The success of John Scalzi’s descriptive minimalism

One of the categories here on the blog is Science Fiction, mainly because I read and watch a lot of it.  Occasionally, someone wanting to get into the literary version of the genre asks me for recommendations on good initial books to start with.  My recommendation often depends on the person, but I frequently suggest they try John Scalzi’s work.

Scalzi has a light witty writing style.  He never seems to be far from outright humor, although his stories usually have an overall serious core.  This allows him to explore some issues that other authors struggle to do without alienating all but the most hardcore sci-fi nerds.  A lot of people who dislike science fiction often do like his books.

Of the writers who have explored posthuman themes, his approach is often the least threatening.  His breakout novel, Old Man’s War, features old people recruited into a future army where their minds are transferred into new combat bodies.  But he carefully avoids broaching some of the more existential issues associated with that idea.  Likewise, his novel Lock In explores minds in different bodies in a way that minimizes the angst of many of his more (small “c”) conservative readers.

Scalzi makes compromises to make his work more accessible, but it allows him to present ideas to a wide audience.  He’s been rewarded for it; he’s a bestselling author.  And he won the Hugo Award for Best Novel with the book, Redshirts, with a setting very similar to Star Trek, but one where the ship crew actually notices that a lot of people other than the senior officers die on away missions, and decide to do something about it.

His most recent book is The Collapsing Empire, a far future story about an interstellar empire that is about to lose its ability to travel interstellar distances.  I read, enjoyed, and recommend it.  But it’s the first in a new series, so it ends on a cliffhanger, which some readers might find annoying.

But the reason for this post is that some reviewers are apparently finding the book to be too short a read.  As Scalzi pointed out in a recent post, the novel isn’t actually a short one by normal sci-fi standards, weighing in at about 90,000 words.  Why then does it feel short to some readers?  Scalzi himself offers an explanation.

I’m not entirely sure what makes people think The Collapsing Empire is short, but I have a couple guesses. One is that, like most books of mine, it’s heavy on dialogue and light on description, which makes it “read” faster than other books of the same length might be.

I think Scalzi’s exactly right about this.  His books do read fast, and I think a large part of it is because they’re simply easy to read.  It takes a minimal amount of effort to parse them, particularly starting with Redshirts.  I saw someone once comment that his writing makes for an “effortless” experience of story.

It seems to me that a large part of this is because of his “heavy on dialogue and light on description” style.  If you’ve never read his stuff and want to get an idea of this style, check out his novella on Tor: After the Coup.  Scalzi virtually never gives a detailed description of settings, except to note what kind of place they are, such as an office, spaceship bridge, or palace, and if there is anything unusual about them.  And I can’t recall him ever describing a character in detail.

Some readers are put off by this type of minimalism, finding it to be a bit too “white room”, too much of a bare stage.  They prefer more sensory detail to add more vividness for the setting or character.

I can understand that sentiment to some extent, but I personally find detailed descriptions too tedious.  If I’m otherwise enjoying the story, I’ll put up with detailed descriptions (to an extent), but for me it’s something I have to endure, an obstacle I have to climb over.

One of the most often cited pieces of writing advice is “show don’t tell”.  This advice seems to mean different things to different people.  To me it means that, to relay important information to the reader, the best option is with story events that reveal it, the second is with dialog or inner monologue, and the least desirable is with straight exposition.

But many writers take “show don’t tell” to mean providing detailed descriptions and letting the reader reach their own conclusions.  So instead of simply saying that a workroom is messy, the details of the messiness should be described and the reader allowed to figure out that it’s a mess.  As a reader, I personally find this kind of writing frustratingly tedious.  I tend to glaze over during the description and miss the point the author wanted me to derive.

Apparently a lot of people agree with me.  As I noted above, Scalzi is a bestselling author.  I’ll say I don’t like everything about his writing.  (His character voices could be more distinct, although he’s improving on that front, and his endings often feel a little too pat.)  But his books are always entertaining, and I think, together with the humor, the minimalist style has a lot to do with it.

