once we’ve got the reader reading along with us, the next step is to make sure that they stay engaged and gradually become more immersed in our fictional world. I think this rests on the concept of accessibility, and in speculative fiction that accessibility relates very closely to world-building.

When we read, we store all of the salient facts about the fictional world in our brains. We need them to put the story in context: they color how we imagine events unfolding, and they ensure that we understand what it means for the Dothraki to invade Westeros. Cramming all of that information into the reader’s head decreases the book’s accessibility, risks wearing the reader out, and gradually degrades the reader’s trust in the author’s skill. Which is why I believe that accessibility is a key virtue of maintaining reader trust: if the world-building, characterization, and plotting is presented in an accessible fashion at a rate that the reader can internalize without drowning in detail or florid prose (*cough* Umberto Eco), then the reader is far more likely to trust the author enough to keep reading.

Nevertheless, world-building and detail remain an intrinsic component of all fiction. Our job as writers is to strike an appropriate balance between our world-building and our story’s accessibility. If we throw in too much world-building, the detail might occlude the story (the literary equivalent of hiding a forest behind too many trees). On the other hand, if we withhold too many details then our story loses clarity. Both mistakes can lose the reader’s trust, which is why a balance must be struck between them.

Finding the Balance Between World-building, Detail, and Accessibility

We don’t read books for the setting, or for the characters, or for conflict. We read books for the underlying story, which we access through the characters, conflict, and setting. Just about any story can be told in a different environment or with completely different characters, and to maintain reader trust, we need to make sure that the details we offer don’t obscure the story that underlies them. The more details we load into the text, and the rate at which we pack those details into our paragraphs, the harder it will be spot the underlying story. But some detail is always needed, whether we’re writing a secondary world fantasy or a contemporary mainstream realistic novel.

As Charlie Stross points out in this excellent essay on world-building, every piece of fiction relies on a balance between what the author shows/tells the reader, and the reader’s shared experience of the world. If we’re writing a realistic piece of contemporary fiction set in New York City, our readers will open the book with preconceived ideas and experiences of what NYC is like. Even if they’ve never set foot in Manhattan and unless they’ve been living in a cave, they will have certain images and concepts taken (accurately or not) from movies, other books, and their own cultural background.

If we’re writing a piece of contemporary realist fiction, we can rely on their shared experiences and thus skimp (to some extent) on the details. We don’t need to define, explain, or depict a car or a traffic light for the reader to understand what’s going on. Since we can eschew detailed explanations, we can instead focus on how those objects act or are acted upon within our story. This shared experience establishes a certain baseline for reader trust.

Eric Flint, 1632, 2001

It is when our story diverges from the reader’s expectations (when we put the island of Manhattan on the Yangtze River, for example) that we risk that trust. Diverging from shared experiences makes it incumbent upon us to offer some sort of explanation for the new or unusual elements. It takes groundwork on our part to prepare the reader for that type of cognitive estrangement. This groundwork happens at many levels within the story, and it actually starts with the book’s marketing category and design. For example, the cover of Eric Flint’s 1632 immediately tells the reader that they’ll be dealing with some type of anachronistic story where armored knights on horseback encounter modern pick-up trucks. If the reader is expecting a completely realistic story, they know just from the cover to look elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely on design and marketing category to do the heavy lifting for us (for one thing, traditionally published authors rarely have any control over either). The details we include in our text, the way we talk about our characters’ assumptions, the descriptions we offer of our setting, the words our characters use are the hammers, screws, and nails of our world-building. Consider what an innocent verb like “steamroll” implies about a world. Sure, it’s tempting in our contemporary context to describe an overbearing character as a “steamroller” or to say that character X “steamrolled” character Y. But if our story is set in a pre-industrial world, then “steamrollers” or even steam-rolling mechanisms for clothing likely wouldn’t (yet) exist. It is this kind of minor, precise detail of world-building which risks undermining a reader’s trust in the author and our world-building.

I suspect there are as many techniques for effective world-building as there are books. Regardless of what technique we apply, it is the consistency of that world-building which maintains the reader’s trust. In the previous installment, I quoted from the opening of Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. Her first paragraph establishes that we are dealing with a secondary world (the fictional land of Linderwall, east of the fictional Mountains of Morning), that is quasi-medieval in nature (a feudal system with kings, queens, princes/ses, and knights), and magical (dragons and fairy godmothers included). This single paragraph establishes the entire context necessary for the rest of Wrede’s world to be imagined and understood. Were Wrede to introduce a new element into her story (witches, for example), it has to fit within that context. If her new element does not fit (e.g. airplanes), then without expanding the context to make it believable, it would create a dissonance that damaged the reader’s trust.

Because Wrede does an excellent job of concisely contextualizing the story’s environment in her first paragraph, she levels up and earns the ability to quickly introduce new elements into her world’s context. So long as she maintains consistency with that brief initial context, we won’t even blink at the introduction of characters transformed by witchcraft, or of magical forests. We are able to internalize them as rapidly as the author serves them up because of that consistency.

