Tell, don't show

05 Oct 2020 - Vidar Hokstad

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From the department of "oh, no, he's avoiding his editing again"

I know a few of you - authors, English literature students, and a few others - might have gotten close to choking on something when you saw "tell, don't show" since you've been told the opposite over and over.

Or maybe you're angrily firing up Twitter just from the title ( come at me! )

Ironically I've showed you, rather than told you about, one of the oldest tricks in the book: Make a controversial statement to pull you in, only to dial it back in the actual post.

Yeah, sorry, clickbait (I considered, but couldn't get myself to, using a title along the line of "13 weird reasons you should tell, not show, number 7 will amaze you" - merely typing that out here made me feel dirty)

But I'm serious. Somewhat at least.

I got to thinking about this Sunday morning, in bed, because I was trying to figure out how to wrap up editing of The Year Before The End, and particularly how I was procrastinating like an absolute champ last week.

And now, I guess, when I'm writing about this instead of editing.

But this post has a dual purpose: Consider it a manifesto of sorts. A a manifesto in favour of exposition.

I realised that my procrastination had a very simple reason:

My editor had - and let me start by saying I got an absolutely fantastic report back from my editor - at one point argued there was too much exposition.

While I loved the overall feedback (because it was constructive; there were positives and negatives, but all constructive), my emotional reaction to that was pretty much:

"Nu uh! Don't wanna change it! You can't make me!!!!"

My editor can't make me. That's one of the benefits of using my own company to publish my series.

But at the same time I was very much aware that this was a very skilled editor giving very good advice on how to write a story that will resonate with the widest possible audience.

But fuck that.

Not "fuck the advice", because most of it is gold, and as an author it is important to get an outside view. But it is also important to have beliefs, and sometimes you need to stand up for them, or you run the risk that you try to satisfy everyone at once and end up with something bland.

I have the additional luxury that I'm not a struggling full-time writer who has to chase what is most sellable when I don't want to in order to put a meal on the table.

And in this case I don't want to. And I'll tell you - not show you - why. Sorry.

Why I read science fiction

I realise I'm "different" to most people. I'm an introvert to the point that I need rituals in place to remember to talk to people for social reasons.

It's not that I don't care about people or don't like talking to them, because I do. But I talk to people in moderation, because it's exhausting to me, and most of what people like to talk about does not fit my interests. And sometimes I'll think about someone fondly, and decide that this doesn't mean I need to talk to them.

Reading in general, and science fiction in particular, was a shield for me from a young age.

What I particularly enjoyed about reading was that when the dialogue got boring, I could skim past it to get to the interesting bits.

You'll note, if you've learned about writing, that this goes directly against what you'll have been taught. Readers want things to be dynamic, and too much exposition bores people.

Most people.

What science fiction provided was stories where it was often the case that an idea or abstract concept was the main character, and the people just props. That applies both in writing and TV.

In those cases, "dynamic" writing often gets in the way of explaining the concept in a way that draws in people who are less interested in the subject, while it is often an annoying device to those who just want to get to the juicy core of the concept.

Older Star Trek is a perfect example to me, where most of the characters in each episode gets unceremoniously left behind at the end of the episode, and what is being developed is the concept of a society built on a set of principles, and the "character development" is seeing the Federation response to a range of moral conundrums.

Yes, we see some characters evolve too. But they can be replaced, while the society they are set in can't. Case in point: The characters keep being replaced. The Prime Directive, meanwhile, has been the main character of a huge number of episodes.

But more than that, a lot of written science fiction takes exposition to levels that in other genres would be considered ludicrous.

Kim Stanley Robinsons Mars trilogy, one of my favourite trilogies ever, has been jokingly described as "great if you can get past the 13-page descriptions of rocks."

I didn't love all the descriptions of rocks, but I loved the amount of world building.

KSR makes heavy use of a very well established 'dirty trick': Pages on pages of exposition are interspersed with the bare minimum of dialogue that often has no impact on the plot, and an occasional line of observation about the immediate surrounds. Red Mars starts that way, with pages of one of the characters musing about Mars in an inner monologue at a party.

