Writing With Found Objects 4



Silence Is Golden – story telling through omissions


This is particularly useful in science fiction of course.  So, you don’t know how antigrav could possibly work?  Good. Neither does anyone else.  You just have your character be exasperated at the questioning and go “Oh, that objection is like five hundred years old.  Now pass the wrench, I need to woozle the znebit.”

Heck, even if you put an explanation in, people are likely to decide the reason is something else.  I thought I’d made it perfectly clear in Darkships that the first seacities were to evade taxes and government regulation, and yet lo and behold, people decided they’d started because the world was overpopulated.  (Which is why they were creating people by the batch.  Never mind.  It made the readers happy.  Who am I to complain.)

This is actually the reason why it’s best not to get down to too much details.  Because your world building might be perfectly logical, but challenge the readers’ preconceptions.  Now, sometimes this is worth it.  Say, you don’t believe that people should live in a 1984 kind of state, it’s worth showing how it wouldn’t work, and how parts of the world would be free through sheer bureaucratic failure.  (They would you know?  I’m afraid the cautionary tale about the power of the state is also a tale of touching faith in the state.  I’ll grant you they do force better than anything else, but oppression is more than force.  It’s also coordination and organization.)

It’s worth showing it, but it will probably end up being the main part of your book, because to drive home a point that is that different from what people “know” to be true is going to take making it a central point of the book.  Aka – hang a lantern on it.

But say the expectation people have that houses will be self-cleaning.  Frankly, I doubt it, because, well, so far they haven’t been.  Housewives went into the workforce, and kids are raised on take-out and restaurant meals, and the house… hey, guys, mine only doesn’t look like that (a narrow labyrinth between dusty books) because I’m deathly allergic to household dust.  This means I “waste” a day a week to dusting, vacuuming and various sanitary tasks.  It hurts too.  I don’t have that kind of time.  Neither do most people, particularly people with kids.  And yet, the magic cleaning machines haven’t developed.  Why not?  Well, partly because the technology is difficult.  Heinlein did peg it right in The Door Into Summer.  We need pretty close to AI, a robot that LEARNS and adapts.  Pretty much everyone has a dishwasher and a washer, which are machines made for a single purpose and relatively simply.  The Roomba has proved a bit of a let down (I have to but haven’t used them in forever – we bought them 11 years ago, when we were “rich” – because they get stuck so much it’s a constant call on my time.  And think about it… an idiot mechanism that just rolls around sucking in dust is about the lowest level of cleaning.  Once you start talking about the more complex tasks, like “Straightening” or choosing what to keep and what to throw out, I think the tech is beyond our capability.  The other part of it is that to the extent it can be done, it will produce very expensive machines, at least to begin with.  The “buy in” is too high for first adopters.

However, read most sf books.  In the future no one does housework.  Not really.  Unless you have impossibly advanced tech – the turtle robots in Eden 😛 – just let it be.  People “know” from the pulp era that we will be laying down our dusters and brooms down by the river side, and study cleaning no more.  Unless you hang a lantern on it, or it’s the point of your story, don’t bother.

Same with a friend of mine, who, back in the nineties had a book rejected because it “doesn’t show the common people.”  Since the book is set amid the aristocracy of an interplanetary system and it’s all about power marriages, maneuvering and internal strife, no it doesn’t.

The question is – why should it?

Oh, if I were her, I’d probably have them reading the news and noting that so and so’s policy of beheading all the farmers has (unexpectedly!) resulted in a famine.  But that’s because I’m a political creature.  My friend isn’t and, as we have proof daily, neither are most people.  They want to read about the high court and its shennenigans, not about how this affects the price of brassica in Gaul (Asterix reference!)

That type of “but I want to see the part of the world you don’t show” always gets on my nerves, because it’s mostly from people who think working class or striving or – more often – dirt poor and vaguely criminal is more “real” than middle class or higher class living.  Yes, guys, the problems are different, but both can have problems and in my friends’ world being born to an aristocratic family was the start of your problems.  So why did the editor need to see working class people?  Don’t know.  I suspect most readers could imagine that just fine.  While if you introduced working class people, the story becomes about them – because it’s realizing that all these family feuds and stuff move the greater world.  Which means, that’s the important part, and your baroque space opera goes out the window.

