Tag Archives: advice
Invert the advice, see what happens?
I have been working on a couple of posts (on various not-related sf/f things) that keep not gelling. I was working on one such post while also starting to feel drowsy and decided it was close enough to bed time that I should just pack it in. I fell asleep really quickly. I half-expected to dream about the post I had been wrestling with. Instead I had about six dreams that were all variations of the same story. Most of the dreams weren’t about me, though I and Michael were supporting characters in one variant of the story. And while processing this (and waiting for my coffee to perk), I realized that there was a piece of writing advice I have repeated (and sometimes expounded upon) which my be useful to revisit and reconsider.
Before I jump into that, one weird digression. I saw recently on one of the social media platforms a question: When you dream is it like you are inside the story reacting to whats happening to you, or is it more like you are watching a movie about something happening to you? And I wanted to answer, “Those two choice assume that my dreams are always about me.” Because sometimes my dreams are, indeed, like an immersive experience, and other times as if I’m watching a movie or play… but I don’t always dream that I am me. And in all six of the ones that led to this post, the main character/who I was wasn’t Gene, at all. And in most of them none of the other people were anyone I know in real life.
When I was in school, I had more than one teacher covering English or Literature make the assertion that there are only four plots: person vs person, person vs nature, person vs themself, and person vs society. I wasn’t the only member of the class who didn’t quite buy it—when we came up with counter-examples, the teacher would find a way to shoehorn it into one of the four. In the years since I have seen it much more common for folks to list seven plots… the problem is, I’ve seen at least four variants of the list seven which don’t map to each other very well. Which is probably why other people have written books about the 20-something or 30-something fundamental dramatic situations you can build a story from. And so on.
All the dreams I had that night were variants of: being taken to meet the parents. And specifically, being taken to meet the parents who are not yet comfortable with their child being queer.
I know one reason that my sleeping brain easily cooked up six very different versions of that story is, in part, because being a queer person myself I have (in addition to having some personal experiences with the situation) listened to, read, or watched many, many, many variations of that basic situation.
And that’s the point of the Lauren Beukes quote above: what makes a story is the execution, not the plot.
Which brings me to the piece of writing advice I talked about earlier. It has been observed many times that every person is the protagonist of their own story. Therefore, it is useful for the writer to keep the motivations of all of the characters in a story in mind. If you write yourself into a corner, the advice goes, try re-writing some of your scenes from the point-of-view of another character. In a novel-length story if you find yourself needing a subplot to intercut with the main plot, a great source of sub-plots is to pick some supporting characters and ask what is going on in their lives off screen.
And that’s good advice.
But it may also help to actively invert the usual advice. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story… but also everyone is the supporting character or villain of someone else’s story. That might seem to be implied when someone advises that you re-write scenes from other character’s viewpoints to look for ways to move your plot forward, but I’m not sure we all actively think about it that way.
Especially about your hero. Sure, you know that your protagonist is the villain in your antagonist’s story… but is there anyone else who see your protagonist as an irritant, or a burden, or an obstacle… or maybe a villain, just in a different way than your antagonist does?
And in which of the supporting and otherwise background cast of your main story is your protagonist a supporting player, or even merely a superluminary? If you can’t imagine who might look at them this way, maybe you haven’t made your protagonist as well-rounded as you think?
It’s worth thinking about, at least!
Most writing advice is free, but the value varies
I made my first professional sale to a science fiction ‘zine (Worlds of If) forty-four years ago. And I was ecstatic, because I had only been submitting to professional ‘zines for two years, and I had already made a sale! I was on my way, right?!? Except I didn’t make another sale until thirteen years later. So maybe I didn’t quite know what I was doing, just yet. And for the next ten-ish years, I only managed to sell stories to fanzines and semi-prozines. Which seemed like more proof that I wasn’t quite a pro.
My primary source of income since 1988 has been writing. Most of that has been technical writing (and related jobs) in the software industry, but I find it really hard to discount the fact that the word “writer” has been part of my official job description for a bit over 31 years. So my day job and my hobby job for more than three decades has been “writer” — so maybe I have some idea of how to put words together? Plus, for more than two decades I was the editor of a semi-prozine that produced at least three issues a year for those two decades. Which were offered for sale and purchased in sufficient quantities to cover the cost of printing.
