know, cats and readers have a lot in common. For example, you can't really
tell a cat anything.
sits there and stares at you like you're the center of their universe while
you're talking. Then the cat ignores the pet door leading to the litter box
in the furnace room and wanders off after a dust bunny. The only option left
is to snatch it up by the scruff of the neck and shove its arrogant, furry
head through the vinyl flap so it can see the danged box; preferably this is
followed by a swift boot to the hindquarters to finish the transaction.
to be honest, the parallel mostly stops at not being able to tell them
anything -- although the stuffing of heads is occasionally tempting with
readers, as well...
fundamental error an aspiring speculative fiction writer can make is to "tell"
readers everything, rather than "show" them. New writers often have an urge
to "share a detailed vision" with their readers, so they recite a list of
facts I will even admit that I used to think that was a good way to tell a
even worse error is to express an agenda with all the force of a television
evangelist. You can almost hear the soapbox creaking as authors who do this
climb up and shout, "Adapt to my worldview, you heathen masses! For I am
right and you are wrong!" These authors tend to repeat themselves
incessantly, as well.
words are dull and lifeless without the reader's experience. Nothing
you can write will ever paint an image as vivid as the memories your readers
already have. A professional writer -- a writer who gets published and
succeeds -- will evoke images from the reader's experience base. An
amateur writer -- someone who may have excellent technical writing but lacks
this insight -- will often attempt to invoke the images they see or the
beliefs they hold through the direct application of sufficient verbiage and
may lose potential readers as a result. This is also sometimes referred to
the difference between implication ("showing") and exposition ("telling").
Writing a story of any length requires a walk along a razor's edge. If you
are too vague, the reader won't be able to form an image. If you are too
specific, you might as well be lecturing on calculus. The key is to give
readers enough detail to bring an image to life in their imaginations without
crossing the line into over-detailed specifics. Implication is how you keep
readers involved. Exposition is how you feed them direct data in the shortest
look at some basic examples:
lights went out. Sharon felt afraid. She sprained her pinky on a shelf unit
trying to find a light switch.
chill ran up Sharon's spine when the room suddenly became dark. She shuffled
forward, groping for the wall and a light switch. A flare of pain went
through her right pinky as she hit something hard and cold.
key is to note the clues that tell when you're afraid or what time of year it
is. Use those clues in your writing instead of saying "she was afraid" or "it
how do you know when you're telling, not showing? Telling prose sounds like a
textbook or technical manual. Telling dialogue sounds like a sermon or
presentation of statistical data. Showing prose incites feelings. Showing
dialogue is like hearing a live conversation that draws the reader's
fact, combining dialogue and prose is a very effective tool in evoking reader
involvement. Let's take a scene and see the difference between a technical
description and a more involving description with a bit of conversation added:
great hall of the Aconasta had been fashioned from enormous oak trees. The
most massive boles were utilized as posts to support smaller trunks that
formed the support for the thatched roof. The walls were of planks split from
other trees. Many graceful scenes had been carved into the roof beams to
capture the clan's history. It was to this hall that everyone in the clan
returned near nightfall to eat, talk, and prepare for the next day's work.
if I was doing research on early Aconasta culture or if I had a Great Hall Kit
that I wanted to build, that description might help. Let's see if we can
show the hall now, using the reader's experiences to build a more engaging
picture that someone might read for fun:
ran through the open door into the great hall of the Aconasta. He forced
himself to a walk. Although several smoke holes high up near the roof allowed
some light into the building, his eyes needed a moment to adjust between the
sunshine outside and the warm glow of firelight within.
glanced around to look for the storyteller Caruck and saw the old man in his
favorite winter sitting spot in front of Gramma Gernta's wall-hearth on the
warm limestone flagstones. Kelmet, Usta, and Vernos had already found prime
places on the floor in front of the old man. His friends also had cups full
of fresh-pressed berry juice in their hands.
carefully laying his gathering pouch on a food table, Jance scurried over to
the hearth to find a spot behind Usta that was still marginally on the stone
instead of the dirt. Gernta touched him lightly on the shoulder and pushed
another cup of her juice into his hands.
didn't forget you, Jancey."
looked up to thank her, he saw the carving on the new central roof pole that
his father had finished the winter before. The Saag bear hunt paraded across
the wood, its figures colored with blue berry juice as well as powdered cobalt
and ochre mixed with fat.
