Part Two: Paragraphs and Prose Structure
Bathos. A sudden, alarming change in the level of diction. "There
will be bloody riots and savage insurrections leading to a violent popular uprising
unless the regime starts being lots nicer about stuff."
Countersinking. A form of expositional redundancy in which the action
clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit. "'Let's get out of here!'
he shouted, urging her to leave."
Show Don't Tell. A cardinal principle of effective writing. The reader
should be allowed to react naturally to the evidence presented in the story,
not instructed in how to react by the author. Specific incidents and carefully
observed details will render auctorial lectures unnecessary. For instance, instead
of telling the reader "She had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood,"
a specific incident -- involving, say, a locked closet and two jars of honey
-- should be shown.
Rigid adherence to show-don't-tell can become absurd.
Minor matters are sometimes best gotten out of the way in
a swift, straightforward fashion.
Laughtrack. Characters grandstand and tug the reader's sleeve in an
effort to force a specific emotional reaction. They laugh wildly at their own
jokes, cry loudly at their own pain, and rob the reader of any real chance of
attaining genuine emotion.
Squid in the Mouth. The failure of an author to realize that his/her
own weird assumptions and personal in-jokes are simply not shared by the world-at-large.
Instead of applauding the wit or insight of the author's remarks, the world-at-large
will stare in vague shock and alarm at such a writer, as if he or she had a
live squid in the mouth.
Since SF writers as a breed are generally quite loony,
and in fact make this a stock in trade, "squid in the
mouth" doubles as a term of grudging praise, describing
the essential, irreducible, divinely unpredictable lunacy
of the true SF writer. (Attr. James P Blaylock)
Squid on the Mantelpiece. Chekhov said that if there are dueling pistols
over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third. In
other words, a plot element should be deployed in a timely fashion and with
proper dramatic emphasis. However, in SF plotting the MacGuffins are often so
overwhelming that they cause conventional plot structures to collapse. It's
hard to properly dramatize, say, the domestic effects of Dad's bank overdraft
when a giant writhing kraken is levelling the city. This mismatch between the
conventional dramatic proprieties and SF's extreme, grotesque, or visionary
thematics is known as the "squid on the mantelpiece."
Busting the Weirdness Budget. The writer "busts the weirdness budget"
when the narrative is top-heavy with gaudy, overpriced features. Readers will
refuse to buy-in to a story that is merely a star-spangled list of eccentricities.
An SF story cannot be too weird, but effective weirdness is cleverly designed
and well- deployed.
Handwaving. An attempt to distract the reader with dazzling prose or
other verbal fireworks, so as to divert attention from a severe logical flaw.
(Attr. Stewart Brand)
You Can't Fire Me, I Quit. An attempt to diffuse the reader's incredulity
with a pre-emptive strike -- as if by anticipating the reader's objections,
the author had somehow answered them. "I would never have believed it,
if I hadn't seen it myself!" "It was one of those amazing coincidences
that can only take place in real life!" "It's a one-in-a-million chance,
but it's so crazy it just might work!" Surprisingly common, especially
in SF. (Attr. John Kessel)
Fuzz. An element of motivation the author was too lazy to supply. The
word "somehow" is a useful tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story. "Somehow
she had forgotten to bring her gun."
Dischism. The unwitting intrusion of the author's physical surroundings,
or the author's own mental state, into the text of the story. Authors who smoke
or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless
supply of booze and cigs. In subtler forms of the Dischism, the characters complain
of their confusion and indecision -- when this is actually the author's condition
at the moment of writing, not theirs within the story. "Dischism"
is named after the critic who diagnosed this syndrome. (Attr. Thomas M. Disch)
Signal from Fred. A comic form of the Dischism in which the author's
subconscious, alarmed by the poor quality of the work, makes unwitting critical
comments: "This doesn't make sense." "This is really boring."
"This sounds like a bad movie." (Attr. Damon Knight)
False Interiorization. A cheap labor-saving technique in which the author,
too lazy to describe the surroundings, afflicts the viewpoint-character with
a blindfold, an attack of space-sickness, the urge to play marathon whist- games
in the smoking-room, etc.
False Humanity. An ailment endemic to genre writing, in which soap-opera
elements of purported human interest are stuffed into the story willy-nilly,
whether or not they advance the plot or contribute to the point of the story.
The actions of such characters convey an itchy sense of irrelevance, for the
author has invented their problems out of whole cloth, so as to have something
to emote about.
Wiring Diagram Fiction. A genre ailment related to "False Humanity,"
"Wiring Diagram Fiction" involves "characters" who show
no convincing emotional reactions at all, since they are overwhelmed by the
author's fascination with gadgetry or didactic lectures.
White Room Syndrome. A clear and common sign of the failure of the author's
imagination, most often seen at the beginning of a story, before the setting,
background, or characters have gelled. "She awoke in a white room."
The 'white room' is a featureless set for which details have yet to be invented
-- a failure of invention by the author. The character 'wakes' in order to begin
a fresh train of thought -- again, just like the author. This 'white room' opening
is generally followed by much earnest pondering of circumstances and useless
exposition; all of which can be cut, painlessly.
Next: Common Workshop Story Types