Fiction, General Writing

Making Infodumps Work

Like most writers, I struggle with back story. It’s often necessary, especially when writing fantasy, but how do you provide it with bringing the story to screeching halt? I’ve tried making the details interesting. I’ve tried doling out the information in dribbles and drabs. I’ve tried epigraphs at the start of each chapter. Whenever possible, I develop characters who would naturally think about certain matters. All these tactics can have limited success, the most effective tactic, I’ve found can be expressed in a single word: dramatize. Make the inclusion of the information a natural part of the story. If possible, have something else happen as the information is being given.

The simplest way to dramatize is to arrange a situation in which one character gives information to others. For example, have a student writing an essay. Place a general in a situation room, describing battle plans. Have a newcomer who needed to be brought up to speed. However, in writing any scene like this, you need to avoid writing a lecture, or of providing what TV calls “talking heads.” Such results are no better than a congealed mass of info-dump, and could mean that your extra effort to be reader-friendly is wasted.

Another tactic might be to have the point of view character overhear other tactics. The difficulty here is that it is difficult to have one character overhear everything they need to know without straining readers’ belief. It seems unlikely that your viewpoint character could conveniently overhear all they need to know.that the same character could conveniently overhear all they need to know — moreover, the overheard conversation is a cliché. Perhaps, though, you might give the cliché new life by having the viewpoint overhear a fraction of a conversation, or a few cryptic comments that they have to puzzle over, or else combine with information from another source

I suppose you could have a nervous character doing something for the first time, and muttering instructions. For example, a thief breaking into a secret room could be reminding herself, “Tenth brick from the fire place, press the acanthus leaf above it. Damn, why do secret rooms have to be so — secretive?” Similarly, a character might analyze information found in a book or in a film. So long as you establish that the character acts that way, mixing the information with a character’s self doubts and thoughts might dilute the dry, encylopedic tone of a recitation of facts.

Most of the time, though, at least two characters are needed to dramatize successfully. After all, you can hardly populate your novel with a dozen people who talk to themselves. But when you play one character off against another, the possibilities open up. For instance, imagine that it is important to your story that two ethnic groups have a hereditary feud. You might place a representative of both ethnicities together, and have them argue with each other. They could hurl insults and accusations. They could bring up the events of the past century, example being met with counter-example. While the information is being given to the reader, the characters’ argument can escalate, possibly to the point where they have to be separated before violence to begin. As they argue, the characters can also reveal their personalitiess.

To give a more specific example, recently I decided to give the history of a war through an alcoholic who fought on the losing side. He is at a dinner held by his former foes. He wants to show a generous attitude to his hosts. In his befuddled state, he concludes that the best way to do so is to stand up and praise them. However, his audience is impatient, because they already know the facts. Even worse, he is undiplomatic, mentioning incidents that embarrass his hosts. Worst of all, his audience includes his teen age daughter who is mortified by behavior. In his drunken state, he insists on not only having his say, but, interpreting the responses to him as an affront to his host, also starts scolding everybody. The situation works because the information is delivered with other purposes in mind as well: showing his character and his daughter’s, and the attitudes that linger between former enemies. If I have done what I intended, readers will absorb the information while being entertained by the dramatic cross-currents, the story being uninterrupted.

Presenting backstory as part of the story requires ingenuity. If you are like me, it may require several drafts before all the cross-currents work together. Yet, in the end, it provides a solution to one of aspiring writers’ biggest problems: giving back story without sabotaging their storytelling. Try it for yourself, and you will see what I mean.

Fiction

Coining Names

If your story has a conventional setting, naming characters is easy. Online lists of names for various eras and ethnicities makes the task a matter of selection rather than invention, although, as my critique partner Jessica points out, you may run into cultural considerations, such as not naming a Chinese character for a god. But if your setting is an imaginary world, your task is more difficult, and requires some forethought.

Of course, as with any names, the ones you coined should generally be evenly distributed throughout the alphabet, especially for the main characters. If each character’s name starts with a different letter, you make telling them apart easier for the reader. In the same way, varying the number of syllables can be a memory aid. Usually, too, the words should be generally easy to pronounce – unless, of course, you mean for one to be a jaw-breaker.

