Breaking the Rules: C. J. Cherryh’s ‘Foreigner’ Novels

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Image from SF Signal

All writers have heard the adage “Show, don’t tell.” It’s one of the most ambiguous and frustrating pieces of writing advice I have ever received. After all, writing is all about words. How can you “show” something when the only way to communicate is by “telling” the reader what’s happening? You’re also supposed to make sure something is always happening to move the scene forward. You don’t start in a static or simple moment. You have to begin with a bang to get the reader’s attention! Where’s your momentum, people?

Now, I get what this advice is trying to say. “Show, don’t tell” encourages writers to not just give a play-by-play of the scene, a “Then she did this and then he said that and then they went here” style of story-telling. That’s acceptable for a four-year-old telling a story, but not for a novelist. You’re supposed to make it more dynamic, fluid, and engaging. And starting with a bang isn’t literal, but to avoid the cliche of having a character wake up in the morning or monologue to themselves. The devil, as always, is in the details of how exactly to do this.

It’s easy to then fall into the trap of thinking that these are iron-clad rules which cannot for the love of all that is literary be broken. Rules are useful as a framework, but it’s always nice to see how the rules can be bent or outright broken and still leave you with an engaging story. Enter the Foreigner series by C. J. Cherryh.

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