Literary “rules” I wish science fiction and fantasy books would break more often.

Image credit: Jonas de Ro via Wikipedia

Image credit: Jonas de Ro via Wikipedia

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.

No infodumps.

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.

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41 Responses to Literary “rules” I wish science fiction and fantasy books would break more often.

  1. Mordanicus says:

    Reblogged this on Fascinating Future and commented:

    Interesting stuff to think about for every author.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. john zande says:

    I agree with Mord. Some serious food for thought here.

    Hey, on another matter concerning books, mine is finished and out: : The Owner of All Infernal Names: An Introductory Treatise on the Existence, Nature & Government of our Omnimalevolent Creator.

    It’s a parody of 20th Century Natural Theology works, although nowhere do i let in on that fact. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the thesis. I just posted a part of the Introduction to the Argument on my blog, and all the links are in the cover icon.

    Carry on!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Delicious food for thought about writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ratamacue0 says:

    I think an “as you know”-type preamble can be useful in real life, especially in technical discussions. Like “as discussed yesterday…” It identifies context for whatever follows.

    But maybe you’re talking about more in depth explanations that are obv for the reader, not the hearer. …I don’t read much fiction.

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  5. Great article. That example with the old lady was spot on. Just tell me the lady was old and move on. The sooner that’s done, the sooner the novel can get to its point.

    I like ideas, so I often flip through novels quickly to get to the central ideas. I even do this with non-fiction if the author spends too much time talking about their personal discovery of some idea or other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks and agreed. I often end up skimming in non-fiction books, but rarely in fiction. If it reaches the point where I’m skimming, I’m not enjoying it, which usually means I’m going to give up on it and read something else. The exception might be books that everyone is raving about, but that I’m having trouble getting through. Sometimes on those, I’ll make the effort to skim and try to get the author’s main points.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wyrd Smythe says:

    As you can surely imagine from our recent conversation, I agree completely! My bottom line is that there are no “rules” in art, there are only guidelines, and great (even really good) art rarely comes from following all the guidelines. Part of what makes art memorable is how it explores outside the guidelines.

    The “Watson” is one well-worn method of explaining things. Just have a character who is ignorant about what you need to explain. And then try to make the explaining not boring. Some authors insert supposed documents between chapters to explain richer details. Readers have the option of ignoring them (and then having to go back and read them when they turn out to be important 😀 ). Alan Moore use that technique in his gnovel Watchmen. Appendices often serve that need in SF novels.

    I’ve decided that the cinematic “rule” of No Narration! is often broken to good effect. As you say about prologues, considering an automatic points off is far too dogmatic. Yeah, cinema is a visual art, but the Talkies have been around for a while now, and we do live a world filled with sound and speech.

    Speaking of which… Have you ever seen Southland Tales? Interesting movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wyrd Smythe says:

      D’oh! I missed closing the strong tag after “No Narration!” I’d be obliged if you’d edit and correct. (Sure wish WP let people edit their own comments.)

      Like

    • Very much agreed on all points. On Watchmen, I actually skipped the prose sections without any perceived loss of comprehension, except for perhaps at the end when the alien thing seemed to come out of nowhere, but was reportedly foreshadowed in the prose sections. A friend told me that I missed a lot by skipping the prose, but at the time, I was just interested in experiencing the graphic parts.

      Anyone saying that narration in movies is invalid, needs to explain why Peter Jackson was able to use it to such great effect in the LOTR prologue. I also think about classic movies like The Ten Commandments, which uses narration at various points in the film. I think when modern filmmakers forego techniques that Cecil B Demille was fine with, they’re producing for fellow filmmakers rather than for audiences.

      I haven’t seen Southland Tales. To be honest, I somehow had never heard of it until now. (Or if I had, I’ve totally managed to forget about it.) Although alternate history fiction usually doesn’t appeal to me.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Yeah, same here. First time I read Watchmen I skipped — or at best skimmed some of — the prose. On later readings I did read them, and they do enrich the story, but they aren’t necessary. (I’ve got a pair of posts in my drafts section about the gnovel, which I consider a ground-breaking classic. Maybe I’ll get around to posting them someday. And you can number me among those who thought the movie was extremely good.)

