Transhuman and Subhuman Part V: John C. Wright’s Patented One Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction

writing mechanics

“I am eager to share my trade secrets,” says John C. Wright in his essay on writing mechanics–the fifth in his Hugo-nominated collection Transhuman and Subhuman. “…more science fiction writers means more science fiction readers, a larger field, and more money in the field.”

Step 1: stare at a blank page for four hours.

“If you want to be a fiction writer, you must learn to stare at a blank page with nothing but your name on the top without flinching, without weeping, without getting up to get a beer to fortify your faltering courage.”

How does one fill the empty page? Wright asserts that the answer is a matter of craft.

First, every work of fiction begins with a conceit–a make-believe idea. Wright dismisses the cliche of asking where writers get their ideas, since no one really knows, and ideas are abundant anyway. The difference between wannabes and pros is that pros write down their ideas.

The next item of business is revealing the plot. Every plot consists of someone who wants something having to overcome obstacles to get it. There are two entry windows for any plot: at the beginning, or in medias res. Getting readers engaged in the plot requires a “hook”–a hint of what’s to come that entices the audience to read on.

Wright identifies the most powerful hook as curiosity and notes that it is capable of sustaining the entire mystery genre. The key to maintaining curiosity is giving readers sufficient time to ponder a question before providing the answer.

Humor, says Wright, is a vital lubricant that helps readers slide into the story. A writer must make a sustained effort to help readers suspend their disbelief. In works of speculative fiction, setting elements that differ from the primary world must also be introduced early and with care. Here, demonstration serves better than exposition.

The same rules for establishing setting apply to characters. Readers should be given clues to deduce character traits; not told them straight out.

Regarding tone, Wright advises, “Selecting
tone is a matter of judgment. The only general rule is that the tone should
reinforce the general tone of the story. Don’t start a horror story with a
joke; don’t start a joking story with a horror.
” Due to the often subjective nature of humor, writers must exercise consistency and good judgment when setting tone.

Because so much of storytelling relies on nudging readers’ imaginations to paint the images the writer intends, using stereotypes is inevitable and indispensable.

“What the reader wants not to do is to be asked by the writer to use the stereotype in his head in a tired, trite, shopworn, or expected way, because then the reader notices, and is rightly put off, by the trick being pulled on him.”

Wright thus counsels authors to employ two contradictory stereotypes to describe each character. Bilbo Baggins is a retiring country squire and a supremely accomplished burglar. Kal-El is both mild-mannered reporter and Superman. The tension between these contradictions creates depth.

All of the aforementioned mechanics converge on pacing. Wright likens proper story pacing to a striptease or a magic trick. The author entices readers with a question, but makes sure to pose another question before answering the first–and then only partially. The key is balancing the interval between asking and resolving questions to maintain reader interest.

“It is a simple pattern with many variations: question, distraction, second question, first answer, second distraction, third question, second answer, and repeat. The longer the pause between question and answer, the longer the reader is kept lost at sea.”

Of course, the question of whether the hero will attain his goal must be asked in the first chapter, and the full answer must be saved until the last. How long a reader can stand being left in suspense depends on his genre preferences.

“Science fiction readers…like the sensation of being lost at sea and not knowing what is going on, and will wait with the patience of Job to be allowed to figure out the unreal reality, provided, of course, that you play fair with them, and actually have a real unreal reality to figure out.”

 

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About Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.