However, consistency does not give us carte blanche to infodump detail on our poor unsuspecting reader. Ultimately, it is the story that should determine the rate at which new details are introduced. In Dealing with Dragons, Wrede could have theoretically taken ten pages and written a description of her world’s geography, its politics, and the systems of magic that operate within it. But doing so would have halted the forward momentum of the underlying story, and given the reader too many details (however consistent they might be) to maintain the story’s accessibility. Story is key, and no amount of world-building detail should ever obscure it. When I think about this in my own writing, I think of it in terms of Hemingway’s iceberg theory: sometimes by consciously leaving details out of our text, we actually make both the world-building and the story more accessible.

The Use of Icebergs in World-building

As the creators of our worlds, we should know everything there is to know about them. Their historical background, their cultural environment, technology, idiosyncrasies, etc. In our heads, we should have a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about our made up world. But that doesn’t mean the reader needs it.

An Iceberg in Profile

An Iceberg in Profile, via Wikimedia. Created by Uwe Kils (iceberg) and User:Wiska Bodo (sky).

If we’ve done our homework, and if we’ve fully imagined our world, then even if we don’t explicitly include details in our text we will still write consistently within our context. That’s because all of that detail – from the shoes our character might be wearing, all the way to their fraught childhood relationships with neighbors – sits in the back of our brain and trickles through onto the page. The reader doesn’t need to see that, because it becomes the underlying detail that exists between the lines on the page. It’s what Hemingway called the iceberg effect, where only the top 10% of the story is actually shown to the reader. The rest remains in the author’s head. Even if we never show the reader those details, readers will still have the palpable sense that the details exist somewhere: that the author knows what they are doing, and that they will include only the necessary details in the text.

This ties into the concept of including details as demanded to by the story. If, lacking a particular detail, the story won’t move forward, then by all means include what’s necessary. If your character needs to leave on a space ship, you’ll need to introduce the minor detail of the space ship itself. But if you only include the information the story needs, and you make sure that information is consistent with a more generally established context, then I think you’ll go a long way to maintaining reader trust. Our job is to give the reader the details they need to understand what happens, and enough context to imagine the rest. So long as our world has some logical underpinnings, and so long as we consistently depict the extrapolations of our world, the reader will have confidence that we know what we’re doing. At least, that’s my hope.

The Accessibility of Story Structure

Just as a balance must be struck between world-building and the story’s accessibility, there exists a similar balance between story structure and its accessibility. Fiction is wonderful in that we can play many fun games with non-linear stories, jumps in time, jumps in perspective, etc. Our range of motion and range of structures are arguably limitless. But the more complicated we make our story structure, the more mental gymnastics our readers will have to perform to follow along.

Sometimes, we want a complex structure. Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler is multiply-recursive, extremely meta, and is half told in second person. It is a complicated puzzle-box of a novel. However, it remains a delightful (if challenging) book to read. Justine Larbalestier’s Liar jumps backwards and forwards in time, and wrestles with an unreliable narrator who at several points recants most of the preceding story. It too has a complicated structure, and challenges the reader to understand what is actually happening.

Both Calvino and Larbalestier employed complex structures because those structures helped accentuate the themes they wished to explore. They faced a trade-off between the degree of complexity (decreasing the story’s accessibility and risking reader trust) and the efficacy of their thematic goals. When it comes to story structure, I suspect the trade-offs are more numerous than that. Generally, I fall into the school of thought that says story structures should be simple unless their complication is thematically driven. But I know many others successfully complicate their structures for more tactical reasons: managing suspense, pacing, or side-plot resolution.

When working on story structure, I think every decision to complicate that structure needs to be carefully considered. If it detracts from the story’s accessibility, it should at the very least maintain the story’s forward momentum. Decreasing the story’s accessibility will gradually erode the reader’s trust, but losing that forward momentum is a much faster way of losing that trust. After all, they’re reading the story for the story. If your structure stops the story’s progress, then the reader is no longer getting what they’re looking for. And what readers want is a sequence of events where each event follows in some logical fashion from the events and choices that preceded it.

Consequential Plotting and Reader Trust

The very concept of story is predicated on events and choices having consequences. A description of unrelated events does not constitute a story: it is just a recitation of unrelated facts. When readers begin reading our story, they are investing effort to internalize our world and follow our structure because they want to see what happens. They make this effort because, if we’ve done our job right, they trust that we are giving them the salient facts and details which they need to maximize their enjoyment. If what they read on the first page has no bearing to what they read on the last page, then as writers we have betrayed that trust, and the reader is right to feel cheated.

This is why deus ex machina is so often deplored. It implies that everything the reader worked to get through is meaningless for the story’s conclusion. It makes the story a trick, misdirection, sleight of hand. If such misdirection is part of the book’s thematic purpose (as with Larbalestier’s Liar, for example) then groundwork needs to be laid throughout the story that makes it plausible within the story’s context. It’s the equivalent of setting up the prestige in a magic trick: all of the work that makes the trick functional happens before the trick itself.

In the movie Serenity, Joss Whedon killed off one of the series’ beloved characters to make an existential philosophical point. Many fans – myself included – felt betrayed by this event, because there was no groundwork within either the movie or the preceding television series to prepare the audience for it. Of course, Whedon’s point was that death can strike at any time and especially in situations of high danger. But at no point prior to this did he lay any groundwork for this thematic and tonal point. As a result, the atonal dissonance of the event struck many fans as an effect without a prior cause. This weakened (and in some cases broke) many viewers’ trust.

