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.


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.


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?


“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.

How to Writer: Blogs and Social Media – Part 2

I got kinda long in my last post, thinking about the basics of using social media, so I’m splitting this into a separate post! This is basically thinking about how you manage your overall social media presence – and how it looks to an outsider. I’m going to focus specifically on writing as that’s obviously my experience, but I suspect a lot of this could work with other areas.

So…I’ve just had your book recommended to me by a fellow reader. I picked it up, and it was awesome! And now I think, “I’m interested in this writer.”

There’s a couple of different facets to this;

  • interested as a reader: what else have you written?
  • And as a subset to this, if you have multiple books or series; what should I read first? Is there anything in the same universe? Is there anything not in the same universe? (aka. am I going to get really confused if I pick up the odd one out?)
  • interested as a future reader: what’s your news? When is the next book out? What are you currently writing?
  • interested as a fan and/or peer: who are you? What do you like/dislike? What do you talk about?

So what steps can you take to make sure that as a fledgling fan, I stay interested and purchase more of your work?

1. Claim your books.

As an easy first step: make sure you’ve linked all your books up on Amazon (use Author Central if you haven’t already looked at it), and claimed them on Goodreads. There are other sites (LibraryThing?) that are worth checking too.

Basically, if I click your name on the site where I buys the stuffs, I want to be able to find your other books. Make it easy for me to buy more, damnit!

2. Have a central point.

Have a website – even if it’s just one page with a picture of you, a picture of your book(s), and a link to where I can buy them. When I type your name into a search engine, I want to be able to discover what you’ve written – or at least verify that I haven’t accidentally picked up a book from Dream’s library that I’ll never be able to find the sequel for.

This central point is also a good place for making it clear what’s first to read, or what books belong to what series. If I’ve found you through an anthology, where should I start for novels in that world? Or haven’t you written anything else in that universe yet? Make it simple for me to pick up the right book, and not – as I have unfortunately done a few times – pick up the 4th in a series, get horribly confused about who’s who and what is going on, and give up on that author.

3. Don’t have too many central points.

Slightly counter-intuitive, I admit, but think about it. If I type your name into a search engine and I find an author website (one page, with photo and rambling bio that’s a year out of date), a blog site under a different web address (with some old blogs from 2010), a second blog site called “News!” with a couple of posts per year and a suggestion that you’ve written two more books than your bio mentioned, two Twitter accounts and a short bio on an obscure promotional site…

What does that say about you?

To me, it says, “I can’t get organised”. Plus it’s making it hard to know where to look if I want information about any other books you might have written.

In the case above, I’d consolidate your website and blog. Put news in one place. Delete old accounts. Update any old bios you have. When I look for you online a few odd things aren’t an issue, but give me one thing to click on to find out about you.

4.Link your social media.

This is a bit of a different beast from the idea above. If you’re using various social media platforms, you will be spread out – and that’s not a problem! Different people are on different platforms, and they’re used for different things. But make it easy for me to find you, or at least follow the threads back and forth to that central place.

If you’re on Twitter or Instagram etc, give me a link to your website on your bio. If you’re on Facebook, tell me if you’ve also anywhere else (although admittedly Facebook is crap for letting you do this.) On your website, tell me what other sites you frequent – if any. If you don’t, then that’s not a problem – I just want to be able to check if you’re on any of the other sites that I hang out on!

5.Do a yearly (or six-monthly) checkup & update.

This is a good chance to update your central point (or various platforms) to what you’re currently doing. You don’t need it up-to-the-minute; you just need to check that your bio and photo still reflect you, make sure your latest book or writing is up to date, claim that last novel on Amazon to make sure it’s linked to your profile…

It’s also a good time to potentially cull. If you haven’t really used Twitter this year (read: not at all) then take the link off your website. If I want news then I want current news – not from a year ago. Same with the blog or news page; if you don’t use it, then…well, maybe don’t delete it (as archived posts can be useful and interesting) but maybe make it less prominent. If you start using it again then that’s great, move it back to prominence at the next six-month review! But if you’re sitting there thinking, “oh yeah, I really should have blogged”…then maybe accept reality and just readjust your online presence to reflect that.


The idea is to make it as simple for me as possible to find out about you – and buy your books!

How To Writer: Blogs & Social Media

Social media, honestly, is frickin’ confusing. There’s so many platforms and new ones coming and should you really be on *insert latest fad here* and what should you put on each and ARGH.

So, I admit, I’m not really sure what I’m doing with all this – I definitely don’t have “social media expert” in any job title. But I was chatting to a friend and helped them sort out some of the thoughts, and realised that I’ve been blogging for four years… so I can at least give some basic pointers!

1. Work out what what you enjoy doing.

For example, you want a blog because everyone has a blog! Great. But do you actually want to write longer pieces? Or actually, are you more of a “drop onto social media, have a chat, share some stuff, vanish again” person? (Twitter). Do you like images and interaction? (Instagram, Snapchat). Would you rather be doing your own little collections of images (Pinterest) or random stuff (Tumblr)? Do you want to chat about writing or book stuff? (Reddit). There’s loads of other social media out there and so you can pick and choose what suits your style!

It’s also what’s appropriate for your profession or what you’re intending to blog about. Instagram is great for arty stuff – for example, pottery? Whereas if I try to take pictures of my writing, it…really doesn’t work too well. Check out what your focus is and work out what’s going to fit that best, too.

2. Be honest about the effort and time you can put in.

It’s great that you’ve got all these thoughts and opinions, and you actually want to write a blog – but you never quite get round to writing them up, or there’s a whole load of drafts that never get finished…

If you pick a social media account, you’ve actually got to use it.

