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.


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