by Quentin Long
©2009 Quentin Long

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   Furdom being what it is, it’s a good bet that you’ve heard of science-fiction writer Larry Niven. You may even know about the aphorisms he’s coined, which are collectively known as ‘Niven’s Laws’; as it happens, he’s got a few Laws for writers. And the topic of this editorial is Niven’s Fourth Law For Writers:

   It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.

   The basic idea is pretty simple: If you’re asking someone to invest however-many hours of their time in reading your story, they should feel that that time was well-spent after they’re done with it. As a corollary, any author would be well-advised to make sure their stories don’t include anything that would encourage such a ‘what a waste of time’ feeling in their readers… and here are three of them:

   Item: Deus ex machina (literally, ‘god from a machine’). This literary trope dates back thousands of years, at minimum; it was much-used in ancient Greek theatrical productions in which the nominal protagonist spent most of the play utterly failing to deal with whatever problems he was faced with, but that was okay because the playwright made sure that some deity or other would pop up in the final act to set everything right. Apparently, ancient Greek audiences couldn’t get enough of this sort of thing; I, for one, will never understand why. If the Author’s omnipotent hand is just going to solve everything in the end regardless, what the hell was the point of all that fuss and bother in the first 90% of the ruddy play!?

   Item: Contradictions. While it’s never a good idea for an author to contradict themself, it’s positively abysmal when the contradiction involves a major plot element. Readers may well be able to ignore trivial stuff like, say, a character’s hair-color changing from red to blond for no reason… but if you’ve established that your main character will die on contact with water, and they’ve spent the first 15 chapters going way the hell out of their way to avoid moisture at all times, you simply do not want to have them take a bath in chapter 16! Pull that sort of crap on a reader, and you’re just begging for their Willing Suspension of Disbelief to be crushed into paste by I Ain’t Letting That Asshole Jerk Me Around No More.

   Item: Gratuitously obscure vocabulary. Show me an author who habitually insists on using lots of words which his readers are unlikely (or even ‘unable’) to comprehend, and I’ll show you an author who doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have all that many readers. Now, Mark Twain’s famous advice to “use the right word, and not its second cousin” is all well and good. But if the right word turns out to be something like ‘thwertnick’, ‘agroof’, ‘phthisic’, or ‘recumbentibus’… maybe it isn’t the right word, after all. It should be obvious: If you aren’t expressing yourself in language your audience can understand, you’re not telling a story! The take-home lesson here is, an author needs to know their readers—including what level of vocabulary they’re comfortable with.

   All the above said and acknowledged, I have to admit it’s physically possible to write good, enthralling stories which make use of any/all of these three items; this is why I will never forbid any Anthro writer from making use of them. But at the same time, if I see any of these items in a story, I definitely will ask the author if it’s really, truly necessary for whatever-it-is to be there, on the grounds that said author is needlessly making life difficult for themselves by using whatever-it-is.

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