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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.

Liking Little Things: Dissecting Short Stories and Flash Fiction


This past Friday, @tordotcom tweeted a fun challenge asking for six-word fantasy stories. Like all such challenges, it’s inspired by (what I consider to be) the best short story ever written (supposedly by Ernest Hemingway to win a bet):

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This challenge got me thinking about what it takes to write a great short story or flash piece, which I think is especially relevant to anyone writing in the science fiction, fantasy or horror genres. Basically, if we write short stories or flash fiction, odds are we’re writing in genre for the simple reason that there aren’t many markets outside of the genres for us to sell to. The literary journals are few and far between, literary anthologies tend to reprint old stories written by past masters, and there just don’t seem to be that many places for us to place something that isn’t a genre story. So given all of this, what does it take to write a great genre short story?

If they are successful, shorts can pack the emotional punch of a novel into a space one tenth the size. I find it hard not to appreciate the economy – the discipline – that demands. If you’re bumping up against your publisher’s 2000 or 3000 word cap, every single word matters. Of course, we like to think that every word in a novel matters too…but the fact is they don’t. They should, but with the reality of deadlines and the challenge of completing the novel-writing marathon, some poor constructions just squeak through the editorial cracks. It happens to every writer, good and great included. It’s just the way it works. But short fiction – whether short stories or the relatively nascent form of flash fiction – does not have that luxury.

Artistic Techniques of Good Short Stories

The Reader’s Investment Our reader is always going to be less invested in a ten-page, 2000-word story than the two-hundred page, 100,000-word novel they’re halfway into. If at any point our short story loses their interest, our reader might say “Screw it, this story sucks” and go back to playing Fallout. What have they lost? With a short story, a very small amount of time. Short stories are a lot less forgiving as a form, in relation to their length. As I write, I always try to remember:

  • Writing is re-writing. Revise the story with the eye of a zealot. Trim all of the fat we can find.
  • Big things are made of smaller things. For each act, each character, each paragraph, each sentence, we should ask ourselves: is this really needed? Can we say this more economically?
  • Don’t fear the delete key. It can be tough to cut something we’ve written. But whatever tightens the story, strengthens it.

Limited Cast of Characters We’ve all read the massive epics that require a dramatis personae either before or after the text to keep track of the cast of characters. Ever seen a short story with one? I always try to think about this in terms of:

  • Purpose. Any character (certainly any named character) in our story has to serve a specific thematic or plot purpose. He or she needs to perform some action, and every action adds words to our length. To keep it tight, we should limit these characters and their actions to that which is essential to the story.

Limited Perspective Each time we shift perspective, we have to pull the reader out of the character they have already invested in and convince them to re-invest elsewhere. Sometimes, this is necessary. But it should be used very judiciously. I usually think about:

  • Speed. Perspective is the key to getting our reader invested in our character and the world we create. We should grab our reader quickly and hold onto him or her throughout the story.
  • Narrative Voice. Who is our narrator? Can we tell the story from a first-person perspective? Can we give our narrator a distinct voice, spicing it with opinions/values to rapidly build our world around our reader?
  • Use of the First-Person. A great trick for maximizing speed is to tell our story from a first-person perspective. When we read something from an “I”-perspective, it instantly puts us in the character’s head, instantly builds the character’s world around us.

Limited Plot I love Byzantine side-plots, with twists and turns and double-agents and triple-crosses and all that fun stuff. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the space to cram a lot of that complexity into our short stories.

  • Choose your battles. Pick the plot arc that is most important to our story and its themes. Stick with that.
  • High stakes yield high emotion. If we want our reader to be invested in our story, the stakes at play must matter to our characters. If they don’t care, if they are not invested, why should our reader be?

The Ongoing Dialog in Letters Every editor is looking for stories that are “new” and “fresh.” Genre fiction pre-supposes some reader familiarity with its history and tropes. Back in January, Jo Walton posted a great piece on Tor.com about the concept of “reading protocols”, which should be required reading for anyone writing or editing in genre. For our short story to be fresh it has to be one step ahead of what the best writers are producing today. To figure out what that is, we need to:

  • Know our markets. This is more than just reading submission guidelines carefully. It means following what the best writers are producing today.
  • Track trends. What are the over-saturated sub-genres in the marketplace? Seeing too many vampires, too much steampunk, too much “insert-trope-here”? Use what we see to stake a new claim.
  • Learn editorial preferences. Each editor has different tastes. By reading her submission guidelines, by tracking what else she buys, and by submitting different stuff of our own to her, we can (over time) learn what her tastes are.

The Rise of On-screen Reading As the markets for short fiction increasingly go online-only, odds are people will read our short story on a screen rather than a page. This fact has tremendous implications for how we construct our story: have you ever tried to read a 200-word paragraph on screen? Did you get through it all? Reading on screen is (for better or for worse) different than reading on paper, and it does affect how we should write our stories:

  • Use shorter paragraphs. They are easier to read on-screen, and they force a certain economy of thought into our writing, thus contributing to the story’s overall tightness.
  • Use clearly delineated sentences. This is another trend in English literature championed by Hemingway. Clarity in sentence construction is also a more economical use of words, and contributes to shorter paragraphs.
  • Avoid typographic chicanery. I love the poems of ee cummings. But in today’s short prose markets, there is precious little demand for typographic tricks of that nature. It takes a lot of work for a publisher to make complex typography display consistently across multiple different devices, browsers, screen resolutions, etc. Which is why if our story relies on typographic sleight of hand, it’ll be a much tougher sell.

