Monday, June 21, 2010

What Works: "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson

This week's "What Works" post focuses on Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

Excerpt from Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category. He's got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

When they gave him the job, they gave him a gun. The Deliverator never deals in cash, but someone might come after him anyway--might want his car, or his cargo. The gun is tiny, aero-styled, lightweight, the kind of gun a fashion designer would carry; it fires teensy darts that fly at five times the velocity of an SR-71 spy plane, and when you get done using it, you have to plug it into the cigarette lighter, because it runs on electricity.


The Deliverator's car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or Burb beater, the Deliverator's car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car's tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator's car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady's thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.
So who is The Deliverator? He's a pizza delivery boy--a pizza delivery boy in a world where corporations rather than countries rule the planet, and an employee failing to deliver his customer's pizza in thirty minutes may be out of a life rather than simply out of a job.

This excerpt shows off one of the most potent and enjoyable aspects of Neal Stephenson's writing: his voice.

Here's the power of that voice: Ask yourself how the protagonist (his name is Hiro Protagonist, by the way; har, har, Mr. Stephenson) talks to people. Ask yourself how he behaves around others.

At this point, you probably have a pretty good idea what this man is like to be around, and yet you haven't actually heard Hiro speak to anyone or seen him act. Your impression comes from Mr. Stephenson's writing voice, which he has tuned to match his protagonist's character. The cadences of Hiro's speech, the patterns of his thoughts, are mimicked here by the author.

You can tell Hiro takes a typically male delight in slick technology and high performance gadgets. You can tell he's cocksure, effortlessly cool, and takes a swaggering pride in how well he does his job.

But here's the big deception: take a look at the excerpts again. All of that is telling not showing.

What?! Doesn't that break one of the fundamental rules of writing? Oh, it totally does, but it also totally works. The first reason why is that we are being shown some important things. First: Hiro's personality. A braggart talks this way about himself, and we're learning about Hiro through witnessing this representation of his inner thoughts. Second: We're learning a lot about how seriously either Hiro or his employer takes the job Hiro is hired to perform; that's a lot of expensive gear he's got with him.

The second thing that helps redeem this long patch of "telling" is it is heavily laced with visuals, so even if we're not being "shown" Hiro, we're seeing a lot of images in our imagination. a wren hitting a patio door... a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest.
...feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books. fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt.
...gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters.
...four places the size of your tongue.
...big sticky tires...the size of a fat lady's thighs.

I will note the reason we see these things in our imaginations is they are not clichés. Each of these descriptions is apt, easy to imagine, and utterly unusual. And because each statement is an abnormal choice of words, we must imagine the image in order to understand what the author means.

In other words, the author has successfully engaged our mind in the world of the novel. If Mr. Stephenson had said, "His uniform is black as night, absorbing the light. A bullet will bounce off it like a pea, but excess perspiration wafts through it like wind through the trees", we possibly wouldn't picture a thing. The sentence would still be clear and understandable, but steeped in clichés as it is, our imagination could remain uninvolved with the process of reading the story.

The last thing that keeps this excerpt highly readable is, again, the quality of the writing voice--the pure charisma of it. We are listening to Hiro's mind talk, but that speech is flamboyant and energetic and laced with many funny and wonderful visual images. It's a captivating voice. This is somebody you would gravitate toward at a party--even if he was someone you didn't actually like.

The reason why we writers are told to "show", instead of "tell", is because most people "tell" by default when they begin writing fiction, and they usually don't do it very well. By learning to "show", they then become much more effective at engaging the reader's imagination.

But Mr. Stephenson proves something we writers often forget or try to disbelieve--that "telling" works when it's done by a skillful enough storyteller.

The aim of writing fiction is to slurp the reader into the story, to engage their imagination, and to keep the reader so well-rewarded for their attention that they can't put the book down until the last page. As long as the author does this, the tools he or she uses are immaterial. "Telling" is just another tool--a dangerous one in the hands of amateurs, but as effective as "showing" in the hands of a master.

In order to "tell" effectively, you need (1) a genuinely charismatic voice, (2) fresh language that engages the reader's senses and imagination, and (3) you need to be laying down important information.

The reason why first person POV is very, very hard to do well is because everything gets filtered through the protagonist. There is necessarily a lot of "telling" required to convey the world of the novel to the reader, and often the writer doesn't satisfy the three points above or doesn't do so consistently throughout the novel.

My least favourite encounters with first person POV in novels are when I find myself deluged with unimportant information such as how the protagonist looks or dresses or how hot they think their friend is. Is this character someone I would gravitate toward at a party? No, it's the yatterer who won't shut up about themselves and their own slight concerns--the person I try to avoid.

In the above excerpt, we learn how Hiro is dressed, but it's relevant information. It establishes what his job is like, what his world is like, and it sets the novel's tone. It also gives Mr. Stephenson opportunity to throw in some of his wonderful "eyeball kicks" (eyeball kick: those abrupt, specific images you experience while reading a very visual piece of writing.)

The description of Hiro's clothing is also quite brief. The difference between a good writing voice and an annoying one is often a matter of degree--if you can imply all the information you need in one sentence, then do it.

If you're not sure how much patience your reader will have for your protagonist's inner thoughts, the rule of thumb is, "Would I attach myself to the elbow of a person who talked like this at a party, or plot my escape from them? Especially if I didn't know them at all?" Often you can determine when it's time to shut your protagonist up and get on with the action based on that criteria alone.

IN SUMMARY: What works in this piece is the strength of the writing voice, which is a combination of potent visuals, cliché-free writing, and the establishment of the protagonist's native charisma.


What do you think makes this piece engaging? Is there anything about it that turns you off? Do you agree with me that Mr. Stephenson is "telling" rather than "showing" here?

Do you agree with my criteria for what makes "telling" engaging? What would you add to my list? Subtract from it? Do you disagree with my comments about first person POV? I'd love to discuss it with you.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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