        Good examples of the usefulness of narration! Down with Rulz! 😄

        Southland Tales… is unusual. Rather surreal, and it reminded me of Bigelow’s Strange Days (which I really liked). It calls to mind a glossy Philip K. Dick, and sports an interesting cast. I suspect it’s a polarizing work — people will either like it a lot or really, really won’t. It may depend on how much one values film-as-art versus film-as-story. I’ll watch it at least one more time, maybe more. It packs a lot into it.

        Speaking of weird and surreal, I watched the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune last night, and… WOW!

        Imagine Dune as told by the man who made El Topo (which if you’ve never heard of it is a classic surrealst cult film that many feel started the “Midnight Movie” trend later owned by Rocky Horror — it makes David Lynch films look like standard sitcoms).

        Imagine Dune as seen by Jodorowsky with artwork by Chris Foss, H.R. Giger (before Alien!), French artist Moebius, special effects by Dan O’Bannon (of Dark Star fame), and with a cast including Orsen Wells (the Baron), Mick Jagger (Feyd), David Carradine (Leto), and Salvador Dalí (the Emperor).

        It would have come out before Star Wars, and — if successful — might have resulted in a much different, possibly much better, science fiction film landscape.

        Jodorowsky scared the crap out of the Hollywood studios (perhaps justifiably so), and his version was never made. As we know, David Lynch ended up doing a version that is generally reviled among fans (although the first part isn’t too bad — it completely jumps the shark about halfway through).

        For any fan of Dune, you gotta see this documentary!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I actually didn’t mind the David Lynch Dune movie when it was first released. It was weird, trying to do things like convey character’s thoughts, but then Dune itself wasn’t exactly traditional literature. But it was re-edited at some point into something I find hard to watch now.

          The SyFy miniseries was, I thought, pretty well done, and caught the spirit of the books about as well as film probably could.

          I’ll have to catch the documentary when it becomes available in a format I can access.

          You just reminded me of the Harlan Ellison script for ‘I, Robot’ that he wrote in the 70s for a proposed movie adaptation that never happened. (Apparently because Ellison had a falling out with the producers.) From what I remember seeing of the artwork, it looked like it would have been a milestone picture, had it been made.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            I agree, the SyFy Dune miniseries was quite good!

            As for Lynch, probably best to leave that alone. I’m not a fan of his work.

            (Just so I’m not presenting empty criticism: I’m not convinced he doesn’t produce ink blots fans and critics pretend to understand — an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of deal. That he refuses to discuss his work is something of a red flag to me. Mulholland Drive was, I’ll admit, a bit engaging (if inaccessible), and someday I plan to give it another try. Lost Highway was… “interesting” as they say. I couldn’t get through either Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart, and nothing I heard about Twin Peaks seemed interesting. I thought Eraserhead was an incoherent mess. The Elephant Man, alright, I’ll give him that one. I think he was way over his head with Dune — the second half is awful and kind of ridiculous. But this could all just be me… I’m admittedly a little iffy when it comes to surrealism. Maybe I just don’t get it and feel left out.)

            “Ellison had a falling out with the producers.”

            Gee, that’s hard to imagine! 😄 😄 😄

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          • I found Twin Peaks completely enthralling when it first aired, but when I caught reruns of it a while back, it didn’t look like it had aged well. I think many of its themes and techniques got incorporated into later series minus its faults, which seem more evident today than they did in 1990.

            On Ellison, yeah. I saw a documentary about him a few years ago, which seemed to confirm his reputation as one of the most contentious people alive.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            [re Twin Peaks] There is also the “Seinfeld Isn’t Funny” syndrome that makes works (such as Seinfeld) seem trite, done to death, and flawed, because so many other shows have leveraged, or even improved upon, the ground the first show broke.

