Quick rules for tightly plotted fiction

Plot’s one of my strong points as a writer.  That’s brought home to me when I see reviews saying that the Apotheosis Trilogy is “tightly plotted.”  To my POV that is amusing because it (and its predecessor, Hostile Takeover) are, for me at least, vast sprawling shaggy dog stories that throw in just about everything but the kitchen sink.  They’ve been the most free-form seat-of-the-pants writing of any of my stuff.

But a 300K epic sprawl of a novel segmented into three parts can still be “tightly plotted.”  Here’s how.

  1. There’s one main story problem that covers the arc of the work.
  2. As many subplots (additional problems) as needed, but all impact or reflect the main one.
  3. Every problem brought up is resolved somehow, somewhere.
  4. Every scene does one of three things: Introduces a problem.  Makes an existing problem worse.  Resolves a problem.
  5. Every significant character has a role in introducing a problem,  making an existing problem worse, or resolving a problem.
  6. Character’s screen-time in the story is in direct proportion to their roles defined in #5.
  7. The story lasts until the main story problem is resolved, at which point it ends.

Trash picking at the Info Dump

I09 led me to a post by Ian Sales about the dreaded Info Dump:

Unless the writer has chosen to use an outsider as a protagonist – a common trick in fantasy, but much less so in science fiction – the only way the reader is going to learn anything about the world of the story is through info dumps. There are elegant and inelegant ways of info dumping. Having one character tell it to another character, who already knows it, is a particularly bad way. Nor is it unique to science fiction – see chapter two of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker for an especially clumsy example. Other techniques include footnotes, excerpts from a “Galactic Encyclopaedia”, or – and this is generally considered to be the only real way to do it – streamlining the exposition into the narrative.

This is more or less true, but there are is an issue I would like to address about this. First and foremost is this isn’t a SFnal problem, it is a literary problem. I hear people cry, “But, Mr. Swann, SF deals worlds and technologies that don’t exist yet, the reader knows nothing about them, thus the Info Dump is a particular hazard uniquely affecting SF.” To which I answer, how many bestselling mainstream books deal with places and environments the reader is probably unfamiliar with? How many historical novels?  Tell me that someone writing a spy novel set in rural China is not in danger of Info Dumping.

This is, in fact, one of the strengths of SF, rather than a weakness.  Because of the long struggle with this issue (it is particularly problematic in SF, just not uniquely to SF) good SF prose has incorporates a lot of tricks to, as Sales says, “streamlining the exposition into the narrative.”  Here’s a short, random, non-comprehensive list of tools in the sfnal toolbox.

  1. Extreme Brevity.  Slipping a fact inside the present action of the story so it is nearly subliminal, a sentence or even a single word can speak volumes about the environment.  The classic Heinlein example, “The door dilated.”  Use the connotations of your words to imply things about the world.  When Greg Bear uses the term “hellcrown” you already have an idea of what it looks like and what it might do.
  2. Immediate Relevance.  Exposition is short, and only brought up at the point where it has an effect on the story.
  3. Anticipation.  Lost is the epitome of this little tool.  Little, if any, information about its universe is just given away.  The narrative is peppered with clues and hints, implications and inferences, to the point where every factual revelation is a dramatic high point.  The exposition turns from medicine to candy.
  4. Momentum.  Watch Terminator again and ignore the 80’s hair.  Look at when we find out the whole backstory the first time.  It is in the middle of a chase scene after a third of  a movie’s worth of exposition.  The scene is masterfully paced so that the expository lump occurs right when there’s room for a breather, and the action picks up right afterward.
  5. Emotion.  Every interrogation scene is expository.  Information becomes drama when one character doesn’t want to reveal it, or another character doesn’t want to hear it.

Will the Nation-State cease to exist?

Remember Rollerball?  The original 1975 version rollerballwith James Caan?  One of the interesting premises of the movie was the collapse of the nation-state in favor of the corporation.  That premise was somewhat prescient,  anticipating one of the main tropes of cyberpunk by almost a decade.  The idea is commonplace now, a shorthand for some deep systemic dysfunction in films from Robocop to Avatar.

The idea of corporate governance seems at odds with our current reality, where the state is advancing its role across the board.  But, strangely enough, in the face of the most aggressive growth of state power in history, the idea is popping up in diverse places.

What if we’re watching the initial death-rattle of the nation-state?

And it would be interesting to see a take on the idea that isn’t dystopic.

Two Blogish Things

link imageBlogish Thing #1: The Amazon/Macmillan thing continues rolling on, making Amazon look more and more the villian to those of us who write for a living.  Reactions are varied, and I’d like to endorse Scalzi’s call not to boycott, but to buy books from the affected authors.

Also like Scalzi, I’ve decided to stop with the default use of Amazon as the “book buy” link on my pages.  I’ve tweaked my template to give you the option to get my stuff from Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, and Borders, as well as Amazon. As in the little screen capture to the right.


Blogish Thing #2: I’m up for a guest blog post today at SFF Insider.

ON WRITING VILLAINS : One of the trickier aspects of writing fiction is coming up with believable villains. It’s tricky enough that some writers eschew the idea of a villain entirely, and simply have an antagonist who opposes the “good guys” for perfectly good and reasonable reasons. Nothing wrong with that approach, and some of the best drama can be drawn from the conflict of two mutually exclusive “goods.”

But sometimes you need evil.

Go read the rest.

We interrupt this blog to bring you an important message. . .

Today I’ve a guest blog post up @ SciFiGuy.ca wherein I go and mull over my current obsessions on religion and space opera in the Apotheosis Trilogy.

Can you write SF about religion? It’s an interesting question because when people tend to think of Religion and SF, it almost always in terms of opposition. It is a dichotomy that tends to find advocates on both sides, from those of a religious bent decrying the inherent atheism of SF, and those SF partisans looking on and saying “yeah, so, your point is?”

Go read the rest.