Compare this to the way that George R.R. Martin deals with the death of beloved characters in his Song of Ice and Fire series. At the end of Game of Thrones (the first book in the series), one of the principle characters gets killed. But unlike Whedon, Martin carefully laid the groundwork throughout the preceding pages for this event to be plausible within the context of his story. He put in the work to make the death consistent on a tonal, thematic, characterization, and plot level. Early in the book, one of Martin’s other characters – a young child – gets chucked out of a window by two other principle characters. If nothing else, chucking that kid out of the window established that this was a story where horrible acts occur to undeserving people. As the plot unfolded, Martin carefully made sure that his characters were put in varying degrees of real, consequential danger and discomfort. He balanced the motivations on all sides of the conflict. This stands in stark contrast to Whedon’s out-of-left-field “hand of Author as a Capricious God” moment in Serenity.

It is this consistency and consequence of story, plot, and character which maintains the implied contract between the reader and the author. And that consistency is equally important when dealing with the characters and narrators who tell the story, regardless of how reliable they may be.

NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for Check out the third and final installment on how character consistency and reliability contribute to managing reader trust.

Narrative Voice as Mind-control: Thoughts on Manipulating Reader Perception


Voice: Purpose, Function, Technique

A Conceptual Framework for Narrative Voice

I’ve always considered voice one of the most important tools when writing alternate history, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about how that tool really works (both within and outside the sub-genre).

There are probably as many valid descriptions of voice as there are writers, editors, and critics out there. For my part, I believe that voice has three components: its purpose, its function, and its technique.

The Purpose of Voice: Establishing a Relationship with the Text

The purpose of voice is to establish the reader’s relationship to the text. Different stories, different narrators, call for different relationships. Would Nabokov’s Lolita be as powerful if we weren’t sympathetically engaged with the monstrous Humbert Humbert? Would Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories be as effective if the narration were as coldly dispassionate as the detective himself? Voice – both in narration, and in dialog – establishes how we relate to a story. At its most basic level, it controls the emotional distance with which we perceive it, and is most powerful when wedded to the story’s themes.

Nabokov wants us to view Humbert Humbert up close and personal. The power of his book relies on juxtaposing our the intellectual horror at Humbert Humbert and the visceral engagement his voice engenders. Had Nabokov employed a distancing technique, for example making Humbert’s story epistolary, or telling it from the dispassionate perspective of a court stenographer, it would not have the resonance it does.

John Crowley in Little, Big uses voice to distance us at once from our reality, and the reality of the text. The lyrical, metaphoric voice he employs puts us in a liminal state, somewhere on the borders of what is, what was, and what might be. In this, the voice employed is fundamentally aligned with the book’s themes.

Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men keeps the reader at arms length, so that we can view the events of his future history dispassionately, as if we were observing them from billions of years removed.

When Michael A. Stackpole employs a voice reminiscent of 17th century colonial texts in At the Queen’s Command it instantly links his book to that time in the reader’s mind.

The relationship created between us and the text is foundational in the act of reading. It sets the context for everything else, determining how we perceive a story’s pacing, how we engage with its characters, and how we identify its themes. In this sense, the purpose of voice transcends any individual sentence, or any paragraph. It is a combination of the voice’s expression in narration, in dialog, even in its epigraphs (shout out to @DDSyrdal for reminding me of this term!). But apart from its broad and abstract purpose, voice has a function within the story which is variable over the length of the text.

The Function of Voice: Manipulating the Reader’s Perception

I often think that it is the writer’s job to manipulate the reader, to take us on an emotional roller-coaster the author has designed. By influencing how we perceive events, settings, and characters, the narrative voice becomes the rail which guides us along the ride. It imparts the twists, falls, and rises. If well-constructed, it shouldn’t be noticeable (unless we’re looking for it). But if it’s shoddily put together, well…I’d rather not consider what happens when a roller-coaster comes off its rail.

Voice’s function can be modulated for specific effect. This is easiest to see in dialog, where each actor has their own voice, more or less distinct from the voices of other characters. Those differences exert a subtle influence on our perception of those characters. Consider the following exchange from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones:

“Boy,” a voice called out to him. Jon turned.

Tyrion Lannister was sitting on the ledge above the door to the Great Hall, looking for all the world like a gargoyle. The dwarf grinned down at him. “Is that animal a wolf?”

“A direwolf,” Jon said. “His name is Ghost.” He stared up at the little man, his disappointment suddenly forgotten. “What are you doing up there? Why aren’t you at the feast?”

“Too hot, too noisy, and I’d drunk too much wine,” the dwarf told him. “I learned long ago that it is considered rude to vomit on your brother. Might I have a closer look at your wolf?”

From his short, staccato sentences we get the sense that Jon is direct, straightforward. He answers the question asked of him, but by offering little additions he avoids being brusque. He asks direct questions, wanting to know the answers. By contrast, Tyrion Lannister’s dialog is more complicated. His first sentence is broken apart by prose narration, imbuing a meaningful pause that – were the text read aloud – might suggest either humor, or shock. His second sentence, with its precise list and brutally honest self-assessment shows us Tyrion’s precision and self-deprecation. His third sentence gives us further insight into both his sense of humor, and his relationship with his brother.