So maybe, just maybe, I have some correct notions about what it takes for a story to appeal to an audience, right?
But here’s something I am absolutely certain of: I can’t teach you how to write. I can tell you how I do it (the parts I understand—there’s a whole lot going on in everyone’s subconscious that remains ineffable). I can tell you techniques that work for me. But only you can figure out how you can write.
And that’s true of everyone. No one, no matter how accomplished, can tell you how to write. I love reading or hearing about how other people go about writing. I like attending panels and seminars and the occasional online class from other writers. So I’m not saying don’t take anyone’s advice or class, just remember that in the end you are the person who is telling your stories. So only you can figure out which things people suggest work for you, and which don’t.
A lot of advice gets repeated regularly, and it seems sound. When you’re feeling anxious about writing, it can be comforting to have these rules to fall back on. But these pieces of advice can be stumbling blocks or worse. For example, one frequently repeated piece of advice is to cut out the adverbs. “Search for words ending in ‘ly’ and delete them!” So take out things like terribly and gently and carefully and slowly. Supposedly this makes your writing clearer. It also makes your writing duller. Some adverbs are superfluous. But like every other kind of word (nouns, verbs, adjectives), sometimes they are exactly right.
Then there is that tired old chestnut, “Show, don’t tell.” I’ve written before about how that advice is more wrong than it is right. In a nutshell: the extreme version of the advice leads you to remove all exposition from your story and exclude people who don’t share all your (unconscious) cultural assumptions. For a writer of science fiction or fantasy, that makes it impossible to put the reader into a world that is different than our own. Better advice is to paint pictures with your words. Anton Chekov said it thusly: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” So use exposition when necessary, but make sure it isn’t flat and boring.
Said is a perfectly good verb. So is snarled, whispered, replied, asked, shouted, demanded, muttered and retorted. So that advice about never using any verb other than said as a dialog tag is another one that is well-meaning, but not completely right. Now, it is true that a writer can go overboard with the dialog tags. I was cringing mightily during a recent audio book where the author seemed to take the flip side of the advice and never used said at all. Among the horrible tags he did use were: extrapolated, polled, nodded, puffed, interrogated, and the absolute worst: all-caps-ed. This is another one where the truth is somewhere in between. Don’t go bananas with the synonyms for said and asked, but don’t stick to only those two, either.
Also, sometimes you don’t have to use dialog tags at all. You can describe what the character is doing: He pursed his lips. “Do you want my honest opinion?” Or if you are telling the story from a particular character’s point of you, you can describe their thoughts or feelings: Sarah wanted to hug him. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that today!” But again, you need to figure out what works for you. I have a bad habit in first drafts of putting a she/he/they nodded on about half the dialog entries. I think it’s because I nod when people talk to me (which is hilarious when I do it on conference calls!). But when I read the draft later—especially aloud to my writer’s group—it sounds like everyone in my story is constantly bobbing their heads wildly and can really distract from the scene!
Some people insist that you absolutely must write every day on your project or you aren’t a real writer. Bull. Yeah, some people write like that. And if that works for you, great. But some of us need to take days off. My day job involves writing and editing, so some days when I get home my brain is burned out, and I don’t get much if any writing done. And don’t tell me to get up super early and write before I go to work. I’m not a morning person, and frankly if I tried I have no doubt that some days I would be much less than good at my job. And I like my work. Work pays the bills! And I like eating. If writing every single day works for you, great, do it. But don’t feel like a failure if some days you just have to do something else to recharge the mental batteries.
There are two very common bits of writing advice that I do fully endorse:
- A writer writes. You can skip days, but you can’t skip writing altogether. If you feel stuck, force yourself to write a single word. Just one. Then, look at it, and decide what the next one is. If that’s what it takes, just make yourself put one word after another until you have a sentence, and then another and another.
- A writer reads. Read other people’s work regularly. Read things you love. Every now and then, read stuff from a genre you don’t like. Or a style of writing that you usually don’t take to. Not all the time, but make sure you are expanding your reading horizons, regularly.
Other than that, I just have to ask: why are you still reading this post! Go! Write something! The world needs your story. And no one can tell your story except you.
Don’t stop writing!
