Don’t know? Then don’t explain.

In a previous blog, I asked when should one try to explain what underpins the scientific or magic devices in the story? My first attempt at an answer covered, at least part of “never”. That might seem to be something of a cop-out, and one could argue that leaving out explanations cannot help develop the plot. Nevertheless, there are times when “never” is a good idea for the author, even if not for the story. An obvious example is when there is a real explanation, but the author is not on top of it.

The purpose behind an explanation is to engage the reader. If the reader accepts what is put to them, then the explanation helps the reader to understand why the plot works, it might add colour to the story for those interested (in murder stories, quite a few people know the characteristics of arsenic now and so might recognize the symptoms before the murder becomes obvious) and in addition, it might give the reader some interesting additional information. It is even possible to convey a message, although whether it gets through is another matter. In my ebook Puppeteer, I put in an argument against hydrogen as a motor fuel by having two pieces of terrorism caused by having hydrogen pipes shot. Hydrogen is the most readily leaky fuel known, and when mixed with air in a very wide range of proportions, it is explosive. So, I used the resultant explosions as the starting point for certain thefts. I also mentioned in passing that filling a car with petrol cost a thousand dollars, which I hope conveys what everyone is looking at if society does not do something about finding replacement fuels for oil.

However, there is a very good reason for an author not to explain if he or she is not on top of whatever it is. I recall once reading a thriller by, if I recall correctly, Tom Clancy and the hero creeps up and immobilizes a guard by spraying him with, . . .  wait for it . . . dimethyl sulphoxide (DMSO). Oh dear! Anyone who knows anything about DMSO will know at once that this would annoy the guard because, amongst other things, the usual DMSO has a bit of a smell to go with it, and in any case, who wants to be sprayed with some unknown liquid? That might well encourage the guard to raise the alarm, shoot the sprayer, beat the living daylights out of the sprayer, or some combination. But whatever else it does, it will not immobilize anyone. Clancy did get one thing right: DMSO passes rapidly through the skin. Once upon a time it was used for rubbing down athletes, for muscle relaxation, but after a while that was banned because there is potential trouble with eyes with prolonged such use. Accordingly, in this world where no warning is too strong (at least to avoid the downside of litigation when someone inevitably does the most stupid thing imaginable) every now and again you see serious warnings about “don’t let this touch the skin”. So, as I said, anyone who knew anything about DMSO would get an immediate release of tension and lean back either laughing, or shaking the head. Not the desired outcome.

Sane scientists are OK in fiction!

I saw a recent blog extolling the virtues of “mad scientists” to drive plots. How about a plug for sane scientists? There is no reason why science has to be insane to be interesting. That does not mean that science has to be “good”. In fact, scientific knowledge is neither good nor bad; it is what you do with it that counts. Doing bad things with it is excellent plot material, because as my blog has been trying to say, science is not the plot; the plot is what people do. The simplest example I can think of is the murder mystery. For many of them, poison is a key ingredient, and you do not have to be insane to invent poison. In fact nature invented the best ones itself, and surely nature is not going to be termed insane? So, suppose the author is going to introduce poison into the plot. In terms of my previous blog on “explaining”, the question is raised, how far should the author go with explaining the nature of the poison? More to the point, why?

 There are two options here, and the first is to name the poison and describe the symptoms. There is a very good reason regarding plot to do this, because the perceptive detective, or the individual such as Mr S. Holmes who shows up the not very perceptive detective, can see the effects and deduce what has happened. It also allows some character play between those who see the clue and those who do not. Of course a little care here is needed too. The classic identifier of hydrogen cyanide is the smell of bitter almonds, but there is a small per centage of the population who cannot smell it. That too could be a plot element. So, naming the poison could be a good idea, if the author is on top of it. Good research helps! On the other hand, if the author does sloppy research, it shows. So the price of buying into this option is to do good research, and one problem of course, is that if the source of the knowledge comes from the web, it may not be correct, or sufficiently complete.

 The second option could be called “the custard’s way out”. As an example, in my ebook Troubles, I had someone poison the main character with a “white powder” that had certain properties. The poisoner was ordered to do this and was given the powder, and since the poisoner had no idea what the poison was, there was no need to tell the reader. That way you get around the problem of making a mistake. At first sight, this may seem to lose plot opportunities, but I think it can also create some. Back to Troubles, the poisoner is taken to dinner, he leaves the table, returns, consumes some food, then he is shown a small empty vial with traces of white powder. Now, had he known what the first one was, he may have done some research and might know what its taste was like, or something else about it, but with no idea he panics. (This time it was not poison, but . . .) So without knowing what it is, that itself can be part of the plot. Later, once again there was a white powder. Now, the reader is wondering, and very soon a conclusion some readers will jump to is confirmed. So, in my opinion there are virtues in not explaining, provided the non-explained issue is not left dangling. The issue is not poison, but the characters that come into contact with it. In Troubles, there was another issue too. The poisoning was not really the main part of the plot, but rather a small matter at the end to remove certain characters, and to bring the major villain to an end, not due to poison (although that was applied) but rather the main feature was his character defect that got him into the position where he could be poisoned.

