Solo: The Good, the Bad, and the Utterly Fuck-Witted

Well, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, so there’s that. One thing about this movie is that it won the battle to not set expectations too high, LOL. Still, Star Wars fatigue is now noticeably damaging the profitability of the brand.

Anyway, the plot makes little sense, but other people have ripped it to shreds more thoroughly than I can muster the interest to do, so you can find that elsewhere. I’ll just focus on a couple of things that stuck in my mind.


(1) Our hero has a love interest, from whom he’s forcibly separated by the Empire near the start of the movie. (Her name’s Kira, so of course they spell it Qi’ra.) Three years later, he just happens to run into her, on another planet. Gah! FUCKING SERIOUSLY!? Given that the human population on all the planets of the galaxy must be in the trillions? This is extremely intelligence-insulting. And it’s bad, lazy writing. If you want them to meet each other again, have at least one of them trying to meet the other. That way the meeting is plausible because it’s the outcome of intention, not a one-in-trillions coincidence. (FUCK!)

You have to see the movie to believe how purely coincidental this is. They don’t even try to present it as anything else.

(2) There’s a giant space octopus (yes) that tries to eat the Millennium Falcon. It lives near a “gravity well” (a black hole-type thingy) which they eventually use to kill it. They lure it into getting too close, so it gets sucked in.

Giant space octopus.

If I were inclined to be generous, I would guess that this is an attempt at some sorta classical allusion – to Scylla and Charybdis – but I’m not really so inclined. Anyway, as someone once said, for your metaphors/allusions/etc. to function well as metaphors/allusions/etc., they first have to just function on a literal level. I can’t appreciate your allusion to Scylla and Charybdis if I’m laughing my ass off at “giant space octopus.” Especially “giant space octopus retarded enough to live near a huge sucking space vacuum that can kill it.”

(3) and (4) Good fan service and bad fan service.

Good fan service: the Han shoots first thing. This is pretty deftly done. What happens is that near the end of the movie, a bad guy is doing some monologing at Han while slyly reaching for a weapon. Han just shoots him down, without warning, while he’s in mid-sentence. LOL. Excellent, great little moment. The reason this works is of course the general irritation over George Lucas going back and retconning the Cantina scene in the original movie to have Greedo shoot first and Han shoot second. The implicit reference to that mini-controversy is nicely done.

Bad fan service: the Darth Maul callback. My God, but this was retarded. Here’s what happens: Our hero’s erstwhile love interest – the one he just happens to run into on another planet years after they’re separated – is a member of a criminal organization. After the original organization leader is killed, she uses his special communications rig to contact his boss (i.e. her late boss’s boss). This turns out to be Darth Maul, for fuck’s sake.

Now if you recall The Phantom Menace, you recall that Darth Maul was dispatched in the thoroughly terminal way of being literally cut in half, before being pushed over the edge of a mile-deep industrial tube. (Which didn’t have any safety railing around it. It’s just there in the middle of the floor. Man, there are a lot of those in the Star Wars universe. They need to work on safety codes.) I don’t see ya comin’ back from that one, poochy. But in the cartoon series that started airing a few years back on Cartoon Network or SyFy or whatever, they brought him back, now with the New! Bonus! of a cyborg lower half. Sigh. The retardation continues. Anyway…

Because the mere fact of his continued existence wasn’t moronic enough, they have him do the following: Han’s former girlfriend calls him up on her new cell phone. He answers, uses the force to summon his lightsaber, ignites it, says a few sentences, then turns it off again and the conversation ends. THERE. IS. NO. FUCKING. REASON. FOR. THIS. If you haven’t seen the movie, you might think, “Oh, so he threatens her into being a compliant subordinate, and emphasizes his threat by firing up his saber. For example, maybe he ignites the saber, says, ‘You know what happens to people who cross me,’ and then de-ignites it.”

Nope. That would actually make sense. You can’t think that way with the last few Star Wars movies. If they think the fanboys want to see Maul blaze up his saber, then they’re going to have him do that. The thought process stops there. It doesn’t even occur to them to add a line of dialogue to make that make sense. Whoever they have writing scripts these days, it’s all about spectacle with them. Cause, effect, purpose, motivation, etc. …these aren’t concepts in the writers’ heads.

