Guest Post: Dressing and Skirting

There are things that we shouldn’t generally talk about in fiction. It’s not that we are literally unable, or that we mustn’t because of some moral obligation. Rather, the reason is that we’re trying to get our point across – the lunar disco and monster boyfriend part – and if we let these other things get in the way, the reader will stumble over them and start analyzing, usually to our detriment.

There is no exhaustive list of these things, but a few good examples would be sexual assault, breeding programs for people of human-level intelligence, and where half-human-half-unicorns come from. These can be part of the conceptual subject of the story, of course, but their mechanics are inescapably troublesome and are better off implied unless we want those mechanics to be central to the story. I personally know about all sorts of horrible things, some of which don’t even seem to be common knowledge, and I do not write about most of them because they generally make very bad stories. Consider a story called “The Guinea Worm”, and you will probably see what I mean.

So when we find ourselves in a position where a horrible thing forms part of the story background, and we don’t want to discuss the exact nature of the thing, we have two solutions that come easily to hand.

The first solution is Dressing, or making something look better than it is. This is where we make something up to suggest that it’s not as bad as it sounds in our particular context – the unicorn conveniently changes into human form, or the breeding program is being run by a softhearted magical genius so standard husbandry techniques are not required and all of the people involved are consenting adults. This works, but only for things that are supposed to become desirable by the process, and if the audience doesn’t buy it you may end up disgusting them by trying to make excuses for behaviour that they still consider reprehensible.

The second solution is Skirting. This is where we characterize the subject by deliberately evading it, as the half-human-half-unicorn might if we asked them about it. Skirting has notable benefits, not the least of which being that if a reader doesn’t really understand what we’re talking about they are left unenlightened. On the flip side, we hope that anyone who knows the unfortunate details will not be upset because they’re largely filling them in for themselves. The only thing to watch out for is that keeping everything implied may affect the impact that it has on the story, and anyone not acquainted with the ugly details may end up wondering what the big deal is exactly.

These are both techniques to be used judiciously – we can save ourselves a lot of difficulty with minor details, and the scope of their influence is wide. Just remember – when we are Dressing, we have to make sure our subject is going to look good in a dress. When we’re Skirting, we have to make sure that whatever we hide under there is something nobody really needs to see.

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