In my weekly column, I usually examine good writing. However, one can learn as much through the mistakes of others and what to avoid as their successes. Certain aspects of bad writing have been with us for centuries. Note how dreadful but eerily similar a piece of popular chick-lit from the 19th century, Dora Thorne, is to its 21st century descendants, only without the sex.
However, I have come across several writing sins that are exclusive to the past 20-30 years in science fiction and fantasy. The reasons for this will soon become apparent.
I was recently reading a book that had come out in the past five years that described a battle between starships. At first, I frowned at how generic, staccato, and unimaginative the description was. One ship fires lasers. Another fires rockets. There are some evasive maneuvers.
But then I figured out what it was. Nothing more than a by-the-numbers description of an on-rails space shooter. The world’s most boring space shooter, sans innovation.
Writing a bad scene that is describing what one sees in a video game is much worse than a bad scene born of the author’s imagination. My dominant sensation reading that passage was “Why am I reading this book instead of playing a cool space shooter?”
Books and video games each have their own relative strengths and weaknesses.
I’ve never been a fan of video games that attempted to tell a story though traditional literary means, feeling that the result was always a hackneyed, clumsy, third-rate mess. Well, noticeably describing the action of a video game through words is an insult towards both mediums.
Now, trying to imagine an action scene as a unique game conjured up in one’s own imagination might work. However, that requires originality and effort. Doing so where it’s clear as day what the game source is makes for bad writing that draws the reader out of the book.
Similar to the first one, only this time it reads as a script for a movie. And not a cool action flick like Die Hard, a crazy blood-soaked Japanese film, or a Fellini masterpiece, but the dreary, predictable, mass-produced Hollywood garbage of today. All the way down to the strictly regimented, three-act structure known as “Save the Cat”.
On some level, I get it. Writing novels doesn’t pay as well as it did 50, let alone 100 years ago. Getting one’s book optioned as a movie is where the big bucks are.
However, if I can’t stand romantic melodrama with clipped dialogue, plot holes galore, and linear, telegraphed story-telling in a movie, how the hell is it tolerable in a book?! I love movies, but it’s an intrinsically more shallow medium than literature is.
An intellectual depth that is perfectly acceptable in an all-time great movie would be too simplistic for a good book. Thus, when a novel transcribes the script for an insultingly dumb movie, it becomes an unreadable disaster.
I’m sure other authors do it, but the clearest example of this sin is John Scalzi. Both his narration and many of his central characters (especially the female ones) have this attitude of being so “cool” and above it all. Oftentimes, there are almost winks and nods to the reader, fracturing, if not breaking the fourth wall. In the prologue for The Collapsing Empire, which I reviewed at length, there is a murderous mutiny and the prospect of the entire ship exploding.
How do the characters respond in the extreme stress of this situation? Why, with snark;
Eva Fanochi probably could have answered that for you,” Gineos said. “If you hadn’t murdered her, that is.”
“Now’s not a great time for that discussion, Captain.”
Well, this approach is not cool. It’s pathetic and lame. If the characters don’t care whether they live or die, why the hell should the reader? And if the author doesn’t take his own work seriously, why the hell should the reader? This smugness is absolute cancer for both genuine human emotion and story-telling, disengaging one from the book.
Now, this is a recent trend. Even a satirical science fiction comedy series like Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat is free of smugness. Jim DiGriz might have an easy-going, jocular personality overall, but the physical pain and fear he experiences throughout his adventures, and putting his life on the line, are no laughing matter to him. Nor are they described in light terms by Harrison, let alone smug ones.
Again, a writer has to buy into their own story, its significance and its themes, if they have any hope of the reader doing so.
No doubt there are some other typical flaws I’m missing here. But these three stand out as pitfalls for newer authors to avoid.