            I’m absolutely clear my problem with Lynch may be completely my own bias. I’m struck by the fact that I’m about the only one who wonders if he’s a fraud. My self-checking mechanism sees that as a major red flag. As a quote I love goes, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs… perhaps you’ve misunderstood the situation!”

            OTOH, maybe I’m that one kid who pointed out the naked emperor. [shrug]

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          • Oh, Lynch is definitely a fraud, but then so is any artist who produces fiction. There’s always an element of trickery and smoke screens involved.

            But I suspect you mean, is he a fraud regarding his stuff having deep meaning? I don’t know. I tend to regard most such works as fraudulent myself. I’m usually more concerned with whether or not they’re entertaining. If not, I rarely care about whatever their message or meaning was supposed to be.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            LOL! Yeah, I mean Lynch specifically. I get the impression that the only people who truly revere surrealists are other surrealists. I’ve never been sure whether they’re the only ones to recognize the genius of the work or are just protecting each others’ backs and livelihoods.

            I often suspect the latter. I briefly (and disastrously) dated a surrealist who did etchings. (You can see one of them at the bottom of this post.) Being very curious about my perception of surrealism, I tried repeatedly to draw her out hoping to discover the structure and thinking behind her art. But, like Lynch, she refused to discuss it — got irritated by my attempts to understand, in fact.

            I’m willing to accept the idea that perhaps some forms of art come from a sub-conscious, inexplicable level that cannot be explained or described, but the resistance to even talking around the territory makes me suspicious. But, again, this could be my own limitations talking — I’m quite aware of that.

            Storytelling does definitely have an entertainment vector, but truly great ones usually have more. Terry Pratchett is a master of hugely entertaining fantasy that is also extremely meaningful.

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          • That reminds me of something I’ve been encountering lately. Reading all of the short stories, I’ve discovered a type of fiction called “slipstream.” Apparently it’s all about making the reader feel strange, so anything that invokes that strangeness is desirable.

            I don’t have much of a problem with that, except that apparently the author is under no obligation to ever explain the strangeness. And that I find detestable, particularly since at the beginning of a work, you can’t tell whether there will ever be an explanation, in my mind, a payoff. Whenever I encounter it, I try to note the author’s name, so I can avoid wasting time with anything else they’ve written.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Wow, it’s funny that you mention slipstream in writing. One of the next films in my watch queue is Anthony Hopkins’ Slipstream (2007), which apparently is a cognitive dissonance work such as you describe. Hopkins wrote it, directed it, stars in it, and even did the music.

            It has a 23% / 29% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, so neither critics nor audiences liked it much, but Roger Ebert gave it three (of four) stars, and I found him a fairly good film barometer for my film sensibilities (I really miss his reviews and essays). It should at least be… “interesting.”

            I can totally relate to your frustration with it. As I understand it, making one feel lost and uncomfortable (as life sometimes does) is part of the goal with surrealism and impressionism. To the extent art is intended to make us feel, there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s fulfilling its purpose — but you do have to consume it on a different level of appreciation (and it’s one I often have a hard time achieving).

            Science fiction kinda went through that in the 1970s and 1980s as authors tried to explore new ways of telling stories (Ellison was a part of that). At the time I found a lot of it unpalatable. Age and experience don’t seem to have expanded that palate over much (but some). 🙂

            William Gibson, and to some extent Philip K. Dick and John Brunner, verged into that successfully to my mind. Even so, I didn’t really appreciate their work as much until my palate expanded.

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          • I’d say that my palette has definitely broadened in some ways as I’ve gotten older, but it’s also narrowed. For instance, I really can’t stand to read franchise novels, something I often gorged on in my youth.

            The only thing of Gibson’s that I’ve read was Neuromancer. I loved the concepts and story, but his prose was just too dense for me. He epitomized what I was complaining about in this post. I read one Brunner book, but I remember it losing me halfway through, I think when he suddenly shifted away from all the characters he had spent the first part of the book developing. I’ve never read Dick, just seen movies based on his stuff.