By the way, if they can bring Maul back, do you think Han Solo, after Episode 7, is really dead? They left that one conveniently open, didn’t they? But Harrison Ford is almost certainly too shrewd to associate himself with any more of the recent idiocy, so they probably won’t get any love if they ask him to come back for Episode 9. One may hope.

Review of The Departed

I just saw the 2006 movie The Departed. Initial reaction: Wow, that was awesome!

But the more I think about it, the more I notice serious problems with the plot, as follows.


The setup: Boston. The cops and criminals are infiltrating each other:

• Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson) is the main bad guy, an absolutely cold-blood killer and all-around psycho. To go undercover in his gang, the cops use…
• William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio).
• Costigan’s police handlers are Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). For operational security, they’re the only two people in the world who know that Costigan’s an undercover cop.
• While the cops are infiltrating Costello’s gang, Costello’s gang is infiltrating the cops. Costello’s mole is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon).

Bad guys: Costello, Sullivan.
Good guys: Mainly Costigan, with a side helping of Queenan and Dignam.

Now the plot problems:

1. Costello goes to a lot of trouble to find out if there’s a mole in his gang. This causes tension because he’ll kill Costigan if he learns Costigan’s the mole. But Costello is eventually revealed to be a protected FBI informant (I told you there would be spoilers!). Given that, why the hell does he care if there’s a rat in his gang? He’s untouchable!

2. Furthermore, if he’s a protected FBI informant, then why did he bother to place a mole in the local police? Again, he’s untouchable! Maybe Costello planted the mole in the cops before he became an informant, but if so, that should be mentioned.

3. Costigan assembles a record as a petty criminal as part of his undercover persona. He even spends time in prison. When he gets out, as part of the terms of his probation, has to talk to a psychiatrist on a regular basis. (Remember, no one in the world except Queenan and Dignam knows he’s an undercover cop. The rest of the justice system thinks he’s just another petty criminal.)

This psychiatrist turns out to be… Madolyn Madden, a woman whom Sullivan just happens to be dating. Oh, come on! What are the odds? Especially since she’s a police psychiatrist. Why would they assign a criminal to a police psychiatrist, of all the psychiatrists in Boston? There are all kinds of ethics and operational security issues there! Just imagine the potential for accidental leaks of police matters to criminals and whatnot! She’s exactly the last psychiatrist they’d assign to a criminal on probation.

By the way, a psychiatrist who’s basically named Mad Maddie? Are they trying to say something about her? There is something a little off about her. In particular, she seems to get a thrill from, or at least be excessively attached to, lying.

4. When Queenan is killed by bad guys, Dignam is the only person in the world who knows that Costigan is an undercover cop. Later Dignam is removed from the situation because he slugs another cop. His punishment is two weeks’ disciplinary leave, and we’re supposed to believe this is a disaster for Costigan because now no active-duty cop knows who he really is. But big deal! All Costigan has to do is wait this out for two weeks.

Later it’s stated that Dignam “handed in his papers” and he may be on indefinite leave. It’s hard to tell. But this doesn’t make sense either. He’d tell some other cop(s) about Costigan; he wouldn’t just leave Costigan hanging.

5. Near the end, Costigan and Sullivan are talking in Sullivan’s office and Sullivan has to step out for a moment. Costigan notices a damning envelope on Sullivan’s desk, revealing that Sullivan is Costello’s mole inside the police. What happens next makes no fucking sense. Costigan sloppily replaces the envelope, so it’s obviously been handled, and leaves! WTF!? That’s basically a flashing red sign telling Sullivan that Costigan knows he’s a mole. Why the fuck would Costigan do that? The only living cop who knows Costigan was undercover is gone for a couple of weeks. And Sullivan, who Costigan now knows is a bad guy, has access to his police file and can erase it, thus rendering Costigan, as far as anyone knows, just another petty criminal. And Costigan knows all this! Why would he let Sullivan know that he knows Sullivan’s a bad guy? Especially since…

All Costigan has to do is wait until Dignam comes back from disciplinary leave. Then Costigan can rat out Sullivan to Dignam, they can arrest him, and there’s someone who knows that Costigan’s actually a cop. What Costigan does just doesn’t make any sense from his point of view. All he has to do is carefully replace the envelope, remain in the room until Sullivan comes back, and then keep acting normal.

