Elizabeth Bear: March 2014 Archives

I am entranced by cause and effect.

This probably has some direct bearing on my chosen career as a storyteller. The real world is devoid of narratives, after all. Narratives are just a thing that our brains do with facts in order to draw a line around the incomprehensible largeness of reality and wrestle it into something learnable and manipulable. Existence is devoid of plot, theme, and most of all moral.

And yet I can still be struck dumb when two facts I knew, but never really considered before, snap into synthesis. The a-hah moment is incredibly powerful.

Consider: wildfires appear to have been more common and more widespread during the Cretaceous period. Consider also, that oxygen levels may have been considerably higher--as much as 35%, by some sampling techniques, as opposed to today's paltry 21%.

(I've found a few references to a 2013 study that seems to indicate that Triassic oxygen levels may have been even lower, but that's a whole different era of the same eon. (Or aeon, if you prefer.))

I knew these two facts in isolation for some time. But at some point they clicked into place for me, and I realized that each implies the other.


Or more precisely, a-hah!


One of my great joys as a writer lies in teaching. I have been privileged to teach at several workshops over the years, and one of the things that I try hardest to teach my students is that the most powerful emotional effect a story can have on the reader is the one summoned when the reader figures things out for themself. Where the writer provides the information--the clues--and the reader puts them together and figures out how something works.

I also teach them that one of the coolest tricks to pull in worldbuilding is to imply things. An oaken chair implies cold, temperate forests harvested for timber. Shipping implies trade. And so forth.

Of course, it's also the trickiest trick to pull off, because the necessary clue level varies from reader to reader, and nobody likes to feel led by the nose, and some readers don't actually want to figure things out: they just want to be told.

The deep irony is, of course, that while I can tell an apprentice writer this, they won't really understand it until they figure it out for themself.

I love unreliable narrators. I love those moments when as a reader, I realize something slightly before the narrative makes it plain. I love the little neurological endorphin cookie that my brain feeds me: "Congratulations! You learned something! Perhaps you'll live another day!"

This is also how inspiration works, incidentally: you stack up disparate things against one another until suddenly, your brain arranges a connection. It makes a pattern. It creates a narrative, where no narrative was before.


So it turns out that one can use fossil carbon beds as a predictor of prehistoric atmospheric oxygen levels.

One thing is implied in another. A-hah.



About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries written by Elizabeth Bear in March 2014.

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