Life imitates InfernoKrusher
I was thinking in the shower this morning, which is a dangerous thing. And what I was thinking about in particular was setting, exposition, incluing, worldbuilding, and the art of the disconnect--and the two extremes of technique for doing so--and what affect they have on the reader's perception of the world within the book.
And here's what clicked for me today:
I'm not a believer in a "right way" of writing fiction. I think there are techniques, a toolbox, and there are reasons to use almost every tool in teh box. You may need a plane more often than a left-handed monkey wrench... but if you ever need a left-handed monkey wrench, it's damned good to have one and know how to use it.
Anyway, the mental construct that works for me is to think of the techniques for worldbuilding as existing on a continuum, from patent exposition to light-handed incluing--and I'm noticing right now, in the work for Whiskey & Water and Carnival, which uses much more exposition than the Jenny trilogy did, that the effect on the reader of the different techniques is very different.
I almost want to say that the exposition, the deep setting, is alienating, but alienating has the denotation I want, but not the connotation. Specifically, intensive setting forces the reader to view the world through the eyes of the narrative, rather than relying on her own constructed reality. In this way, that setting can make the familiar seem very strange, and brings home the differences between the reader's world and the fictional world. Examples in situ would be Richard Adams' Watership Down and Mark Halprin's A Winter's Tale, both of which use enormously detailed setting to make familiar venues--New York City, the English countryside--seem strange and fey.
Ellis Peters uses the exposition trick to bring Cadfael's historical setting to life. Walter Mosley uses the immersion trick to make South Central LA seem like home. It's again, all about telling detail, and its use. Tom Clancy does the exposition trick too (I know he comes in for a lot of mockery, but frankly, there are things he does very well indeed, and establishing auctorial authority through detail is one of them.).
The technique on the other end of the continuum is what Elmore Leonard does in his postwar L.A. books, where he shows a world that's very alien to most readers, and makes it seem familiar through the eyes of his characters--because it's their neighborhood. They live in it. It's comfortable to them, and they only notice it when something is wrong with it--which is to say, when there's a disconnect. This technique can be equally evocative (John D. MacDonald is also a past master of it, and his Florida is at once as familiar as my own back yard and a place that I know very well would provide a massive culture shock if I ever visited it.) but its real strength is that it doesn't distract the reader with the sense that the story is taking place somewhere and somewhen else, but rather right here, right now. (Philip K. Dick also swings this axe very well indeed.)
It's the technique I used in Hammered. The book's conceit requires that the setting seem familiar to the reader, that the narrative needs to feel like something that could be taking place down the street and around the corner--a few years from now. The world isn't described because the reader and the narrator both know what it looks like; in each case, it's her world.
On the other hand, large parts of Whiskey & Water take place in New York City in 2004, and I'm resorting to heavy description to make it alien and try to show it to the reader as as weird and wonderful a place as Faerie, my other major setting. Because it's New York, after all, and we all know what New York looks like. But this New York has to feel like 'something rich and strange,' and so it's my job to influence the reader to find that strangeness.
Other end of the continuum, and a subtle trick, if I can pull it off.
Which brings us to the disconnect.
The disconnect is the thing that makes the reader go 'huh.' It presents a puzzle to be solved, and it only works on a certain kind of reader--the ones who wants to play the mystery-solving game. You find it a lot in certain kinds of SF and mystery. What it is, in simplest terms, is a clue. Something that breaks the pattern (we are, as a species, highly adapted to find patterns--and notice the things that break them) and creates a little discomfort in the reader, because it seems wrong. It can advance characterization, plot, worldbuilding--just about anything.
And it requires two things. One, that the reader trust the writer--either through advanced trust (suspension of disbelief) or earned trust (author points)--and two, that the writer pay off for the trust... by having a purpose for that disconnect, either now or later.
I love the disconnect. It's a subtle kind of incluing, and rewards a certain kind of reader. Other kinds of reader will hate it, and prefer the straight explanation rather than the riddle. I suspect you cannot please both types--but you can aim for the middle, or either extreme. Because everything's a continuum, again.
So that was this morning's epiphany. I hope it helps someone.
Oh, look, Woodstock 25th anniversary hype. Already.