Read any book on writing, or take a creative writing course, and there are certain pieces of advice that you are almost certain to encounter. In many cases, the advice is good, but some have a tendency to take these tools of the craft and turn them into rigid rules. And just about any rigid rule is guaranteed to cause problems. Here are some I wish, as a science fiction and fantasy reader, that authors could be a little more flexible on.
Show, don’t tell.
In film and TV, “show, don’t tell” literally means to show the viewer things rather than tell them in narration or by dialog. In literary fiction, it usually means to give details and let the reader reach their own conclusions. Robert J Sawyer gives the typical advice on this concept.
First, what’s the difference between the two? Well, “telling” is the reliance on simple exposition: Mary was an old woman. “Showing,” on the other hand, is the use of evocative description: Mary moved slowly across the room, her hunched form supported by a polished wooden cane gripped in a gnarled, swollen-jointed hand that was covered by translucent, liver-spotted skin.
…Why is showing better? Two reasons. First, it creates mental pictures for the reader. When reviewers use terms like “vivid,” “evocative,” or “cinematic” to describe a piece of prose, they really mean the writer has succeeded at showing, rather than merely telling.
Second, showing is interactive and participatory: it forces the reader to become involved in the story, deducing facts (such as Mary’s age) for himself or herself, rather than just taking information in passively.
Here’s the deal. Looking through Sawyer’s examples, I’m struck by the fact that I would prefer reading a book filled with his telling examples rather than his showing ones. No doubt this comes from the fact that I’m not a particularly detail oriented person. I can be detail oriented when I need to be, but it requires extra mental energy, work I’d rather not do to be entertained. To me, reading detailed descriptions of everything in a story is a chore I have to endure to experience the story. It’s like trying to appreciate a painting while scanning it with my eye one inch away from the canvas. The problem is that many authors are naturally detail oriented, but most of the general population isn’t.
Ann Leckie, the Hugo Award winning author of ‘Ancillary Justice’, recently did a post about the evils of rigid adherence to the show-don’t-tell rule, advocating that showing character development is a good thing, but that always showing aspects of a fictional world, isn’t necessarily. I think Leckie’s point is probably a good rule of thumb, but one of the commenters on her post said it best: “don’t be boring.” In other words, show when it’s fun, exciting, dramatic, maybe even horrifying, but never when it’s tedious, when it’s just done to fulfill some literary rule.
Sometimes telling just gets the point across faster, and moves the story along in a much snappier fashion. An author should be sure not to pass up opportunities to entertain by showing, rather than telling, but only when it’s entertaining. (Of course, everyone’s judgment on that will be different, but that applies to all of writing.)
Third person limited.
Third person limited is the most used narrative viewpoint in modern fiction, and for good reason. It can give much of the same level of intimacy of the first person viewpoint, but still provide the flexibility to switch to a different viewpoint character after a scene or chapter transition.
The problem in science fiction, is sometimes it helps to back off and describe large scale events from a third person omniscient point of view. Yes, an author can always find ways to work around doing that, but only at the cost of additional dialog and/or scenes especially designed to reveal that information. Sometimes it’s just faster to briefly go into omniscient mode, describe things, and then move on to the next scene. But contemporary conventional wisdom is that this is a no-no, even though it’s done in a lot of classic speculative fiction.
A few years ago, I was reading an epic fantasy trilogy, and came to the climactic battle at the end that involved all of the viewpoint characters. The trilogy was done in third person limited, and the author stuck to that for the battle. The problem was that there were aspects of the battle that we needed to see from each of the viewpoint characters’ perspectives. So, the author switched between perspectives, with a blank line break used for each shift that is normally used for scene boundaries.
Given the fast moving events of the battle, I found each of these shifts disconcerting. Each line break made me think that we were finished with the battle, when all we were really doing was jumping into another perspective. Each shift briefly threw me out of the story. (At least for the first two or three, until I picked up what the form was going to be.) This fast moving battle scene practically begged for the utility of third person omniscient. In a less rigid literary form, the author could have simply adopted third person omniscient, just for that sequence.
Closely related to the above points, is a contemporary loathing of infodumps, of just relating information to the reader through narration. Rather than do this, you’re supposed to use incluing, that is, drop clues in the story narrative and dialog to reveal the world or setting to the reader. When it works, this is great.
But incluing often requires assuming a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader. I see authors, including experienced bestselling authors, get this wrong from time to time. The sign that this has happened is usually readers complaining about being confused by the story, or missing key aspects of it.
Some authors seem to take delight in challenging their readers, with the idea being that the reader has to earn their way into understanding what’s happening in the story. It’s not unusual to have to take breaks from reading these stories to Google terms the author drops. I don’t doubt that some readers enjoy this game, but my attitude toward such authors is that there better be a lot of other compelling stuff in their story, otherwise I’m going to put their book down and go do something else.
Brief infodumps placed strategically in a story can make it a lot easier to parse. Even lengthy infodumps can be useful if well placed, for instance, once I’m vested in the characters and the world. As long as it’s relevant to the plot, I’m usually okay with it.
One nice tool for infodumping is the much maligned prologue. Yes, they can be done very poorly, flooding the reader with too much information up front, but I’ve also read prologues (mostly written decades ago at this point) that gave me a lot of insight into the world, and dramatically reduced my confusion in the story that followed. Many editors reportedly will immediately stop reading a manuscript if it has a prologue; an attitude I find a bit dogmatic.
Personally, I don’t even mind the infamous, “As you know Bob, the warp drive works by…” type dialog. Everyone says this type of dialog is unrealistic, that “people don’t talk that way.” Except if you actually pay close attention to real people talking, they often do talk that way, albeit without the awful “As you know…” preamble. Think about all the pointless conversations people often have about the weather. And look at just about any discussion forum on the internet. People repeat basic information all the time.
Why do people talk this way? Sometimes it’s to advertise their knowledge, or to plant ideological markers, or to think out loud. But often, I think it’s just an excuse to make conversation.
Of course, the idea that this kind of dialog is unrealistic is now so pervasive, it’s virtually impossible to get it past editors. So authors have to come up with excuses for characters to relay that information, such as having an argument, or having an experienced character teach a less experienced one, etc.
The point is that infodumping, however it’s accomplished, is often a good thing in science fiction and fantasy settings (and probably in historical fiction as well), provided it’s brief and strategically placed.
I think the bottom line for me, is that I read speculative fiction for the story and ideas, for the content. Each of these tools should be used when they enhance the author’s ability to convey that story, and dispensed with when they interfere with it. If an author has a compelling story, I’m going to overlook a lot of form awkwardness when taking it in. I suspect there are a lot more readers like me than there are ones who get upset when the author violates some writing rule.
One of the nice things about the self publishing revolution, is that it may bring back some old techniques that the publishing gatekeepers have filtered out, despite their utility across decades of genre history. To the extent it enhances storytelling, and increases the number of people reading in the genre, I think that will be a very good thing.
IO9 has an interesting post similar to this one, albeit with more rules they dislike.