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.

Author Interview: Em Lehrer

UPDATE: I think I have finally figured out how to make the “Like” button work consistently, so if any of Em’s reader’s find their way here, you can now “Like” this post.

Em Lehrer is the author of a novel, a movie script, and several short stories. She is working on her novel Candy Wrappers, the first book in The Gravestone Chronicles. She has also has a fun blog that’s oriented toward writing. In particular, check out her fascinating author interviews section, but watch out for the addiction factor; I almost got sucked into archive-gorging there for hours. I recently had a chance to throw some interview questions at Em.


1. What writing habits are most effective for you?

Writing habits are tricky. When I get into it, I find myself writing for an hour or two every day, usually at the same time every day. Then, if I skip a day, I’m thrown off and I need to force myself back into the habit.

I always find that having a word count goal per day helps me keep on track. If I know how many words I want to get down in the document, then I have something to work towards, and I’m able to stay more focused in my hour or two of writing per day.

2. Do you have any advice about the craft of writing for writers or aspiring writers?

I think the most important advice is to remember your own voice. Every writer has a slightly different writing style, and that’s what makes them special. It’s okay if your writing doesn’t read like your favorite authors, that’s what makes it unique.

Another thing to remember is that no writing is perfect on the first try. Don’t get discouraged because your first draft isn’t perfect. Edit and rewrite and work on your manuscript until you think it is perfect. Then get an outside opinion or two. You learn through your mistakes, and every attempt at writing is another lessoned learned.

3. What’s a fact about you that your readers might be surprised to know?

This is a tricky question… I don’t think there is much about me that is surprising. The most interesting thing about me at the moment is where I live; which is in Dominica, a small island in the Caribbean. I’ve been here for four years and am moving back to the USA this fall for school.

4. Tell me about your current working novel, Candy Wrappers, the first book in The Gravestone Chronicles. What was the original idea behind it?

Candy Wrappers has been a work in progress for a long time. I originally had the idea back in sixth grade, when I drew a picture of a monster creeping out from under a cabinet and grabbing a candy wrapper from under a rug. The idea has much evolved since then and I started writing the actual manuscript in March.


The running idea is a girl (currently named Malia, but that may change) goes to her summer home after the murder of her parents to say her final goodbyes. While she is there she discovers that demons may actually exist, and they may be the real reason behind the death of her parents.


5. What do you primarily care about in your writing? E.g., story, good prose, characters…

Most of my stories start with a plot, which more often than not comes to me at some random time for no apparent reason. I do my best to develop the plot first, and the characters and setting etc. fall into place.

When I’m actually writing, I do my best to watch my writing. I tend to get very ‘heavy’ and do my best to keep my writing ‘light’ (if that makes any sense at all). Other than that I just let the words flow and fix up anything I don’t like in the editing.

6. What’s the best thing about writing/being a writer?

Probably the fact that I can create anything I want and bring it to life through words. I think that writing is like magic; absolutely anything is possible. That, to me, is amazing.

7. What reaction(s) do you hope your work inspires in your readers?

There is nothing in particular I try to instill in my readers. My main hope is that readers enjoy my writing, and are able to get lost in the world that I have created (in a good way of course).

Thanks for the interview, Em!

You can find Em at these other sites:

Her blog, Keystroke

On Twitter

On Facebook

Her podcast

Don’t Develop a Style

An unfortunate piece of advice is to tell aspiring writers to develop a style. Aargh! No no no no no! That’s the LAST thing you should be doing. You can’t help having a style any more than you can help speaking with a particular accent. It’s literally not possible.

Now your writing might suck, but not because you don’t have a style. Maybe it SUX because you don’t understand subject-verb agreement or when to use apostrophes. Maybe it SUX because you try to be funny but aren’t, or are funny unintentionally. That equals SUX. It’s also true that lots of stuff that sux, sux in the same way – e.g., a lot of people don’t, in fact, know how to wield apostrophes – but what matters is the fact that it sux, not (only) the fact that it sux in a way that’s similar to other people’s sucky writing.

That’s a different problem from not having a style. If you’re “trying to develop a style,” you’ve got it all wrong.

Writing is a human mind on paper, and reading that writer’s work takes you into his/her mind. It takes you into their world. Borges was pure imagination and intelligence; his prose was crystalline (even in translation this is obvious) so you could perceive the ideas with no distractions. Heinlein was optimistic and folksy, and his amusing dialogue (after his first few stories) conveys this. Susanna Clarke is very English, at least from this American reader’s point of view, and is interested in what England circa 1800 would have been like if the old, dark fairy tales had been true. She explores this in the style of a novel of around that time. (Hence the comparisons to Jane Austen, if Austen had been on acid.) Bester was all about intense, driven characters, and his relentless, flooring-the-gas-pedal pacing is part of a style that matches his subjects. Lev Grossman, in The Magicians series, takes you into what magic would actually be like if actual North American twenty-something hypersmarties actually got their hands on it. He presents his fictional world with asides about particle physics and cellular automata, the way they’d view it. And so on.