In many ways, this style is reminiscent of a type of writing we used to see a lot more of.  Classic science fiction authors like Robert Heinlein (whose style Scalzi’s early Old Man’s War books emulated), Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, and many others were all fairly minimalist on description.

Over time, styles have tended to become more verbose.  I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect technology has something to do with it.  Before the 1980s, most writers used a typewriter.  Iterative revisions, with lots of opportunities to add new descriptive details, often required retyping a lot of text (i.e. work).  It became much easier with word processing software, making it much more common.

In my view, this has led to a lot of bloated novels, often taking 500 pages to tell a 300 page story.  To be clear, I have no problem with a 500 page book if it tells a 500 page story (Dune and Fellowship of the Ring both told a lot of story with around 500 pages), but many authors today seem to need that many pages to tell the same stories that were once handled with much smaller books.

Certainly tastes vary, but I think Scalzi’s success shows that when given an option for tighter writing, a lot of readers take it.  I wish more authors would take note.

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18 Responses to The success of John Scalzi’s descriptive minimalism

  1. john zande says:

    I liked/like Scalzi’s work. Have you dived into Greg Egan? A superb mind.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I discovered Scalzi recently; found his book “The Android’s Dream” at a library book sale, and was caught by the reference to Phillip K. Dick’s book. Read it, loved it, and “Redshirts” is on my to read list.

    I agree with you that pointless details can be tedious. One reason I prefer non-fiction is because there’s less filler than fiction — non-fiction seems to get to the point more easily. And since I’m usually interested in ideas rather than “story”, details don’t add much unless they’re hilarious. Basically, i’m not patient enough to read fiction — an explanation that confounds people who ask me why I prefer non-fiction 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • The ‘The Android’s Dream’ was hilarious, from the murder by fart on! I think you’ll enjoy ‘Redshirts’.

      On preferring nonfiction, I can see that if your primary interest is the ideas. For me, fiction often serves as a break between demanding non-fiction works. I tend to read them differently. It’s not unusual for me to skip around in a non-fiction book, and put up with tedious writing if the ideas are interesting enough. But fiction needs to keep me entertained; if a book fails to do that, I usually abandon it. As a result, ponderous “message” fiction rarely holds my interest.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Callan says:

    The word processor hypothesis is an interesting one – I wonder how much authors used to write for a general audience simply from trying to be succinct in their writing? Where as when they can pour it on, they can start catering more to their preferred in group?

    Liked by 1 person

    • That could be. That’s similar to another possible factor, that as the number of overall readers have declined due to competition with increasingly more available TV shows and movies, as well as video games, the remaining population of readers are more tolerant, perhaps even more appreciative, of a more verbose writing style. But Scalzi’s success (as well as that of similar authors) makes me think there remains a substantial market for tight prose.

      One of the podcasts I listen to is Writing Excuses. There was once a guest on who had begun his career writing short stories and novellas, but was then just breaking into novels. He relayed that the first feedback he got from book publishing editors was that he was still writing like he had a word limit, and encouraging him to take advantage of the longer form to have less tight writing. I wish I could give those editors some customer feedback. There’s something to be said for always writing like you have a tight word count limit.

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  4. In that link to one of Scalzi’s short stories, I noticed another technique that might make his writing seem less taxing, but it’s definitely not minimalist…let’s see if you catch what I’m getting at:

    “A new tack that is somehow focused on me getting punched,” Harry said, setting his drink back down.

    “Maybe,” Schmidt said.

    “Once or repeatedly?” Harry asked.

    “I think that would depend on your definition,” Schmidt said.

    “Of ‘once’?” Harry asked.

    “Of ‘punched,’ actually,” Schmidt said.

    “I already have very deep reservations about this plan,” Harry said.

    “Well, let me give you some context,” Schmidt said.

    “Please do,” Harry said.

