Science fiction and fantasy are shelved together for good reason. Both genres tend to be highly speculative, focus on evoking a sense of wonder as the primary emotional draw and depend heavily on the reader’s suspension of disbelief. In addition, readers are drawn to SF&F in order to have new and fantastic experiences. Though the author should know all the technical details behind the magic and technology, how much of that is shared with the reader depends on the individual audience.
An author needs to recognize when it is appropriate, even advisable, to be intentionally vague in their explanations. This technique has come to be known as “authorial handwaving”. By glossing over the details behind an incredible event, the focus stays on the event itself.
Those readers who prefer hard SF&F seem to have less tolerance for this trope as a major draw for them is to understand the rules that govern the fantastic. If the mechanics aren’t consistent and grounded in reality, their interest diminishes. Fans of “soft” speculative fiction aren’t as concerned about how the fantastic functions so long as it is coherent, consistent and awesome. This crowd values the wonder of the situation more highly than the logic, and so, are more forgiving of authorial handwaving.
I find the authorial handwave to be especially interesting because of the number of genre specific subtropes it has spawned. In Star Trek, incomprehensible technobabble often explains the odd happenings in and around the Enterprise. Agent 007 and Batman have their gadgets, one of which always seemed tailor made for the situation. Case and point: shark repellent. In addition, many of the anime fighters of my youth were able to become strong enough to defeat their respective unstoppable evils if only they were given a period of “intense training” first. The trope even went so far as to invade my college table top gaming.
One of the individuals in our group sometimes would rant about how the dungeons we faced in D&D wouldn’t exist in the real world. Why would someone build them in the first place and how could there possibly be treasure remaining after centuries of abandonment? Our customary response to him was three fold: 1) a crazy wizard built the ruins, 2) the treasure is the reward for facing the danger, and 3) try not think about it too hard and just have fun.
There is an essential lesson in all of these examples, especially the last. Though overuse of authorial handwaving can easily lead to bad writing, it is still sometimes the best option. Using an authorial handwave neither brings satisfaction to the reader, nor momentum to the story. It only prevents the narrative from getting bogged down in a lengthy explanation. If the author chooses to handwave over an aspect that the reader finds interesting, then they end up feeling much like my friend — frustrated and cheated. Once again, it’s a matter of understanding and delivering to reader expectation.Tags: Sequence 05: Tropes and Archetypes