Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tuesday's Tip For Flailing Writers:
How to Avoid Tedious Descriptions of Imaginary Technological Devices

Okay, so this tip won't appeal to everybody. Those folks who preferred reading the logistics of Arthur C. Clarke's 'space elevator' more than they enjoyed reading the book it was a part of (Fountains of Paradise) might want to turn away now. But for the rest of you -- the ones who toss an imaginary technological device (I.T.D.) or two into your stories but don't want to have to write long-winded descriptions of how they're made/operated/sold/re-sold/recycled -- these tips will be well worth bookmarking.

Tip #1:
Have an ignorant or impatient character explicitly express their lack of interest in the details of your I.T.D.
In The Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would often have resident genius Reed Richards begin to explain the whys and what-fors of a new invention, only to have burly lummox, the Thing, say, "Aw, save it, Stretch. Yer givin' me a headache!"
This technique tricks your tech-curious readers into believing that you, the author, wanted to elaborate on the workings of your I.T.D., but that your pesky characters wouldn't let you.

Tip #2:
Have a character lament the fact that the details of your I.T.D. have been lost to the ravages of war/time/inclement weather/an overzealous butler.
In Kirsten Bakis' Lives of the Monster Dogs, she gets around an unnecessary explanation of the surgeries and technologies used to make the monster dogs with one quick line of anti-exposition: It is rumored as well that the blueprints for creating these prosthetic devices were destroyed along with the laboratories of Rankstadt, and the dogs themselves don't know how they were made.
Pretty smooth, eh? Be careful, though. This technique is actually a lot trickier than it looks. Do it right, and it can actually enhance the realism of your tale. (After all, life's full of unanswered questions and unexplained phenomenon.) But do it wrong, and it'll be painfully obvious to your readers that you're just making up excuses for your laziness.

Tip #3:
Make the I.T.D. so advanced that no one in your story is able to fully explain it.
Tolkien's 'palantir seeing stones' from The Lord of the Rings.
Oh, J-double-R tells you their basic function (a magical melding of crystal balls and web cams), who created them (the elves of Valinor), and even the various sizes that they come in (anywhere from a foot tall to large enough to fill a room), but dude never bothers to explain the nuts and bolts of they work. The closest Tolkien comes to an explanation is when he has Gandalf rattle off ways in which the stones don't work. Perhaps the instruction manual for the palantir stones is among the "much that once was is lost" that Galadriel spoke of. You think?

Tip #4:

Don't even attempt to explain your I.T.D. Just act like it's a given and move the f**k on.
Back to Jack Kirby for this one. In his sprawling, unfinished, Fourth World saga, small electronic cubes called 'mother boxes' pop up at key moments in almost every characters' storyline. So how does 'The King' describe the workings of the mysterious mother box? He doesn't. The first time a mother box is introduced in The New Gods, he has a woman gasp in amazement at its wonderous, unspecified powers. From then on, Kirby only refers to its capabilities when he's adding new ones. And it works!