Fiction Writing Topics: An Interview with Hal Duncan

Hal Duncan is the author of a poetry collection and numerous works of fiction, including the novel VELLUM, which won the Spectrum Award and was nominated for the Crawford, the BFS Award, and the World Fantasy Award. He spoke to us about how voice makes character, why style is not the opposite of substance, and other fiction writing topics.

A Conversation with Hal Duncan

Q: On your blog, you've listed ten rules which beginning fiction writers should follow. Several of the rules suggest an evolutionary process for stories which begins with voice, and then leads to character, action, and finally setting. Could you expand a bit on this process?

A: Actually, I don't think of them as rules for writers to follow so much as rules of how it all works that you want to get your head round. Like, "POV [Point of View] is not a communal steadicam," is really a summation of the inherent differences between written and cinematic/televisual media, and the differences within written narratives between the omniscient narrator and multiple third person limited, the problems that emerge when you muddle them.

So, rules five to seven basically set out a series of relationships between these aspects of narrative – voice, character, action and setting – that it will stand you in good stead to understand. As I put it: voice makes character; character makes action; action makes setting. That's not to say that voice is required to create character, mind, or that you can't effectively conjure setting with pure description in which nothing happens, in which the nearest you come to activity is the movement of an omniscient narrator's roving eye. What I mean is simply that imbuing a narrative with voice automatically conjures the POV character via that voice, that action will read more effectively as action the more it is presented not just as activity but as activity that has import for your characters, and that setting really comes alive when it's presented to the reader through that activity, when the character is engaging with it.

I mean, you can open a scene with a character waking up, getting out of bed, showering, whatever, and in the course of that you can weave in description telling us explicitly that your character is this or that type of person, how he feels about what's going on – "The clock said 11:35, which made him groan. He was a late riser and hated getting up before midday." But in a third person limited POV, simply narrating it in that character's manner of speech – "11:35, the clock said. Great. It wasn't even sodding midday yet." – you can be wiring that character's attitude into the writing itself. This has way more impact than a set of declarative statements that read as notes from a character profile. You can have a whole additional thread of free indirect thought basically woven through the narrative of action.

I'm using "action" here in a general sense of "stuff happening", by the way, not in the specifically dynamic "action sequence" sense. Smoking a cigarette can be action just as much as a car chase can.

Point is, the knock-on of voice working character into narrative is that your action is more meaningful to the reader because its meaning to the character is wrought into the presentation. A mastery of voice will probably help you, in fact, avoid describing irrelevant activity, because in a well-crafted voice you'll be skipping the extraneous waffle in the same way that character would if he was telling mates about how he had to get up at half sodding eleven this morning, with a sodding hangover to boot. Indeed, it's worth distinguishing, I think, between activity and action, with the former as "stuff happening" and the latter as "stuff happening that has meaning to a character." Like, even a steamy sex scene, if told without voice, without the character's perspective written into the narrative, can read as a flat description of mere activity. Add voice, conjure characters with attitudes to what's happening, and suddenly that activity becomes action, not just sexual congress but "making love" or "fucking like dogs."

To some extent, you could see setting as emerging from character just as directly, rather than via action. Again, I'm really saying that the more it has meaning to a character the more it's going to come alive for the reader. But it's worth keeping the idea of active engagement in mind. A character moving though a locale, clocking the details of staging and dressing, is still interacting with it. If the action is just the turn of a gaze, that's still action. And ultimately, a character fiddling with a dodgy light switch, stepping over a dirty crack in the tile floor and thumping a shower that spurts and sputters... this is going to create a sense of place at least as effectively as any descriptive passage presenting a rundown bathroom with these details listed like a surveyor's report; generally it'll more effective.

Q: What do you mean by the eighth rule, "Making tea is not protagonising?"