But where do the names come from? Despite the frequent suggestions in online writers’ group, I would discourage using Internet name generators. Not only do most of them conform to stock types like dwarves and elfs, but what is good enough for a game may not be suitable for fiction. For example, one name generator suggested “Brassica” as a name for a dryad – the scientific name for cabbages and related plants. Enough said?

One useful method is to build the name on a word that suggests how a character is meant to be regarded. For example, from “skull,” I coined the name “Skulae” for a vicious character. Even more obviously, I called a morose character with a dry sense of humor “Morgrim.” Readers may not consciously make the association, but I maintain that it still works on a unconscious level.

I have another method when I want to suggest a real life ethnicity. Many cultures use names with particular naming patterns. For example, Frankish men’s names often ended in “pert,” Germanic women’s names in “hild.” Once you have the pattern, all you need is supply the rest of the name to produce names like “Chilpert” or “Janhild.”

If you are really stuck, pick five words at random. You can select from a dictionary, or even a password generator like xkcd-pass, which uses random words. Then, recombine the results to produce original words. For example, if I picked

casually niece pushiness fifth clapper enduring

Some of the words I might generate include “Clapduring,” “Perpush,” and “Fifiece.” Nor would I hesitate to add a letter here and there to improve the result. For instance, instead of “Perpend,” I might settle on “Perpendes.”

Whatever the method, I prefer to prepare possible names ahead of time. I keep a general dictionary, and a specialized one for each culture I depict. Each of the specialized ones is based on a real language, or else the unique sounds or letter-combinations I have assigned to the culture. I currently have a dictionary of over five hundred coined names, so when I need one, all I need to do is consult my dictionaries.

Many writers coin names by other methods, such as reading a word in reverse or deliberately mis-hearing what someone said. There’s nothing wrong with such alternatives, if they give satisfactory results. However, by semi-organizing the process, I find that I get more pleasing results. Probably many of the names in my dictionaries will never be used (and, in some cases, no doubt shouldn’t be). But maintaining dictionaries of names streamlines the process, and minimizes the interruption when I suddenly need a name while writing.

Fiction

The Hero’s Journey vs The Emperor of Everything

I waited two-thirds of my life to see The Lord of the Rings filmed. When the movies finally came out, I was over the moon. The first two movies were not my Lord of the Rings, but they were recognizably related, and since no one was about to hand me the money to produce my own version, I was well-contented. Then the third movie came out – and after three hours of high drama, it stumbled at the end because of what it – and nine-tenths of fantasy leaves out.

Of course, something had to be left out, or the ten hours of movies might have stretched to forty. However, what director Peter Johnson cut while he was tidying up the third movie was not a stand-alone episode like Tom Bombadil, that might have been good fun, but did little to advance the story. Instead, it was the most vital part of the story of the Hero’s journey, how, after enduring and triumphing in a series of trials, the Hero returns home with a hard-won knowledge of self to give the benefits of his or her journey to the community.

What the third movie left out was the chapter Tolkien called “The Scouring of the Shire.” In it, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin come home to find it taken over by Saruman and his remnant of henchman and petty thieves. Having traveled and witnessed heroic deeds, and even done a few themselves, the four hobbits quickly overcome the remnants of Saurman’s forces, and settle down to what – for Sam in particular – is the lifelong task of restoring the Shire to its former glory. In this task, they are aided by everything they have brought back frm their troubles, including their weapons and the livery of Gondor and Rohan, but Galadriel’s gift to Sam of a box of dirt and an acorn from her garden. In the most literal sense, what they have obtained on their travels is applied to their home. From this perspective, “The Scouring of the Shire” is not just part of an epilogue that Tolkien seems reluctant to end, but the payoff for the entire story. It is the end of the Hero’s journey, the part that makes the whole story archetypal and justified.

Omitting this part, and the story is incomplete. At best, it is an adventure story that fails to engage readers on any level that matters. At worst (and far more commonly), it is a power fantasy, the story that Norman Spinrad years ago called in an essay called “The Emperor of Everything.”