The entire exchange is used to manipulate us into liking both Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow, though for different reasons. Even if we cannot articulate it, even if we don’t notice it at the first reading, we respond to Jon’s simple directness. And we appreciate Tyrion’s self-deprecating humor. And Martin achieves this subtle effect just using voice in his characters’ dialog.

Prose narration – descriptions of setting, of action – can similarly affect our perception of and emotional response to the story. Consider two brief passages, each describing the same actions (sorry for the quality of my example sentences – I’m coming up with these on the fly):

Version #1 Version #2
The rain-slick leaves left the tree like snowflakes, gently spinning to melt into the mud. Rain battered the leaves. Glop! Glop! Glop! And down into the mud.

Hopefully (if I’ve done my job right) the two example sentences establish an entirely different mood. The first is more laconic, gentler, quieter. While the second is harsher, more abrupt, and louder through the use of onomatopoeia. The events are identical, but the difference in voice puts the reader into a different frame of mind. Voice becomes the tool I use to control the reader’s response to a particular scene, passage, or sentence (even a particular word!). And like any tool, there are a variety of ways in which it can be applied.

Purpose and Function Applied: Techniques for Controlling Voice

The range of control that we choose to exert over voice lies on a spectrum. At one end is banally utilitarian prose – the bland monotone of “Dick and Jane run after the ball.” On the other end we find the inimitable mastery of Nabokov, whose fine-grain manipulation of voice makes its inner workings invisible to the reader. Most of us operate somewhere between these two extremes employing a variety of techniques that are universal:

Perspective as a Window to Voice
Every one of us uses perspective to imbue our story with voice, whether consciously or not. In terms of purpose, the choice between first, close third, omniscient third, or the rare second-person narration has an immediate and major impact on the reader’s relationship to the story.

First person narration – when executed well – earns the reader’s instant engagement precisely through its link to voice. The narrator is a character in the story, with their own perceptions, predilections, and foibles. They have their own way of seeing the world, a tendency to pay attention to certain aspects that others might not notice in the same way. One narrator might comment on people’s appearances. Another might pay closer attention to facial expressions. And just like a character’s personality should affect their speech patterns in dialog, the same affects a first person narrator. For example, in Lisa Yee’s excellent YA novel Millicent Min, Girl Genius the narrator (the titular genius) uses complex sentences, a refined vocabulary and sprinkles in a little Latin every now and again. Her defining characteristic – her intellect – is intrinsic to how the narrator’s voice is portrayed.

In first-person narration, we are generally locked into the narrator’s voice throughout the story. That’s the trade-off we make for building that super-close reader/narrator relationship. Close third-person narration trades a little more distance between the reader and the POV character, in exchange for greater latitude in vocal manipulation. With close-third narration, we can shift POV characters (typically at chapter or section breaks for decent narrative flow) employing different voices for different points of view, as well as make more gradual, subtle shifts in tone and mood within the confines of a scene. This facility to shift vocal strategy is a double-edged sword and must be used judiciously. Do it too often or too fast, and we risk either confusing the reader or putting too much distance between her and the characters. For a great example of this technique employed well, I recommend Tad Williams’ Otherland series.

The relationship between voice and distance is less clear-cut for omniscient third-person perspective. As the most emotionally distant of the perspectives, omniscient third may well suit our thematic or stylistic purposes. However, by requiring a consistent narrative voice throughout, omniscient third loses the vocal flexibility that close third enjoys. There are situations where this trade-off makes sense. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings requires an omniscient narrator and consistent voice to evoke its linkages to epic storytelling and myth.

Style and Structure as Voice
If we were to ask five writers to write one sentence describing something, we would inevitably get five different sentences. How those sentences are composed – how the writer employs clauses and adverbs and conjunctions and even punctuation – determine what is typically called the author’s “style” and represents one of the most influential aspects of voice.

Pick up any book from the 19th century. You’ll immediately see that the way 19th century authors put their sentences together differs dramatically from contemporary styles. When we say an old classic hasn’t aged well, what we are really saying is that the modern reader’s emotional response as controlled by the story’s voice differs from an original reader’s presumed response. The variegated, many-claused sentences that characterize 18th and 19th century texts have a distancing effect for the modern reader. Bulwer-Lytton is a great example of this at work. In his day, he was one of the most influential, most celebrated writers in the English language. Today, there are awards named after him that celebrate purple prose.

This is not to say that contemporary voices are simpler than their predecessors, or that such simplicity would be a good thing. Many excellent authors – John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, to name a few – write lush, complex sentences. However their structure differs substantially from what came before. For one thing, contemporary authors adhere more strongly to the principle of “show, don’t tell.” Consider the following two sentences selected at random:

Sentence #1: “But they were entirely ignorant of what had passed; and their raptures continued with little intermission to the very day of Lydia’s leaving home.” Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice, 1813
Sentence #2: “Then an expectant silence, followed by a firmer start, and the station wagon backed warily out into the drive, making two soft and delible marks in the wet leaves.” John Crowley, Little, Big, 1982

Both come from excellent books. I would in fact argue that the Crowley sentence is more structurally complex than the Austen. However, the voices are quite dissimilar: the Austen voice tells us that their raptures continued. It does not show us those raptures, nor does it provide any metaphor or analogy by which we can emotionally connect to them. The voice is – by design – at a remove from the emotional significance of the events. Austen’s voice leaves it to the reader to establish that connection, through the implications of certain facts dropped and hinted at: the “little intermission” and “to the very day”.

