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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In the Dark

The challenge of fiction writing boils down to this: what information to supply to readers, and when to supply it, by what means. How much does the reader need to know, versus how much he or she should be kept in the dark? Give the reader too much information, or give it too soon, and you kill any sense of suspense. Give too little, and you'll generate not suspense, but confusion. And though inexperienced authors routinely conflate the two, they aren't the same thing.

To describe what writers do, Frank Conroy—who, before his death in 2005 directed the famous Iowa Writer's Workshop for over 30 years—used the metaphor of a mountain. In writing fiction, we equip readers for a journey up a mountain. When they get to the top—assuming that they get there—they'll be rewarded with an expanded view of life (and even, if the book is really good, of the universe). But in order to get there they'll need certain things. The trick, Conroy explained, is to give readers everything they need to make the journey—compass, map, hardtack, water—but nothing unnecessary (yo-yo, kazoo, kaleidoscope), and nothing sooner than it's needed (telescope, champagne).

This opening generates a lot of what I call false suspense—the kind of suspense that has readers asking not what's going to happen next? but what the heck am I reading, and why? From the profusion of blood-drenched visions that the heroine suffers to the mystifying "U'Gen"—a term without meaning in my world and without explanation in the author's—it offers almost nothing but confusion.

Who is Rachael? Where is she? What is she doing there? When did those intruding thoughts of hers—the ones she is "grateful to be away from" in the first paragraph—intrude? During the long bus trip? And if indeed she has gotten away from them, then why, two paragraphs later, is she seized with a vision? Is this the same vision she's on her way to report? Do these visions pop "into the forefront of her thoughts with little prodding" or against her will? What, if any, is the relation between Rachael's visions and her mind's autonomous habit of drifting into other "open minds"? Those other minds—are they where Rachael's visions come from? We don't know. Nor can we be sure if Randall is the dying soldier in the vision, and if the "coveted item" he embraced with his dead arms is the family photograph mentioned later. As to the nature of the relation between Randall and Rachael, regarding that, too, we are left clueless.

What we do know is that for reasons unclear Rachael is able to see into the future, and that that future is apocalyptic, with blood "leeching from . . . dead bodies" and "streets littered with glass and rubble." Then again, the story itself would seem to be set in a none-too-charming future in which U'gen cadets and "Visionary students" (author's capitalization) rehearse military strategy as they gear up for the coming apocalypse.

What partly does in this opening is a lack of contrast. Were they cast against a less dismal present Rachael's "horrifying" visions might indeed horrify; instead, they spill blood and darkness into a vision that is already dark, or at any rate murky. Just as, in her vision, "light filter[s] through the haze of dusk," in this opening as a whole very little light seeps through. All is hazy, dim, and obscure. Between Rachael's vision-addled mind and the author's own lack of clarity and precision (Is the school in Paragraph #1 a "looming remnant of an ancient society" or active and in session?), we are left completely in the dark.


  1. You said so really great things that make me look at my work in a different light and realize all the wrong I am doing. Writing, at least to me, is a learning experience and I'm still learning a lot, so I appreciate the time it took for you to teach me some more with your critique. My apologies for being obscure.

  2. Glad you took it well. The solution, I think, is for you to rewrite the first page with a much more generous spirit when it comes to grounding the reader in the particulars of what is happening here, now, in the present. Without giving the game away, answer basic questions: how many miles has R. traveled? From where? To where? Without insulting the reader make things as clear as possible (given the state of her mind). Make no attempt to defamiliarize (make things sound or seem obscure); the material is foreign and unfamiliar enough with no attempt on the author’s part to make it more so; in fact you the author should TRY to make things clear. If the nature of the material makes clarity impossible, so be it. But at least you wrote in that spirit.

  3. I've rewritten the chapter several times and tired not to be obscure. In the process of trying to make things clear, I feel that I am using too much exposition. It becomes, at least in my mind, dull and way too much telling, overall, I suppose it gets uninteresting. I was in no way trying to be obscure in this page. I was actually trying to tell as much as I could without straight up saying: This is a wartorn world where Visionaries were bred to see the future to stop war and U'gens were bred to fight the war. And Rachael that morning had a particularly important vision. It seems like so much information that I don't know how to put it in without being an information dump. Nor can I justify inserting that information and have it seem right from Rachael's point of view.
    Am I trying to hard or not enough?

  4. No, you probably don't want more background exposition, but more grounding in the concrete and sensual details of the here and now, where is the character NOW; what is she thinking NOW; what senses are responding to what stimuli NOW; and also, where you can, introduce basic facts--directly or by implication (for instance: how old is Rachael). Also, eliminate any unnecessary confusion (i.e. the school being a "remnant." Use language more precisely, so that the reader's confusion in finding himself in a completely unfamiliar world won't be compounded by other syntactical or linguistic confusions. You also want to make clear the distinction between Rachael's relatively objective thoughts and the visions that from time to time overwhelm her.

  5. Alright. Thank you. I will think on all this and rewrite. I appreciate your input. I think I can make it better. It is nice to be able to see it from a different perspective, someone that isn't in my head and knows what I know. I appreciate your honesty and I've suggested this to other people I know, so hopefully you can help them too.