So what is wrong with a power-fantasy? Nothing, from the point of view of sales. You can hardly open a book, watch a film, or play a game without seeing The Emperor of Everything retold for the millionth time under another title. The story has a certain appeal to adolescents lacking a sense of identity. More importantly, in industries that depend on a steady stream of interchangable product, The Emperor of Everything requires little thought. Its producers can concentrate on promotion and not worry details like plot. What room is left for creativity can go for spectaculars, long-drawn out battles at the climax that only have to bedazzle, not to make sense.

But the Hero’s journey, the structure that powers myth and art, is more about that. The Hero’s journey is the transition from adolescence to hard-won adulthood. It is the story of the education of the Hero (who is at once both unique and Everyman), and giving the culture meaning. It is never about gaining power, wealth, and status for yourself. In a word, it is what separates art that we remember and cherish from an entertaining read or view that is quickly forgotten. On the symbolic level that most of human beings’ thinking takes place, or at least most of what matters.

Tolkien knew that. In anticipation of that ending, he has Frodo and Sam on the way to Mordor speculate and joke how one day they might be famous in song. That fantasy is not an adolescent dreaming of conquering all those who laugh at them, or winning the lover of their dreams. It is their reward for undertaking the Hero’s journey and becoming worthy. But without The Return that illustrates their newfound worthiness, the story is incomplete and can never be completely satisfying.

But I am not simply ranting at the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings, much less calling out Peter Jackson for his choices two decades ago. These are simply convenient examples. My point is, if your story seems flat and generic, ask yourself: Are you writing a new version of The Hero’s Journey for your times? Or just The Emperor of Everything? Is your hero Ironman, or Odysseus Always Returning? Superficially, these may look the same, but the difference is profound.

Fiction

The Non-Cliffhanger Cliffhanger

One day, I am going to write a book or blog about the basic strategies for ending a story. When I taught composition at Simon Fraser University, I had handouts on starting and ending strategies for essays, so if I research, theoretically I can do the same for short stories and novels. Towards that goal, I would like to comment on one of the most unusual conclusions I have ever seen: the end of King Chondos’ Ride by my late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer. At first glance, it looks like a cliffhanger, but, on closer inspection, it is a graceful economy of storytelling in which what happens next is obvious.

Paul Edwin Zimmer was a founder of the Society for Creative Anachronism and the younger brother of Marion Zimmer Bradley. Given the revelations about his sister’s child abuse, I should quickly add that he was nothing like his sister, and would have been horrified had he known what she did. He published a handful of fantasies, all of which are sadly out of print, but deserve to be better known. King Chondos’ Ride is the second book of The Dark Border, following The Lost Prince. The story has too many battle scenes for my taste, but is brilliantly structured, with characters who contrast each other and together make up a study of what it means to be a hero that is unequalled anywhere.

Paul told me that the ending is inspired by William Morris’ “The Defence of Guenevere.” In the poem, Guenevere, King Arthur’s Queen, is on trial for adultery with Sir Launcelot. Guenevere mounts a spirited defense, insisting that she was put in the impossible position of having to choose between two splendid men, and implying that while she may have broken her marriage vows, she had remained loyal to Arthur. The last three verses are:

“All I have said is truth, by Christ’s dear tears.”

She would not speak another word, but stood

Turn’d sideways; listening, like a man who hears

His brother’s trumpet sounding through the wood

Of his foes’ lances. She leaned eagerly,

And gave a slight spring sometimes, as she could

At last hear something really; joyfully

Her cheek grew crimson, as the headlong speed

Of the roan charger drew all men to see,

The knight who came was Launcelot at good need.

There is no need to go on to describe Launcelot’s battle to rescue her. To do so would detract from Guenevere’s spirited defence. Besides, writing in the Victorian Age, Morris could take for granted that his characters would know that Launcelot would rescue her. The few who might not know the story could gather from the final verses that a rescue was on the way.

In his book, Paul set up a similar situation, making anything beyond his final paragraph redundant. Early in The Dark Border, Istvan and Martos, two of the main characters, are separately attacked on the streets by gangs of men. Both survive, although seriously outnumbered.

