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Principles of effective writing

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Below you will find a list of concepts that I think are important for achieving writing that effectively connects with the reader.

affect the reader

Affecting the reader is the ultimate goal of writing (barring therapeutic writing, of course). Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, the writer wants to influence the reader, to create an emotional or intellectual response.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

edges of ideas

The solution to the "Info-Dump" problem (how to fill in the background). The theory is that, as above, the mechanics of an interstellar drive (the center of the idea) is not important: all that matters is the impact on your characters: they can get to other planets in a few months, and, oh yeah, it gives them hallucinations about past lives. Or, more radically: the physics of TV transmission is the center of an idea; on the edges of it we find people turning into couch potatoes because they no longer have to leave home for entertainment. Or, more bluntly: we don't need info dump at all. We just need a clear picture of how people's lives have been affected by their background. This is also known as "carrying extrapolation into the fabric of daily life." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon )
The places where technology and background should come onstage: not the mechanics of a new event, gizmo, or political structure, but rather how people's lives are affected by their new background. Example of excellence: the opening chapters of Orwell's 1984. (Lewis Shiner) (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ ) (e)


Incluing is a technique for world building, in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers into the world the writer is building, without them being aware of it.
This in opposition to infodumping, where an undigested lump of background material is dropped into the story, often in the form of a conversation between two characters, both of whom should already know the material under discussion. (The so-called As you know, Bob conversation.)
Both incluing and infodumping are forms of exposition and are frequently used in science fiction and fantasy, genres where the writer has the task to make the reader believe in a world that does not exist. Writers in other genres have less use for these techniques, as they can often depend on the reader's familiarity with the "real world".
Incluing can be done in a number of ways: through conversation between characters, through background details or by establishing scenes where a character is followed through daily life. The most famous example of incluing is the door irised open, a phrase created by Robert A. Heinlein and used in several of his stories and novels. In real life, few if any doors do iris open; by mentioning it offhandedly without explanation the reader gets a picture of something both familiar and strange, without calling attention to its strangeness. (Attr Jo Walton) (Source: incluing at Wikipedia )
Jo Walton defines incluing as "the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information." (e)

keyhole curiosity

Similar to the edges of ideas keyhole curiosity is when the writer weaves the background into the story in such a way that the reader sees only partial aspects of the background, as if they were looking through a keyhole into a mansion, glimpsing only a fraction of the possibilities.(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

ontological riff

An 'ontological riff' is a passage in an SF story which suggests that our deepest and most basic convictions about the nature of reality, space-time, or consciousness have been violated, technologically transformed, or at least rendered thoroughly dubious. The works of H. P. Lovecraft, Barrington Bayley, and Philip K Dick abound in "ontological riffs." (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

parsimony of detail

Parsimony of detail is an attribute of writing where the author has been frugal or conservative in what they tell the reader, generally in a positive way, such that any detail given is significant to the story in some way. It is a more narrowly focused aspect of economy. Contrast with chrome. --(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

reward the careful reader

Reward the careful reader is the counterpart to punishing the careless reader: rewarding means, in this case, providing extra bonus details, small bits of readerly pleasure. Tuckerizing is a simple example; others are eyeball images, resonant metaphors, throwaway jokes, and so on. "As for you, the writer, never forget the following: the reader is like a circus horse which has to be taught that it will be rewarded with a lump of sugar every time it acquits itself well. If that sugar is withheld, it will not perform." -- Milorad Pavic, Dictionary of the Khazars. (CSFW: David Smith) See Cookie. (Original source: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/being-a-glossary-of-terms-useful-in-critiquing-science-fiction/ )
Also see rational fic (e)

round character

One narrow definition of a round character is one who is capable of change and evolution throughout a story. A broader definition of a round character, is a character who has depth, isn't a stereotype or a cliche; has identifiable desires and goals; has sufficient detail of behavior, intent, and backstory to be believable to the reader. Contrast with flat character. --(Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

show, not tell

A cardinal principle of effective writing. The reader should be allowed to react naturally to the evidence presented in the story, not instructed in how to react by the writer. Specific incidents and carefully observed details will render authorial lectures unnecessary. For instance, instead of telling the reader "She had a bad childhood, an unhappy childhood," a specific incident -- involving, say, a locked closet and two jars of honey -- should be shown.
Rigid adherence to show-don't-tell can become absurd. Minor matters are sometimes best gotten out of the way in a swift, straightforward fashion. (Source: Turkey City Lexicon ) (e)

tell, not show

There is a time to show and there is a time to tell. Much ink has been spilled on the subject of show don't tell, but not on when telling is better. Some of the situations when tell is better are:
  • Remind readers of something without reiterating in depth (that is, "showing" all over again)
  • Telling, from a characters perspective, explicitly summarizes and encapsulates the events from that characters viewpoint. This can be important and useful when the character doing the telling is distorting (deliberately or not) the events, or explicitly leaving aspects out.
Charlie Jane Anders has identified these 5 situations where it's better to tell than show:
  1. Your characters all know something your reader doesn't.
  2. There are too many mysteries.
  3. You have too much insane backstory.
  4. You can think of a more entertaining way to tell than to show.
  5. It gets in the way of the emotional potency of your story.

Three Pillars of Storytelling

The Three Pillars of Storytelling are:

If any of the 'pillars' are weak, you need to increase the strength of the remaining pillar(s) in order to effectively tell the story. You also need a foundation to build on, and that is genre, that is, you need to establish the set of tropes to be employed and thus set the reader's expectations. (e)

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