Don’t Drown the Reader in Strange

So in my class last night (in October 2007, actually) I talked a little bit about this and thought I’d expand and expound on it here. F&SF is the genre of the fantastic. It is defined by the idea of a world not like our own. This can be a world of the future, of the past, of a now that is somehow different from the one we live in, or a world that never has been. We include elves and dragons, cyborgs and star ships, magic, and technology-indistinguishable-from-magic, and we mostly start doing it on page one. This is what our readers expect and demand and yet….

You still have to give your reader banisters–ideas and terms they can hold onto as they ease into the story. Every time you introduce a strange magical beast or a polysyllabic alien name you need to give the reader context, let them know that a gobbledygook is really basically a dragon with the serial numbers filed off, or that Svbuewioboie is really an engineer on a star ship not all that different from star ships they’ve seen in the past. To make a work original and to draw in the reader you have to have gobbledygooks and Svbuewioboie, and whozits and Xzasdxssa as well, but you probably don’t want to introduce them all on page one, because the contextualization you will have to do for the reader is going to kill your pacing.

Spacing out the weirdness is one of the things you can do to help the reader ease into the strange and hopefully come to love it. One other thing you can do is make certain that there’s a good reason that you’re calling a dragon a gobbledygook or a cell phone a WAA (weird-ass acronym) and not do it if you don’t have to. “Dragon” is a fine word with all sorts of wonderful history and built-in associations. A phone is an entirely comprehensible piece of technology and unless the specific nature of the phone is really really important to the story there’s not much point in calling it a WAA.

Like everything in writing it’s a balancing act. You have to decide what strangeness really serves the story and what strangeness is there because it’s really cool, and what strangeness should probably be sidelined in favor of making it easier for the reader. At root it’s learning how to decide whether the glorious history of the gobbledygook species is more important than not calling a dragon a dragon.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog October 5 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)