At the conclusion, the plot to replace the king of the land with his evil twin is discovered and foiled. The twin flees into obscurity. Through tragic circumstances, Istvan kills Martos, who has been deceived by the evil twin and believes he defends the rightful king. Istvan’s victory leaves no doubt that he is the greatest living swordsmen in the land. Istvan notices a door ajar and opens it to discover supporters of the evil twin who are in wait to kill the greatest in the land and create chaos, unaware that they have been abandoned. The supporters move towards him, thinking “it was only one man.”

The final paragraph reads simply: “Then the greatest of living warriors was among them, and his sword was singing.”

It’s an economic piece of writing that never fails to make my heart leap. Like Morris before him, Paul has stopped exactly at the point where what happens next is inevitable. Obviously, undeniably, Istvan is about to slaughter the supporters of the evil brother. With his twin gone, the true king will reign uncontested. Readers can fill in the details for themselves, so why belabor what they already know? Lesser writers like me would probably provide an epilogue to leave no doubt, and really bad writers might provide another chapter or even another book, but Paul knew better.

In order to work, this tactic requires careful setup. The story has to unfold in such a way that what comes after the final paragraph cannot be mistaken. Even then, readers may mistake it for a cliffhanger. After King Chondos’ Ride was released, so many came up to Paul at conventions to ask when the next book would be published that he took to wearing a button that said, “There is no third book” and would simply point at it when asked. I never could figure out what they expected, since all the plot points had been resolved, but it points to a possible weakness: unobservant readers conditioned by cliché.

So far, I have never dared to imitate Paul’s tactic. Still, I admire its chutzpah, and one day I hope to find a situation where it is appropriate.

Fiction, Uncategorized

Michael in the Forest

He will do it. I have come to stop him. Everything is that simple.

Michael moves a chess piece of red clay. He is folded up on himself, his shoulders shrunk. I see my own age in him. I see that I do not tell the whole truth to myself, that I would have come back to his house for some reason before I died. The stones, seeming dank in the firs’ shade, the caverns carved by shadow where my heartbeats throw footsteps down the trails ahead: these I understand. The city is what I do not understand. Had I died before seeing the house a last time, I would have become a ghost and lingered by the lanes and bus-stops where the dogs sniff each other in the early morning. I have always envied Michael the place where he lives.

His move has checkmated me, and he smiles as he reaches for my wine. My tastebuds have gone before I have, and it seemed dusty to me. But Michael gulped his an hour ago, and now his lips edge towards a smile as his tongue slips over the wine in my glass.

I am lulled, after our years of office-sharing, the way I was by the habits of my wife. For three years after I retired, I trailed in my dressing gown after her as she did her housework. Only after she died did I compare myself to the undergraduates who lingered in the cafeteria in the hopes of spotting Michael.

I shake my head. How tiresome, that I am still able to lie to myself. The years have simply made my lies more subtle. I see now that I came for another brawl with words, because he always acts without asking – beause, in fact, he asked me by letter. Now that I think, I doubt that I will be able to stop him when he tries to die.

Michael says, “It has always stood on the edge of the clearing for members of my family. It waits for me. It will call me, soon.”

“How could it have always been here?” I say. “The house and the clearing are a hundred years old, no more.”

He smiles. “Do you think it could be Tsonoqua? The tribes’ Cannibal Woman?”

“Not my specialty.” I mean that I do not remember the mythology. I have not been at the faculty club, even, for two years.

His faculty was English, the same as mine. All the same, he frees a small Henry Hunt print from the wall. He props it against the chess board, facing me. The puzzle-piece blocks of red and black fit into a person holding a basket. I do not know West Coast art, so I cannot say that I see a woman.

“There you go,” he says, “Cannibal Woman.”

His talk is like his tarot cards, like the witchy books whose pages he never turns. I use two fingers as tweezers, and toss the print aside.

“Your father moved here after the war,” I insist. “How could anything have been awaiting your family?”

“A father and an aunt. Two great uncles.” He counts on his fingers. “My grandfather on a visit. He was as old as I am now.”