Returning to my main point, poisoning is not “good”, but the users were not insane. My personal view is that literature thrives on exploring evil in plots, but I am less happy with insanity. Literature tries to give messages, or even lessons, but by definition, insanity teaches nothing.

Why not explain.

Suppose you write a story that introduces “science” or magic that has to be there for the plot to work.  Thus in the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried must help Gunther win Brunhild for the plot to progress. Now, in a contest of strength watched by all and sundry, Siegfried cannot be seen doing it, hence the need for a cloak of invisibility. Star Wars would not be the same story without the force. Star Trek would be quite different without teleportation and warp drive. One issue facing a writer is, when should one try to explain what underpins these devices?

One possibility is, “never”. Thus for centuries, people listed to the Nibelungenlied without worrying a jot about how the cloak worked; it was magic! The Star Trek “science” is slightly different. Teleportation in the sense used there was not really important other than as a means of getting on with the story, so as long as the story was good, who cared? It just removed the need for tiresome issues with shuttles, and it was accepted (or not) without further discussion. Warp drive was something slightly different. Again, that was needed to get the story moving, and to permit the crew to return to Earth, but it has an interesting side issue. According to relativity, or more particularly the representation of space-time in relativity, moving faster than light requires moving through time in a negative direction so you can arrive before you set off. As far as I am aware, this peculiarity was never made use of.

This introduces another reason not to explain: the explanation is just too complicated. Think of going back in time through warp speed. This depends critically on the concept of space-time, without which the equations of general relativity are sufficiently difficult that they beat Einstein (who, at first, thought “space-time” just plain wrong, but he later adopted it because there seemed to be no other way of making progress). The author does not need to get bogged down into that discussion! For example, one view might be that just because the maths are more easily solved using space-time, it does not mean that spacetime is a physical object. Think of the geometry problems you solve by making a construction, or a differential equation using a substitution. Making a construction on a sheet of paper does not make it real on whatever the diagram represents! It just makes it easier to solve the problem. Similarly, modern quantum mechanical problems are addressed through using something called Hilbert space. Nobody I know has suggested that Hilbert space is a real thing, and if it were, it is not really compatible with relativistic space-time. See why you do not want to get involved? Why dig a hole for yourself and lose readers?

Notwithstanding that, there is a problem with ignoring it. Thinking of warp drive, you can either do what Star Trek did and use it as a way of getting from A to B to shorten travel times. Now you are incompatible with relativity, so no explanation is a good idea, but you consign the concept to the “convenient” and turn your stories into the “ordinary”. Be careful, or all you end up with is a space western, and the author has lost a huge number of possible plots!

Take another reason. Think of the force in Star Wars. I remember watching the first three movies, and I, along with everyone else I know, accepted that, in these movies anyway, there was something called the force that a very few could access after a lot of training. I did not care what caused it. But then, a number of years later, Lucas made three more movies, and explained the origin of the force. In my opinion, the explanation was ridiculous, and it only detracted from the movie. To summarize what I am suggesting, sometimes it is better not to try to explain something. Details can add to a story, but silly details subtract from it.

Magic and editing in the Nibelungenlied

In my previous blog, I used the Nibelungenlied as an example of how “the magic” should be introduced into a story well before it is needed, and how “the magic” should not be the prime reason for the story. There are several reasons for this, one of which is that it is difficult to manage tension if the story is unbalanced. It may be all right for a comic book, but in a full novel Superman just does not generate tension. If nobody can do anything to him, you now he is going to win, and all you are going to read is a whole lot of description of varying degrees of pointless violence. Arguably, this is what is wrong with a lot of recent movies. To get tension, the hero has to be able to fail. 

In great stories like the Nibelungenlied “the magic” is used not to benefit the hero, but rather to create the situations from which there is no escape, but which would not have arisen but for the character flaws of the participants. The cloak of invisibility is only used to allow Gunther to have what he should not have, while Siegfried’s invulnerability is only relevant because it has a defect, which permit’s Hagen’s treachery and Kriemhild’s stupidity to have Siegfried killed.

