by Quentin Long
©2009 Quentin Long
Furdom being what it is, its a good bet that youve heard of science-fiction writer Larry Niven. You may even know about the aphorisms hes coined, which are collectively known as Nivens Laws; as it happens, hes got a few Laws for writers. And the topic of this editorial is Nivens Fourth Law For Writers:
It is a sin to waste the readers time.
The basic idea is pretty simple: If youre asking someone to invest however-many hours of their time in reading your story, they should feel that that time was well-spent after theyre done with it. As a corollary, any author would be well-advised to make sure their stories dont include anything that would encourage such a what a waste of time feeling in their readers and here are three of them:
Item: Deus ex machina (literally, god from a machine). This literary trope dates back thousands of years, at minimum; it was much-used in ancient Greek theatrical productions in which the nominal protagonist spent most of the play utterly failing to deal with whatever problems he was faced with, but that was okay because the playwright made sure that some deity or other would pop up in the final act to set everything right. Apparently, ancient Greek audiences couldnt get enough of this sort of thing; I, for one, will never understand why. If the Authors omnipotent hand is just going to solve everything in the end regardless, what the hell was the point of all that fuss and bother in the first 90% of the ruddy play!?
Item: Contradictions. While its never a good idea for an author to contradict themself, its positively abysmal when the contradiction involves a major plot element. Readers may well be able to ignore trivial stuff like, say, a characters hair-color changing from red to blond for no reason but if youve established that your main character will die on contact with water, and theyve spent the first 15 chapters going way the hell out of their way to avoid moisture at all times, you simply do not want to have them take a bath in chapter 16! Pull that sort of crap on a reader, and youre just begging for their Willing Suspension of Disbelief to be crushed into paste by I Aint Letting That Asshole Jerk Me Around No More.
Item: Gratuitously obscure vocabulary. Show me an author who habitually insists on using lots of words which his readers are unlikely (or even unable) to comprehend, and Ill show you an author who doesntand shouldnthave all that many readers. Now, Mark Twains famous advice to use the right word, and not its second cousin is all well and good. But if the right word turns out to be something like thwertnick, agroof, phthisic, or recumbentibus maybe it isnt the right word, after all. It should be obvious: If you arent expressing yourself in language your audience can understand, youre not telling a story! The take-home lesson here is, an author needs to know their readersincluding what level of vocabulary theyre comfortable with.
All the above said and acknowledged, I have to admit its physically possible to write good, enthralling stories which make use of any/all of these three items; this is why I will never forbid any Anthro writer from making use of them. But at the same time, if I see any of these items in a story, I definitely will ask the author if its really, truly necessary for whatever-it-is to be there, on the grounds that said author is needlessly making life difficult for themselves by using whatever-it-is.