The Economics of Good Short Stories

Competition in the Short Markets Two facts contribute to increased competition in the short fiction markets:

  1. The number of markets paying professional rates has shrunk. New markets are increasingly cropping up online, however the majority of them can afford to publish 2 – 4 short stories per month (as opposed to the 8 – 10 stories the old print magazines used to run).
  2. Computers and the Internet make writing easier. Everyone has one, and everyone (myself included) thinks they have a story or two in them. This means that slush piles today are larger than they were thirty years ago.

Thus, there are more stories out there fighting for fewer publishing spaces. And that’s just if we’re talking about slush: let’s not forget many published stories are solicited, by-passing the slush piles entirely. This makes short fiction an extremely competitive market, and it means that in order to break into the space we need to:

  • Write better.
  • Not give up.
  • Know what the markets we’re submitting to like to buy.
  • Write better.
  • Network: meet the people (online and offline), because people buy from people.
  • Write better.
  • Keep at it.

Less Money in Short Fiction The last ten years have seen a huge shift in how short fiction gets paid for (at least in science fiction, fantasy and horror). A quick glance at the listings on Duotrope suggests that a majority of short fiction markets paying professional rates are now online-only, and donation-funded. This introduces revenue uncertainty and irregularity for the publishers, which drives down what they can pay for stories, and limits the number of stories they can buy/publish. If an editor can buy two powerful (but shorter) stories for the price of one longer story of similar resonance, which would make the most sense? This is one of the main factors that is driving the increased call for flash fiction (short shorts < 1000 words, though definitions/preferences vary).

The Art of Implication

So given all of the above, what makes Hemingway’s six-word story so damned good? Why does it resonate so well? Because it adheres to all of the principles outlined above, while packing a tremendous emotional punch in only six short words. How does he do it? He employs what I call “the art of implication”. It’s a theory that Hemingway himself outlined in Death in the Afternoon and which since has come to be called the “iceberg theory”.

In a grossly over-simplified version, the theory says that the reader will fill in the blanks if the author leaves things out of the written story. The author can leave out events, characters, opinions, plot, etc. If what remains is written well enough, if there are enough context clues embedded in the text, the reader should be able to intuit or imagine what was left out. Each reader might intuit something different, but that would not detract from the overall emotional resonance of the story: if anything, it would strengthen the story by making it more resonant across a broader range of readers. That short, six-word sentence is a perfect example of this theory in practice:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
The Reader’s Investment This story is six words long. Hemingway is asking us for a very small investment of time. Who wouldn’t invest the time to read six short words?
Limited Cast of Characters This story – ostensibly – lacks characters. The characters are implied by the text. Who is the narrator? Who is selling these shoes? Is it the baby’s mother? The father? Some other relative? A stranger? A neighbor? Each of us fills in this blank for ourselves, putting a character into the story that they we will identify closely with.
Limited Perspective This is one of the very few stories I can think of that has no perspective. No matter how hard I try, I cannot read that sentence and determine (based on the evidence in the text) who is speaking. It does not feel like an omniscient narrator, but there is no evidence to the contrary. There is no hint of first person narration in the text itself, but (to me) it feels like there is. There is only one perspective in this story, and that perspective is whatever we put into it.
Limited Plot This story lacks a plot. That’s not a bad thing: some of the best stories lack a classic plot. In this case, the plot, the conflict, the events of the story are also implied. They take place in a time leading up to those six little words, and whatever occurred is something we intuit or imagine.
Economics

The urban legend states that Hemingway put this six-word story together to win a bet. He didn’t sell it anywhere, it wasn’t published anywhere, it is just one of the many anecdotes that follow legendary writers. Of course, it’s impossible to state definitively whether it would sell today. I doubt there’s an editor working in the English language today who isn’t familiar with this story.

However, if we’re looking to make a living writing six-word stories, I’d suggest we reconsider: while it’s an interesting exercise, there isn’t terribly much commercial demand for it. While stories of this length are clever, and can be momentarily satisfying, the investment and payoff are not – in and of themselves – quite satisfying enough. It’s a nice entre cours, but what readers are looking for is an plat principal with a little more meat on its bones.

So what do you think makes short stories work well? What kind of structures do you like to see? What are some of the best six-word stories you like? If you want to see the stories people came up with in response to Tor.com’s Twitter challenge, just do a Twitter search for #sixwordfantasy (or today’s #sixwordscifi).

And in case you’re wondering what I came up with:

#sixwordfantasy:

Murder! Hungry witch roasted by kids!

#sixwordscifi:

Traveler constructs her own quantum fates.

Nowhere near as good as Hemingway’s, but hopefully fun.

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