Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: No Questions Asked, Answered Anyway

One of the big problems I’ve seen among genre fiction authors in recent years is an obsession with explaining things no one wanted explained. Some prime examples include Prometheus, because what everyone really wanted from the Alien franchise was a prequel movie entirely focused on humans (down to a ridiculous HUMANS ARE ACTUALLY ALIENS plot point), and that whole Midichlorian thing George Lucas came up with the instant his restraints were removed.

Here’s a general rule of thumb: if you come up with a mysterious scenario and the mystery’s very compelling but you don’t have an equally compelling explanation, then don’t offer an explanation. Simple, yes? Not everything in your writing needs to be developed in full. If I were to actually go into all the tiniest details of my growing lore database, I’d need to commission several hundred generations worth of clone-mes just to finish that. All ideas would be horrendously obsolete by the time Cullen the 392nd got around to actually writing out this terrifying notion-gestalt, and all our collective toil would be for naught. Aside from the fact that I just described a bleak sci-fi epic.

Midichlorians are by far the most egregious example (that I’m thinking of right now), for one simple reason. The Force in the Original Trilogy was understood to be a sort of sentient, omniscient space magic, and that was fine. Absolutely no one had any issues with that concept, and not a single goddamn person who understood what made Star Wars tick wanted it changed. Well, maybe one, and if you’re that one I hope you’re happy because at least that’d make one of us.

Perhaps ol’ Crazy-Eyes George felt nettled by the deep, dark knowledge that Star Trek had explanations for things, and that Trekkies used this to belittle his galaxy far, far away. Honestly I’m probably giving the man a bit too much credit there, but every so often I lapse into charity. I apologize. Also, Star Trek is good, I have no objections to Star Trek, but if you think it’s more scientific just because it has jargon then you’re being far too nice. It’s still science fantasy, friends, because too much of it extends beyond actual science.

Anyway, Midichlorians. No one wanted that. It took the mystic, all-encompassing Force and… didn’t really change it, but suddenly made all Force-Sensitives reliant on tiny microorganisms to use space magic. Without directly changing the Force, this useless middle-microbe lore made the Force lamer. “Make thing worse without touching it” is another tick on the long list of writing achievements you should want no part of. Why can’t we just used space magic? It’s space magic, it can run on whatever rules it wants!

If Lucas really needed a number to throw out purely to sell us on how powerful Anakin was, he could’ve just used “Midichlorian” to mean a standard Jedi unit for measuring Force sensitivity. I mean, that’s still idiotic, but at least that system dies when the Temple is sacked in Ep. III. Or, or, or, and I hope you’ll all agree here: he could’ve had Anakin actually manifest his Force power. Even something as cliche as making a bunch of stuff fly around a room would’ve worked. Hell, have him rip some stuff off walls and throw it at Watto as a nod to The Empire Strikes Back.

There’s a huge different between worldbuilding and rote rule-scribing. Make sure you stick to the first.You know your own universe best, so you know better than anyone when the absence of a rule should be the rule. Don’t just ignore the criticism of others, but if they say they want an explanation for something that you know will only be worsened by it, don’t listen. Not everything needs ironclad logic behind it, and if you’re working with supernatural phenomena then my advice is that you put your wizard-slippered foot down. When someone asks, “Why space magic,” you say, “Because it’s just space magic and it wouldn’t be space magic if it obeyed the laws of physics!”

Every time readers demand you explain events incomprehensible, events intended as unexplained or even unexplainable from the first page to the last, stand your ground (unless they’ve got a really good point). What they’re really demanding is that your alternate reality conform to the reality they know, and that’s not your job in fantasy or sci-fi or whatever else. That’s what realistic fiction is for. This reality doesn’t even make sense all the time. Don’t spoil your readers by telling them that your universe or any other has some obligation to make sense to them (unless you were already going to). It’s kinder in the long run if you force them to confront that not everything gets a smooth rundown by a Saganesque cosmic narrator.

Besides all that, you just don’t have as many options if everything has to be explained or justified. If I have to stop to offer in-depth explanations for every single piece of technology or wacky interdimensional burp, if I have to justify magic by treating it like science, I’m limited on two fronts. First, I can’t introduce things I can’t explain. A lunatic’s method of writing, this. Does anyone really want me to study every individual field of human endeavor to that point? No. God, no, that sounds dreadful! Point two, flowing from this, I wouldn’t have room for anything but explanations. My books would be nothing but A Technical Manual of Everything (plot found in margins, bring a microscope). That’s one series of books I wouldn’t blame you for burning! Of course they’d be digital-only, so good luck putting binary to flames.

At the most basic level, if people really enjoy your work then at worst they’ll tolerate the unexplained, the random and the thoroughly insane bits. More likely, they’ll come to enjoy those too. Just as with jokes, if your audience don’t already enjoy the piece, more explanation isn’t going to change their minds. In fact, I pretty much guarantee it’ll drive them off that much faster.

Look at it like this: you’re a writer, not a scientist!

Unless you’re actually a scientist.

2 thoughts on “Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: No Questions Asked, Answered Anyway

    1. Thanks for reading through, and I’m glad to hear you think so. I have a nagging suspicion that some of the explaining is reactionary, which would be why we see so much of it. Handwaving to disguise plot holes and bad writing is an ages-old problem, and it may be that a lot of authors prefer to err on the side of over-explanation rather than be thought lazy.

Say something, darn it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s