BANTER AT YOUR OWN RISK or WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL: THE FURY OUT OF TIME

Five years ago I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag, and I keep drawing books from my box, including The Fury Out of Time by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

As I write this, I’m only forty-two pages into this book, at the end of Chapter 3, so this week’s post won’t cover everything we might learn from this all but forgotten 1965 science fiction novel by an author whose name I’ve been hearing forever, but who never seemed to have made it out of the mid-list.

That, in and of itself, is not a criticism. I maintain that sales and quality are not always linked—and when they are the relationship seems coincidental. So fear not, Lloyd Biggle, Jr. fans, not only am I not condemning this book or any of his work, but I promise I will finish it and already see some interesting ideas unfolding to set things up…

Still, I have a complaint.

Written in the mid-60s as it was, The Fury Out of Time at least begins with a familiar boys-only club feeling to it. The protagonist is a retired astronaut, after all, and all his friends and colleagues man the nearby Air Force base, so yes, that would by default mean they’re all men in 1965—at least mostly men. And when men who have been friends and/or close co-workers or teammates for a long time get together they talk differently than they might around strangers, around women, around kids, and so on. They break each others’ balls. They tease each other about perceived weaknesses, past failures or near failures… all sorts of things. I get it—I do it in real life, even—and it’s a natural part of what would make the men at the beginning of The Fury Out of Time read like real people. In this case what I’ll call “banter” is a good thing.

But there can be too much of anything, including a good thing.

Banter, like all the tools in our fiction writing toolkits, should be used with care and with the lightest touch possible. Where do we find the line between “realistic” sounding dialog, natural conversation between a specific set of people in a specific set of circumstances, and some kind of comedy routine gone wrong?

I think Lloyd Biggle, Jr. lays it on too think in the first three chapters of The Fury Out of Time.

A little spoiler-free context (since I’ve only read the first three chapters!):

Bowden Karvel, our protagonist, was an astronaut who lost a leg in a car accident but still lives near the Air Force base and hangs out at the local bar with his old friends and former colleagues. One night there’s a strange tornado—or something that seems like a tornado—that causes localized damage and injuries. After warning the base of the approaching storm, Karvel drags himself to the epicenter of the effect and finds a strange metallic sphere they decide to call a U.O. (Unknown Object). The U.O. appears to be the cause of this spiraling “storm,” which they codename Force X. While in proximity to the U.O. Karvel finds and captures an unusual butterfly. Karvel then wakes up in the base hospital to find that the Air Force has brought the U.O. to the base and have found a weird, possibly alien, occupant in it, who is dead. They question Karvel, who calls in a friend who happens to be a lepidopterologist to take a look at the weird butterfly.

There’s action in here, some gory description of the dead occupant of the U.O., some interesting sciencey-sounding stuff about the butterfly… but it’s all buried under so much “funny” back-and-forth that I wanted to say out loud: “Will you guys get to the point—this is serious! People have been hurt! The Earth might be in the middle of an alien invasion! Just fucking say what this thing is!”

In most cases, they don’t know what this is. And that’s fine. It’s only the first three chapters. The mystery of this Unknown Object and its origins and goals are just beginning to unfold. But what starts as a bunch of guys breaking each others’ balls at the local bar turns into guys breaking each others’ balls in the middle of a military debriefing around an unexplained but clearly dangerous event. They simply don’t seem to be taking it seriously enough. But worse, it reads like padding.

Too many words are being used to make incremental progress in the story because they won’t just say what they’re thinking. They have to warn each other first, belittle each other along the way, and apologize for how crazy it sounds then wait to be told that it does sound crazy and that’s par for the course for you because you’re crazy and say crazy things like that time you said a crazy thing—but that turned out to be true!—okay, sure but this time I think you’re crazy even though there’s no other explanation or theory on the table so let’s definitely make this meeting take as long as possible before we, a bunch of professional military officers, start actually working on a problem that might be the most significant moment in the history of the human race.

Holy… Deep, cleansing breaths.

Banter, yes.

Ballbreaking, sure.

Humor, of course.

But always and constantly? No, thank you.

Now, I wish I could give you some kind of rule, some ratio of non-banter dialog to banter-dialog, but of course I can’t. This is definitely one of those moments where it’ll pay to listen to that still small voice. Are you worried this might be too much? Listen to yourself—it probably is. Did two of your three beta readers think it seemed as though characters weren’t taking the story seriously enough or came across as “dude bros,” or…? Listen to them. Two people is a trend.

And if you’re looking for an example but don’t want to track down a copy of The Fury Out of Time, just watch (if you can) the movie Transformers: The Last Knight. There you’ll be treated to a string of action set pieces in which giant robots fight each other while the human characters switch between insulting and belittling each other and complaining about how much it sucks to be there. And they do that constantly, often seeming to slip out of context with the movie.

You know I’m not a critic and I don’t write or read reviews, but that movie was painful to sit through. The good news is that, like Legion, it provides us with a cautionary tale.

Your characters need to sound like real people, and real people banter, but not only and always, and not, generally speaking, while a disaster is literally in progress around them.

Good luck out there!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

Living Dialog: Bring Your Characters’ Words to Life

Truly living dialog is brilliantly crafted, perfectly vivid, exactly appropriate, layered and nuanced… and it just sounds right. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

This online tutorial from Writers Digest will help!

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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