Confusion vs Curiosity in Fiction

greenmazeI recently sat in on a talk by New Mexico author RJ Mirabal in which he shared some of the lessons he learned on the road to publication. He made the point that an author must write in a way that grabs the reader’s curiosity enough to keep him turning pages, while always being mindful of “thou shalt not confuse.”

That’s certainly the case with best-selling mystery/thrillers. Pit a protagonist against an antagonist who is bent on stopping said protagonist in a race against “whatever” and you’ve got your basic thriller. The story is even more interesting if the hero/heroine is relatable or likeable and the villain is convincingly nasty with shades of humanity still clinging to him. The best mystery authors keep us guessing, leaving crumbs on a forest path for us hungry Hansel-and-Gretel readers to follow and consume along the way. These authors have learned one of the hardest aspects of writing – knowing how much detail to reveal and when to reveal it.

For science fiction and fantasy writers, this skill might be the hardest to master. Not only do they contend with the same elements writers of “normal” genres do in creating things such as characters and plot, they also have to present their new worlds in a way that a reader can grab hold of them. And (please and thank you) without using data dumps.

Real-world writers have the benefit of everyday things being understood at the outset. If a character is hailing a taxi on a rainy night in downtown New York City, we visualize that without a problem. Place that same character hailing a hovercar on a moon of Jupiter and some things might have to be addressed such as gravity, lack of atmosphere, radiation exposure, etc.

And then there are the sci-fi and fantasy readers who represent a different kind of audience. We are much more patient with a story than our counterparts who are drawn to reality-based fiction. The rules of individual SF/F worlds aren’t necessarily known from the beginning, but we’re willing to watch and wait for the particulars of magic or a new futuristic society to be revealed as the story unfolds. Even so, we will still give up on a story that doesn’t make sense.

To expect to create a suspension of disbelief, speculative fiction writers have to develop their own deep understanding of the worlds they make before presenting them to a reader. The result will be notebooks filled with information regarding politics, religion, social norms, and language, as well as diagrams and maps, character and creature sketches, rules of magic, naming conventions, and on and on. That’s the easy (and fun) part. But then, how much to convey?

I’ve struggled with this need to present just the right amount of everything in my own writing, with the hope of providing more feast than fodder. I don’t want to bog down the story with tons of description, history, or exposition of the science or magic that makes my world turn, but I don’t want to leave out so much that my world is incomplete or confusing. I also want to build curiosity and suspense. To this end I’m learning to apply the following advice from Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy:

“[L]ook to see how much of your effort is spent on withholding information, and then examine whether your reader has any reason to care about what’s going on as long as that information is withheld. Most novice writers imagine that this is how suspense is created – by holding back key information from the reader. But that is not so. Suspense comes from having almost all the information – enough information that the audience is emotionally involved and cares very much about that tiny bit of information left unrevealed.

Usually the only information that you withhold is this: what is going to happen next. The climax of the story isn’t created by suddenly discovering what’s going on. The climax of the story is created by suddenly resolving issues that have been causing the audience a great deal of tension throughout the story. There’s no tension without information.”

As a reader, how much forgiveness will you extend to a writer when it comes to too much information or too little? At what point will you give up on a book?

If you’re a writer, do you struggle with balancing just the right amount of information for the story to make sense while still keeping the reader engaged?

Image “Solving Maze Shows Puzzle Way Out” courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Speculative Fiction Writer

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Posted in Writing Fiction

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All who wander are not lost.~ JRR Tolkien

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