Crowley’s voice, by contrast, employs evocative imagery to show the reader a prosaic event. His adjectives, and the order in which they are placed all communicate an emotional significance (which may or may not be important). By calling the silence “expectant,” the start “firmer”, and the marks on the leaves “soft and delible”, Crowley anthropomorphizes insensate objects, imbuing them with emotions. The sentence describes no characters, yet we still have an arc that rises from expectation (expectant), to action (firmer), and descends through denouement (soft and delible).

The complexity of sentence structures is of course infinitely varied. However, stealing vocal tricks from other authors is a good idea and can lead to some truly impressive work. In her 1973 essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” Ursula K. Le Guin calls Lord Dunsany “the First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy” – specifically because his mastery of voice and style is so inimitable and so frequently imitated. Lots of us fall victim to this trap (I know I’ve been guilty of it!), but this ability to imitate past masters, to emulate their voices and styles, is actually a skill for any writer. It broadens our vocabulary, adding new tools to our toolkit. Archaic voices have a place in fiction, as do Gothic voices, or Lovecraftian voices. Imitation is the finest form of flattery, after all, and a writer’s skill lies in deciding where to use which voice.

For example, The Phoenix Guards is Steven Brust’s homage to Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Of course, Brust’s story is an out-and-out fantasy, with dragons and semi-immortal elf-like people. But his plot structure has clear ties to the d’Artagnan romances and his sentence constructions echo Dumas’ voice flawlessly. Reading The Phoenix Guards today is an experience much like reading The Three Musketeers, and it is precisely because Brust not only built off of Dumas’ plot, but because he adopted Dumas’ vocal methods as well. Had he chosen to emulate only one facet (either the plot, or the sentence structures), the book would have rung off-true: somehow not quite complete.

As I’ve mentioned before, the best writers of alternate history and historical fiction employ such emulation to cement the reader in the time period depicted. Examples can be found in Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command, or Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought (see my reviews here and here).

But we can also have too much of a good thing. For example, in Freedom and Necessity Steven Brust and Emma Bull (otherwise, two masters of vocal technique) pull off their emulation too well. The combined effect of the novel’s epistolary frame and its flawless emulation of 19th century sentence construction create a sense that one is actually reading a genuine 19th century novel…despite the fact that it was written in 1997. Technically, it is a masterpiece of voice. However, I find that it establishes too much distance for the contemporary reader. The reader’s engagement with the events of the story is held at arm’s length, slowing the pace of what would otherwise be an amazing, exciting book.

The Invisible Voice
Voice is the ultimate mind-control, affecting how the story resonates with us, how we feel about the characters, and what we remember when the last page is turned. At its most impressive, it should be invisible. When we notice the voice, its influence on our responses and perceptions is lessened. I can’t think of anybody who has mastered voice more superlatively than Nabokov. His Lolita is the perfect union of purpose, function, and technique. No matter how many times I read the story, I still cannot figure out how Nabokov hooks me. I dream of finding the time to dissect his work word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph: to take it apart like clockwork and examine its movements and physics. Maybe someday I will. But until then, a more productive use of my time – and one which will probably get me farther – is to just imitate him. I’m sure anything I write won’t even approach the quality of his invisible voice (and I’m even more sure my practices won’t be fit for any editors eyes!), but by tracing over his lines maybe I’ll pick up a thing or two. And then when it’s time to apply those techniques, I’ll have some new and useful tricks up my sleeve.

What about you? How do you approach constructing and managing narrative voice in your own writing? What are some of the best-voiced books you’ve come across? If – like me – you’re looking for good books that use voice in interesting ways, below is the list of authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy from your local bookstore or library, and enjoy:

Where are the massive epic science fiction series?


I’ve really been enjoying the invective-laden “debate” between Sam Sykes and Ari Marmell over at Babel Clash this past week. Their discussion, essentially on “standalone fantasy novels” versus “single-story epic fantasy series” raised an interesting question in my mind. With door-stopper tomes so common in fantasy, why does fantasy’s cousin science fiction not have similar Chihuahua-killers?

It’s hard to think of contemporary fantasy without the likes of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, David & Leigh Eddings, George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Steven Erikson, Brent Weeks, etc. There’s quite a bit of commonality across these authors: first, they have written (or are writing) series telling a single story across more than four books, which take up entire shelves at the bookstore, and where each individual book is heavy enough to weigh down a tent.

The last thirty years in fantasy can generally be described as giving us longer series, and longer individual titles within those series. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Tolkien-inspired, 300-page apiece trilogy was the general rule. In the 1980’s, David and Leigh Eddings gave us the quintet (where again, each title was about 300 pages). In the ’90s, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, and George R.R. Martin gave us the N-teen volume epic series, with each title clocking in at 600 – 1000 pages. In the 2000’s, we have a fresh bevy of fantasists like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, and Steven Erikson continuing the process. Where are science fiction’s gargantuan multi-volume epics?

