The Shift: Insights from the Author

Ebook cover image of the "The Shift," a science fiction short story by Karl El-Koura

The ebook of Karl’s science fiction short story “The Shift” contains the first version of the story, called “On the Night of the Full Moon, You Will Hear a Werewolf Howl,” and the afterword below, which details three lessons the author learned while re-writing “On the Night of the Full Moon…” into “The Shift.”

What I Learned About Writing While Writing “The Shift”

1 – Not “Show, Don’t Tell,” But Balance Narrative and Scene

Beginning fiction writers are often given the advice to show, not tell, in their writing. Instead of telling us that Jenny is cold, the advice goes, show us Jenny wrapping her arms around her body and shivering. That type of writing helps to give your reader a visual for their mental eye, it helps bring Jenny to life, and it allows your reader’s brain to draw its own conclusion for why Jenny is acting that way (human brains like to make connections).

That’s both good and bad advice.

It’s good advice because most writers instinctively skew toward telling. It’s much easier and much more efficient, and leaves out the guesswork. Experienced writers learn to take their time, relinquish control, and trust their reader.

It’s bad advice because, taken too seriously, it can lead to very tedious writing. Sometimes you just need to tell me that the character is exhausted because they’ve worked three shifts in the emergency room of the local hospital; imagine showing me those three shifts in detail?

Much better advice, in my mind, is to balance narrative and scene. Narrative is telling you some things you need to know but don’t necessarily need to experience, something like: “Although she was half-asleep, after three straight shifts in St. Michael’s emergency department, Jenny noticed her front door was ajar when the cab pulled into her driveway.” Then you can slow down the narrative and enter the scene, revealing what she discovers when she steps inside her house. Later, you might zoom back out to the narrative level to tell us quickly that she’d gotten married years earlier, and the marriage had quickly fallen apart, and she knows someone is in her house and it can be anyone, an axe-murder, but please God not her deadbeat ex-husband. Then zoom back into the scene when she discovers her ex-husband sitting at the kitchen table, helping himself to some of her beer.

That time dilation, that rhythm of zooming out to narrative and into scene, creates a much more compelling, interesting story.

“On the Night of the Full Moon …” is all narrative (or all telling), no scene. “The Shift,” I think, strikes a better balance.

2 – Hate HAITE Stories

Speculative fiction is the fiction of speculation. Thank you, I’m here all week!

Seriously, though: as the literature of speculation, one of the dangers for practitioners is falling in love with their “what if” and forgetting the story around it. In “On the Night of the Full Moon…,” I really liked the idea of a character who unconsciously shifts to alternate universes as a kind of survival mechanism. I wrote the story down as fast as I could. Then I sent the manuscript around . . . and received rejection after rejection, some of them positive. The editors who liked the idea said they wanted to see its implications worked out more. After a few such comments, I realized I’d written a HAITE story (“Here’s An Idea, The End!”). Those can work as far as they go (I grew up on a steady diet of Isaac Asimov, many of whose flash science fiction works are just such idea stories), but they only go so far … in fact, they probably shouldn’t go much longer than a few hundred words. They may be clever, funny, or interesting … but they’ll rarely be described as great stories. Stories are about people; and typically, about people facing, and then overcoming or being crushed by adversity.

Especially in speculative fiction, a neat idea can be the hook that brings the reader in or makes people talk about your story. But characters coming to life, facing their problems, and changing in some way (ending in victory or defeat, depending on the kind of story you’re telling) is the experience most readers are coming to your story seeking.

3 – Be Specific, As Appropriate

I think this lesson was top of mind when I wrote “The Shift.” We’re told in the first paragraph that Jesse Sonat drives a ’66 Porsche Leverett that he’s restored himself. Why not just leave it at a “car” or a “classic car”? Less specific writing is easier and less prone to error–you can’t get the details wrong if you leave them at a high enough level (in that opening scene, Jesse’s wife is sitting in a bucket seat, and the danger of course is that someone who knows cars really well will write to say, “Actually, the Leverrets didn’t get bucket seats until 1968”). (I should note that in our world, there has never existed a car called a Porsche Leverett, in 1966 or any other year, which is a way I’m tipping off the reader that this world is not our own . . . or maybe it’s a convenient writerly cheat that allowed me to be specific while still making up the details I wanted).

The problem with staying high-level all the time is that we rarely encounter anything generic in reality. Unless you really don’t care about cars, you’ll never see someone driving “a car.” You’ll see them driving a shiny black Honda Passport, or a dusty silver Tesla Model 3, or a beat-up Toyota C-HR. And the specific car they drive, and the way it looks, tells you something about them–their interests, maybe, or how much they take care of their things, or their family or socioeconomic status. Sometimes the conclusions you draw are incorrect (the Tesla is a company car that hasn’t been driven in months, the Passport is never that clean but they just had a charity car wash at the high school), but it’s how we encounter reality most of the time: in specific details.

Just like with the advice to “show, not tell,” this advice can be over applied. Your story will be very tedious if you try to tell us everything, including, for example, the specific brand of toothpaste your character prefers. We encounter specific details in reality, but we notice and remember the details that are important to us, and ignore or generalize the others. You need to do the same as a writer, picking out and presenting to us the details that are significant to your character, and glossing over the rest.

But that does mean that some things, as appropriate based on your viewpoint character, should be described specifically, rather than taking the lazy, easy way of being so generic you don’t have to make any decisions as a writer, or try to insulate yourself from being caught out in a mistake.

And now that I’ve written these three lessons down, I realize they’re all about balance. Between narrative and scene; between sharing a new, interesting idea and a story that properly conveys it; between providing too few and too many specific details.

Unsurprising, perhaps: balance in writing, as in life, is key.

You can read “The Shift” and “On the Night of the Full Moon…” by ordering your copy!