And the consequences of tipping his hand turn out to be disastrous for him.

6. There’s no reason for Madolyn to be in the movie. She has no effect on anything. I suspect they wanted to have at least one major female character. But this compromises the tightness of the story.

7. This isn’t an internal inconsistency in the plot, but it’s unsatisfying: The only reason that Our Hero Costigan affects anything is that he accidentally and without realizing it reveals some important info to another character.

Here’s what happens: Costigan meets with Captain Queenan, one of his handlers, in a meeting that both the other cops (who think Costigan’s a criminal, remember) and Costello’s gang find out about. They all rush to the meeting location, and in the ensuing violent chaos Costigan escapes without being made by anyone, but Queenan is killed by Costello’s gang.

As a result of that, there is of course a murder case regarding Queenan, and Sullivan is sifting through the evidence when he finds some of Queenan’s notes about how Costello is an FBI informant. (By the way, why the fuck is Queenan trying to bring down Costello if he knows he’s a protected informant?) Sullivan is enraged and he kills Costello over this.

So the only effect that our hero has on the outcome is the accidental byproduct of a murder investigation accidentally turning up some evidence that makes Costello’s own guy kill him. WTF? That’s not satisfying! The main character should affect something important by intent, not just due to, as it were, accidentally bumping into furniture in the dark.

There’s a lot of tension while the movie is running, and a lot of fireworks and “Oh, shit!” moments, but the more you think about it after it’s over, the more you’re like, “This plot made… no… fucking… sense.” Warn the people! Warn the people!

The critics loved this movie, by the way, which tells you that they had the same reaction that I initially had, but didn’t take the time to think it over more carefully before they wrote their reviews. That’s the problem with writing on a deadline, I guess. BLOGGERS: Thinking the Deep Thoughts the mainstream media can’t!

Entry for Bad Writing Contest

GoodReads has an SF/Fantasy group called Dragons and Jetpacks, which is currently running a bad writing contest. Here’s the entry I just submitted. This is the worst writing I can do. I’m actually kind of scared of this. I fear it might cause brain damage. Read at own risk.


They strolled on the parchment-spawned forest path. There was not a cloud in the redundant sky, though o’er-shadowed they were by the wings of the dragons in flight. Dragon-Sword Night-Moon looked over at RavenMoon NightTree’s profile. It must be admitted, he thought, she has a figure of attractiveness. The heat slammed into them as they walked, covering everything in a layer of heat.

“It’s hot,” observed RavenMoon. “But,” she added, “let us not think of the heat, the glistening heat. I would fain stroll here on the path, the parchment-spawned forest path, anon.”

But Dragon-Sword Night-Moon was o’ercome by lust, lust for RavenMoon. “Lust,” he rasped forth. “Forsooth, luuussssssst!”

RavenMoon looked at him. “Did you say something?” she inquired delicately, but with precision. She wasn’t sure if he had spoken, and she wanted to know if he had spoken, and if so, what he had said.

“No,” said Dragon-Sword dishonestly. “Let us look at the fruits that are borne upon the branches of the magic trees.”

“I agree, Dragon-Sword. Let us.” They examined the fruits that were upon the trees, observing the fruits’ various characteristics.

“The fruits may be nutritious if we become hungry,” stated Dragon-Sword, mentioning an important fact.

“That is correct,” stated RavenMoon NightTree, agreeing with Dragon-Sword Night-Moon. “The fruits may also be nutritious if we are not hungry, though in that case we would choose not to eat them.”

But Dragon-Sword was not unpreoccupied. He was thinking about his past. His naked, naked past.

He had hoped to end the nakedness with the pantaloons. But the pantaloons had not helped. They had done the opposite of helping: They had made things worse.