A: If you listen to Tzvetan Todorov, a conventional narrative starts with equilibrium. Something comes in that disrupts that equilibrium, with ramifications that eventually impact a character or set of characters to the point that they have no choice but to engage with that disruption. Events basically force them into the role of protagonist(s), so named because as their engagement has its ramifications in turn on the disruption, an agon emerges – a core conflict. You don't need a concrete antagonist in a literal villain, the antagonistic forces may be internal, but there's always a conflict of some sort driving the narrative; that's what makes it narrative and not just spurious reportage. Ultimately the dynamics of narrative is about the back-and-forth of that agon leading logically to the action that resolves it, restoring equilibrium, albeit in a new form. There are ways to fuck with this in unconventional narrative, but Todorov's theory is generally a good model for how narrative works, I'd say.

So, protagonising is any action carried out by the character in their role as protagonist – i.e. it's activity by a character that progresses the narrative by reacting to the core disruption. It might be passive at first, a character getting on with their life as, unknown to them, the ramifications shape their trajectory for them. Or you could be hard-ass about it and say that protagonising only begins when the character starts exercising agency in direct response, unconsciously avoiding, consciously recognising, engaging consciously or unconsciously. Either way, unless you're purposefully writing an unconventional narrative in which the main character is a passive subject of the powers-that-be, a pawn in the narrative whose effect in how it plays out is negligible, then you want to be sure that enough of their actions really do constitute protagonising – that they're not just faffing about half the time, effectively making cups of tea when they should be doing stuff that moves the story forward.

An important caveat: "making tea" is figurative, of course. I'm talking about any activity (particularly mundane activity) that effectively pauses the narrative like a DVD to wander off, do something unrelated, then come back and press the play button. Did it actually serve any purpose to show that character boiling a kettle, walking the dog, or whatever? Or did they basically end up back at the same place, with the story only resuming after that pointless action was described? Of course, maybe it did; that's the point of the caveat. Literally making tea could quite easily be protagonising. If your character is making tea because they're in the kitchen of their home after a family member has died, with visitors round to give condolences, that action is a response to grief, an expression of shock, an act of self-distraction which is clearly part of the dynamics created by the disruption. That could be the most significant action in the story.

Another caveat: just because an action is not protagonising doesn't mean it's not action, doesn't mean it's not got a perfectly legitimate place in the narrative. Action may well be required for character development even though it doesn't move the plot forward. In so far as narrative involves creating and releasing tension, in fact, a bit of "making tea" may well be called for as a respite from the drama, even where it's not adding much to the character. This isn't an injunction to excise all dawdle and dithering, just to be aware that it is dawdle and dithering.

A particular variant of "making tea" to be wary of is the explicatory reflection: where the only point of having the character perform an action is so they have something to do while musing at length on things that the writer needs the reader to know; where the narrative is basically suspended as the character boils a kettle, walks the dog or gazes out of a window and the author explains, via their ponderings, who they are, where they came from, and so on. It's a perfectly good technique if done well, but a random window is not an ATM for backstory.

Q: The rules you've proposed apply to fiction writers in all genres. Could you suggest any additional rules specifically for beginning science fiction and fantasy writers?

A: In truth, I think there's nothing that applies in the strange fiction genres that doesn't equally apply in genres which don't utilise the strange, not at that broad level at least – "science fiction and fantasy." If we were talking about identifiable genres like Space Opera and Epic Fantasy, there you have these closely-defined idioms which each have their own aesthetics and dynamics, their own mechanics that one can point to and say, "OK, you need to have this type of gimble in a sprocket like that or it all just won't work right." But this is just like saying "You need fourteen lines and a volte" with a sonnet. Which would be utterly wrong with a ballade or rondel. It's all pretty much specific to each idiom.

When you're talking about science fiction and fantasy in general, these are largely just marketing categories. The only distinguishing feature – and it's not a very good one because it's found all over the place outside those labels, in magic realism, absurdist literature and whatnot -- is the presence of the strange, as I'd call it, the disruption of suspension-of-disbelief with sentences that shift the subjunctivity level (basically, the possibility of the events described) from "could have happened" to "could not have happened." And... that's it.

