Show, Don’t Tell? And Worldbuilding Research

The Otter has been very seriously working their way through a bunch of writing research recently, which is fantastic – but also, for me, somewhat confusing. So, this is my take on it.

The basic aim of “show, don’t tell” is… well, what it says on the tin. But it’s easy to say, and harder to do! To me, there’s two aspects to this: worldbuilding and dialogue.

Worldbuilding

Do your research. If you want to investigate the details, absolutely do it! Go crazy with how your geography works, the political system, the clothes, the social aspects, language, hairstyles, food, street layouts, hand gestures, how exactly spaceship propulsion works – whatever you want. Get into that!

But don’t put it in the book. Or at least, don’t put that research in. What you want to do is filter it through the characters and the world.

If your political system is X, how does that work? How does that affect everyone? Who is disenfranchised? Who might dislike it? Who does it benefit, and how? So who is going to be wanting things to stay the same, and who wants them to change? How does that affect locations/districts/money/bribery policies/policing…

Basically – how does your world actually work? And this is on a couple of levels: on the ground, for your characters and their day-to-day lives; in the wider aspect, in terms of allegiances and factions, and the wider structure that makes up your world.

So, for example – there’s tension between two factions that’s starting to get ugly. Don’t tell us about it: we don’t need a paragraph explaining the political overview. Show us the graffiti and the swaggers as two rivals pass in the streets. Have a brief snippet of dinner conversation about worries about who the participants are going to need to bribe, and what happens if it changes after the election. Get your spaceship crew to worry if they’re wearing the right colours/clothing/weapons for the area they’re going to. If there’s law enforcement on the streets, what effect does that have on any dealings that may be going on, or any of your characters who may have unsavoury backgrounds?

(That said, it’s not that you can’t do the explaining – maybe someone is a newbie who doesn’t know the background, and asks for it to be explained. But that, again, is filtered through the characters.)

The same with something like geography. If there’s a mountain range between two cities, then communication would be limited – so maybe messages or goods would take longer to get there, and be more expensive, which shows up as someone grumbling about the prices and the travel time and that something is off when they buy it, and the merchant snapping back that they can’t help the distance. If someone lived by a lake as a child, then they would likely be good at fishing – and might be the person who just pulls out a line and rod anytime they stop, and talks longingly of the huge fish back home. It’s someone talking with a hand gesture. It’s the clothing that people wear. It’s taking the long way round to go home, because they’re avoiding a street.

It’s explaining if you need to – if it fits into the story, if it challenges someone or something, if it adds flavour. It’s not telling your reader how your world works: it’s showing them how it works.

Dialogue

It’s a similar thing with dialogue. We don’t need detail; readers can fill most of it in for themselves! We often just need the suggestion, and the effect, rather than being told the details.

So, take the geography example from above:

“How come you always fish?”

“Grew up in RiverTown.”

And that’s all you need. You don’t need to say that RiverTown is on a lake, and the character has fished since they were a child, and… those two lines do it for us.

Show, Don’t Tell also comes up a lot in emotions. Again, you need to think about how the emotion would be affecting someone.

If they’re angry, how would they be talking? Snappy? Irritable? And how would they be acting – might they be turning away, clenching fists, spitting words?

Compare:

“I don’t believe you!” he said angrily. He was furious that they could think such a thing.

“I don’t believe you!” he spat, turning away. “How can you think that?”

If you tell the reader what to think, you’re taking away their opportunity to imagine something. Let them visualise; let them see. A gesture and a word is far more evocative and expressive than simply telling someone the emotion, and allows you far more variation in what you can show. It also leaves more ambiguity that can be explored by the other characters; in the example above, we – and the other character – don’t know why he’s angry, and that’s something that can be explored – and can lend more emotional depth to your characters.

 

So, the takeaway: “show, don’t tell” doesn’t mean that you can’t tell – more that you need to think about how your vision would come through your characters and your story, and how that would let the reader imagine what you need them to.

Writing Writing & Writing

WURDS!! There are things! With WURDS! All of the things!

The first Thing is a short story, just from a random idea that I had while standing in the kitchen (also when you ask a writer “so where do you get your ideas?”… I get mine while stirring pasta, apparently.) It’s currently at 3000 words and I’m just mulling over where I want it to go; my original ending idea was a mild twist but it seems to be taking a slightly darker turn, and I may do some world-rewriting to fit that in. It’s a silly and fun and off the top of my head, and I AM WRITING AGAIN!! (Also, it includes necromancers. What is it with me and necromancers? …And cake. Same question.)

The second is that I have had my editorial letter for No Man’s Land (which has hopefully fairly permanently been renamed Every Ghostly Scar) back from the amazing Rebecca Brewer and I am just SO HAPPY. It’s always hard to read an editorial letter, but I knew the book needed work, and it’s so good to see someone else rip it to bits – but also so gratifying to see that it actually only needs a bit of work on the characters, a couple of scenes added/deleted, a couple of threads tidying up… the book and story overall seem to be in good shape, which is such a relief. I do love the book so much, and it’s so good to hear from someone impartial that they liked it too! So I’m going to take a day or two for mulling that over, maybe have a further chat with Rebecca about how to do some of the things (and also what needs to be done, because some of the ambiguity that she picked up on is deliberate, and I want to know how annoying that is) and then get working!

I’ve also been thinking about another project for a while, based on a rewriting of a children’s book – I’m not going to say more than that currently! But I’ve finally bought myself a paper copy of said children’s book so that I can scribble all over it and see if the idea has any legs.

And finally on the writing front, I’ve been playing with redesigning covers for the GreenSky series – I’m doing some more text-based ones, just to see if they work. They all need more work (I’m adding backgrounds at the moment) and I think it’s going to be a long-term project, but it’s something to keep me playing anyhow!

I’m aware that I’m still feeling broken, and that my writer’s block is still definitely there – so I’m taking everything cautiously, and don’t dare yet plunge into the morass of my unfinished stories. But TEH WURDS! They are back!

There’s Only One Reason SFF Should Fail The Bechdel Test…

…and that’s because the author has planned for it to fail.

So why are we still having this discussion?!

Ok. Deep breath, and let’s start at the beginning.

You’ve opted to go into science fiction and fantasy (SFF) because it provides a breakout from the boring structure of reality or history, where only men have speaking parts, and women are love interests. You want unicorns! Spaceships! Time travel! Magic! All the exciting stuff that doesn’t exist in our current universe, or is an extension of it, or is somehow a flight of fancy from our boring reality. That’s what makes it fiction!

And somehow you still fail to populate your world with anything other than men.

WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU.

Ok. Another deep breath. Caaaaalm.

The Bechdel Test. It’s got four parts: two women must have a conversation about something other than a man. So that requires a) two female characters, b) talking  c) to each other, and c) about anything other than a man. It’s pretty damn simple.

The Bechdel Test is, frankly, a baseline that should be easy to jump for anyone. And this takes us back to the start: that there is only one reason why your book should fail the Bechdel Test.

That is because you, as the author, have deliberately chosen for it to fail. For example, your narrator is isolated – in which case, they’re not likely to be having conversations with anyone, so that’s fair. Your narrator is a single POV (although do they never overhear any conversations? Or see anyone else have any?) Your narrator is, for some reason, surrounded by men for plot or narrative reasons and this makes sense in the book.

That’s it.

What is not cool is for you to apparently completely forget that women exist outside of a love interest – or, even worse, a “very helpful NPC who points the way to the (male) hero”. You should not find it difficult to include women in the plot. You should not be making excuses as to why there are no or very few female characters. You should not be completely forgetting that maybe you need to make some of your important characters female. (If you only make a couple of NPCs female I will judge that even more harshly. Women are not bit players only.)

It is The Year Of Our Space Mom 2020 and two women having a conversation somewhere in the course of an 80,000 word book SHOULD NOT BE DIFFICULT.

And don’t even get me started on LGBT, trans* and non-binary – or, horror of horrors, what if you wanted to write aliens? I mean, it’s SFF. You couldn’t possibly think completely outside the human gender box, could you?!

I will now go and write an extremely polite rejection letter, pointing out the SHEER IDIOCY, and then fume in a corner. Thank goodness there is good writing out there to soothe my soul!

Kill Your Darlings?

I was chatting to Otter about writing advice, and my interpretations vs. what they’ve gleaned from reading too much of it online – and the one that got me waving my hands the most today was that old favourite, “Kill Your Darlings.”

Otter, from extensive research online, suggested that it sounded like “Take out every single piece of writing that you actually like.” Or possibly “If you’ve written a good bit, you’ve done it wrong.”

My first takeaway from that was “THERE’S SO MUCH FUCKING PRETENTIOUS WRITING ADVICE ONLINE, WHAT THE HELL.”

My second was “WHY WOULD YOU REMOVE ALL THE BITS YOU LIKE FROM YOUR BOOK?!!”

So, for me, “Kill Your Darlings” has three facets.

The Edit Tantrum

The first is when your editor sends edits back. Every single writer’s responses is going to be some form of “No! Won’t! It’s my book, I love it, you just don’t understand!” (And I say this as a writer, too. I’ve been there.)

Take a step back. Take some time out. Take a breath.

You might not agree with all of your editor’s points, but it’s worth considering them: think about why they’re being suggested, and what the effect would be. Even if you ultimately decide not to do that thing, your editor will very rarely* be suggesting wholesale slaughter for the fun of it.

So take some time, eat some “I’m Miserable” ice cream, and then kill your darlings.

The Scene Stealer

I really need to get my thoughts together for a longer post on this, but for me, every scene must do at least two things. Does it advance the plot AND tell us something about the characters? Does it give us some setting AND present a pivotal moment in character development? And, importantly, does it do something you haven’t done in another scene?

The same applies to language to some extent. You might have written the most beautiful conversation between two characters… but if you can tell us the same information in one sentence, then maybe you don’t need it. That line can be a brilliant gut-punch, but if it’s in the wrong place or offsets what you’re doing in the rest of the scene, it needs to come out.

This is the most frequent “Kill Your Darling” that I come across. It’s where you’ve written something good, fun, amazing, poignant – but it’s not needed. You’ve already told us that information; you could condense these three scenes into one; you could remove that sentence and it would make the rest of the conversation flow better.

It’s a lovely darling – but it doesn’t need to be in this book.

(By the way, I always took these bits out and saved them in another document – it’s one way of killing darlings without feeling too bad.)

The Deus Ex Darling

This one, I admit, mostly applies to newer writers, or the more tender-hearted of us. (How on earth do people like GRRM just kill everyone off? Do they have hearts of stone?!)

It’s where you can’t bear to go through with the plot or the action that you wanted. You’ve got to a certain point, to a climax, and- I just can’t do it. I want them to get together. I want them to survive.

Well, you’re the author – they can!

Except it breaks what you’re trying to achieve. It’s where plot armour comes from; where countless ordinary soldiers die, but the hero only gets a distinguished scar. Where no matter how many bad things happen, your hero still gets up again. It does also work the other way – where the hero gets more crap piled on than anyone else. Do they never get a break? Do they ever get some happiness? Frankly, a litany of Terrible Woe is as hard to read as someone Overcoming Every Obstacle Without A Thought.

Very often this is fixed by some judicious tweaking of cause, effect and the amount of shit you’re piling on characters, but it’s also a mindset. You are allowed to get personally invested in your characters – that’s the point! – but you also have to be mindful of the wider plot, of your reader, and of the need for emotional tension. You need to balance character with plot, and sometimes that does involve being mean – or not.

Don’t Kill The Good Stuff

So please don’t take “kill your darlings” to mean that you have to take everything you like out of a book – if you don’t like your book, then how on earth is the reader going to like it?

I think what “kill your darlings” is meant to do is make you look at the bits that you’re attached to, and give them a critical once-over. It’s making you think about why that piece is in there, and if you’re just leaving it in because you like it. It’s looking at the needs of the plot and the characters and the book as a whole, not at your writer’s ego.

And sometimes it’s wrong: you can leave that bit in. You can keep a sentence just because you love it. You can keep a scene because hot damn, it’s awesome.

But think about why you’re doing it.

And don’t be afraid to put the knife in when you need to.

 

 

*I mean. I’m not ruling anything out here.