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is nearly over. I hit the NaNo standard goal of 50,000 word over the weekend, though I still have a ways to go before I hit my personal goal of 66,000 (attempting to break my previous record of 65,591). This year’s project has involved writing some scenes multiple times from several perspectives—the most egregious one having now seven different versions, which is fairly amazing since it really consists of just two characters. Another scene that was written five times at least involves four active characters and one passive observer, which makes the multiple versions make a bit more sense.
There are some who would say this isn’t in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, and certainly not in line with advice I have often given people who are stuck: to just write the next word and keep moving. Since each time I have redone a scene I started from scratch, I think this counts as legitimate first draft activity. I’m not revising, see. And if someone thinks this is a form of cheating, well for years I was a member of the NaNoWriMo Rebels. The original rules specified that you not write a single word of the story before the stroke of midnight on October 31. So I was a rebel because I was usually trying to finish one of more works already in progress. So if my multiple tellings of the same (or substantially similar) scenes is cheating, I guess I’m a rebel again.
On the other hand, there is a scene that is told twice which I intend to go into the book that way. The reader will first seen the end of a battle from the point of view of the main villain of the story, as he arrives when most of the fight is over and tries to figure out what’s happening. Then in the next chapter the reader will see the beginning of the battle from the point of view of one of the protagonists and learn quite a bit more. And I think it works quite well.
We’ll see what the readers think.
You should be writing — whether you join us in NaNoWriMo or not!
It’s the first of November, which means that it’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun. I frequently recommend it precisely because the point is to just keep writing and not worry about being perfect. That worry often paralyzes people, preventing them from writing. Oh, they type out a few words, maybe a few sentences, but then they stare and delete and write something else. It is easy to fall into the trap of rewriting and revising a story (or a single scene) again and again because it isn’t perfect.
I’ve discussed this topic many times both on my various blogs, on convention panels, and in personal conversations. The person thinks they can’t write because the idea they have isn’t perfect, or they aren’t being creative/original enough, and so forth. One very specific form of this issue I’ve heard many times goes something like this: “I’ve read about how plotting and so forth works, and when I’m analyzing a book or show or something I can often see where the tale went wrong, but I’m not able to apply that skill to writing something new.”
At which point I usually launch into my rant about how writing is not the inverse of literary criticism?
What do I mean by inverse? Well, let’s first consult the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language. The relevant definition is: “ Of two operations, relations, etc.: such that the starting point or antecedent of the one is the result or conclusion of the other, and vice versa; (of one such operation, relation, etc.) opposite in nature or effect (to the other).” So, for instance, untying a shoelace is the inverse of tying it, while tying the shoelace is likewise the inverse of untying, right?
So, what do I mean when I say that literary criticism isn’t the inverse of writing? I mean that if one imagined the process of analyzing and deconstructing a story as a series of tasks, performing those tasks in reverse doesn’t produce a story. And when you compare your ability to find flaws in a story as being a necessary skill to creating a story, you are misunderstanding the creative process. Also, knowing how to perform literary deconstruction doesn’t guarantee that one understands stories—it means one understands paradigms that some authorities have proclaimed about stories.
Another way to understand it is to think about music: literary criticism and the like can be looked at as similar to understanding the mathematical equations that describe sound waves. Understanding those equations doesn’t mean you can think up a catchy tune. Which doesn’t mean that studying music theory might not improve your music making, but it doesn’t guarantee you will make compelling, or even mildly interesting music.
So, for instance, when a story teller begins working on a story, they don’t make lists of the metaphors they intend to use. Likewise, we don’t usually think about what the theme of the tale is and so on. I, personally, virtually never know what any of my metaphors are in a story unless someone points them out to me.
Everyone’s process is different. Most of my stories begin as a question, and the process of writing is how I try to find the answer to that question, and to the subsequent questions I uncover while working on the first.
Analysis is very useful during the editing and revising. Studying some of the things we can quantify about how stories work isn’t a waste of time. But don’t focus on that. Certainly not when you’re at the first draft stage.
Or, as Gandalf observed: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
Once again, time to start your word processing engines!
In just a couple of days November will be here and that means National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! In case you aren’t familiar with NaNoWriMo, let me first quote from their website:
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.
On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.