Loosen Up the Ole Synapses

One rule I have is no alcohol while writing (caffeine’s okay, natch). And no other drugs ever. None of this tortured alcoholic author for me, thanks.

But once a year I allow myself an exception: One beer, one cup of coffee, then let yourself rip on the word processor. The combination of alcohol and caffeine loosens up the ol’ synapses in ways that can be amusing. Readers of The War of the First Day can probably identify the one scene in that novel that emerged from this method.

Actually, while I allow myself to do this once per year, I haven’t actually done it in three or four years.

You don’t want to make a habit of this, obviously, because you don’t want to become dependent on it.

Wow, Hemingway Sux

Review of A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.

Astoundingly bad. I read most of the first chapter, then the first paragraph of the second chapter, then discarded the book. If an author can’t prove himself minimally competent after a chapter, to hell with him. Really, a medium-length paragraph should suffice to demonstrate competence.

I shall provide some examples from this… thing. Normally I focus, not on the details of word choice, but on higher-level aspects of a novel such as plot, characterization, pacing, theme, and so forth. The details of the writing are of secondary importance (generally speaking) and are often given far too much attention in critical commentary. However: the details of word choice are a minimum condition for an author to be a good writer. If you can’t write an English sentence that doesn’t call attention to itself with its horrible, strained awkwardness, you can’t be a novelist. Not in my universe, anyway.

Alas, here is the first paragraph of the “novel” (you have to put that word in quotes when you’re talking about garbage of this appalling quality). The really bad part is the last sentence, but I have to include the entire paragraph, because if I just inflicted the last sentence on you, you might suspect that it reads better in context. Actually, it reads worse in context, as I will explain in a moment. You know you’re got a bad writer on your hands when ripping passages out of context actually improves them. Anyway, here is the first paragraph:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

God, how astoundingly bad! You have to be trying to write badly to produce sequences of words this disgusting. One should read this only through leaded glass, and with trained medical professionals standing by.

As to why the last “sentence” would be better out of context: Note that we’re told about the fucking soldiers marching three times in this paragraph. It’s not merely redundant; it’s ludicrously redundant. However, if you read the last sentence out of context, you’d only encounter the marching soldiers twice, so the redundancy would be moderated. A similar point is true of the leaves. Enough with the fucking leaves, you weirdo! What, do you have a leaf fetish or something? Or it is a dust fetish? Damn, that’s bad. I mean, how bad does your writing have to be for it to be improved by being stripped of context?

Here it is again, with some of my thought processes while reading. I can’t include all my critical thoughts because it would quadruple the length of the paragraph:

In the late summer of that year [God, just stop! What year!? Seven words in and I’m already irritated. If you’re not going to tell us the year, then why not just say, “In the late summer”?] we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun [Why the fuck are you telling me this? Also, how can a river bed be dry? Is it seasonally dry? Like there’s only water during the spring runoff from the mountains?], and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. [If the water is running swiftly, and deep enough to appear blue, it’s presumably not the dry season. If it is, we need this explained. Overall assessment: WTF?] Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. [Brace yourself; here comes the monster:] The trunks of the trees too were dusty [Yes, obviously the dust would cover whatever it touches. We get that.] and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road [You already mentioned that.] and the dust rising and leaves [Already mentioned, thanks.], stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching [FUCK! Third time you’ve mentioned them!] and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Not to be judgmental, but God, that’s bad. Wait, that is judgmental. Oh well. And I love that last “except for the leaves.” LOL. He’s pretending we need to know that “except for the leaves.” As if it has any real purpose there. Is this supposed to be profound or something? The road was bare… Except for the leaves, man. EXCEPT FOR THE LEAVES!

But if you think that’s bad, try the second sentence of the second chapter. You might want to take a shot of vodka first. Ready? Here we go:

The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a wisteria vine purple on the side of the house.

