The Delany Fact Cluster

science fiction painting
Image copyright Peter Elson

Have you ever read a paragraph that introduces a secondary character, and by the end of it that new character feels like a real human being? You may not particularly care about them yet, and their role in the overall story is still murky, but they seem to be standing right in front of you, breathing, blinking. The writer has found a way to pull a solid individual out of the ether with only a few words. “How?” you might wonder.

There are many techniques that can help you create a vivid character in the reader’s mind, but I’m going to tell you about one in particular. Or, rather, Samuel Delany will tell you: “any two facts clustered around a single pronoun begin to generate a character in the reader’s mind.” Catchy, right? But, like most one-line writing tips, it’s pithy to the point of useless. It provokes many questions without answering any: what kinds of facts, placed where and how? Luckily, Delany isn’t one to leave a subject unexplored:

As soon as we get ready to add a third fact, however, we encounter the problem of psychological veracity. All subsequent information about our character has to be more or less congruent with what already exists in the gap between these two facts.

Put another way: with those first two facts, you’re creating the boundaries of a person and the reader expects that the third fact will fit neatly. Like a puzzle, you start with the outer edges before filling in the center.

Although Delany’s book of writing advice About Writing came out nearly 50 years ago, you don’t have to look far to find his method in use. Case in point: when I first read about Delany’s fact-cluster technique, I was also reading A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers (published in 2021), and lo and behold, I found fact clusters everywhere.

First, some context. Chamber’s story follows Dex who is embarking on a new career path as a traveling tea monk through a future society that has suffered a technological collapse. Along the way, Dex meets many people who feel very well-thought out and believable despite only appearing for a paragraph or two. Here is the first one:

Dex had never met their contact, Sister Fern, before but she greeted them with a familial embrace, smelling of sawdust and beeswax.

“Come see your new home,” she said with a confident smile.

We get our first two facts within the first sentence. First, she smells both like beeswax and sawdust. What does this fact suggest to you? For me, I think first of competence. Beeswax and sawdust both hint at a certain amount of proficiency in working with her hands and perhaps also a degree of self-sufficiency. Second, Fern embraces Dex on their first meeting, which makes her outgoing, generous. Our third fact in the next sentence (that she is confident) fits perfectly within the boundaries established by those first two facts. An individual emerges in only 33 words.

But what if that third fact had been incongruent with those first two? If instead of confident, Fern turned out to be timid or gloomy, you might find that she has become less believable. Why would someone who is timid hug a stranger? However, this begs the question: when is incongruity called for in the third fact? Stories are not all about fulfilling the reader’s expectations—that would be boring—sometimes, you need to subvert expectations. Fortunately, Chambers gives us an example in another character introduced with a fact cluster:

Dex swallowed a wistful sigh as they saw their next visitor approaching. Mr. Cody was a good-looking man, with arms that split logs and a smile that could make a person forget all concept of linear time.

Stop and reflect on the image of Mr. Cody in your mind. Do you see steely blue eyes? A thick beard and worn boots? You almost certainly don’t see what Chamber writes next:

But the two babies strapped to his torso—one squealing on the front, one dead asleep on the back—made Dex keep any thoughts about the rest of Mr. Cody’s anatomy completely to themself. From the circles under Mr. Cody’s eyes, it looked as though sex was the last thing on his mind.

It’s important to note that although this third fact diverges from our mental picture of Cody, it does not contradict it. A person can be both handsome, strong and a father of infants. This is what Delany means when he talks about psychological veracity. The third fact can be surprising but it should be largely believable. And, the more unbelievable it is, the more the writer needs to explain until it becomes believable. Notice that Chambers lingers longer on the third fact about Mr. Cody than she did about Fern. This is important, for reasons that Delany explains:

In the same way that the physically unusual needs explanation, so does the psychologically unusual. Practically any combination of physical and psychological traits can exist beneath a single persona: but the writer’s instinctive feel for psychological veracity has to determine which combinations need further elucidation to cement their juxtaposition, and which simply work by themselves to generate a character, without further embellishment.

That sums up the “how” behind using a divergent third fact, but what about the “why?” Why did Chambers decide to thwart our expectations with Cody and not Fern? Especially because, in general, it is better to satisfy a reader’s expectations more often than you subvert them. This creates a rhythm that is familiar and builds tension because the reader knows that sooner or later the story will surprise them. When you do decide to deviate from the expected, it should be because you want to draw the reader in to explain an important point or to punctuate a transition in the narrative.

Maybe Chambers brings up the babies to show that Dex is ready for the next phase in their life. Or, it may be about a different turning point: in the passage following Cody’s introduction, Chambers shows us that Dex has left the beginning phase of their new vocation and has now gained some mastery. It’s as if Chambers is saying, “hey you reader, pay attention to this next part.” In other words, we might use a surprising third fact to grab the reader’s focus before an emotionally important moment in the narrative.

Given all that, I hope by now you think of fact clusters as a useful technique, but a word of warning: a writer’s toolbox is not full of single-edged blades. Take care when writing your own fact clusters. Nancy Kress points out a common pitfall in her book Beginnings, Middles & Ends:

You want to avoid introducing each character with an expository capsule biography, as if they were Miss America contestants.

This touches on why not to use fact clusters for every character introduced. Main characters in particular do not need these quick fact clusters because you have longer to build their persona. Like most writing techniques, use it sparingly and with discretion to maximize its efficacy.