Friday, July 27, 2012

Teaching Your Reader Magic

The other day while I waiting in line for my delicious burrito, and the chatty lady struck up a conversation with me. It quickly came out that I was a fantasy writer (because come on, I didn't work this hard to not tell people), and the lady honest-to-god clutched her pearls and said, "My goodness! Isn't it hard having to make everything up?!"

My answer at the time was of course not. I love not being held down by the real world. But her question stuck with me, rattling around in my head, and I realized I'd like to change my answer. It's not hard having to make everything up, what's hard is making sure your reader understands it all.

Every time you make a new world, you undertake the burden of exposition. In order for your reader to appreciate the story you're trying to tell, they have to understand all the circumstances surrounding it - the world, the rules, the powers at play. This burden is most pronounced in fantasy and scifi, which have the fewest crutches, but even the lady writing cozy mysteries set in Cape Cod has to do a certain amount of set up so people understand why the character's actions matter.

I like to look at this problem as a matter of teaching. When I introduce a new fantasy world to the reader, my first job is to teach them how things work - the magic, the world dynamics, all that good stuff. But I can't just dump all this information on people, because I'm also an entertainer, which means if I don't keep the audience enthralled, they leave and I fail.

Teaching your audience about your world is one of the most subtle and easiest to screw up aspects of writing. Too much and people get bored with all the overexplaining, too little and people don't know what's going on. Explain your magical system in a giant lecture and people's eyes glaze over, just like in real lectures! But if you don't explain how the magic works, people won't understand why it's important. 

Since this sort of thing is so easy to muck up, I like to watch when people do it right. To this end, I will now employ a visual aid.

The Portal video games do the best job of explaining a new world I've ever seen. They tell you almost nothing in dialogue, instead relying on ambiance, inference, and your own curiosity to expand the world. But even better is how they teach you to use your portal gun. The entire first Portal game is really just an extended tutorial teaching you how to use this very unique mechanic, but you never feel like you're being lectured. The learning is the game, and by the time you finish Portal you can give a lecture on the subject yourself, and all without a single info dump.

Now, novels aren't video games, but as Uncle Iroh says, "It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place, it become rigid and stale."

Pixar's WALL-E is another amazing example of how an entire world, complete with history, rules, and conflict, can be explained without saying a word. Contrast this to the stop action movie 9. I was pretty excited about this movie when it came out and dragged several friends to see it. Despite its stunning visuals, though, the movie was ultimately a dud. This happened for many reasons - bad plot, terrible pacing, etc. But what really got me was the movie's terrible habit of overexplaining everything. The movie would show you this cool, mysterious thing, and then, just when you were starting to appreciate it, they would explain every. Damn. Thing. Characters would actually stop what they were doing to lecture each other on what had just happened.

To say this was boring is a disservice to the concept of boredom. It was excruciating. I hate nothing more than wasted potential, and 9 was painful for me. There was so much there, so much potential for a beautiful, mysterious, dangerous, interesting world, but the writers seemed to be going out of their way to kill it at every turn.

Nothing kills wonder faster than dry explanation, and nothing kills a book faster than sloppy info dumping. It's not easy to explain a complicated magical system through good writing, but being good is never easy, or everyone would be awesome all the time. But really good books, especially really good fantasy books, let the reader discover the magic for themselves. They teach and cajole, pulling the reader in with wonder and the promise of knowing more.

This balance a matter of practice and craft, of paying attention to what you're doing and listening to your beta readers, asking where they got confused or slowed down. It's a lot of work and tinkering and delicate, subtle changes, which means it is hard as hell to get right. BUT, once you manage to pull it off, it will seem effortless, natural, like magic, and that is the sign of a well done book indeed.


Donna Montgomery said...

I've been spending a lot of time worrying about that balance between explaining things well enough to be understood and boring my hypothetical future readers, so thanks for the advice!

Rachel Aaron said...

It's well worth worrying about. Getting it wrong can sink your story! I fret about it all the way through, but I've found nothing is better than letting a few people you trust read the story first and asking them to mark wherever they got bored/confused. It can be really eye opening!

Ken Schrader said...

Thanks for posting this Rachel. Very good advice PLUS wisdom from The Dragon of the West.

Luckily, my awesome meter goes up to 11 :)

Lynn Daue said...

Oh, I just watched that episode! Thank goodness for other cartoon nerds that also happen to write ...

Right. Not really the point of the post. To that end, what an excellent summary of the challenges that writers face! It's heart-breaking to see a good story fall victim to bad exposition as a reader, and I'm still working on spotting it in my own work as a writer. If you come up with a fool-proof plan, let me know.