Whether the impossibility encoded in the sentence is logical, metaphysical or temporal, how it's integrated into the narrative... that can be crucial when you're aiming to write a work in a particular closely-defined idiom, but otherwise there are no inherent limitations on what you can do with such... "quirks," let's call them. These conceits are just... like extended metaphors with the vehicle made concrete and unmoored from any single tenor. Adding that tool to the toolkit is like adding the comic; you couldn't, I think, make a particularly useful rule that applied to all fiction with humour in it but not to fiction with no humour in it at all.

I guess you could come up with practical advice about publishing under those nominal labels, but I'm not the best person to do so; I'm happy to opinionate about the craft, but I'm rubbish at the pragmatics of publishing, so I know I'd be talking out of my arse.

Q: What are some of the common pitfalls that lead to really bad speculative fiction writing?

A: Short answer: the same as those that lead to really bad writing in general.

To go into a bit of detail though, one of the most pernicious traps, to my mind, is the whole dichotomy of "content" versus style, the idea that the writing itself is a vessel designed to "carry" this other substance that the reader is going to "get out of it" -- story or insight, plot or theme. We use this content metaphor constantly, talk about how the purpose of fiction is to entertain or to communicate. In the contrast we set up with the way we talk about style meanwhile, the latter is often posited as a sort of surface patina, a decorative finish, the wrapping in which a work is presented. The implication is that you could strip away this "style" and still effectively communicate the same basic story, that a work might even suffer from the "style" getting in the way of that story. Or that a story might even be "all style," with no real content at all. Style versus content. I'm sure you've heard the argument in some form or another. As far as I'm concerned, it's complete bollocks.

Well, OK, it's not quite complete bollocks. There's clearly a degree to which some readers treat the text as a means to an end, as a series of linguistic cues that they skim their way through. They don't read by the sentence but by the paragraph, suppressing any sense of the articulation itself and simply using the words in it to construct a sort of inner movie.

This is how Dan Brown can get away with prose that's not simply risible in terms of rhythm and word-choice but literally botched in terms of sense. On the very first page of The Da Vinci Code, for example, he has a sentence in which a character is described as freezing while turning their head to look at something. It's a nitpicky example, but it's characteristic of a sort of slipshod prose that only works for a reader who's treating a book as... a sort of rough storyboard which just happens to be in words. They're picking up benchmarks of action – a character freezing, turning their head – but they're putting these together themselves; so they don't give a fuck that the text puts them together in a self-contradictory articulation. I think it's safe to say that a sentence which doesn't make sense is bad writing though. And if Brown can get away with that, well, all manner of bad craftsmanship is going to end up on the page wherever that mentality is the order of the day . Ciphers for characters, formulaic plots, turgid description -- these are the real results of seeing the text as a means to an end, because that approach in reading or writing ultimately boils down to not giving a shit about the actual articulation.

If you want to avoid those basic flaws then, the content metaphor is the big pitfall. It is only a metaphor, after all. The only substance you're dealing with in fiction is the words themselves. These are what you're putting together into sentences and paragraphs, passages and scenes, chapters and acts, into -- in the end -- one big articulation. The style of that articulation is just the distinctive strategies you adopt in selecting and structuring your words. Style is not a surface finish; it's how you shape the substance itself, at all levels. Whether you end a chapter on a peak of tension or on the resolution that comes after is a stylistic choice as much as whether or not you add a modifier to a noun phrase.

To give an idea of just how pernicious I think the content metaphor is, as I see it, both underwriting and overwriting have their roots in it.