My short-story Causal Boom relies entirely on that same 'trick'.

It's a conversation, sure, but the characters walks through an unspecified accident site, and we learn almost nothing about it, because the conversation is just an excuse for what is 100% exposition hidden, not very subtly, in that conversation.

I could have written that as pure exposition of the underlying idea and it would not be particularly different. It'd be less "dynamic".

As it was, that story pushed the limits of how little character engagement you can have in a short-story. But it's easier to make this work in a very short short-story (Causal Boom is ~1,000 words) than a novel, of course.

Another favourite of mine is Ben Bova's Venus which also starts the same way as Red Mars, with pages of exposition obscured lightly as inner thoughts of the main character interspersed with descriptions of a party as the character excruciatingly slowly - to fit all the exposition - makes his way to meet his father.

The party is mostly irrelevant; it serves two purposes: to fit in exposition and to establish his fathers decadence. But take out the exposition and you could do that just as effectively in half a page.

The first several chapters describes extremely little action relevant to the plot, and instead keep up that pretense of showing as an excuse for the inner thoughts of the viepoint character telling us about the setting.

I'm not suggesting I write as well as KSR or Ben Bova. Though I hope maybe one day.

I am pointing out that this exposition is why I read science fiction.

At the same time I realise that to a lot of people the exposition can be boring, and I don't want to push away everyone who don't want to read pages on pages about why a rotating space station is structured the way it is, and what the rotational speed of a station needs to be to attain a certain perceived level of gravity at a given radius (it's in there in The Year Before the End; I used a convenient website to get real numbers, because I found it fascinating)

It's a tricky situation.

So here is what I'm doing: I am toning down some of the exposition. I am increasing the use of what I described as a 'dirty trick' above, and trying to inject some more emotion into parts of it.

But I'm not doing away with it.

It's what I love.

Concepts, not characters

When I started writing my first novel, I didn't care about my characters at all. If I could have written the novel without them, I would have.

I know that sounds extreme.

But when I was 15 I actually did write a 40 page early draft of a novel that was 100% pure exposition. It's not salvageable.

My point is, the characters started out as props. They were needed because a story absent people is really hard to do. If I could, I might.

You can, of sorts. Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men is a great example that is almost entirely free of characters. People are mentioned as groups, described by a single observers travel description, and of the narrator himself we learn almost nothing.

It's really hard to do well. And it requires painting in extremely broad strokes, and there'd be no way I could tell the story I want to tell that way.

I could maybe, have outlined all of what I want to write about in this series in a novel or two that way, but I have plans for much more, and so I need to go into a level of detail that makes relatable characters a necessity.

Your inner eye

Part of the reason I didn't really care about the characters, I think, is that I very rarely remember characters from books. I remember abstracts concepts and ideas.

I have several hundred books on my bookshelves. I don't reven remember the name of the main character of more than a handful of them. I can't describe the main characters.

I don't remember what they did, or what they said. I really don't.

But I remember the concepts. The ideas.

You know when you say "I pictured ..."?

Do you mean you actually saw something in your minds eye? Because I don't.

Outside of dreams (which fade from memory within seconds of waking up) I get at most brief flashes.

Turns out a few of us are that way.

It's called "aphantasia". I didn't know people actually picture things in their minds until a couple of years ago. I thought it was metaphorical when people spoke about seeing things, or remembering faces (I don't see faces in my mind outside of dreams other than very occasionally as very brief flashes, usually of pictures rather than "live" memories of the person in question).

To me this explained a lot about how I think about things. I have an extremely good spatial memory. Even though I can't picture even the room I sit in right now if I close my eyes, I can describe my house in excrutiating detail based on spatial relationships, so I can draw it.

At school, a good 30 years ago now, we once had an art lesson when we were told to draw our shoes. Only first time we should draw from memory. Second time while looking at it.

The drawing I made from meory had tidy lines, and was extremely precise. It looked like a design drawing. The drawing I made while looking had far more detail, but was less precise. The one from memory was an idealised reconstruction. It excluded everything not needed.