Yes, that’s one sentence. Fuck, that’s bad. Now what’s wrong with it? Actually, you already know what’s wrong with it – it’s (1) incoherent garbage and (2) breathtakingly pretentious – but it’s worth dwelling on a little. A sentence is basically one complete thought. (This is a simplification that’s good enough for my purpose here.) If it meanders all over the place, it’s a bad sentence. (Unless the author knows what s/he is doing and does it with a clear reason in mind. But plainly that’s not what’s going on with this sentence.) Now as I said, I usually don’t focus on the sentence level in reading a novel, but that’s because most novelists can write good sentences. Their sentences aren’t so bad that they force you to spend time diagnosing their deficiencies. The rule of thumb is that you should not focus on individual sentences for the same reason you don’t focus on the workings of your refrigerator: Because these things are supposed to function so well that you don’t have to think about them. You only think about the workings of your refrigerator when it stops working. So it is with Hemingway and individual sentences. They call attention to themselves and force us to talk about them because they’re so very bad.

To continue: What’s wrong with that sentence is that it attempts to contain more than one thought. Hemingway rambles from military victories to a house where he lived to the fact that it had a fountain, to the color of certain flowers in the garden. These things are not connected to each other. In fact, the only thing I can think of that would excuse this writing is that the narrator is supposed to be mentally damaged, and so this incoherent stream of thoughts is deliberately incoherent. I am going to make a mental note to look this up after I finish writing this review. It would go a long way – though not all the way – to justifying this horrible writing. The reason it wouldn’t go all the way to excusing the clunkiness is that the narrator’s mental deficiencies should be established before we get too far into the novel. We shouldn’t have to wonder why the prose is so very bad; we shouldn’t have to imagine possible excuses for the author. It is the author’s job to make the situation clear with reasonable alacrity.

It needn’t be totally clear at the outset. Some hints that the narrator is not mentally normal would suffice at first. Some obviously misspelled words, or a reference to having been institutionalized, or a reference to a nurse that insisted on the narrator eating his meals on time. Something, for God’s sake, to allay our fears about the garbage we are reading. In fact, subtle hints, applied correctly, can be more interesting than an explicit revelation at the start. E.g., it might gradually unfold that the narrator used to be mentally normal, but sustained an injury in the war that has damaged his mind. That would be tragic, but would certainly help to make the point that war is bad, etc. (I’m assuming here that Hemingway actually has a point. I have nothing to go on other than the novel’s title, which suggests it may be thematically anti-war.) I find myself hoping that this is in fact what’s going on, because if it’s not, I’m hard-pressed to explain the cult of Hemingway other than as a deliberate joke by the world’s literary establishment on the rest of us.
[LATER: I’ve checked various summaries, and there’s nothing about the narrator being brain damaged. So the writing IS actually as bad as it seems at first! God!]

A good test of whether something SUX is to ask yourself this: If it came out that the whole thing was an Emperor’s New Clothes joke on the world, how would you feel about it? Would you say, “Wow, that was really subtle; I’m not ashamed that I fell for it.” Or would you say, “Damn it, I always thought that was BS; why didn’t I call it out?” (If you see something, say something!) If your answer is the second one, you have good grounds for suspicion that it is, in fact, just BS.

In the movie Housesitter there’s a scene in which a con woman improvises some BS. Later, one of her friends says, “Wow! You’re a genius. You’re like the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit!” To which I respond, no, that title’s already taken; Ernest Hemingway was the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit.

Ass-kicking chicks are cool, but why?

From Heinlein’s Friday to Underworld’s Selene to Sanderson’s Vin to my own modest (*snrk*) effort’s Lilta, there’s something about chicks who kick ass that’s cool. But what is it? No one has ever defined the quality that makes ass-kicking chicks so very excellent.

Feminist grrrrrrl power? No, it’s not a political thing. Besides, it doesn’t matter whether the ass-kicking chick is kicking female ass or male ass.

Violation of expectations? Maybe thirty years ago! But nowadays what’s more common than chicks kicking ass? So no, that’s not it.

What, then? What, Fleet? Please enlighten us with your superior insight!

Very well, since you said “please.”

It’s the lack of ego.

See, being physically tough is part of masculinity. So when a man kicks ass, he’s more masculine as a result. Or anyway, he’s perceived as more masculine. For a man to kick another man’s ass means he, the victor, has out-manned the other man, so to speak. So even if he’s not thinking, “Ha! I’m more man than you,” he might be thinking it, for all we know.