There are rules, but for years I participated as a Rebel, until a few years ago when they dropped the one rule that kept making me a rebel.
- Write one 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
Start from scratch.
- Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction.
- Be the sole author of your novel.
- Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.
That second bullet is the rule that they changed. Most years I use NaNoWriMo as a motivation to work on some stalled or otherwise unfinished projects rather than starting from scratch, which is why I was always over in the Rebel category. NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun, and I find that having a few friends participating and mutually cheering each other on (and in a couple of cases to try to race against, word-count wise) helps me get a lot of work done.
NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone. But I’ve seen people who didn’t think they’d like it come out happy that they’d given it a go.
If you’ve ever wanted to write and have trouble finishing, give it a try. Particularly if the thing that is holding you back is a feeling that whatever you’re writing isn’t good enough, there is something freeing about just focusing on getting the word count up. Leave editing for later. you can revise and correct a horrible draft, but you can’t do that to a blank page.
And it is supposed to be fun, not a chore.
I think I know what I’m going to work on this year. But I’m leaving myself the option to change my mind at the last minute.
Let’s make some fiction!
Subplots, plots, and resolutions — but what about the denouement!
When I wrote previously about subplots, I searched for other blog posts and articles about it to link to for other perspectives, and was surprised to see a few pieces of what I considered bad advice being repeated in a lot of them. For instance, many such articles insist that subplots must be resolved before the main plot. A few allowed an exception for a subplot that is intended to carry across multiple books (perhaps to become a main plot of a later volume), but most didn’t even mention that. And that’s simply wrong.
Let’s review a few definitions: the main plot is an obstacle, puzzle, or problem which confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and is the thread that ties everything else together. A subplot is a subordinate plot taking up less of the action than the main plot, having fewer significant events occur, with less impact on the “world” of the work, and often occurring to less important characters. A resolution is the point where the outcome of a plot or subplot is revealed (or sometimes only suggested). And remember that a resolution isn’t always a solution in that the character can fail to solve the problem; which makes your story a tragedy.
Now, subplots can end before the main plot. In a novel many of them will as a matter of course, because some subplots are literally distractions and additional obstacles your protagonist encounters while pursuing their main goal. In order to rescue the enslaved knight, your protagonist may first need to get information from a mystical oracle, which may involve enduring some hardship just to consult the oracle. Then the oracle may tell her that she has to find a magic artifact, an ancient spell book, and a blood relative of the enslaved knight. Obtaining each of those involves a mini adventure and thus a subplot and resolution along the way, and so on.
But some subplots can also be resolved at the same time as the main plot. In the same fight that the protagonist frees the enslaved knight, a supporting character may rescue his children also captured by the main villain, while another supporting character avenges himself upon the minor villain who is a minion of the main villain, and so forth. Several subplots all being tied up at the same time. Pulling that off with a lot of the subplots, getting them to converge on the main plot, makes for a very satisfying climax to your novel.
However, a few subplots can also be resolved right after the climax, in the part of the novel known as the denouement. Time for another definition!
The denouement is that portion of the story where all the loose ends are tied together. Side note: the word comes to English from the French dénouement meaning to untie something—isn’t language funny? To get back to the main point: in most modern novels, the denouement is usually a single chapter at the very end, after the outcome of the main plot is revealed. It’s the time to assure the reader that the characters who survived and triumphed have actually gotten their happy ending, to show that the villains are indeed suffering, and so on. One of my university literature teachers described it as the time for the reader to catch their breath after the excitement of the resolution and say good-bye to their favorite characters.
I think the reason so many of those other blog posts and articles think that the subplot has to resolve before the main plot is because their authors conflated the resolution with the denouement. Which is easy to understand, because in short stories the resolution and denouement often happen in the same sentence. In plays and movies the denouement is usually in the same scene, comprising only a few lines of dialogue or the like after the resolution.
I mentioned above that most modern novels accomplish the denouement in a single chapter after the resolution. But that hasn’t always been the case. A great example of the old school way of doing it is found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in which the denouement goes on for nearly a third of the final book!
Some of your subplots will be those loose ends tied up during the denouement. Loose ends don’t always require an entire scene for a resolution, they can sometimes be handled by a couple of lines of dialogue. “But what happened to the elephant?” “I found him a good home with that druid we met at Gobsbridge.”