There are shortcuts – like doing a whole bunch of arty photos in one and then using them over a longer time period, or spending an evening writing draft posts and then taking 5 minutes to finish them as you need them. I’ve got a whole bunch of shortcuts that I use like doing review posts in bits; first stage is the title, book cover and link; second is the actual review, third is checking details and scheduling. Once you know what work is involved, it’s easier to break it down and get ahead of yourself if you need to.

But it’s all still time, and you need to be honest with yourself how much time you can spend. Having said that…

3.You can always build up.

You can start at 2 posts per month and then build up. You can do two photos of whatever per day and then when you’ve fitted those into your routine, add another and another. You can do one post a week. You can start at whatever you can cope with, and then add more – it’s better that than starting at posting twenty times per day and getting overwhelmed!

I started with one or two posts a month, and then slowly transitioned into more. I aim for three per week now, simply because that’s a pretty good fit for me; and more and I’d run out of ideas and time. But I didn’t start at three. And unless you’ve got a backlog of ideas and posts, starting at one every day might not work for you. Same with photos; start smaller, and then build up.

4. Don’t sweat the small stuff…

There’s always a pile of ‘shoulds’ for all social media. “You must blog X times per week” or “you have to use a zillion hashtags” or “keep up with the trends by…”

Ok, yes. Hashtags help findability. Blogging 7 times per week would be great. Doing endless arty shots of your book (or dog, or clothes, or whatever) is excellent. Posts about X are really popular and will get a lot of people looking at your blog.

But they do all take extra time, or mean writing about something you’re not that interested in. And if you’re doing social media for you – not as a content mill, not as a grab-readers – then you need to be doing it for you, and that means writing (or taking pictures, or whatever) stuff that interests you. You have to weigh up the various ‘shoulds’ with the time they take, the effect they’ll have on you, and how much effect you think they’ll have.

5. But think about the bigger stuff.

There’s also a stack of ‘shoulds’ for the larger stuff. Things like, “writers shouldn’t get involved in politics”. Or “if you tweet about certain subjects you’re likely to attract trolls”. Or “don’t talk religion”.

But it’s also your blog. Your forum. Your space. If you want to post random rants, do it. If you want to blog about something different, do it. Just because your blog tagline says you’re an author doesn’t mean you can’t blog about an awesome game, or your hobby.

It’s all a balance between you and your readership. Your opinions, your online persona and your sanity. Public opinion – or the opinion of your readers and potential readers – and what you want to be able to say. And that’s a balance that you have to individually find.

Your social media should reflect you – or the parts of you that you want to show off, at least!


I’m kinda long at this point, so I’m going to do a part 2 – social media from the other side, or what it’s helpful to do for your reader!

Fantasy Faction: Gender and Stereotyping in Fantasy

There’s an excellent series ongoing over at Fantasy Faction at the moment on gender and stereotyping in fantasy by Leo Elijah Cristea. I’ve ranted before about diversity, but this is an excellent – and many-parted – look at why it’s important and various aspects, including bisexuality and the need for balance.

Part One – Strong Women

The female characters presented in the opening are excellent examples of why setting warrior women as the standard can be problematic. A great number of people imagine leather-clad women with loose dark hair and a black handgun, staring over one shoulder in urban fantasy, and our dark, heartless assassins with troubled pasts in epic fantasy…It isn’t this leather-clad heroine who creates the problem, but rather those who assume her to be the standard. The norm. This urban fantasy diva with her attitude and gun-slinging night-job isn’t the only woman out there, taking on the night.

Part Two: Switching Roles

We need weak women who only find their agency later through a story as much as we need strong women who know exactly what they are doing from the get-go, and we need weak and strong men to do the same. Agency shouldn’t be an assumed asset and neither should strength. Both of these things are subject to personality and circumstance. And perception. Many people write characters off for being weak simply for not exhibiting strength in a way we’ve been taught to see. Ultimately we need diverse people and people who think and act diversely. Real people who are reflections of those we’ve known and loved and met.

Part Three: Balance

The need for gender equality in fiction doesn’t threaten or invalidate everything that appears more traditional: those are part of the tapestry by default. Just as with the cold hearted assassins who are stripping feminine, softer and less traditionally “strong” heroines of their limelight, for fear of writing “weak” women, casting every woman as hard and every man as soft would do the same.

Part Four – currently missing!

Part Five: Bisexuality

Whether an author consciously decides to make a character bisexual as part of an organic process, or if, after careful consideration of the abundant cishetronormativity of their work, they decide to give bisexual representation, it is very easy to convey the point that a character is open to relations with people outside of the gender society has ingrained the reader to expect. A passing glance in a tavern from the gentleman thief to the fetching stable boy just popping in on his way to bed; a runaway princess thinking fondly of her lady-in-waiting, with whom she might have nurtured secret budding romance; that warrior on the battlefield who can’t get the eyes of the other swordsman from his head when the fighting is done.

They’re definitely an interesting series of articles that I’d highly recommend reading!

On writing advice

It feels weird to be doing writing advice, because I feel like a fraud…but then hey, I’ve actually done all this stuff and worked through all of this and it’s just my take on how to avoid some of the pitfalls – or what the heck is going on behind the scenes when you’re waiting for the rejection letter to ping into your inbox. So if I can pass that on, then great!

I’ve been doing some guest blogs for Almond Press recently, and thought I should really collect them all in one place. Here’s what I’ve been writing about so far:

Jo Hall also has some excellent advice on writing over on her blog, too:

Anything you’ve got questions about that you want to know about? Anything else I can pontificate, pronounce or generally pretend to know something about?