Writing Science Fiction vs. Writing Nonfiction (Part 2)

Posted: January 25, 2014 in Science Fiction, Writing
Tags: , , , , ,


Free Radicals front coverby Zeke Teflon, author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia


In Part I of this post, we considered outlining, research, background detail, “getting the science right” (in sci-fi), and generating a plot. In separate posts, we’ve looked at mechanical problems such as misuse of punctuation and use of passive voice. Here, we’ll consider two additional matters unique to fiction: writing dialogue and inserting exposition into narrative sections.

Let’s look at dialogue first. There is no secret to writing good dialogue, but there are guidelines. Probably the most important is that conflict drives good dialogue; there should be some tension resulting from emotion (e.g., jealousy, irritation, anger), attitude (contempt, pity, amusement), or desire (to amuse, to impress, to seduce, to put down, etc.). Take those things away, and you have either mere exchange of information or, worse, chit chat.

It’s also important to understand that dialogue is not the same as normal speech. Everyday speech, even when driven by emotion, attitude, or desire, wanders from topic to topic, is often poorly worded, is almost always unnecessarily wordy, and often trails off rather than concludes. Dialogue, in contrast, should be concise yet should retain normal speech rhythms. To put this another way, dialogue is boiled-down, better-organized, emotion-driven everyday speech.

One thing that helps helps tremendously when writing dialogue is having a good ear. Some people seem to have one naturally, though almost anyone can develop one. How? Listen to the people around you, both those you speak with and, especially, those you overhear. Listen to what they’re saying and, more importantly, how they’re saying it. Listen for both common rhythms, expressions, and patterns, and for peculiarities. And pay attention to who’s speaking. Note the ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, economic class, occupations, places of origin, social status, etc., of those you’re listening to. Also pay attention to who’s speaking to whom. Women’s speech, for instance, will be different when they speak to each other than when they speak to men, and vice versa.

Another common concern is how to insert exposition into narrative sections. (The dictum that exposition is “telling” and narrative is “showing” is basically correct.) This is a special problem in science fiction, because there the author must construct an internally consistent world with which the reader is not familiar to at least some degree–often a great degree. So, a sci-fi writer must give the reader a fair, sometimes considerable, amount of background information so that the reader can understand the story. (Literary and historical fiction, and other types of genre fiction, do not present this problem; there, the reader is already familiar with the world in which the story takes place.)

One common means of dealing with this problem is the “info dump,” in which the writer simply plops down large amounts of exposition in the middle of the story. This can be done through outright exposition sections (sometimes in the form of entire chapters) dumped between narrative sections, or through thinly disguised exposition in the form of extended monologue or dialogue. It’s best to avoid both of these methods. Why? Info dumps call attention to themselves, and they stop the flow of the narrative. In other words, they take the reader out of the story.

How should a writer deal with this problem, inserting essential data without creating the infamous “info dump”? Here’s the gist of what I recently told a friend who’s writing his first novel:

“You need to weave the information in the info dumps into the narrative sections. One thing that’ll make it easier to do that is to go through all of the exposition sections and figure out what you absolutely have to include. You’ll probably be surprised at how little of the information in those sections is essential to the story. Separate that out, and then figure out how and where to insert it in the narrative sections.

“One way to do it is through interior monologue. At the end of your first chapter, the professor says, ‘This should be good for a scholarship to New Submission.’ You then start a new chapter with an info dump about New Submission University. Instead, you could continue the narrative in the previous chapter using inner monologue. For instance, you could add a new paragraph or two, starting with:

“”I was surprised and a bit apprehensive. New Sub had been founded by…,’ then go on to explain what New Sub is, and then slip back into the narrative, probably in a new paragraph, with something like, ‘A month later, still wondering what I’d let myself in for, I locked the front door, walked to the car, and headed for my new life at New Sub.'”

Another way to weave exposition into narrative is to insert short (or not so short) sections of it into the narrative, using a narrative sentence as a pivot. For example:

“Ernie said, ‘I’m the singer. Play some guitar, too.’ He pointed to a battered acoustic leaning against the wall next to a small, crappy looking drum set–crummy plywood drums with a funky looking red finish, shaky too-thin stands, tarnished no-name cymbals, and a three-legged wooden stool rather than a throne behind it all. The crowning touch was a filthy pillow lying inside the bass drum, which didn’t even have a front head. The bass amp was just as bad…”

Then jump back into the narrative whenever it suits you. No preparation is necessary.

A third way of dealing with the info-dump problem is to simply do an info dump, but put it at the beginning of a novel and label it as a “prologue.” (This is essentially the same device as the extended voice-over introduction to bad sci-fi movies.) Prologues have been out of fashion in sci-fi for  decades — they’re essentially an admission of defeat by an author, an admission s/he doesn’t know how to gracefully work in the information in the prologue into the narrative — but they still are useful, in fact close to indispensable, in two related types of sci-fi novels: sequels and books in series. In such books, it’s virtually impossible to work in a summary of the previous novel(s) in any other manner, and the omission of a prologue will very often leave the reader at sea. But other than in those special circumstances, it’s best to avoid prologues.

(In Part III, we’ll deal with creating believable characters and deciding on a point of view.)

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