When I read a science fiction story, those flourishes I exclude from my abstract memory of the story are often the characterisation and conversations that don't immediately move the big plot lines forward. What I remember is condensed and stripped to its essentials.

I get that to others it matters to emotionally connect with the characters, but to me that is often an annoyance to get past to get to the conceptual bits:

The ideas underpinning the universe.

Learning to love the characters

I do care about my characters now, though. To varying degrees.

The key is that I need to feel I really know a character to care, and for that I need to really connect with the characters to a lot greater extent than what I think most people need.

My editor rightly pointed out that I probably intended the main character to be a different person than the character who ended up being the effective main character.

And that's because I recognise myself. She is not me, but she is someone I would have enjoyed knowing.

Most importantly, for me to come to like the characters, the characters needed to embody aspects of the concepts I am writing about. They need to be recognisable to me not just as a person, but as an avatar for those concepts.

(Way to depersonalize them...)

Part of the reason for that, I speculate, is that a person I understand deeply makes social interactions far more relaxing for me. I don't need to know everything about them. In fact, I prefer not to. But I need to understand what to expect.

As I've been writing (and I've finished my draft of novel #2 even though the first one hasn't been published yet), I've come to understand the characters well enough to feel comfortable with them, and that makes it easier to write things into dialogue rather than make my editor exasperated about exposition.

I hope that will come through as the series progresses.

But they're still secondary to me to the broad brush-strokes of the wider world, and that remains a conflict for me I don't think I can solve, other than by trying to keep a balance that does not push away too many people.

More importantly, this brings me to the other meaning of "show, don't tell":

We're not just told to keep exposition down, but to describe a characters mental state in terms of how they act, rather than say "she is angry".

And I agree with that (surprise). To an extent. When it's obvious, I'm fine with that. When I don't need to parse it, I'm fine with that. But to me, this is part of what makes social interaction tiresome and exhausting:

I'm not nearly Sheldon Cooper-level in terms of lack of ability to parse emotions. I can do it, and I have no problems recognising sarcasm. But it's exhausting to spend energy dealing with people who do not say what they mean and leave me guessing.

Science fiction has traditionally been a stronghold of weak characterisation, which ironically often suits me perfectly, because it prevents the characterisation from getting in the way of the concepts.

That said, I also realise that it makes for boring books for most people if I just tell them when a charater is angry instead of showing them.

I try to strike a middle ground of not trying to be particularly clever about characterisations unless it is needed for the plot (e.g. if I need the reader to be unsure about a character).

In conclusion

As I said at the start, the title is hyperbole. Of course you also need to show.

But I strongly feel that emphasis of showing is detrimental for a lot of sci-fi that ends up focusing too much on action and emotions of the characters and too little on going in-depth and explaining the underlying world and concepts, because in sci fi that world and the concepts it is built on is a much larger part of the story you're telling than e.g. in more literary fiction.

I fully expect the result of that is that I will bore some readers the same way excessive dialogues bore me.

But I'm not writing with the expectation of selling millions. I don't need that (but, hey, I won't turn it down)

I need it to be fun to write. I'd like to turn a profit, sure, but I won't do that if I don't enjoy writing it enough to keep doing it, because I don't need this to provide a living wage.

(It's an extremely privileged position to be in, I know; I know how lucky I am)

I'd rather write for a smaller niche, and be able to write what I like to read for people who like the same things as me.

And I love it when writers tell me about their universe in all the gory details that their characters would never see, and so which would take all kinds of unrealistic contortionism to show, not tell.

Want to discuss this?

You can try posting this on /r/galaxybound on Reddit (I'd love it if you post about it on other subreddits too, but /r/galaxybound is where you can be sure I'll see it), or connect with me on Twitter.

It's 2144. In a year the Earth-Centauri gate opens. Some predict it will be the end of humanity.

Out Now: Galaxy Bound Book 1

The Year Before the End

What would you do if the only way to stop an alien invasion was to break into one of the best defended space stations in the solar system?