If we can generally say that over the last thirty years, a significant portion of fantasy has used (a) more books, and (b) longer books, to tell a single story, why has this trend not appeared in science fiction? Sure, science fiction has its share of series. But these series tend to be trilogies or duologies (with a very rare quartet). Each of the novels in best-selling “series” by authors like Alastair Reynolds or Iain M. Banks is a standalone title, sharing a universe with its siblings, but little else. So…why is this?

I’ll be the first to say it: I don’t know. I don’t have an answer, although I do have some thoughts on narrowing down the cause. The way I see it, the reason that science fiction hasn’t expanded the way fantasy has can be laid at the feet of one of four actors in the process: the readers, the writers, the publishers, or the stories.
Saying that “science fiction readers are different from fantasy readers” doesn’t fly for me. Sure, the two audiences differ. But there is very significant overlap between the two, and, fundamentally, people are people. The drive to lose oneself in a fantasy universe applies just as strongly to a science fictional universe. That’s one of the many reasons why Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are so popular, as are Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels or Larry Niven’s Ringworld. So I don’t buy any argument that says “readers of science fiction wouldn’t like it.” To me, that’s the equivalent of someone in 1965 saying that readers of fantasy would never accept a quintet. Time and time again, readers have proven such accepted wisdom wrong.

So if the readers aren’t at fault, what about the writers? Are science fiction writers too good to produce what some would call bloated epics? Or – to apply the flip side of that coin – are they too limited in their outlook to conceive of a story/universe on so grand a scale? I think the answer to both questions would have to be “no.” Science fiction writers are just as talented – and just as fallible – as their fantasist counterparts. Saying that there are no multi-volume, large science fiction epics because of the writers is too simplistic. Nature and publishing abhor a vacuum, and sooner or later a new author would come along and write one. After all, the fantasy genre didn’t typically expand beyond trilogies until the 80’s. And the door-stoppers didn’t show up until the 1990s. It all starts somewhere.

So maybe the fault lies with the publishers. Here, my natural cynicism makes me want to say “Aha!” and blame editors and acquisitions departments. But again, I fear that’s too much of an oversimplification. If at some point an author tried to write a multi-volume science fiction epic, then sooner or later some editor would take a chance on it. And if it did well, then others would quickly follow suit. That’s the nature of the industry (Vampires, anyone? Zombies?). So I don’t think this is a case of publishers not wanting to publish books like that because they don’t want to take a chance. Eventually, someone would try it out and a new trend would start.
If the reader, the writer, and the publisher aren’t at fault, is there something intrinsic to the science fictional story that precludes a 10+ volume series? Is fantasy somehow exceptional as a genre in that it either enables or requires such series where other genres do not? If the story is to blame, then the fault must lie in its setting, characters, or plot.

We fantasy fans talk about these giant series in terms of losing ourselves in a fictional universe. We love to take our time exploring the richly imagined lands of Westeros, or Genabckis, or Randland. But science fictional settings can be just as richly imagined, just as Other, as fantastical ones. What’s the difference between Arrakis and Westeros? Or the universe of the Culture and Randland? From a technical standpoint, the real differences are window-dressing: spacecraft and ray-guns rather than galleons and swords. Sure, that’s flippant and over-simplified, but any science fictional world is just as fantastical as a fantasy world. This applies just as much to space opera, sociological SF, the future (whether post-apocalyptic or not), time travel stories, etc. The quality of the world-building rests in the author’s hands, and science fiction presents just as much opportunity for involved and interesting world-building. I don’t believe that fantasy settings do something that science fictional settings don’t (or vice versa). They’re settings, imagined universes with rules and actors and factions as complex or as simplistic as the author wishes to make them. Alien is alien, whether they carry swords or blasters.

So what about the characters? Huge fantasy series are replete with a dizzying cast of characters – so much so, that the appendices to keep dramatis personae and their factions straight are a cliché feature. Typically, these large casts effectively comprise different protagonists who we follow at different points in the story. Farah Mendelsohn makes a great point in her Rhetorics of Fantasy, which – if I may paraphrase somewhat – suggests that this is really a shell-game: It takes what are essentially separate epic plots, and disperses the reader’s attention across them. We think that there’s one complex story going on, but really we’re watching ten or twelve simple stories happening in parallel. This isn’t a bad device, and it is one which I enjoy very much when done well. But why does this device appear in fantasy, but not in science fiction? A complicated cast of deeply personified characters is not unique to fantasy. Ever read Victor Hugo? Or Tolstoy? Or Iain M. Banks? There is no reason why this technique, or why this character structure, cannot apply in any genre.

So that leaves the science fiction plot as the remaining culprit. Perhaps there is something in science fiction’s plots that precludes such epic myth-making. I’ve read quite a bit of theory on fantasy, and rather a lot of excellent research on the morphologies of fantasy plots (I cannot recommend Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy enough). But I haven’t come across much morphological research on science fiction. When I think about all of the criticism of SF that I’ve read over the years, I can’t think of a single piece of criticism that tries to postulate a morphology of plot structures in SF. There are many great books on the history of the genre’s evolution, on the different themes that crop up in SF, and even on the techniques by which these themes are communicated. But I can’t find anything that deals with the sequence or structure of science fiction narrative.

