Thursday, June 07, 2012

Writing Wibbles (the Handwave)

Trying this on Thursday, just for grins.

A few weeks ago, Tony Noland wrote a funny little blog post about hard sci-fi versus soft sci-fi. Around the same time, someone else wrote a “zombie science” rant about not focusing too much on how the zombies “work” (and I wish I’d saved the URL). Depending on how the author approaches it, zombie fic could be considered a sub-genre of SF as well as horror, but that’s not important. What’s important is that they all (including hard sci-fi) make use of a literary device called the handwave (it’s a technical term).

Like any literary device, the handwave is important but often abused. To understand why it has that name, imagine sitting down with an author who’s talking about her story while you’re plying her with questions about different details. Sooner or later, she’ll wave her hand and say something like, “oh, that’s just a given.” In the story, a handwave glosses over (or outright dismisses) details about the starship’s hyper-drive, or how a zombie can rot indefinitely. Some handwaves are necessary to prevent long tedious infodumps, although an infodump itself often handwaves certain details.

Some of the worst handwaves can be found in classic SF, some of which Isaac Asimov collected in an anthology called Before the Golden Age. By “worst,” I mean those that are so obviously handwaves that they threaten to throw a modern reader out of the story. “The world is unready for this information,” or even referring to a crucial ingredient as “X” (see The Skylark of Space), are classics. You don’t see handwaves that obvious in modern fiction, fortunately.

Soft sci-fi depends heavily on handwaves, but a deft writer can make them seamless. Over the weekend, I read Cherie Reich’s novella Defying Gravity. This is definitely soft sci-fi, even a romance with a sci-fi wrapper. She used three or four handwaves, and only one stuck out. The others went by so smoothly that I didn’t notice them right away. That’s how ya do it, folks. Keep them smooth, don’t let them jar the reader out of the story.

Use it, don't abuse it.

2 comments:

  1. Well, it's nice to know I did the handwaves fairly well. I must admit I hadn't heard the term before. Oops. :)

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  2. Sometimes, that's all to the better. If you're not thinking about it, you just do it. If you're thinking about it, you can get bogged down in the "how do I do this right?" details. ;-)

    BTW, the one that stuck out (for me) was how she would have known English when they didn't know Earth had reverted to barbarism. But I think your target readers wouldn't have given it any thought, so it's all good.

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