Now contrast this with women. Since kicking ass is not part of the definition of femininity, a woman who kicks another woman’s ass is not thinking, “Ha! I’m more woman than you,” or “Ha! I’m more feminine than you,” or whatever. There’s no female ego thing that is on the line here.

This leaves open the idea that the woman is kicking ass only because she has to. Indeed, the best female ass-kicking scenes, in fiction or movies, have this quality: The woman is a good guy in a situation in which she has to fight her way out or die, or something like that. This applies, e.g., to Heinlein’s Friday, who never picks a fight in that book; she only fights her way out of bad situations when they descend on her.

Notice that when it’s drawn off into messaging, in the nature of a woman kicking a man’s butt to show that Girls are just as tough as boys!!! it becomes boring message fiction. Yawn. Suddenly the fun is gone.

There is more dignity and drama in a person fighting because she has to than because she’s like, “Whoo hoo! I kicked your butt!”

You have to love that scene in True Romance in which the young woman kills the professional hit man who was sent to kill her. He almost does her in, and she takes a lot of damage. But in the end, she kills him. And you’re like, “Whoo-hoo! Thank goodness!”

“But wait,” you say. “Men can kick ass in an ego-free way too.” Well, maybe, but you never really know. And even if a man doesn’t pick a fight, he can still be glad in a male-ego way that he won it. Note I’m not saying that there’s necessarily anything wrong with being happy about winning a fight – that depends if the winner is a bad guy or a good guy. Nor is there anything wrong with being glad specifically in a male-ego way. But it can be a distraction from the drama you, the author, are trying to create in a fight scene. And it changes the emotional tone of the fight.

Undeniably, the emotional sense of two men fighting is different from the emotional sense of two women fighting. If we want the reader to be focused on good versus evil, or something like that, we don’t want the irrelevance of “Ha, I kicked your ass so I’m more of a man than you!” distracting us.

And that is why chicks kicking ass is a cool thing: It’s pure kicking ass, devoid of ego distractions.

Showing, telling, and description in fiction

I briefly weighed in on a discussion of the “show don’t tell” rule on LibraryThing recently and I want to expand on my point.

The benefits of the “show don’t tell” rule are clearly seen for characterization. You don’t say, “Bob was insane and evil.” Rather, you show the reader Bob going around trying to get his co-workers fired if they wear belts that don’t match their shoes, or whatever. That way the reader hasn’t just been told a rumor about Bob, as it were; the reader sees Bob’s behavior and draws his/her own conclusions.

Even here, though, this is just a rule of thumb, not a law of physics. There actually are contexts where you should say “Bob was insane and evil,” e.g., you’re at a moment where it helps the reader to be told that, but you can’t afford to slow the pacing with details (and Bob is offstage), etc. Note if that character appears later, you should follow up and show detail supporting the original “told” part.

The “tell” as such isn’t necessarily bad technique; rather, the “tell” without the supporting “showing” of the particulars (at least eventually) is bad technique.

However, if your specific instance is very clear, you can eliminate the tell part entirely. E.g., if Bob tries to get his clothing-mismatched colleagues fired, we don’t need to be told that he’s evil. But even with a more subtle character who’s torn in conflicting directions about something, you generally don’t need to say “he felt conflicted.” Take a man who wants to be both an actor and a rock star. If you clearly show him wrestling with this, you simply don’t need to say “he was wrestling with (etc.)” Indeed, it would be ridiculous to bother including it.

In physical description, e.g., of a person, a little tell mixed in with a lot of show can go a long way. Examples below.

Ayn Rand understood all this: The author provides both abstract summaries/evaluations of the sense of an event (or description, e.g., of a person or scene), and also the supporting particulars that justify the abstract evaluation.

Let me offer an example:

She was very ugly. Her eyes were so pale they seemed colorless. Her mouth was soft, puffy and more or less formless; it suggested weakness, as though unwilling to commit to any particular shape. Her hair was a nondescript light brown, the color of dishwater.

The particulars (the details of the face) “prove” the evaluation (she was ugly), and the evaluation gives meaning to the particulars; it unifies, explains them, and tells the reader why the author chose to include those details.

