On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 4: Plot-Optional

Another observation in my Hugo/Nebula Challenge was just how minor the plot could get. Newbie writers are told that they need to have a detailed plot. It occurs in 3-5 acts where you get off to a quick start, LOTS OF CONSTANT
ACTION!!, watch out for the sagging middle then come to a thrill-a-second climax so you can end with falling action.

There are plot maps and models based on plays, Star Wars, snowflakes, and all kinds of other odd stuff. So clearly, I should find detailed, well-constructed, 3- or 5-act plots in all the Hugos and Nebulas, right? Right?!

Well, no. Not really. No. They all had plots, sure, but were they snowflakes? No. 5-act Shakespeare? No. Modern myths like Star Wars? Not even close. Some of the plots were really quite thin with a whole lot of “sagging middle.”

Rather than a focus on the plot, I found another trend: Civilization. Each of the Hugos and Nebulas I read focused on a new civilization. Describing this new civilization, whether alien or human, took precedence over all else trumping plot, character development, internal consistency… everything. Pages were dedicated to nuances of a given culture. Some of these expositions took place in dialogue. Some were in narration. Many weren’t even vaguely disguised.

So, from this observation, I learn the following: design the cultures and civilizations very carefully. Make them – especially the aliens – more significant than just a modern nationality in funny clothes and masks. Make them plenty detailed. Then, find ways to insert details without inviting Captain Exposition and his trusty sidekick Info Dump Boy. Yes, some of the Hugos and Nebulas had lengthy info dumps – not quite rivaling Victor Hugo’s 100-page sewer description in Les Miserables, though – but those get tedious to read.

My key to developing a good alien culture? Keep good notes! No telling when you’ll use them.


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