Mon
Nov 9 2009 6:32pm

When enough is(n’t) enough

Authors like reading. Go figure. So it’s not surprising that we sometimes bog down in the research stage of new writing projects. Happily, researchphilia is not the problem it once was. The Internet makes just-in-time research very practical. (But surfing is its own addiction. Sigh.)

But there is a related problem discussed wherever authors congregate: how much of our research, aka story background, to share with readers.

I recently attended Launch Pad, an astronomy program for writers. One of our most heated discussions was about sharing vs. withholding story research, and the related topic of how to present it. These topics come up regularly at writers’ panels at cons.

Let’s dispense with the obvious. Too much detail can bog down any story. Enough with: the history of gunpowder, the geology of Hawaii, the processes of whaling, and cactus and tumbleweed. (Everyone's least favorite over-wordy novel is incorporated here by reference.) You can resume the plot any time now.

But too little detail can render any story uninteresting and unconvincing. (What just happened? Where did it happen? Why does everyone seem the same? Why did she do, or not do, something? Would such a gadget even work? Could such a place even exist?)

So let’s move past caricatured extremes and get to the eternal authorial question: how much background? As with so many situations in life, it boils down to know your audience.

History buffs expect historical background in historical fiction. Mystery readers expect forensics and police procedure in crime fiction. Westerns—gasp—describe the West. Techno-thriller readers expect to learn something about technology from their fiction. And some SF readers—setting aside whether a techno-thriller is a type of SF—also read SF with certain expectations.

Take world-building (or world exploring). We can hardly appreciate the action within Hal Clement’s A Mission of Gravity or John Varley’s Titan, or Geoffrey A. Landis’s Mars Crossing, without exploring the marvelous settings in which they take place.

Take science and technology. Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel wouldn’t work without background on spacesuits and trekking across the moon. James P. Hogan’s The Two Faces of Tomorrow, a test-to-destruction AI scenario—the AI’s destruction or ours? read the book— wouldn’t work without insight into the nature of the AI and the actions taken against it.

If you grant the hypothesis that some stories benefit from details—I’m pretty sure you’ll comment if you don’t—the other question is how? How should the detail go into the story? Are there objective distinctions between narrative description (good), exposition (borderline), and the dreaded infodump? Or is this another eye-of-the-beholder situation?

Many genres and mainstream literature use descriptive passages, sometimes lengthy. And yet, we in the SF community—I’m talking many authors, editors, and critics—argue that any break from action or dialogue longer than a few sentences is inherently bad. Sometimes that’s true. But sometimes putting necessary background info into narrative is faster and more natural than force-fitting it into dialogue. I much prefer a bit of description to an otherwise unnecessary character whose purpose is to start out ignorant and have things explained to him. And narrative can be faster than forcing a character to think about stuff.

A Wikipedia in every novel? No. But the lack of background can also shortchange the SF reader. No less than mysteries, Westerns, and historicals… SF should have a place for description.

Let the debate begin.


EDWARD M. LERNER worked in high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president. He writes near-future techno-thrillers, most recently Fools’ Experiments and Small Miracles, and far-future space epics like the Fleet of Worlds series with colleague Larry Niven. Ed blogs regularly at SF and Nonsense.

7 comments
Ashe Armstrong
1. AsheSaoirse
If I'm writing third person (which is most of the time), I use the narrative descriptions unless a character needs to explain something. First-person, well, yeah. I like appropriate descriptions of things. Obviously if you describe too much, it detracts from the flow of the story but the right amount seasons your mind's eye wonderfully and allows greater enjoyment. Basically, it's a case by case basis.
Anita Croft
2. AnitaCroft
When I write I tend to describe sounds and smells as well as the appearance of things. It helps to sink the reader into the story. You feel you are experiencing it as you read. Forcing description into the dialogue is telling, not showing, I feel. Overdoing it doesn't make for great reading though - I've read some stories where the author takes two paragraphs to describe something like the flicker of candlelight on a wrought iron balcony. That sort of thing bores me to tears, and it can pull you right out of the story. I can't get past it.
Megan O'Heffernan
3. omega_n
I like description, particularly informative description, in my SF and fantasy. With fantasy, it gives a good grounding of the world, keeping the action down to earth and based in the lore of the world. I like magic systems that can be explained and studied like a starship system in SF.

Of course, there is always too much. Pages of history, exposition, and backstory get boring very quickly, especially if the relevance isn't obvious. But I like to know that an author has done some research, even if it's on something generally minor, like horseback riding in fantasy (note to some authors: "shaking the reins" is not a standard "go" signal for the horse. Pulling hard on the reins will usually cause the horse to come to a screeching halt, not rear dramatically, and will hopefully result in your shiny knight getting pitched onto his face. Five minutes on Wikipedia, people.)
Ronald Hobbs
4. dustrider
Part of what makes this so hard is how different it is in even just slightly different genres.

In general though I'd say as little as possible on the details, and more focus on uses & interpretations.

Even Hard SF like Stross or Vinge don't really benefit from detailed descriptions on how some techno-wonder is constructed, but nano-constructing christmas trees (using an example from Stross) kind of gets you there much faster.

The same deal goes for alt-fic, part of the appeal is working out that the lost legend of ni, or whatever, describes new york.

So for me as a reader, I'd not expect to know (or want to know) everything a character does, I do expect that when his actions (or words) are interpreted through the narrative that it's broken down to laymans terms and analogies.

It does certainly depend on audience though, HardSF fans would want you to state NeuralNets but Space Opera fans would be happy with "computer".
Marcus W
5. toryx
I think it largely depends on the reader.There are readers who love all the science detail that goes into a hard science fiction novel. There are others who shy away from that and stick with the lighter science fiction available out there.

The thing is, there isn't one answer for everyone. I actually love a lot of information in my novels, as long as it's something I can process. I've never been good with mathematics, and so a science fiction novel that goes into a lot of detail on the physics that make their ftl engines work is likely going to lose me. On the other hand, I love it when someone is explaining something sociological (or exo-sociological) or delves into history or psychology. If it's something that fits into my interests, educate me all you want.

So in the end, I think it's up to the reader. Write the book you want to write, share your research in whatever way works for you. Those who are interested in the biological makeup of a sentient fly on Selarus-6 will be there with you. I, on the other hand, will be enjoying Robert Sawyer's research on quantum computing.
Edward M. Lerner
6. EdwardMLerner
Interesting ... readers on this blog seem as divided on the topic of narrative description as the authors at the writers' seminar last summer.
Dan Sparks
7. RedHanded
I would think it would be based on context. Does the information help or detract from the story? Does the information add something or is it just thrown in there without needing to be? The story should be the main focus as your point in writing is not to info dump or to describe but to tell the story that you want to tell and that you'd want to read. The info dumping and description are secondary needs to tell the story but not the primary focus. I'm no author but I think I would probably go through each paragraph to make sure that the information in there is needed and not put in without just cause.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment