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.
I recently went to see Black Panther with some friends, and if you haven’t gone yet, you need to reevaluate your priorities because it’s fantastic. *ahem* Anyway… as we were leaving the theater, one friend noted that during the very emotional scenes between T’Challa and his father T’Chaka on the Ancestral Plane, they noticed that T’Chaka had an old (but still very obvious) facial injury.** Since the characters were interacting in a spiritual realm, my friend wondered why this injury was still present since spirits don’t have physical bodies and therefore wouldn’t have those imperfections. Almost immediately, I commented that a person probably couldn’t spend years as King of Wakanda and as the Black Panther without suffering some kind of accumulated spiritual damage, which then manifested on the Ancestral Plane. My friends just kind of stared at me and said that I had “the strongest headcanon of anyone they’d met.”
You see, while that explanation for T’Chaka’s appearance in the Ancestral Plane seemed perfectly reasonable to me, there was nothing in the movie itself to suggest that was the case. My internal headcanon had pulled from all my fictional sources and compiled them into an explanation. Actually, I’d come up with two possible explanations on the spot, one being the accumulated damage from a life of service and suffering. The other was that it was simply T’Challa’s perception of the spirit, giving it a familiar face. Kind of like how Anakin Skywalker’s Force-ghost appeared at the end of Return of the Jedi as a forty-something man rather than as his twenty-year-old self, who would have been completely unfamiliar to Luke. (No, I do not accept the insertion of Hayden Christensen into the remastered editions of Star Wars. There’s some headcanon for you!) Both of these plausible explanations occurred to me within seconds of my friend’s question, and I hadn’t even noticed until they pointed it out. Continue reading “The Power of Headcanon”→
Plenty of genres will remain relevant in the future:
Horror, because we still like to be scared. Fantasy, because magic retains its fascination since it can’t materialize in the real world. Romance, because we still love, long for, and lose. Humor, because we need to laugh. Historical Fiction, because we want to experience other times and places.
But what about Science Fiction? During its Golden Age, this genre presented the perfect opportunity to extrapolate on emerging technologies and speculate where they might take us in the future. Some of those postulated futures turned out to be eerily prescient. But now we live in an age where automated cars and soft AI are becoming reality. Where we carry powerful miniature computers in our pockets that connect us to virtually any person on the planet. Where 3-D printers create entire houses in a matter of days and drones deliver packages directly to your home. Everything keeps getting (or seems to be getting) faster, sleeker, and more efficient, changing the social and economic landscape at an astonishing rate.
I love the TV mini-series Frank Herbert’s Dune, and recently got to watch its bittersweet yet still enjoyable sequel, Children of Dune. However, when I read the book version of Dune, I found it to be (pardon the pun) rather dry. The world-building, the politics, the futuristic science of it… all of that was solid and interesting. But I found that, as a story, it fell flat. I didn’t really care much about the characters while reading the book, but the mini-series brought them to life.
As writers, we are always told to “show, not tell,” but there’s almost too much showing going on in Dune that clogs the book with description. And Dune isn’t the only one; plenty of other old-school speculative fiction works have this problem. That made me ask: why? Why do so many early science fiction and fantasy stories go heavy on description and world-building, but light on character development?
This is only a personal theory, but I think it may be because early science fiction and fantasy writers were trying to lay the ground work and describe things that had never been seen before. They have to establish what their world looks like and how it operates in order for it to make sense, which leaves less space for characters. Today, if you say “orc” or “Arrakis” or “Star Destroyer,” most people will have an idea about what those things look like. There’s no need to go into great detail describing interstellar travel or how a stillsuit works because it’s already been established in our minds by years of cultural absorption through novels, comics, and film. We have hundreds of examples of spaceships, aliens, and fantastical landscapes to mentally choose from. It’s a kind of short hand that only requires writers to choose a few choice descriptions rather than verbally building every little detail from the ground up.
The framework is already in place, but that doesn’t mean that we writers should be lazy about our descriptions. We must be vigilant and make sure our creations are original or put a new twist on an old theme rather than merely recycling. We must reshape, embellish, and tweak to make it our own. The next time you find yourself getting a little bored with the heavy descriptions of science or magic in a novel, check the publication date. The descriptions you are so casually dismissing may have been the first of their kind.
DISCLAIMER:This entry is onlyathoughtexercise! I am not proposing that one stance is better than the other, nor do I condone extreme positions either for or against the diversification or homogenization of any culture(s).
I recently read an article about NASA testing equipment and programs that will theoretically carry humans to Mars. Part of me was really happy about it, but at the same time, I was also disappointed because the federal space program is pretty much dead due to lack of funds. NASA is getting just enough to play around with ideas and reinvent the wheel, but not enough to actually do anything substantial. The private sector may yet succeed with companies like SpaceX, but the lack of interest in space exploration is so discouraging that I sometimes fear we’ll never reach beyond our planet before the next great extinction.
Sorry, I know I haven’t been keeping up with most of my online writing, but I promise it’s because I’ve been hard at work editing Ravens and Roses. But I did want to share something fun that I’m doing at the same time: the Summer Reading (and Writing) Program from Nerd in the Brain.
I only found out about this challenge a few days before it started, but I’ve been enjoying it. There are 30 reading challenges, 10 writing challenges, and 10 “other” challenges. I’ve been reading like a madwoman, since now I have added motivation to get through the pile of library books I’ve been hoarding for weeks. The reading challenges are really easy to write a small summary for, but the writing challenges are (for me) a little harder to tackle. I didn’t want to just write a little summary of something I wrote, but I also didn’t want to post the entire response to the challenge in that small space. It could be done… I just didn’t want it to be inconvenient.
So I decided to post my writing responses here on The Cat’s Cradle, as well as a list of the books I read for the reading challenge. I’ll post a summary and a link for Nerd in the Brain, so I won’t take up all that space, but folk can see what I did if they want to. So check back throughout the summer to see the results of the challenge.