Abeyance – The Power of the Hint

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Ladies and gentlemen, kindly give a warm Monday welcome to my third guest star – an old friend and published author, Mr. Andrew Knighton. Andy has been my experienced guide in the world of graphic novels, and my inspiration in the matter of manning up and submitting your work for consideration. He specialises in short stories – something I’ve never got the hang of – and kindly agreed to share a few tips on the subject. His most recent published work is The Wizard’s Stairs.

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In his book ‘How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy‘ Orson Scott Card discusses an idea of great importance to sf+f writers, and in particular to writers of short stories like myself. This is the concept of abeyance.

Abeyance is when something is mentioned but the explanation is held back, to be revealed later. We see it all the time, particularly in sci-fi, to the point where we may not notice it happening. Paolo Bacigalupi’s fascinating novel ‘The Windup Girl‘ is full of examples. By the time I was half way down page two I’d seen reference to blister rust, the revered Child Queen, pirated U-Tex rice, cibiscosis, genehack weevil and the Grahamite Bible. The story didn’t stop at this point to explain them, though they would all eventually be important. The meaning of some was pretty self-explanatory, others hinted at only through context, but every one added to the feeling of a deep, engrossing world.

For some readers this can be off-putting, as they think that the writer expects them to recognise and understand esoteric concepts. They won’t enjoy the reading experience, and are unlikely to read much sf+f, or any of the more adventurous sort. But experienced sf+f readers expect and understand abeyance, even if they’ve never heard the term. They don’t want to have everything handed to them on an expository plate. Building their own understanding of concepts and setting from clues in the text is part of the enjoyment. It makes for a more active reading experience, one in which the reader feels smart for working things out, feels creative for putting the pieces together in a meaningful way. When faced with long explanations breaking the flow of the text they may feel patronised and be put off the story.

As I’ve hinted at already, the other use of abeyance is to avoid breaking the narrative flow. If grunge lizards are first mentioned during an argument between characters, and you stop then and there to explain, then the momentum of the argument, the tension around it, may be lost. But the fact that one of the characters calls the other a grunge lizard helps maintain the sense of being in a different world, adds another detail to that world’s depth, and means that the appearance of a grunge  lizard later will feel like a natural extension of something the reader already knows.

So why is this particularly important for short stories? Well, because they’re short. In the space of a few thousand words you need to portray setting, characters and plot and give depth to all of them. If you can do this with a brief phrase, and leave the reader to work out its meaning for themself, then you are saving precious words. Concepts may be held in infinite abeyance, or explained only through a series of contextual hints. It helps that readers of short sf+f are generally very genre literate. They expect this trick and like the smart feeling that comes from working out meaning for themselves. So you can both save space and leave your readers feeling more satisfied – double win.

Abeyance isn’t always easy. You can over-do it, leaving the reader confused and frustrated. How much you use depends a lot on your audience. But it’s a key tool in the writer’s arsenal. If you write you’re probably doing it already, but recognising what it is, having a term to pin it down with, has helped me to use it better, and hopefully it’ll help some other people too.

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Andrew Knighton’s blog is here.

If you would like to hear more from this guest in the future please comment with your opinion.

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2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Look, over there… « Andrew Knighton writes

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