I guess in the end, that’s the take away rule.  Silence is golden. Particularly if something is really complex to explain, doesn’t affect your story, and if you put it in it will call all attention away from your story forever.  Not worth it.

Instead let the readers assume whatever even if it’s stupid.  Look, readers will.  And some will invent entire subplots you never meant.  Let them.  If they enjoy it, great.  (I’m reminded of the first review for my first novel, in which my handling of the elf Silverdawn was praised to high heavens.  Which is great, but there was no Silverdawn in the novel.  Shrug and smile.  They liked it, that’s what counts.)

This also applies to secondary characters, walk on characters and other filler characters.  Look, your guy goes to the restaurant, he’s going to need a waiter.  But if the waiter comes on with his entire history to be revealed, you just added a chapter that might have nothing to do with the book.  The third time I tried to write a novel I made it soup by this method.  Every character had a complex back story, so every chapter was about something different.  No sense over all, and the novel ballooned to 500k words.  Don’t do that.

Yes, I know “but I want my characters to be complex.”  Please.  You can have your main character’s valet or maid or whatever be a character in their own right, but you don’t need the street sweeper who goes by outside the window to be a ninja master, the unseen cook to be a practitioner of the dark arts, or the pot boy to be secretly a dragon slayer, UNLESS that’s what the story is about.

Think about the people you meet everyday where you  don’t know more than that they want you to have a “nice day” – likely your character would have this type of encounter too.

Keep it all in proportion and if you can get away with not mentioning something, don’t.  Silence can be your most powerful tool.

Next up: Write it Like It’s Hot!– how to steal with class, when it’s plagiarism, when to file off serial numbers, and when you don’t need to worry.


  1. On minor characters. In one of my attempted stories, I had a minor character “take over the story”. The story was to be about this alien clan and how it came to be “semi-divided”. The minor character was a young human who was a servant of one of the alien main characters but he (the human) started “grabbing” my attention.

    Mind you, I think part of the problem was that I wasn’t really sure of how the original story line should go. [Frown]

      1. Yeah, but what was really annoying is that I would have expected his older brother to try to take over the story. He was chief bodyguard to the alien (not that his boss really needed to be bodyguarded, it was a status thing).

  2. But if the waiter comes on with his entire history to be revealed, you just added a chapter that might have nothing to do with the book.

    Or you confuse the reader as to your book’s point: “What’s Les Misérables about?” “Oh, about 1,500 pages.”

  3. This seems like good advice and a really clear headed way of thinking about building a world and telling a story. I found it helpful.

  4. I’m doing NaNo this month and implemented this advice today. Very helpful. I did not describe the length of the days or of the year of the alien planet. Just stuck to what it looked like.

      1. Oh dear. That cover is rather bland. So is the blurb. I’d never have given it a second look based on the cover and wouldn’t have been intrigued by the blurb. :/

        Adding it to my Pleasure Reading wishlist and will pick it up for myself soon.

  5. Another fine wisp of a tale…

    the unseen cook was a practitioner of the dark arts…

    The police sergeant looked at the returning police. “Were you out getting coffee, or did you take that emergency call this morning?”

    One of them lifted his head and nodded. “Yeah. Third time this month we’ve had to go into that diner. This time, four customers just sat down and disappeared from their booth. Apparently today’s special, the chef’s surprise, was eating people.”

    The sergeant shook his head. “Bad, huh?”

    “Have you ever tried to arrest a stewpot? In a kitchen where the range loves to spit fire across the room, the walk-in freezer tries to grab anyone who walks by, and you don’t want to know what the juicers are trying to do. I don’t understand who’s behind it! There’s never anyone in the kitchen when we go in.”

    The sergeant nodded. “That explains the condition of your riot gear. I thought the blood stains were a little severe for a coffee break. But you might have gotten in a fight at the donut shop again.”

    to be continued… or maybe not.

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