The particulars support the generality; the generality gives meaning and purpose to the particulars.

Such is the writer’s power over the facts presented, and the evaluation attached to them, that a few small changes in what is expressed and how it is expressed can support an entirely different judgment. For example:

She was very beautiful. Her eyes were pale; they seemed ethereal, angelic. Her mouth was soft, suggesting it was waiting to yield to a man’s kiss. Her hair, a muted sienna, allowed her face to hold all of one’s attention. The overall effect was strikingly sensual.

Notice the “objective facts” about the woman’s appearance are almost exactly the same in these two passages. Changes that are seemingly “only” a matter of nuance make them very different in terms of the overall impression. But it is not only a difference of “marketing”; I also did some fine brushwork with the objective details. For example, in the first passage her mouth is shapeless. In the second passage, it isn’t; it is soft, as if she has an inner eroticism that is, consciously or unconsciously, making her hold her lips (an important erogenous zone) in a sexual way. In other words, in the second passage there is a suggestion of intent in the shape of the girl’s mouth that is not there in the first passage. In the first passage, she’s simply a brain-dead idiot with a flabby mouth. In the second, the suggestion of purpose actually conveys the opposite impression: life, vitality, sexual energy.

This is what you can do when you think about what you’re doing.

By the way, the foregoing examples illustrate the fact that Art (yes, I capitalized Art) is largely a left-brain activity. You have to be consciously aware of what you’re doing. (I am going to write an essay on this at some point in the future, but it will be longer than a blog post.) Rand: “A beard and a vacant stare are not the defining characteristics of an artist.” (Heh.) While instinct certainly has its place in Art, to use it in a good way, you must know what you’re doing. If you’re an aspiring artist and someone tells you that you should usually go by your inscrutable instinct, run away from that person as fast as you can. Whether they know it or not, their advice will screw up your ability to create.

Above I said, “Note if that character appears later, you should follow up and show detail supporting the original ‘told’ part.” Indeed, setting the stage with a little bit of tell can leverage the show later. E.g., if it’s a fantasy novel and a character off stage has been set up as a Witch Queen who is responsible for maintaining sexual desire in the world, then when you finally show her to the reader, the show parts will have more impact. From one of the last chapters in my novel The War of the First Day:

We all turned. A woman sat on one of the rocks. She wore a hunter green silk garment that draped her with careless flair; it flowed around her baring just enough skin to tease the eye without satisfying it. Her crossed legs slanted provocatively from the folds of cloth and she held a pair of green gloves in one hand. She sat still, as if she had frozen immediately after removing the gloves, projecting an air of casual dominance. She had long brown hair, gray eyes, and perfect skin with a hint of an olive tan, and she was beautiful to the point of it seeming rude. Her face, intrusively, seemed to take over the glade because the eye didn’t want to look at anything else. Lesser women—all of us—felt ourselves turning invisible. This was, of course, Aventa Vulpa, the Queen of Lust.

She gave me a smile that would have made a man’s brain drop out through his anus and said, “So you’re the girl who [spoiler elided].”

To summarize, the rule “Show don’t tell” should be thought of as a general rule, a rule of thumb. Here is something much closer to an unbreakable rule, a meta-rule:

For any given rule of writing fiction, you should either:

(1) Follow the rule,


(2) Break the rule for specific reason that you can articulate to yourself. This is basically just saying that you know what you’re doing.

Even this meta-rule isn’t always right, because sometimes you just have to follow your gut.

How to cut your working draft without qualms

Advice for writers: It’s an oft-heard lament that sometimes it’s annoying to cut material from your manuscript. For example, it might be a scene that works well as a stand-alone scene. Or you just might be genuinely unsure, as an artist, whether a certain passage should be in the novel (or short story, whatever). To eliminate your reluctance to make cuts, create an archive file where you save the cut material, with a note on where the stricken material was in the draft. That lets you take an axe to your manuscript without hesitation, because you know you can always re-incorporate the stricken material later if you change your mind. I find that I rarely change my mind, but it really helps to make the cut in the first place.