    I can’t recall seeing dialogue tags like this, not between two speakers ping-ponging one-liners. Even in sentences in which that character is doing something (like tapping a glass) just before saying something, there’s still the dialogue tag. I usually see that action as both a beat and a way to avoid saying, “He said.” Most of the writers I know try to get away with taking out those tags as much as possible, without confusing the reader. Maybe, though, he uses these tags to make it super easy to stay on top of who’s talking? On the other hand, it would be a nightmare to read out loud.

    On keeping things light on description, heavy on dialogue, I’m not sure if that’s something readers find easy to read or if it’s just generally easier to write successful dialogue. That’s an honest question, I have no idea. I told my writer’s group that I tend to think of dialogue as scaffolding—it’s what comes easiest and first for me. Description of people and rooms is something I have “add in” later, and since I hate boring “objective” descriptions that read like maps or blueprints, I try not to be boring about it, but it takes a lot of thought to really nail that one sharp line that encapsulates the scene. It seems to me that really excellent description is rare, but exciting. (I actually do get excited for the writer who can pull it off.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good catch. Liberal use of the “said” tag is definitely something he’s done, although he seems to have backed off of it a little in recent books. But I think you’re completely right that it lowers the cognitive load on the reader. Most writing advice encourages authors to forego the said tags if they think they can get away with it. But I know as a reader, I’ve often been confused about exactly who said what, and had to reread a section of dialogue to get re-synced.

      That has to be balanced against the fact that the name-said tags are virtually invisible to readers. They seem to take them in subconsciously. You noticed it, but only because you’re a writer. I never noticed it in Scalzi’s writing until I started paying attention to how authors do things. It’s also why I think a lot of writing advice says not to try to get too cute with dialogue tags, noting that “he admonished”, “she pleaded”, and similar variations are used a lot less today than they once were.

      I thought the same thing about narrating it aloud when I first noticed it. I actually wondered if some narrators might be tempted to drop some of the tags. Most of Scalzi’s books are narrated by Wil Wheaton. He handles it by saying “she said” or “he said” quickly and in a low volume, keeping the emphasis on the dialogue itself.

      I’ve heard and read other writers say they initially put down dialogue first. They typically come back later and beef up the descriptions. It’s that later beefing up which probably used to be much more limited. I would note that while dialogue is easy to write, good dialogue is often a different matter.

      I think you’re definitely right that the trick is to invoke vividness with the right minimal description. A lot depends on the viewpoint character and what they would notice and not notice.

      Sometimes, rather than describe a scene, it can help to just express the viewpoint character’s opinion of it. Here’s a line from Scalzi’s latest novel: “The name of the ducal castle was Kinmylies. It was overly plush in a manner that suggested that the residents had confused excess for elegance.” I know tastes vary, but I can’t think of anything else I really need to know about the castle’s appearance in that scene.

      (Although it is worth noting that if we do want the reader to have a certain image of an object, place, or character in their mind, it pays not to wait too long to give it to them. The longer they hold their own constructed image of it, the more jarring incongruent details will later be. Sometimes that can be done on purpose to good effect, but I’ve often seen it happen accidentally in a way that momentarily throws me out of the story for no good reason.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I sometimes wonder how something would sound out loud without the tags, and whether a different-sounding voice would be necessary. I’ve read a few novels in which those tags are dropped for long periods, and in my head I can hear the different voices, but if someone were reading it out loud, they’d have to emulate those different voices, and that could get inappropriately hilarious.

        Totally agreed on using the viewpoint character to describe the setting or other characters. I see this relevant description as an opportunity to do many things at once—to give us an insight into the POV character and the other characters (either trustworthy or biased, which can be made clear by the way the POV character is portrayed), to observe something about the world that’s sharply perceptive or interesting (like, in your example, the observation that ‘overly plush’ is a style used by those who are trying but failing to be ‘elegant’), and to ground the reader in an evocative image, planting a seed in the imagination. Maybe even more, like tie into a theme or mood. That’s a lot of work for a little bit of description, but that’s ultimately what I’m aiming for.

        I think Scalzi’s pretty good at this, from what little I’ve read here.