            Recently, Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy was cut from the cloth I think you’re describing. My reaction to the prose was the lost and uncomfortable feeling you describe. I was enthralled by it, even reviewing the first book here on the blog. That lasted right up until the end, where nothing got resolved. I wish I could bill Vandermeer for the time I spent on those books. 😡

            Liked by 1 person

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Heh, yeah, I know the feeling. Or at least get back the time you spent. That happened to me fairly recently with the movie Super Capers (2009) by Ray Griggs. Attempts to recapture the 1960s feel of cheesy effects ‘B’ movies and the humor of Mad Magazine and fails to do a good job of either. Why I watched the whole thing, I’ll never know… kept hoping for a payoff, I guess, but just felt cheated.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Sable Aradia says:

    You want to know what the problem is? You can’t get anything that’s just friendly and readable published in speculative fiction, especially in the short story field. All the magazines seem to have been taken over by these “literary science fiction” guys.

    Like

    • I think there’s some truth in that. I’ve been reading a lot of short science fiction lately, and I’m struck by how many melancholy pieces I’ve encountered with a literary flourish where nothing much happens. I’ve learned to notice this in the opening paragraphs, and when I do, skip the rest of the story, since, for me, the payoff is almost never worth the effort.

      But I’ve encountered enough good stories to keep reading.

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      • Sable Aradia says:

        Well, I’m glad you have. I have to say that I’m finding it rather frustrating as a “classic” sort of spec fic writer. 😡

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        • I know what you mean. I’m actually reading a lot of stuff right now to get a feel for the current art form, and for what editors are currently accepting. I’ve been reading stories in Analog, Asimovs, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Daily Science Fiction. I’ve glanced at F&SF a little, but most of the stories don’t seem to be my type.

          About a third of the stories are “I couldn’t write that and can’t read it”, another third are “I enjoy reading it, but could never write it”, and a final third are “I could do this type of story.” I was worried that that last number might be zero.

          I do find most of the stories in Analog to be mostly straightforward and clear, although if you’re doing fantasy, they won’t be interested.

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  8. Steve Morris says:

    Sorry, but my complaint is the opposite. Writers break these rules all the time demonstrating very clearly why they exist in the first place. I was surprised to find Robert J Sawyer giving advice on “show don’t tell” since he is one of the worst offenders I have ever encountered.

    Here’s how he introduces his lead character, in the novel FlashForward: “Lloyd Simcoe, a Canadian-born researcher, sat at the injector console. He was forty-five, tall and clean shaven. His eyes were blue and his crewcut hair …”

    Oh sorry, I fell asleep. This is not a story. This is a story synopsis. It might be an efficient way to communicate information, but it does nothing to involve the reader in the story. Why not just produce an executive summary of the book and leave it at that?

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    • Well, this was a post about my personal preferences, so I knew there were going to be people who just flat out disagreed with me. I don’t perceive that these rules are violated nearly as much as you do, at least not in writing currently being published. But the last few books I read were so uncompromising on these points, that it made the story a chore to take in.

      I’ve never read any of Sawyer’s stuff. Maybe Flashforward is an example of his early work? It’s listed as having been published in 1999. I only know it by the short lived TV show. I agree, that introduction seems amateurish, but in and of itself, it wouldn’t make me stop reading, particularly if I was enjoying the story.

      I have read one or two books in my life that read more like a synopsis, but I don’t perceive it to be that much of a problem. Again, different people’s craving for details will be…different. But I’m struck by the popularity of writers like John Scalzi, who tend to write tight clear prose. Scalzi gets a lot of readers who usually can’t stand to read science fiction, something I find impressive.

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      • Steve Morris says:

        What I would really like to see in this example is Lloyd Simcoe doing something interesting that grabs my attention. Having done this, I might then be motivated to learn that he is Canadian and has blue eyes, rather than having these irrelevant and uninspiring details thrown at me.