And yes, some of your subplots will be left unresolved, carrying over into a future installment. They can even, technically be introduced in the denouement! That moment when a supposedly minor sycophant of the main villain is shown to somehow have survived the explosion and is clinging to some floating wreckage down river, perhaps. Horror movies and the like often have the cliché of a single hand reaching out of the smoking wreckage, indicating one of the supposedly dead villains isn’t. You get the idea.
If you decide to emphasize that a subplot is going to continue into the next story, don’t lay it on too thick. You don’t want to overshadow the happy endings for those characters who got one. Remember, the denouement is a time to let the reader catch their breath. It’s a way to ease the reader out of the excitement and anxiety of the main plot. Yes, you want the reader to be interested in what happens in the next book, if you plan to write one, but they’re most likely to do that if they feel good about the ending of this one. That isn’t to say that everyone always has to get a happy ending. I’ve set denouement scenes at literal gravesides of heroes, as well as the bedside of two children being read a bedtime story by their grandfather who is taking them home to their mother with the news that their father was killed saving them.
So bittersweet and tragic endings are fine. But any indication you give that there is another adventure ahead for some of the characters shouldn’t leave the reader feeling as if the protagonist accomplished nothing.
Readers may not remember everything that happened during a story. They won’t remember a lot of the lines, scenes, plotholes and such that you worked hardest on. But they will always remember how you made them feel.
For another perspective on subplots, you might want to check out this blog: Writing and Such: Tackling Subplots
A writer writes — where do characters come from?
I have written more than once about my annoyance with an oft-used trope when portraying writers as characters in movies, TV shows, on the like: specifically, that the only reason a particular novel or series of novels has so enraptured the readers is because the author has secretly based the story on real life and real characters. My annoyance with that is multi-fold, not the least because I truly believe the old adage that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. You can’t tell a compelling story by slavishly recreating something that you experienced in real life. You weave an illusion that feels real from a combination of observation, interpellation, and omission. For example, dialog isn’t about exactly transcribing the real way that people talk—we omit parts that don’t move the story forward, or don’t flow easily off the tongue, or that will confuse the reader without the context of nonverbal cues.
Which is not to say that characters we put in our stories aren’t or shouldn’t be based on real people. Many characters are amalgams of many people that the author has encountered throughout their life. Quite often the author can’t name all of the sources of a character because many were people we encountered without getting to know well, plus half assembling of the personality quirks happened in the writer’s subconscious. Other times, we knew exactly who we got a particular mannerism or figure of speech from. And sometimes it’s a lot more than one or two things.
I made a conscious decision with one of my novels to (in most cases) loosely base characters on specific people or characters from other works. It started out as just a whim, and for a while was kind of a fun game, and then it became something I did without thinking. I’d need a new supporting character for a particular scene or subplot, and start writing them, only to realize many paragraphs into the first scene that I was basing some aspects of the character on that person.
Some people don’t want to do that, at all. And I’m sure that you can find someone out there who will adamantly insist you should never base a character on a real person that you know. They will list off several good reasons for this advice. One of the things those annoying shows I mentioned earlier do get right is that if friends and acquaintances guess or suspect a particular character is based on them, and that character if portrayed in a less-than-flattering way, that can cause a bit of resentment in your real life.
My counter argument is that certain people in your life will, when they read something you wrote, sometimes think that you have based a character upon them whether you consciously did so or not. And if they take offense, whether you meant to base the character on them or not isn’t going to matter. You can attempt to explain the way every character in fiction is, to an extent, a pastiche built from your imagination as well as observation of real people, but it may not convince them.
One of my favorite villains in my current WIP is a character named Mother Bedlam. Parts of her personality, mannerisms, and relationships are based on at least three real people I have known in life, all of whom have since passed away. Other parts of her come from a variety of crass, conniving, and criminally depraved characters and historical figures. She’s intended to be a comedic villain, despite also doing some vile and violent things and propelling serious plot points along. Many of her traits are exaggerations for comedic effect. If any of the people I have consciously based her on were to read my stories (which they never will, because they’re all dead) and recognize themselves in her, I might have an awkward situation to sort out.