        “Harry glanced around the lounge. It was singularly unappealing; a bunch of magnetized folding chairs and equally magnetized card tables, and single porthole from which the yellowish green limb of Korba-Aty was glowing, dully. The drinks they were having came from the rack of vending machines built into the wall. The only other person in the lounge was Lieutenant Grant, the Clarke’s quartermaster; she was looking at her PDA and wearing headphones.”

        Here we have most of the things I mentioned, and more. It’s an unusual setting with unusual details, but it’s also grounded in the familiar (vending machines, someone absorbed by a gadget, wearing headphones.) And the unusual stuff draws you in (what’s up with that glowing limb?) and keeps you reading.

        I know what you mean about jarring details given too late. I’ve made that mistake too many times. It’s an easy fix, but someone has to catch it. These are the things that I rarely notice, but a few people in my writing group are very aware of such things. I can’t imagine not having them.

        On varying tastes, I think some of that comes from the difficulty of talking about writing in a general way. I find that people’s opinions converge more when they’re discussing something very specific. For instance, someone might say, “I love the evocative description of setting,” and another might say, “I wish the descriptions had been more relevant.” They seem to have totally different things to say about the same thing, but what I’ve noticed is that, a lot of times, they’re both right to some degree. The 2nd person might point out where the description rambles or gets repetitive, and the 1st might agree, in that specific case. And the passage might really be evocative, but once that excess has been cut, the image is even clearer. This actually happened to me the other day, on this very point. I kept using generalities to make my case, but no one saw what I was talking about. Once I brought out examples from the writing, they all changed their minds, they all saw the problem, and they came up with some pretty amazing solutions that were really simple (like move these sentences to this other paragraph or cut them entirely). Someone started with a solution, and others got ideas for even better solutions, and so on, like a snowball effect, and each new suggestion is universally acknowledged as better than the previous one. Amazing, right? It’s been like that time and time again—on some very specific thing, people tend to agree when someone points out some improvement to be made. Not always, but more often than I would’ve imagined, even with a large classroom full of diverse opinions. (So long as you don’t have a$$holes running the show, but people who want to learn new techniques for improving their writing.)

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        • I’ve seen a lot of advise that you should read your dialogue out loud to make sure it flows naturally. I think there’s a lot to that advice. I believe Scalzi was one of the authors who recommended it.

          I noticed the “limb” word in that description too. While technically correct (“limb” can be used to refer to land projections), it’s not something you usually see used to describe a planet. “Orb”, “sphere”, or maybe even “curve”, but not “limb.”

          On jarring details, here’s one example that wasn’t the fault of the authors. In the first Expanse novel ‘Leviathan Wakes’, they briefly describe the main protagonist, James Holden, as having dark hair and looking around 30. As far as I know, it’s the only place they describe him. For some reason, I thought of Holden as being blond and middle-aged. I have no idea why that image took hold in my mind.

          When the TV show came out, one of the authors addressed some fan concerns about the actor they cast to play Holden not being right for the part. He noted that a “not insignificant” number of people envisaged Holden the way I did, and observed how difficult it can be to control the images readers build of characters. I’ve been wondering ever since how so many of us came to picture the character that way. The only other “Holden” I can think of is the late actor William Holden, who was in fact middle aged in the movies I can remember him in, but not blond.

          I’m jealous of the dynamic your writing group has. Unfortunately, writing groups where I live are few and far between.

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  5. This makes me want to try Scalzi.

    The florid style you mention reminds me of Victorian literature (my least favorite kind) and I agree that it seems to be on the rise. However, I wonder if it’s really more the consequence of MFA programs. There seems to be an emphasis on “beautiful sentences” in these programs, even if those beautiful sentences don’t lead anywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • MFA = Masters of Fine Arts? If so, could be. Authors writing to impress other writers rather than their target readership.

      Agreed on beautiful sentences. I personally have nothing against beautiful language, but too often “beautiful” means someone getting carried away with a thesaurus, using “muave” instead of “light purple” or “obverse” instead of “opposite”. While it might flow more poetically, it often makes the text pointlessly more difficult to parse for the average reader.

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