So rather than try and come up with some back-of-the-envelope set of structures based on the books I can remember right now, I’ll instead leave you with three questions:

1 First, does science fiction have broad categories of plots the way fantasy does?
2 If it does, then do those categories somehow preclude the development of multi-volume door-stopper epics in science fiction?
3 And if not, then why aren’t we seeing series like that get published?

REVIEW: The Crippled God (Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 10) by Steven Erikson


My apologies for posting this on Wednesday, rather than Tuesday. I know I’m late, but I got caught up with day-job work and so…sorry. Hope the timely review makes up for the delay.

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson Title: The Crippled God: Book Ten of The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Author: Steven Erikson
Pub Date: March 1st, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
The impressive culmination of an epic eleven years in the making.

The word “epic” gets thrown around more often when talking about fantasy than a well-aimed dagger. I’ve seen it applied (and done so myself) to Tolkien, Brooks, and Donaldson, to Jordan, Martin, and Eddings, to Jemisin, Rothfuss, and Sanderson, and the list goes on. In most of these cases, the word “epic” is an apt descriptor. But I would argue that Steven Erikson and his ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen out-epic all of these other epics in its epic-ness. The world created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont, each individual book in Erikson’s series, and the complexity of the story Erikson planned out from the beginning: each of these alone can be justly described as epic in scope, epic in scale. But in this genre that tosses around the E-word like it was going out of style, I believe that Erikson’s ambition is the most epic of all. And having now read Erikson’s The Crippled God, the tenth and final installment in his Malazan Book of the Fallen, I believe that Erikson delivered on the “epic” promised back in 1999.

DISCLAIMER: I am not saying that the Malazan Book of the Fallen is “better” than the Wheel of Time, or A Song of Ice and Fire, or the Belgariad, or Shannara, or insert-your-favorite-fantasy-series-here. However, I do believe that it is different. This difference especially applies to its world building and plot structure, and in many respects to its themes and characterization. In its plot structure and world building especially, I find it far more complex than those other series I just mentioned. But “more complex” does not mean better. It just means more complicated.

A little over eleven years ago I was waiting to board a transatlantic flight in Warsaw, Poland, idly browsing the tiny English-language section of a little airport bookstore, when I stumbled across a thick book. Tantalizingly titled Gardens of the Moon, by an author I’d never heard of before, and with a cover not-quite-sf/not-quite-fantasy by Chris Moore that instantly set it apart from the contemporary Chihuahua killer epic fantasies of Jordan, Martin, and Goodkind, I had to buy it. I spent the next nine or ten hours sucked into Steven Erikson’s visceral, violent, gripping world. Since that fateful afternoon, I have eagerly anticipated each new volume in Erikson’s opus, and so it was with childish delight (and squeeing) that I stumbled upon a copy of The Crippled God two days before its official pub date in my local Borders.

Gardens of the Moon (via Wikipedia)

Gardens of the Moon by Chris Moore (via Wikipedia)

To read Erikson’s work, one must be prepared to immediately suspend disbelief, and to dive headfirst into a world rich with layers of history, culture, politics, and mythology that would make Tolkien’s head spin. Readers not already well-versed in the conventions of the fantasy genre might find it all a bit confusing at first. But for those readers able to suspend their disbelief, and who are prepared to intuit or await elucidation, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is an immensely enjoyable series. The Malazan world was created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esselmont in their role-playing campaigns. But the two brought to their creation their extensive expertise in anthropology and archaeology, resulting in a world with intricate, distinct cultures, complex historical societal relationships, economic balances, and military history.

Over the course of the ten book series, we follow many (I lost count at around forty five) distinct groups of characters. Some groups are small, numbering maybe one or two members, while others are large factions with many characters going nameless. However, each of these groups is presented completely, meaning that they are drawn as round (using E.M. Forster’s definition), fully-fleshed characters. Erikson shows us everyone’s fears, doubts, concerns to such a degree that by the time we’re halfway through the first book, the very concept of “hero” and “villain” has lost all meaning. It is this moral ambiguity, this rationalization and justification of character choices and ethical mistakes, that drive the series’ themes.

The first five or six books in the series are self-contained wholes. The events of each book occur non-linearly, following several distinct “tracks” of events separated by both time and space. The main tracks comprise different books in the series, at least in the beginning. This makes it possible for a reader to start either with Gardens of the Moon (Book 1), or say Deadhouse Gates (Book 2), or Memories of Ice (Book 3).

Reading them in order of their publication, I was initially surprised and confused by their non-linearity. Where were the characters I had met and fallen in love with in the earlier books? What had happened to them? What were they doing? But like a master weaver, Erikson successfully introduces new strands while maintaining interest in those that came before. This separation across books in the series begins to collapse around Midnight Tides (Book 5), where a new reader coming into the story would be so completely lost in the whirling politics of gods, cities, armies, factions, squads, races, creeds, etc. as to make it an exercise in futility.