As it is, one time when I read one of her scenes to my writers’ group, another member of the group who had laughed a lot during that scene, told me later that if he didn’t know better, he would have been convinced I had somehow spied on his childhood and one particular despised teacher he had in grade school. At subsequent appearances of the character he would bring that up again. One time another person’s critique of some new scenes was that Mother Bedlam had been over the top—that no person would really treat one of their underlings that day. The other guy jumped in to say that his teacher had done almost exactly the same thing to one of the children in her care.
There are at least two lessons to take from this example. First, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, there are only actually a few people in the world, we just meet many of them again and again. The other is that this illustrates why some character you think of as wholly original to you might make someone you know insist that the character is based upon them.
And I know I am hardly the only writer who has ever based a minor character whose only purpose is to die brutally to further the plot on a real person who gave us some sort of trouble at some point in our lives. My most vicious middle school bully has leant his name and or personality to a number of characters who have met such brutal deaths. Then there is one person who caused so much trouble for both myself and several people I know, that I made him into a character who is brutally killed in one book, brought back as an undead creature, and variously maimed, burned, re-killed, and so forth a few times in subsequent books.
Some people call it petty. I call it do-it-yourself-therapy.
You’re a storyteller, so paint pictures with your words
I posted a while ago about many of the ways that the cliched advice of ‘show don’t tell’ is actually bad advice. A lot of people take it to mean that all exposition is bad. The usual ways of implementing it creates fiction that is only accessible to people who—because of the culture of their upbringing or through study—are privy to a specific set of presuppositions. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a nugget of truth in the advice, rather that the advice itself is an oversimplification and many of its proponents are pushing (whether they mean to or not) an agenda that excludes many people and cultures. The nugget is worth digging into.
There is no clear consensus of who first used the specific phrase “show don’t tell,” but it is possible that it is a reduction of a longer piece of advice from Russian author Anton Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Of course, in this longer form, it is a bit more obvious that the problem isn’t exposition of all sorts, but rather flat or boring exposition. If you merely tell the reader, “the moon was shining” and nothing else, that’s a pretty generic image, and doesn’t set much of a scene. But if instead you say something like, “moonlight glinted off the broken glass on the floor” that gives a more specific image—and raises some questions. Why is there broken glass on the floor? What happened?
You show the reader that the moon is shining by telling them that moonlight is glinting off broken glass. And you’re going to show the reader what happened by telling them more. As I said in the previous post, being a storyteller requires one to tell stories.
Anton Chekhov is more famous in English-speaking writer communities for another piece of advice: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The idea is that when certain objects, events, or utterances occur in your story, you raise expectations in the audience that this thing is going to be important. Another way to look at it is, if you’ve shown your reader something that seems important, you should eventually tell the reader what happens to that thing.
Anton Chekhov knew a lot about writing. He’s best known now for a few significant plays, but he wrote an unbelievable number of short stories, short-shorts, vignettes, and other tales. When Chekhov was a young medical student, his father got severely into debt, and Chekhov started writing and selling short, comedic stories and sketches of Russian street life in order to pay for his own tuition and to assist his parents. Eventually, his writing output was so prodigious, that he paid off his parents’ debts, was supporting several of his adult siblings, his own wife, at least one kept mistress, and he was treating medical patients for free. He considered his important life work to be the medical care, and the writing was just to pay all of those bills.
To get back to his advice about showing the reader things: while it is important that your telling of your story paints vivid pictures in your reader’s mind, it is equally important that everything you show the reader serves a purpose within your story. It’s a balancing act.
Many years ago I was asked to give a critique of a draft story by someone in one of the writers’ groups. The story was set in the late 1800s in a “wild west” town, and it had a sex scene. The scene included several pages of beautifully worded and painstakingly specific description of the layers of cloths the woman was wearing and just how much work was involved. There were more than a dozen paragraphs dealing with the unfastening of a set of buttons on a single garment. It was excruciatingly clear that the author had spent many hours researching period fabrics and design and construction of women’s garments in the period. And the author was determined that the reams of information gathered in the hundreds of hours of research would all explained to the reader.