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        • “Lloyd Simcoe, a Canadian-born researcher, sat at the injector console. He was forty-five, tall and clean shaven. His eyes were blue and his crewcut hair …”

          Some of it depends on whether he was using third person limited or third person omniscient here. But regardless, I agree, too many details up front. Right out of the box we find out his full name is 1) Lloyd Simco, that he’s 2) Canadian, 3) 45 years old, 4) tall, 5) clean shaven, 6) has blue eyes, and 7) has a crewcut. That’s about twice as much as most readers can remember in one shot. How much of this do we have to know right away? And how much of it do we ever need to know for the plot? Is his eye color, for instance, ever a crucial story detail?

          Assuming third person limited, I think I might have started with something like:
          “Lloyd sat at the injector console, wishing its ergonomics were a bit better for someone tall and middle aged. At least his crewcut helped with enduring the heat…”
          Of course, for this to work the injector console has to be able to be cramped, and the temperature has to be able to be high.

          For third person omniscient, maybe something like:
          “Lloyd Simcoe cut an imposing figure: tall, middle aged, with a crewcut. He sat at the injector console…”

          In both cases, I’d try to work in the other details later, to whatever extent they’re relevant.

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  9. Lane says:

    Very good list. I’m in complete agreement. I also thought of something I’ve noticed about real life “as you know Bob” dialog. Often people will lose track of what other people know about their lives. This happens all the time when my friends and I are sharing work stories.
    Real example;
    “Do you remember my coworker Willy? The one you talked to about the whales?”
    “The one who was into the dolphin intelligence research?”
    “That’s the one.” And then she launched into a work story that involved him. I see writers use this sort of conversation all the time. It works because the only problem with “as you know Bob” dialog is that the reader is left wondering why they are talking if they both know that they know it. Most ways around the problem involve making one person ignorant, but it can work just as well to have them both know, but need to verify that the other knows.

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    • Thanks Lane. Excellent point. Most of the time, I see writers embed this stuff into an expert / novice type conversation, or into a debate between characters where it seems more natural for everyone to cover basic points. But it didn’t occur to me that, with the right setup, the classic version would still work.

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  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve always hated that “show, don’t tell” rule.

    The point that Leckie’s commenter makes is exactly what I’ve said about it. I think a lot of novice writer tell, but when they do, it’s boring. The rule helps with that problem, but it shouldn’t be a hard and fast rule. There are so many times when telling is actually way more powerful than showing.

    That example in your comments is a perfect example of boring telling. I don’t care about any of those details about Lloyd Simcoe:

    “Lloyd Simcoe, a Canadian-born researcher, sat at the injector console. He was forty-five, tall and clean shaven. His eyes were blue and his crewcut hair …”

    Here’s what I hear:

    1) Name I don’t care about yet, but it’s a full name, so there’s distance in revealing the full name upfront, and that could be interesting…
    2) Canadian born. Don’t care.
    3) Researcher. Still don’t care. If he researched something interesting, like the effects of bubble gum on dogs, I might continue reading.
    4) I don’t know what an injector console is. Not a huge stumbling block, but not exactly intriguing.
    5) Don’t care that he’s 45, tall and clean shaven. Don’t care that his eyes are blue and he has a crewcut. Boring details. I need to know why these details matter. They might reveal something about him, but so far he’s just a stranger passing me on the street.

    I’d rewrite it like this:

    “Lloyd Simcoe, researcher of the effects of bubble gum on dogs, sat at the injector console. He owned three pomeranians: one named Fish, one named Lizard, and the last he didn’t name because he received this one from his mother on his forty-fifth birthday.”

    As far as omniscient goes, that’s something that requires a lot of skill. I love omniscient, but it can get confusing if not done properly. My goal is to be able to pull it off someday. I stick to third person limited a lot, but I like to back up a scene from another person’s POV to make things less confusing, and to ground the reader. It’s a simple trick, but I’ve never actually read anything done like this. I have yet to find out if it works…we’ll see!

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    • Thanks Tina. Excellent points.