The Nibelungenlied is of interest in many other ways for a writer, and not all of them as good examples. The original poet would now be severely criticized for poor copy-editing. As an example, the story goes over three decades, but somehow over this period characters such as Gisheler simply do not age. The poet seems to remember from time to time, and he gives Hagen some grey hairs at the end, but really, this is a slip. The battles have impossible exaggeration; they go on for hours, at times without damage to the main protagonists, and while one or two get serious wounds, a little later it never troubles them and they continue doing heroic deeds as if nothing had happened. One might argue that nothing changes; how many action books have been written where the hero takes a major wound, then does heroic things with incredible stamina, even for a perfectly fit man? However, there is one important difference between the “against all odds” action of the Nibelungenlied and most similar examples of modern times. In the Nibelungenlied the carnage is not gratuitous, and is there to show how many good men had to die because of the refusal of one side to permit justice, and the consequent desire for revenge on the other side. The carnage is a terrible price to be paid, and not some heroic glorification. 

Something else that seemingly never changes is conspicuous consumption. In the Nibelungenlied there is a fixation on clothing. Whenever setting out on some venture, new clothes are needed. Given any excuse, knights fight in the bohort. The trick was to end up with shredded clothes, and to be gay about it, showing they do not care about the expense. In my translation, admittedly an older version, knights must be gay at all times. This, of course, says something about language; I doubt the translator would have used the word “gay” now! 

The answer to the question re chattering women

In previous posts, I asked the question: can you think of a famous story involving a cloaking device that underpins a plot involving abuse of power, pride, wishing for what you should not have, and the curse of chattering women? My answer is the Nibelungenlied, which, like the Arthurian legend was written somewhere about the 12th-13th centuries and which culminated a sequence of legends that greatly embellished and “magicified” events from about the 5th-6th centuries. Thanks to Richard Wagner, most people have heard of it, but unfortunately Wagner played somewhat fast and loose with the original story.

I started this blog series with the question of how to introduce the “magical” devices, and perhaps the Nibelungenlied provides the briefest ever introduction. When Siegfried, the son of Siegmund and Sieglind, comes to the court of Gunther in Worms, he is introduced as the man who had killed the dragon and bathed in its blood, thus becoming unable to be wounded, who had acquired the cloak of invisibility, which also conveyed superhuman power, from the dwarf Alberich, and who had made Alberich guard the great treasure of the Nibelungs for him. All this in about half a dozen lines. The important point is, everything was established well before it was used, so there are no sighs of despair when the “powers” are used.

The plot is roughly as follows, and the first half focuses mainly on the desire by some to have what they should not want. Siegfried desires Kriemhild (Gunther’s sister), who is the most beautiful woman in the world. (Not that he has seen her, or knows anything about her.) Unfortunately, Gunther wants Brunhild, queen of Iceland and a woman with the strength of many men, for a wife, and to succeed he has to defeat her in three games of strength. Gunther has no right to her and should never seek her, but he offers Kriemhild to Siegfried if Siegfried will help him get Brunhild. They go to Iceland, where Seigfried is introduced as Gunther’s vassal. Thanks to the cloak of invisibility, Siegfried can throw the spear, the rock and Gunther for the jump, while Gunther pretends. (It is not clear who is the left-hander. Logic is not strong in this poem!) The problem then is, while Brunhild concedes to be his wife, she retains her strength while she remains a virgin. On the first night, she wraps Gunther up and hangs him from a hook on the wall. Once again, Seigfried must help, and while invisible, and presumably in the dark, he wrestles with Brunhild until she concedes. In the good Christian Germanic version, Gunther does the final deed, but in some of the earlier Norse versions, it is Siegfried. It is understandable that this was unsuitable material for Wagner. Leaving aside 19th century morality, how do you portray that in opera, with Brunhild first resisting, then finally conceding to losing her virginity to an invisible man in the dark. Try writing the words to sing with Brunhild’s leitmotif!

Now it is Siegfried’s turn to take what he should not: he takes Brunhild’s ring and girdle for souvenirs. Siegfried and Kriemhild marry, and about a decade later return to Worms. Brunhild and Kriemhild get chattering, and finally Brunhild gets sufficiently irritated that Kriemhild is not showing the deference that the wife of a vassal should. As things get heated, Brunhild sees her ring on Kriemhild’s hand, and the truth dawns. She asks Hagen for revenge, Hagen approaches Kriemhild and learns that Siegfried has a vulnerable spot, where a linden leaf fell on his back and stopped the blood from covering it properly. Kriemhild’s beauty is compensated for by a lack of brains, so after telling this to Hagen, she even sews a cross on the back of Siegfried’s shirt to show Hagen what he must protect. (This may be the origin of “X marks the spot”!) Hagen kills Siegfried by sneaking up behind him, but that is far from the end of the story. Kriemhild now wants revenge, and eventually, to get at Hagen, she has everyone from Burgundy killed, including her brothers.

The story might depend on invisibility, but invisibility is merely there to set up the plot, and not to let the hero have a cheap escape. The real story is about the consequences of pride and trophy gathering, betrayal and revenge, beauty and stupidity, in other words, the sort of things that make a great plot.