17th February, 2011: Leave it to the reader

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes. Suffice to say, it was far and away my favourite book of 2010. I hope it wins a BSFA award this Easter. I hope it wins a Hugo – it deserves to, for sure. I reviewed Zoo City and interviewed Lauren last year over at Dark Fiction Review, but a couple of things I’ve been working on reminded me of the key reason why I love Zoo City, why I think Zoo City works, and why I think it should win a lot of awards. Minor spoilers ahead, although I don’t think they do any harm if you haven’t read it yet (why the hell haven’t you, anyway?) because the book isn’t actually about this. This is just an aspect of it. I think it’s the aspect that is critical, but it’s nothing to do with the plot as such.

In Zoo City, nothing is explained. Nobody knows where the animals come from, or why they come to those who have committed crimes. Nobody knows how it started or quite when. Nobody knows what the Undertow is, although a few people have seen it in action. There are a lot of theories, but I like to think the (fictional) author of the academic paper on the Undertow presented within the book is well out of his depth, trying to apply current scientific understanding to a possibly supernatural, or at least super-normal, phenomenon.

Because none of the mechanics of being animalled are explained or understood, the reader gets the sense of something much larger and much darker at work. Suddenly the universe is far stranger place. With nothing explained Zoo City goes from being a medium-sized SF novel about a weird near-future South Africa to a small slice of much, much larger world, one that we (the readers) want to learn more about. When the book ends, the story itself is wrapped up but we’re left with a whole bunch of questions. We want more, more, more.

I know I’m a late-comer to this, but last year I discovered a “new” favourite film – Assault on Precinct 13, written and directed by John Carpenter (I’m talking the 1976 original here, not the 2005 remake). Assault on Precinct 13 is a very simple action film – a street gang declares war ona defunct police precinct, and it’s up to a rookie policeman Ethan Bishop to defend the building through the night with the help of convicted killer Napoleon Wilson. That’s all there is to it.

Why then does Assault on Precinct 13 – an action film with little action – qualify as one of my favourite films? Because nothing is explained. Napoleon Wilson is a convicted killer on his way to death row, but he doesn’t answer another policeman’s question about why he “killed those men”, and his actions suggest his crime was a far more complex affair than just cold-blooded murder. Ethan Bishop is a new on the job and we see him leave his house at the beginning but that’s about as much as we know about his background. The gang, Street Thunder, swear blood revenge on the police after several members were killed in a police ambush, but the apparently supernatural nature of their oath, Cholo, goes unremarked. Street Thunder also never speak, and when they retreat after the first siege at the precinct, they tidy the bodies of their fallen away very quickly. Too quickly, as one of the men inside the station comments, quietly, to himself. Are Street Thunder even human?

Leaving the details to the imagination of the reader, or viewer, is key here. The monster lurking behind a closed door, with only the sound of creaking floorboards and a shadow under the door, is much scarier than showing the thing itself, as the reader’s imagination goes into overdrive, filling in with ill-defined and generally impossible detail. Lovecraft was a master of this – while he often went to extraordinary lengths to throw adjectives at things (one of his key points of style, and another reason why he’s my favourite dead author), actual description was sometimes thin. He would emphasise the point again and again that something was horrific, terrifying, or mind-rendingly incomprehensible (and usually a combination of all three), without actually saying why or how. As a result, you create the detail yourself with whatever your subconscious can dream up. The end result is much more effective. It’s writing advice as old as the hills – leave it to the reader, leave it to their imagination.

Not everyone agrees, of course. I read a negative review of Zoo City which complained that nothing was explained and therefore nothing made sense. Likewise Assault on Precinct 13 has more of a cult following than a wider one, because a lot of original audience thought the lack of explanation and detail was a pulp-style shortcut on the part of Carpenter. Many critics slam Lovecraft for breaking the cardinal rule of show, don’t tell by doing the exact opposite.

The book I’m editing at the moment, Ludmila, My Love, and the synopsis I’ve just finished for another, The Suicide Tree, contain unexplained elements. In both cases I wrote what I wrote knowing that an explanation or mechanism would be needed, but that I could worry about that later. Now, working on both projects concurrently, I’m not sure I need to. If my point-of-view characters don’t understand what’s going on, do I need to break into the unfashionable omniscience third-person perspective (which would screw the rest of the book up, given that both are told from a couple of different third-person personal perspectives), or do I gift the knowledge of events to some other characters and have them infodump it somehow? And if so, why, exactly?

But I’ll just leave it, I think. I want to give the reader something to think about. I’ll provide the building blocks and the prompt, and they can go and create whatever they like.

Incidentally, as well as being eligible for the Hugo award for Best Novel, Lauren Beukes is still eligible for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. While not a Hugo award, this is nominated, voted and awarded concurrently with the Hugos. Click here for more information on the Hugos and how to nominate and how to vote for them.

Hang Wire is pootling along nicely. I’m now into the second third of the book, and some bizarreness at the circus is starting to occur. In an unexpected twist of events, another character witnessed said bizarreness at first-hand, and was seen herself by the bad guy. I had planned this particular character to be present for the rest of the book, but it looks like she might meet a sticky end. I love it when the unexpected happens!

Project: Hang Wire (superheroes and serial killers in San Francisco)
Words today: 2,099
Words total: 35,975/100,000 (34%)
Total words for 2011: 54,960

It’s now full-steam ahead on Ludmila, My Love. I hope to get it to my beta-readers on 1st March, but we’ll see. The current draft is a little short (about 95,000 words versus the 100,000 to 110,000 that I want), but already by the end of chapter four I’ve added quite a lot of text, so by the time I hit the end I expect the numbers to be about right. I know for a fact that one particular sequence towards the end needs beefing up, and that might account for the additional words all on its own anyway.

Books: some pages of Firestarter by Stephen King. I’m enjoying it, but it doesn’t seem to have that page-turning quality that his other books do. I had the same problem with The Shining, which so far is my least favourite work of his. Anyway, keep on keeping on.