      On Lloyd Simcoe, after my response to Steve, I remembered the premise of Flashforward, that every person in the world experiences a flash forward, for a few minutes, to a point several months in their future. It may be that Sawyer had a purpose in giving so many details on Simcoe. Maybe he shows up in someone else’s flash forward, and we’re meant to recognize him by his physical attributes. (This is just speculation; I haven’t read the novel, just watched the short lived and loosely adapted TV show.) The problem is still too many details up front; most readers will forget half of them. But I can see valid reasons for a somewhat clunky intro like that.

      On third person omniscient, I totally agree. I think third person limited is the way to go in most cases.

      Interestingly, in a book on novel writing that I once read, written when third person omniscient was still predominant, it was recommended that you still only shift viewpoints at chapter or scene breaks at the beginning of a novel (in other words, third person limited). Only once the reader had established relationships with each viewpoint character should you attempt to shift viewpoints in the same scene, and then only with caution.

      That said, in speculative or historical fiction, even in a novel that’s mostly third person limited, I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with having occasional universal viewpoints (in a newspaper or historical type voice) in passages between scenes, to save time. Often the alternative is to have a lot of extra (possibly tedious) story to try and convey the same facts.

      And in a complex scene, with multiple viewpoint characters, third person omniscience could be useful. I’ve heard the dinner party scene in Dune thrown out as an excellent example. But I totally agree that an author needs to know what they’re doing to pull it off. (And no, I’m not at all confident that I would know what I was doing if I attempted it. 🙂 )

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      • Steve Morris says:

        The reason for avoiding third person omniscient and shifting viewpoints willy-nilly is that they have a “distancing” effect. The example description of Lloyd Simcoe has precisely the same effect (and no, those details are not important in the plot – they are just details.)

        I know what you mean about Dune – the way that Frank Herbert switches viewpoint within a scene. That is done very deliberately so that the reader can see what each person is thinking (but not revealing.) It’s used to create a specific effect, and is not distancing, but gives the reader a preferred viewpoint that is exciting to read. That is advanced use of viewpoint!

        In each case, it shouldn’t be about what method saves time, but what the effect on the reader is. After all, we all want to read books that are engrossing, and characters that we can root for. Like with Tina’s example of the three pomeranians – this info could have been cut to save time, but by including it we feel much more connected with the character and are interested to hear more.

        Since you mentioned Dune (my all-time favourite sci-fi series), here’s the opening sentence: “In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”

        This sentence conveys a huge amount of information, introducing three characters, and making two of them (the old crone, and the boy, Paul) very interesting indeed even though we know virtually nothing about them. Who doesn’t want to find out what the old crone is up to? Who doesn’t want to discover why the boy, Paul, is of such importance? Who doesn’t want to know who these people are,. why they are leaving in such a frenzy of activity, and what this place Arrakis is?

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        • Ah, ok. I was trying to give Sawyer the benefit of the doubt, but it sounds like the intro was just clunky. Still, if those details were important, and if for some reason he didn’t have time to work them in before they became important, I could see it being an understandable move, albeit with only three or four attributes.

          I know third party omniscient creates distancing, particularly at the beginning of the story. But once the reader has a relationship with the viewpoint characters, I’m not sure the shifting within a scene would necessarily have that distancing effect, if its use was limited.

          On distancing itself, I actually think very tight stream of consciousness third person limited, where background information the character knows but isn’t thinking about can’t be revealed, can itself cause distancing. It creates a gulf between the reader and the viewpoint character, since the viewpoint character will know relevant information the reader doesn’t.

          Steve, just to reiterate, I meant saving time from tedious detail. Again, what is tedious and what is enticing will vary between readers. For instance, I personally feel lots of description that is there only to provide ambience is something I have to endure to get to the next part of the story. I know some readers enjoy it. In most cases, I don’t. I tend to enjoy stories that keep it to a minimum.

          Totally agree on the Dune opening. It’s worth noting that Herbert uses third person omniscient, including shifting viewpoints, right from the beginning. (In the Gom Jabbar scene, we are privy to Paul’s, the Reverend Mother’s, and Jessica’s private thoughts.)

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