"Shall we hear the tale of the Saag bear, children?" asked Caruck, taking a
cue from Jance's distraction. Jance and his friends shouted their agreement,
causing the old hunter to rock back in mock surprise. Caruck waved his arms
and began the tale.
showing can eat up words, but which description engages the reader's
Expositional writing still shows up in creative work. Sometimes you have to
explain a technology or a social construct in as few words as possible, and
exposition is good for that. That's why instruction books and textbooks are
written in an expositional style. Still, it's good to introduce your
exposition by breaking it up into bits and burying it in conversation or
descriptions of activities if at all possible, unless you want to present data
that is totally neutral but has significant implications for your story line.
Exposition often surfaces in science fiction stories as authors build up the
technical base of their worlds, and is frequently encountered as an aside or
musing that turns into a dissertation on make-believe technology. Let's
examine a discussion of faster than light drive, for example, with two
optional ways of introducing the subject:
drive technology exploits the mathematical concept of multiple dimensions.
What humanity perceives as infinitely far away is actually very close if you
can accept that the universe folds back on itself in a higher dimension. This
concept can easily be explained by taking a sheet of paper and folding it back
and forth upon itself to make a fan. A hole through the folded surface allows
a pin or ball bearing to be pushed through the layers to any of the
intersecting points. When unfolded, the ball will be seen to have moved much
further than the distance required to pass through the paper itself.
sat in the observer chair and fidgeted with her hair.
"Nervous?" Ray asked as he continued to enter data into the computer at the
little," Angie admitted. "I know it's stupid, but transit always makes me
uneasy. I don't want to be folded."
chuckled. "It's not stupid at all. Lots of people have a bit of trouble
being one place in one instant and then light years away the next, but it's
not you that gets folded." He grabbed a clipboard that held a pad of paper.
He put one dot on top of the sheet and another dot on the bottom and then
handed her the clipboard and pen.
a path between the dots, any shape you want."
drew a long, squiggly line on the paper and then handed it back to Ray.
tore off the sheet and began to fold the paper back and forth as though he
were making a paper fan.
see, kiddo," he said with a wink as his fingers worked, "we poor savages are
stuck with our piddly little four dimensions: length, width, depth, and time.
The math geniuses say that there're lots more dimensions that we can't sense.
So, if this sheet," he held up the now folded paper, "is our universe, then
folding it is like going to the next dimension. Now this pen is our fold
drive." He took the pen and jabbed it through the paper, piercing both dots
at once. "It allows us to pass from where we are to where we want to be
instantly, without following your line. Easy as pie and nothing to fear." He
handed Angie the plot sheet and returned to his work.
opened the paper. The two points had holes, but so did all the little folds
about all these other points we pass through?" she asked Ray, holding up the
he replied with a nod. "Yes, what about that, I wonder?"
are two primary ways to write fiction: using exposition or using implication.
Exposition provides data with a minimum of emotional involvement and can be
very hard to read in large chunks; it invokes a picture in a reader's
mind. Implication uses descriptive phrasing to coax readers into filling in
the blanks from their own experience bases, thus evoking images more
vivid than detailed descriptions could provide.
styles are present in most speculative fiction, the proportion depending on
the needs of the narrative, but these days, most fiction tends to have much
more implication than exposition. The key, as in all writing, is achieving
the proper balance between informing readers and entertaining them.
Thanks for reading the article; I hope you found it useful. Now, I've got to
go get the cat out of the furnace…