It is at this point in the series (books 6 – 8), that Erikson stumbles for the first time. This stumble is interesting to note, precisely because it touches upon his introduction of higher-level, more abstract philosophical themes into the story. The first six (arguably seven) books are largely plot driven. We follow the striving of different groups of characters – especially the Malazan military – as they attempt to achieve their goals. The books are thematically interesting, but there is a palpable sense that reader doesn’t yet know everything. In the sixth, seventh, and eighth books, Erikson thickens the plot by explaining more complex historical relationships, and introducing new gods, and new players. The introduction of this history, and metaphysical motivation for certain characters introduced in the eighth book, slows the pacing significantly. These latter books remain readable, but I had to read them at least twice in order to really understand what was happening. They are not bad, but they are much more dense than the other books in the series, and those books are already more dense than most epic fantasy fare. Thankfully, Erikson again hits his stride in Dust of Dreams (book nine) as he now has all of the actors on stage and moving towards the climax in The Crippled God.

And what a climax! The series tracks several hundred (again, I lost count) distinct plot lines. But they are all brought together in the tenth and final book. Perhaps more importantly, it is also in the The Crippled God that we see the thematic lines from the earlier books brought together. The thematic convergence in The Crippled God is one of the most impressive aspects of the series. Each of the earlier books has its own themes, which are in and of themselves complicated and well-executed. But after reading The Crippled God, the themes of earlier books are either clarified, corrected, or shown as illusory. Unifying these disparate (and oftentimes contradictory) themes without invalidating them is a neat trick, and makes the intellectual and emotional exercise of the whole series quite worth it.

From a stylistic standpoint, Erikson takes more from the gritty, boots-in-the-mud fantasy of Glen Cook than he does from the elf-and-dwarf high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien. Erikson’s primary characters are soldiers, and he draws them as imperfect, swearing, and swaggering. While dragons, and Erikson’s version of elves feature quite prominently, his characters are very far removed from Smaug or Legolas. It is the darkness and grit of his world that makes it compelling, that subverts the traditional tropes of the genre. Dragons as mad almost-gods? Heroes who (along with the reader) are ignorant of their quest, and just have to do as they’re ordered? These are fun subversions.

I found Erikson’s take on women in his books particularly interesting. Historically, I have often found fantasy to be full of stereotypical square-jawed male hero-types, with damsel-in-distress ladies swooning in the wings (if they are present at all). Erikson’s female characters are more likely to break a hero’s jaw than pine or swoon. They are soldiers, and conspirators, and commanders equal in all respects to the men, while still evidencing deft characterization that makes them fully believable. Both the men and women are flawed, emotional, sometimes angry, sometimes not. Erikson makes them complex, while retaining their intrinsic humanity. Which is refreshing in a genre often dominated by particular molds.

I have spent the past twelve years with these characters. Their stories have in many respects become a part of me, like old friends. The tenth book brings Erikson’s enormous cast of characters together, and wraps up their stories. With one or two (notable) exceptions, we learn what happens to everybody, how they end up. The tenth book is in many respects about closure, and Erikson unflinchingly brings the story of different groups and characters to a close. But – and this is one of his points – even though the book gets closed for some characters, life goes on. The unity of character, plot, theme, and execution in this tenth book is singularly impressive.

However, for everything good about his work, the complexity – of his characters, plots, themes – can be quite off-putting. One reader (whose opinions I respect greatly) very much dislikes Erikson’s work. She claims that it is too hard to follow, impossible to keep the myriad characters and plot lines straight even within a single book, let alone across a ten book series. For many readers, this will be a valid criticism. Erikson has produced a truly dense, complicated work of fiction. Myriad plot lines, more characters, complicated races that often go by different names, complex battle scenes shown from the perspective of multiple soldiers in the thick of it, this is writing that demands real work from the reader to keep things straight, to follow along with events. I found myself often having to read or re-read sections (and in some cases, entire books) just to really figure out what the heck actually happened. For many, this will be a weakness: why should I have to work so hard for my fiction? But I personally found that I enjoyed doing that work, that I enjoyed getting to spend time in an ugly, dark fantasy world that was realistically built while still employing the tropes of fantasy.

Back in 1999, Erikson told fans that the Malazan Book of the Fallen would be a nine book series. Like any gargantuan epic, this was an ambitious goal. However, Erikson executed on this ambition both in the creative sense, as well in the practical sense: publishers and fans like to see epic series come out with new installments on an annual basis. Publishers like it because it helps them push paperback editions of the earlier books, and fans like it because we can still remember what’s going on in the story. But in a sub-genre famous for delays (George R.R. Martin’s A Dance of Dragons has been delayed five years already and still counting), it is incredibly refreshing to come across an author whose ambition is so vast, whose story is so complicated, but who still manages to produce quality work reasonably on schedule. It’s refreshing, and my hat is off to Erikson for delivering on his vision.

Although I have read that Erikson is planning a new eleven book arc in the Malazan world, The Crippled God represents in many ways the end of an era. It is a masterfully-executed conclusion to a complicated, ambitious, dense opus. On the one hand, I am glad that the series is over, that Borders screwed up and I managed to get my hands on a copy several days before its official release, and that Erikson satisfied my (high) expectations from it. But on the other hand, I will miss the anticipation of the next book, will miss getting to laugh and cry with the characters I’ve enjoyed over the last twelve years.

Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is a complex, involving, and emotionally powerful epic fantasy series. There is no series more deserving of the word “epic”. Pick up a copy of Gardens of the Moon, and see if you like it. Be prepared to work at it, because it is difficult. But difficult does not mean bad, and rest assured that by the time you get to The Crippled God, you will find your investment has been fully justified and amply rewarded.

Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

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