The author claimed, during discussion, that the plot was her protagonist needed to get a piece of information from this guy, so she seduced him. Unfortunately that was completely lost in the very elaborate description of the clearly frustrating undressing process. A case could be made for a humorous story answering the question “can the protagonist get herself undressed and have sex with this guy before they both die of old age?” but that wasn’t what the author was going for—and even then, there was too much detail to support such a punchline. As it was, neither the difficulty of the undressing process nor any of the details of the clothing had anything to do with the author’s intended plot.
It should also be noted, there was no description of the man’s process of undressing. He got his clothes off in less than a sentence at the beginning of the scene. Which is why more than one person in the group thought that the story was meant to be a humorous parody of a bodice-ripper.
I usually have the opposite problem—I don’t describe things enough. So an important part of my revision process (once I get the first draft done) is look for places where painting the picture will make the plot, character motivations, and so on more obvious to the reader.
If you tend toward the more elaborate form of description, than you will need to pay attention to the other side of things during your edit and revision passes: look for abandoned guns. If you’ve described someone’s clothing in detail, ask yourself why? Is the scalloping on the hem of his cloak important to the story? Sure, if you need to establish that this character is well off, and has a flare for fashion, give some details. But maybe that little digression about the type of stitching should be trimmed. If at a later point some property of the cloak is going to be important to a plot point, yeah, show us a detail that at least hints at that possibility.
Similarly with the way a character looks, or the visual details of her home, or the contents of her desk, or the design of any weapons she carries. Show enough for the reader to imagine the character. Show enough to get the reader an outline of the way the character does things. Show the reader things important to the plot without drawing a bullseye on things that will telegraph plot twists.
Paint the picture, but only the picture that is relevant to the story.
You’re a storyteller, so tell me a story…
A while back I posted about why I dislike large expository dumps in fiction (Trust the reader to keep up). I still stand by what I wrote there, but thanks to a great essay by Cecilia Tan, Let Me Tell You, I realize that advice like that feeds into a misperception that all exposition is inherently bad. At best, it ignores the fact that there is a big difference between expository dumps and quality exposition. I’ve linked to Tan’s essay before, and it is well worth the read, but the crux of her argument is here:
These are the do’s and don’ts of MFA programs everywhere. They rely on a shared pool of knowledge and cultural assumptions so that the words left unsaid are powerfully communicated. I am not saying this is not a worthwhile experience as reader or writer, but I am saying anointing it the pinnacle of “craft” leaves out any voice, genre, or experience that falls outside the status quo. The inverse is also true, then: writing about any experience that is “foreign” to that body of shared knowledge is too often deemed less worthy because to make it understandable to the mainstream takes a lot of explanation. Which we’ve been taught is bad writing!
Tan is hardly the first person to point out that the cliched advice to ‘show, don’t tell‘ is problematic: Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops or 5 REASONS ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ IS BAD ADVICE. But the easiest way to see that it is at best an oversimplification is simply to remember that writers are story tellers. You can’t tell a story without, well, telling some things.
From the point of view of teaching people how to write, ‘show don’t tell’ is part of an entire tool kit which is used for gatekeeping. See, if you do not understand enough of the cultural touchstones being alluded to (but not actually told about) in the so-called literary novels, you can’t understand the novel. In other words, the less that your upbringing resembled a white, male, cis het, upper middle class childbood, the less likely that those novels will be understood by you, and therefore less likely they will appeal to you. And if you admit that you didn’t like them and didn’t understand them, that is used by some people to label you as unsophisticated, unintelligent, and tasteless. You can get past those gatekeepers if you don’t fall into all of those categories (there are a number of works by gay male authors, for instance, that are routinely accepted into the category because those authors understood the culture and learned all the tricks), but the entire toolkit of the literary elite created a situation where you must learn the secret codes in order to understand the stories.
Several science fiction and fantasy authors have pointed out that it is impossible to tell a good sf/f tale following the ‘show don’t tell’ stricture because in order to put the reader into a world that differs from ours, you have to at least occasionally tell the reader some things.
But you don’t have to do that by placing large chunks of your world-building as a lecture or debate about history that goes on for pages and pages. You certainly don’t have to make your viewpoint character an outsider who doesn’t know anything about this world, so has to constantly have things explained to them by others. You can explain things without slowing down the plot. You can tell the reader about the setting in small sips. You can do that in context along the way.
Trust the reader to understand, yes, but trust the story, too. You’re a story teller, so tell your story.