If you're thinking of style as just presentation, I mean, it's all too easy to disregard the importance of word choice, clause structure, the very basics of constructing an effective articulation, one that will actually conjure your narrative in the head of someone reading it. If you're thinking that you just have to relate how this happened, then that happened, then something else happened, and so on, this is where writers end up not with narrative but with a crude, flat recitation of events. Characters and settings aren't conjured; they're just names, outlines, maybe a little description regurgitated from notes. (Or maybe a huge lumpen mass of description regurgitated from notes.) This is where underwriting comes from; it's the pitfall of thinking that if you just dump the details onto the page as they occur to you, well, you're communicating the story in your head, aren't you? You don't need a fancy vessel to "carry" the meaning, just one that does the job. One needn't focus on mere stylistic fripperies. This is dead wrong.

Think of the example I gave above. "The clock said 11:35, which made him groan. He was a late riser and hated getting up before midday." This is tedious drivel because it's underwritten, recitation not narrative, with the "He was..." sentence a regurgitated character detail. "Adding" style is actually a matter of shaping a more effective articulation: "11:35, the clock said. Great. It wasn't even sodding midday yet." Note that the underwritten example is actually longer. Sure, it communicates, but that means fuck all, because it doesn't conjure.

As for the problem of "style over substance," rather than being a direct opposite, overwriting actually goes hand-in-hand with underwriting; it's what you get when a writer thinks of style as a surface finish and tries to layer it on as such, rather than getting down into the nuts-and-bolts of selection and structure. It's the complementary pitfall where the writer thinks that being a better writer means chucking in superfluous adverbs and adjectives to render a passage more "descriptive," where they crowbar in metaphors and convolute sentence construction in the misguided belief that this will make their prose more sophisticated.

So you end up with purple prose: "The clock brightly exclaimed 11:35 in its glowing red luminescent face, to which he could but eject a loud groan of annoyance, because he was customarily a late riser by his nature and reviled arising before the hour of midday when the sun was at its zenith." This is not style over substance. In fact, it's an excess of substance. There are more words than are required, whole phrases that are redundant. As a failure to apply any real strategy in selection and structuring, it's an absence of style. The material has undergone insufficient shaping.

In a nutshell then, I'd say I see this misapprehension of the relationship of style and substance – the misunderstanding even of what style and substance are – as the big pitfall. How much bad writing simply comes down to the fact that the writer thinks they can pour the "content" of story, plot and theme, into a slapdash box of cardboard and duct tape, with "style" as some pretty-patterned wrapping paper they either scorn completely or overuse because they think that's what makes for a professional finish?

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: At the moment I'm working on a short novel with the shamelessly pulpy title of Assault! On Heaven! , a sequel to the equally pulpy Escape from Hell! . The books before them were huge doorstops of modernist experimentalism – 400,000 words of crazy-ass, non-linear mosaic narrative, with the story fragmented across a multiverse of realities. I tend to refer to them as "cubist fantasy," which is only half a joke; they're like some insane twenty minute post-rock epic of a song you either love or hate. So I decided to take a complete left turn, go from the sublime to the ridiculous, with a trilogy of books that are each 150 pages max of balls-to-the-wall action/adventure and gonzo religious satire.

So, yeah, the first in the trilogy has a hitman, a hooker, a hobo and a homosexual in the ultimate prison break... Escape from Hell! As you can probably tell from the title, the sequel that I'm working on just now follows on logically, with the escaped forces of Hell invading Heaven – a Heaven that's part San Francisco, part Stepford. Given that they're gunning for a tyrant God who's decidely unworthy of worship, the Bible Belt is not exactly my core market here, it has to be said. I'm also sketching in the basics of the third book in the sequence, Battle! For the Planet! Of the Dead! Yes, the exclamation marks increment with each volume -- as I say, balls-to-the-wall, shamelessly pulpy, gonzo religious satire. It all has a deadly serious point, of course, but if the previous books were post-rock these are aiming to be the fantasy equivalent of the MC5: "Kick out the jams, motherfucker!"

Click here to go to Hal Duncan's Amazon page.

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