“How can you believe?” I glared at him and go to lean on the mantlepiece.

He keeps silent.

“You can’t start to argue and then stop, Michael. I know too well that you’ll try to.”

Still, he does not answer. I stare furiously into the fire.

After a moment, he takes pity. “I doubt it will come tonight, Jonathan. Why don’t you sleep?”

He lets some wine lurch from the bottle into his glass. I do not say what I wanted to when I saw the label. I was young, when Okanagan wines were malt vinegar. I take my lacquered walking stick and start to the stairs. The further I move from the fire, the more the cold off the stones seems to slip inside me.

At the stair’s bottom, I turn. He is going to be awake all night. He will be sleepless, steady and sober, and he is six years older than me.

“You’ll be all right?” I say.

“I hope so,” he says. My neck hardens as I understand that we have different meanings.

“I wish I could hear the sea.” I climb two stairs and turn again. “Here in the trees, you forget there is a sea.”

“I could take you to the saltchuck tomorrow.” He opens last week’s paper to the chess problem. “Good night, Jonathan.”

“Good night, Michael.” I sway up to the landing. When my breath is not so tight about my breastbone, I walk in the darkness to my room.

Two, three times, I grope out, sleep-slowed, for my bladder’s sake. From the landing, I look down each time. I know Michael and I do not want to wake in the house alone.

On my last stare, his bald spot slides away to make room for his face. “I told you it probably wouldn’t come, Jonathan.”

I trudge back to gape up into the dark. I tell myself that he is drunk on words, that his family has been proud and chosen their deaths in lonely places, the way that cats are supposed to. But I sleep in a fever of doubt. Through jagged dreams, I watch as a stooped Cannibal Woman plucks men and women from the ground. Among her harvest is Michael, his tweeds thick with needles and loose with the damp. Dew dribbles down the branches on to his head.

When I fall out of sleep, I say, “This is it.” I would use the same tone for the long-awaited holocaust-by-button. I know, not knowing how I know, and I lash the sash around my dressing gown as I walk. In the dark before the stairs, I push my glasses up along my nose.

Michael is straightening a toque about his head. A black ski jacket coats his body.

I place myself in front of him. “It’s cancer, isn’t it? That, or something worse.”

I am sure that I will be faced with silence, his smugness so much worse than a curse. Instead, he smiles. “No, Jonathan. Just time.”

I move between him and the door. I was strong, when young. My arms were veined with strength. Now, I strain and grunt, and still I am pushed aside and into a chair.

How can these crying sounds creep out of me? My eyes itch with dryness.

I hear the lock open. My cheek is brushed by the rush of air.

“Good night, Jonathan.”

After a moment, I can hear him outside, walking with slow purpose, as if he is early for an appointment and looking for the address.

Twisting in the chair, I seem him easing into the dark.

Overhead, the wind ruffles the branches. It seems to dance through the dark as I stagger to the door.

By my car, across the clearing, Michael twists sideways into the bush. I see him, one hand raised to move a branch from his path. The hand straightens and rises a little as he sees me. He

does not wave.

Part of the dark seems to slip from the rest. It clings to him like a lover. There is a laugh like Michael’s—no.

There is only the twitching branch.

The trees seem to stoop after me. I have gone senile and want to giggle, but the beginnings of sweat are breaking out over my face. I have thought death thin, and bleak. Yet the night outside flows about me, as warm as bathwater. I want to close my eyes to remember. I want to invite the night in through the door. Instead, I leap to close it and I hurry away, faster than my heart would like.

Upstairs, I tug my dressing gown off. I lean over the bed, lowering myself face-first.

Mouth at the pillow, I speak to the dark. “They’ll have to solder my coffin lid down.”

After a second: “They’ll have to pin my heart down, and plant me in a place where two freeways meet.”

“I’ve always liked garlic. They’ll give me garlic for chewing tobacco.”

I carry a poor tune in the dark. I lunge at the light. “Me,” I whisper as I pick up the phone. “It should have been me.”

The silence that replies seems Michael’s, and, already, loneliness aches like a rib-bruise.

Tomorrow I will look for Michael in the forest.