Every once in a while, a novel comes along and absolutely floors me. Annihilation is one such novel. It transcends the usual reading experience and bores its way into your skull, settling at the base of your brain.
If you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, Annihilation is a master class in craft.
The first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (followed by Authority and Acceptance) tells the story of a scientific expedition to Area X. Thirty years ago, something happened to a section of Florida’s forgotten coast, cutting it off from the rest of the world and provoking bizarre changes in its ecosystems.
Our narrator is an unnamed biologist, a member of the 12th expedition sent into Area X. All previous expeditions have ended in horror. When the biologist arrives, she finds something that isn’t supposed to be there: a tower submerged beneath the earth.
If you haven’t read Annihilation yet (read Chapter 1 here for free), surely that synopsis will compel you. If you have, here’s what the book can teach writers about their craft.
Knowledge Gaps Create Suspense
Having developed a complex background story for their fiction, some writers will rush to dump all of that information on their readers as quickly as possible. But early info-dumps remove the element of suspense.
Most readers enjoy thinking for themselves and solving puzzles. They want to be intellectually challenged. They want to follow a trail of bread crumbs. They don’t want a fresh-baked loaf plopped down on their plates.
To create and sustain suspense, VanderMeer uses an “iris-out” technique.It’s a term lifted from film jargon, where the camera is focused on a particular object, and then pulls back to reveal the full scene.
Narratively, the TV series Lost uses this technique quite well in its first two seasons, as do my favorite video games of all time, Myst and Riven.
In Annihilation, we begin with an unknown narrator in a strange environment. That’s all we know.
Instead of info-dumping, VanderMeer forces us to ask questions. Who is the narrator? Where is Area X? What is the objective of the expedition? What’s inside the tower? These questions create suspense.
Too often in my workshops, students turn in fiction that features characters talking…somewhere. In a nondescript apartment. On a street. In a cafe. I had no idea whether they were talking on a winter’s night in Reyjavik or a balmy afternoon in Rio.
This kind of ambiguity is impossible in good fiction. Can you think of a single good novel that isn’t set at a hyperspecific point in space and time? On some level, all stories are about places, because humans don’t exist in a vacuum. We are defined and impacted irrevocably by place.
In Annihilation, Area X is a character unto itself. It breathes with a kind of authenticity that is only possible when a writer knows his setting intimately. In VanderMeer’s interview with Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing, he reveals that Area X (although unnamed in the novel) is actually St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge, near Vandermeer’s home in Florida. Annihilation was written as result of his frequent hikes in the area, and it shows.
The natural detail captured by VanderMeer could only come from first-hand observations in the wild. He doesn’t repeat clichéd descriptions of Nature with a capital N, he allows a hyperspecific place in space and time to bleed through the page. As a result, the novel transports you away from whatever room you’re reading in, out into the marshes and salt flats of Area X.
Characters Are Not “Characters”
Beginning writers often use a variety of shortcuts to “establish” and “develop” character, sometimes via superficial traits. A protagonist is “tall, with broad shoulders and eyes like flakes of robin’s egg.” Or he is “a lifelong Texan named Rhett Cutler.” Or he “likes to eat fruit with a bowie knife.”
VanderMeer omits these surface details in Annihilation, and his characters do not suffer for it. We don’t need to know the color of the narrator’s hair, or how she dresses, or where she was born. In fact, VanderMeer goes a step further than most writers and omits even the names of the characters, fearing they would act as too strong a filter. And yet? I feel as though I know the narrator quite well.
Instead of superficial traits, VanderMeer organically encapsulates how his characters think, move, and speak through action and dialogue. He doesn’t tell us about them, he lets them show us.
So. If you’re a writer who struggles with setting, character, and creating suspense, read Annihilation.