[On Fiction-Writing] Restraint, subtlety, unreliable narrators, and Gene Wolfe

I remember myself saying once, “The more words you use to convey your story, the less I believe in the world you’ve constructed.” It’s something I still uphold to this day.

I recently made a blog post on video games and loneliness, and a common trait of these video games is that fact that they completely skimp out on verbal narration, or on words entirely. They are quiet games that let images and actions dictate the story. I absolutely adore it when I am able to extract so much information from a wordless scene. Narratorial hand-holding has never been my thing. If I want a story, I’d rather discover it on my own, than have the story itself spoonfeed me.

If a story feels the need to constantly explain itself with lengthy cutscenes or expository dialogue (I’m looking at you, BioWare and Bethesda games. And basically all epic fantasy/sci-fi novels), it shows how little confidence the story has that you will be able to pick these things up from context clues.

So where does that leave a fiction writer like me? I work with words, so doesn’t that mean more words is always a plus? It ultimately depends on how these words are used.

Take Gene Wolfe, for example. [Spoiler alert, but you really can’t avoid spoilers when you talk about this book] His masterpiece The Book of the New Sun is a 4-volume tome that is as thick as it is nearly impenetrable. It takes place in the distant future, when the sun has begun to die, a time where unknown, unrecorded, and unexplained calamities have devastated this world to the point that no one remembers what things used to be called or what their uses once were. Hence, we are taken on a massive quest in the guise of a surreal, Gothic fantasy novel, when it fact, it is more science fiction than anything else, and we only get to have an inkling of that more than 3/4ths of the way into the novel! There is an epic quest in here but instead of laying out the scene in graphic detail, he describes his world in a way that an actual character of this world would describe it: to the best of their knowledge, which is to say, not very much, despite the protagonist proclaiming that he has eidetic memory (perfect recollection). Space travel is described as light-fishes moving across mirrors; aliens are described only loosely and one would initially think they’re just another “class” of human; strange creatures inhabit this world and yet we only get the barest of descriptions as to their nature; and the characters are definitely much more than who they seem and discovering their identities or what they are often results in mindblowing revelations. There are hidden Biblical references; tons of obsolete Latin words abound; and things are never as they appear. The world Gene Wolfe has created is hazy and amorphous and lacking in distinct shape. The shapes change after every new chapter you read, after each new interpretation you come across.

Gene Wolfe once said, “Real people really are unreliable narrators all the time, even if they try to be reliable narrators.” Common sense dictates that it is unwise to trust unreliable narrators but there is always something so alluring about it, something so unquestionably human that a narrator would forgo accuracy to tell the story they want to tell. You can infer so many things about what they decide to talk about, and what they decide to leave out. This is why restraint and subtlety is very important to me when it comes to reading and writing fiction.

To me, the most interesting stories arise from the untold details, which is why a lot of mainstream RPGs and fantasy novels are very unappealing to me. No, I don’t want to listen to your deliberate attempts to flesh out your world. No, don’t tell me histories as if they were written in books. Tell me histories that arise from your psyche. Tell me histories that surface from interaction with your surroundings. Please trust that us readers are intelligent enough to deduce, to theorize. Let me interpret your universe.


One thought on “[On Fiction-Writing] Restraint, subtlety, unreliable narrators, and Gene Wolfe

  1. I agree with you here. I really like seeing how far I can push the “game” that is the story. Writing-wise, how far can I go without actually telling the reader what I mean? Or how can I say more than one thing at once? Hahaha


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