I started a short story. Something I didn’t think I could do.
It seemed fit together. And. It seemed coherent in only 7100 words. This — for me — was amazing.
There’s a sadness, though, in writing this. Maybe more of a fear.
I’ve got seven non-fiction books. Some of them are big, and they form large, coherent wholes. A shortened form is difficult. I often get requests to do a podcast or video course, and the short-story version of these technical works doesn’t seem like it would work.
There are complex, essential dependencies that can’t be elided or ignored. The expositions here aren't a fun bit of story-telling. If a feature of a programming language depends on two other features, the others have to be shown first, no matter how boring or tangential they are.
The rigid requirements for technical exposition makes me worry a lot about exposition in short stories. The fear has a tinge of sorrow because it would be fun to use stories to frame the novels and tell the tangential stories of minor characters.
The Tales of the Red Ranger novels are really big (150,000 words) and the story is immersive and detailed. There are a lot of background details that emerge as the story progresses. A lot. These details impose structure the character’s conflicts and how they resolve them (or don’t.)
But a short story, also set in that world, seemed to present some problems. How can I expose enough of the world for a story without getting wrapped around the axle of too much exposition for the story?
How do I silence the technical writer’s over-exposition?
The Happy Discovery
An appropriate response seems to be “Don’t Worry. Be Happy. Tell the story.”
The core dramatic elements of the story don’t — and can’t — depend directly on the world-building exercise.
The drama is the drama. It’s People In Conflict. And I like to manifest their disparate world views as sword-fights and that kind of thing. (In this particular story, it’s a beat down with an ash tiller.)
World-Building defines constraints on the people. These are root causes or exacerbating aspects of the conflict. These environment factors may limit their choices for resolution. They may introduce new problems or shift focus as the clock of the world ticks. Once the conflict is on the table, the constraints can exposed as the people explore their alternative solutions. They’re the best fun as cliff-hangers and setups for future problems.
The Other Happy Discovery
My writing tends to have protagonists cut from the cloth of H. P. Lovecraft (No. Not dumb-ass racists and anti-semites. I’m aware he’s a stone-cold racist and an awful human being. His stories are important in the #SFF canon. Hear me out.)
Many Lovecraftian main characters are passively carried into horrifying situations. In these stories, the main character is generally a narrator, separate from a protagonist. The protagonist is often treated opaquely — some guy messing with stuff he shouldn’t have messed with. Weak story-telling, since the protagonist doesn’t have a compelling reason to unleash Elder God horrors on the world, but there he is, and the narrator struggles to describe it. There’s an essential Watson=narrator, Holmes=protagonist distinction in Lovecraft.
This is a trap I fall into. It’s a technical writing habit. I’m describing things that are. And my characters are sometimes trapped in the currents of the built world, unable to shape a distinctive course.
One of my problems as a writer is characters who lack agency.
Sometimes I forget to ask “What’s at stake?”
And — when I do remember to ask “What’s at stake”? — I sometimes have trouble with a coherent answer.
Looking at The Agent Search, I’m struck (again) by the idea of writing the query letter first to make sure the stakes and the concept are articulated with the clarity of cut crystal glass.
For this story, however, the lack of stakes became apparent to me earlier in the process.
That’s my happy thought: I’ve started to turn a corner after revising The Forge. I feel like I've learned some ways to cut down the exposition in the novel and this has sharpened my ability to recognize my weak characterization.
Now to finish the rewrite and start shopping it around.