Wednesday 9 February 2022

Hand Holding

This is a blog-post about hand holding. The previous sentence was hand-holding, since the title and the image below make it obvious what the blog-post is about. 

Fantasy stories can be complicated beasts. They're potentially confusing even if we forget all the technicalities and twistiness of battles, wars, duels, mysteries, espionage, lies etc that might well bedevil other genres.

Fantasy almost always has magic and often has whole new worlds, so in addition to the convolutions of a regular book, the reader generally has to come to grips with a magic system, different cultures, strange creatures and the like. 

But it's worse (better?) than that. When you introduce magic into the frame then you have to consider all the consequences of magic. If you introduced an easy teleportation spell into a world similar to (or exactly the same as) ours ... that's not the end of it. It's not just people popping up into each other's homes Harry Potter style. It's a complete upheaval of ... well ... everything. With one stroke you've destroyed the travel and transport industries. Cities become meaningless. People can live anywhere without roads. Space exploration is suddenly almost easy. What about privacy and security. The ramifications ripple on.

From a writer's point of view a complex magical world can be explained in a variety of ways:

- Tutorial. This is often called info-dumping, and is discouraged since it's a dry, and not very entertaining way to educate the reader. But it's fast and efficient.

- Observation. Magic etc could be explained simply by watching and having the reader pick things up as they go. 

- Education. The reader could see the world through the eyes of a character who needs the same sort of education that they do - a newcomer - and follow them through their lessons, either formal (school) or informal (mentor). 

- Exploration. The reader could follow a character who is ignorant and sets out to learn through exploration and discovery, figuring out how this stuff works in 'real time'.

And the question through all of this is how much hand-holding the author does. Does the writer put the pieces of the puzzle in front of the reader and assume they'll put them together? Does the writer put the pieces together for them then repeat the answer for the reader three times in three different ways?

Before I was published I used to share short stories on the now vanished Yahoo Groups. During that time I developed through observation and experience, what I called The Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three: If you want 90% of your readership to take onboard an important fact then you need to repeat it three times in the text.

This is not intuitive, but startlingly it appears to be true. Related to this is the observation that some people coming to Prince of Thorns believing it to be a standard medieval-esque fantasy have proved immune to the legions of clues throughout the book and have taken until book 2 to realise that it's set in a post apocalyptic version of our world. They managed not to see the references to modern philosophers, Shakespeare, Plato, Catholicism, plastic, chemical warfare etc, and actual encounters with a computer and a nuke.

This, however, is a game that cannot be won. For every reader bewildered by the obscurity and confounding mystery of your work there will be another complaining that you made it too obvious, that you bored them by belaboring the point.

The best you can do is aim for the optimum balance. Enough mystery to keep the eagle-eyed genius happy, enough clarity so that the distracted Mr/Ms Average reading in short bursts on the commute to work has a chance.

And it's hard. As the author, knowing the answers it's difficult to put yourself in the reader's shoes and say how much does this thing need spelling out? When is enough? When is too much?

Much of the editing conversation between me and my publishers concerns exactly this issue of clarity. I tend to err on the side believing my readers are on the ball, focused on the book. My publisher has perhaps a more realistic vision of Joe/Josie Average making the toddler's lunch with one hand whilst glancing at the book between conversations with their significant other.

But, dear god, it hurts me to in-your-face plain spell things out for you. I want you to have the wonder of discovery and the joy of understanding. So, know that when I let go of your hand, sit you on the sled, and shove you into gravity's care and the guidance of the slope ... it's an act of love!


  1. Yes! Go with your gut! We get you.

  2. I think I have been reading this blog for like ten years ... still as interesting as ever

  3. Re hand-holding, I've always liked the idea of a story that works at both levels. E.g. A large percentage of the readers don't realise the setting is apocalyptic Earth, but it doesn't matter because the story still makes perfect sense as standard medieval fantasy and is enjoyable on those terms. The sharper readers notice and feel smart and re-readers who originally missed the clues, get to see the story in an entirely different light.

    Obviously this can be really hard to do. It might have been viable for Broken Empire, but not Red Queen's War. The classic author who does do something like this is Gene Wolfe, although, I feel like he also has quite a few moments which seem entirely bizarre on their own terms and raise lots of questions about how they fit in.