Recently I came across a situation that reminded me how important transitions and seeding story details are to good fiction. These are things which most pros do without even thinking about it, but up and coming writers, learning craft, probably have to be more deliberate about. I will not specify where I encountered this but will give examples and suggestions how to handle this better. By transitions, in this case, I am talking not about segways between scenes, but rather, transitions in introducing new world elements so that we accept them as organic. And by seeding, I mean subtly introducing these things early enough so that when they become key to the story we have no trouble believing they belong there. (These are the best terms I can come up with to describe it, so that’s what we’re going with.)
You can put anything you want in your world but it has to fit together in a way that feels organic for the reader. Thus, you must carefully consider what you introduce, how you do it and when you do it. Foreshadowing it, planting seeds early and transitioning properly are essential.
In the case at hand, the story is a mixed genre story with both epic fantasy and science fiction elements. For the first six chapters, though, it’s all epic fantasy, clear and plain. Then, all of a sudden, these important characters from afar are said to have a space ship. Later, the protagonist is on the space ship and they pass a planet and he has a revelation that the planet has elves.
My reader’s reaction was a laugh and a “WHAT?!!” Which is NOT the reaction you want, believe me. It threw me out of the story and made me question the plausibility. Why are there elves and space ships? Just because the author likes them or is it organic to the world? The way it’s written, they don’t feel organic but as it turns out, the elves and the space travel are vital parts of the later story and world. They can’t be cut and they definitely are not thrown in there just to have tropes the author likes. There are good reasons. So the issue here is they are not handled appropriately. So I made some suggestions and I’ll share them with you.
Early on, the protagonist explores cities and the world. If the protagonist saw sky highways with space ships or flying cars of some kind, we’d know subtly that this is not your typical fantasy world and to expect space travel and SFnal elements. Another possibility is to have laser guns mixed with the swords. Just a subtle mention of either would have laid groundwork to make the later space ship reveal much more plausible.
BUT the author has set up a world where one group hogs all the fuel and space travel is thus not available to everyone. So the world where the story starts has no space travel. How can one reveal it as not sudden then?
One way is to have foreigners come by space ship as merchants to trade. Another might be to have disabled ships grounded with no fuel and comment on the situation when they appear.
If you, as an author, box yourself into a situation where elements necessary to your world are so limited, you still have to do the work to find a way to introduce them as possibilities so you don’t lose plausibility or chase off readers. Inventing such restrictions does make it hard for yourself but that doesn’t excuse you from doing the work to make it believable.
The same is true of the elves. If he encountered elven merchants, traders or vendors in the market on his wanderings, it would be no surprise when they turn up later on a neighboring planet. No dialogue or interaction would have to occur, it could all be descriptive passages as the protagonist observes the world.
In this case, however, there are no elves on that planet and he would not encounter them because they are alienated. So such a set up would also be inorganic to the world. So how to handle it?
One way is to have references to elves earlier. There could be problems that people comment on: “If the elves weren’t banished, this would totally seem like their handiwork” Or “Those nasty elves, always making trouble” or “This looks like the kind of trouble we’d expect from elves, not our own people.”
Another is to have the elves just appear as the protagonist encounters them and have him ask all the questions we as readers would ask. Our discovering them along with him would make it far more plausible.
In this case, since he’s traveling with others, they could tell him “we’re doing to see the elves” and have a dialogue about those questions before hand.
Whichever way is chosen, it would lay groundwork so it’s not like elves just appear out of nowhere and make us shake our heads as to why they are there. World building is hard. It takes attention to detail even beyond what you need for the story. You may not need to describe certain aspects but you need to know them because they affect other things. Food chain affects diet, even if you never have to describe it. Geography affects diet and availability of resources, etc. And those elements you do include must but introduced well so that they seem natural and not unexpected. In both the above cases, I was thrown out of story with “why are there suddenly space ships/elves” and “why didn’t we see them earlier.” In this case, the writer has a strong vision, but she’s still learning this aspect of craft, so my job as editor is to point that out and suggest ways to resolved the issues. As I explained, the author had good reasons for this, but we are not going to stick around and find out what they are if we are not sold on them. Because if we think the author doesn’t have a plan, we lose confidence and our interest wanes. Unless we have a compelling reason to read on (it’s a friend or family member), you may well lose us as readers.
So transitions and seeding are vital skills to learn and use as writers. What are some similar issues you’ve observed in reading/workshopping stories? How did you resolve them? Please share in comments so we can all learn.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.