The point is: If you self-consciously “try” to develop a style, you’re muting your own unique view of the world. DON’T DO THAT! Let your own style, your own take on things, flow out of you naturally. It’s one of your few items of stock in trade, and the only one on which nobody else can compete with you.

You don’t have to limit yourself to one kind of work. You can (and probably should) write humor and drama, etc. But your kind of humor story and your kind of drama story should – must, if you are to be any good – be yours, naturally yours, not the result of you trying to do something other than write naturally, the way [insert your name here]’s mind writes.

A Vision: Fantasy Unchained

No world-building except that necessary for the story.

Fantasy does not need complicated genealogies, fully-worked-out artificial languages, or laboriously detailed history. Freed of such distractions, fantasy flies. Fantasy is

Q: “So you’re on a crusade against world-building?”
A: Not necessarily. There’s no need to choose one approach; that would be like saying that a toolbox should have either a hammer or a screwdriver, not both. However, one might suspect the detailed world-building era was just that, an era, a historical episode in fantasy and the other world-building genre, science fiction.

Think of the best-loved world-building works in fantasy and sci-fi. In fantasy it’s The Lord of the Rings and in sci-fi it’s Dune. The reason people admired the world-building in The Lord of the Rings was that it was the first work in fantasy to feature such detail, and Dune was, if not the first, one of the first in sci-fi to feature it. That is, a lot of the appeal was the novelty. More than half a century after The Lord of the Rings, and more than a third of a century after Dune, the novelty has worn off. At least, the super-detailed world-building should be allowed to lie fallow for a while.

Also, world-building has become a self-indulgence of some authors. It is a self-indulgence when a story that could unfold in 350 pages unfolds in 500 due to the inclusion of unnecessary background. I once flipped through a fantasy novel that described mourning rituals at funerals in excruciating detail. It was utterly irrelevant to the story. There is something almost masturbatory about it. It is especially pitiful when the author obviously thought, “By God, I spent 100 hours fleshing out this world, and I am damn well going to get some use out of that 100 hours, so I’m going to shoehorn in the names of all 68 of my fictional religion’s deities if it kills me!”

In constructing my fantasy setting I could have dumped a kiloton of material from my area of expertise, which is relevant for world-building, into the novel. But why? It would hurt the pacing and really, would just be me showing off.

There is a venerable notion that “Human beings live by the stories they tell.” You have never heard “Human beings live by the fictional elf languages they create.” There is a reason for this.

If I’ve done my job the way I wanted to, I grab you by the hair and take you on a divebomb from the front cover to the back cover. You barely remember to breathe or blink, let alone be detained by the heroine’s genealogy.

Querying and Entropy

Information theory tells us that the more information there is in a text string, the less compressible it is. Similarly, the better a novel, the more it resists being summarized. Of course, in information theory, “information” is maximized when the string is completely random. Hmmm, that’s not how we use the word “information” in everyday discourse. Straddling both meanings, the less predictable the string/novel is, and the more there is going on in it, the more resistant to compression/summarizing it is. A good novel will surprise you.

But better novels are written by better writers. Better writers might be more skilled at summarizing, as well as writing novels. Er, maybe. Overall, it seems likely that the difficulty of summarizing a brilliant novel overwhelms the better skill.

Me: “I’m having a hard time writing a query I’m happy with.”
Claude Shannon: “Fantastic!”

Tight writing II

Another problem with “writing as tightness” is that it would prevent the writer from surprising the reader. This is because, if writers only included vital details, eventually readers would figure out that every detail is vital. This would let them anticipate things that were supposed to be surprises.

An example: Suppose that in the last ten pages of your novel, it turns out to be vital that the hero knows how to speak Russian. You must set this up earlier in the novel to avoid a deux ex machina, so on page 30 you mention that when he was in college, your hero took Russian language classes. Now your readers know that this will be vital later, because they know you only include vital details. Thus they anticipate the rabbit you were hoping to pull out of the hat later. In contrast, suppose you’re not a devotee of the “only vital stuff” theory. When you mention that your hero took Russian language classes, you also mention that he took a classes in English Lit, Music Appreciation, etc., and that when he was in college his favorite beer was Imperial Stout. Because you’ve hidden the essential in the inessential, the reader cannot anticipate your surprise.

One might respond, “But then all that other stuff is essential: It’s essential for surprising the reader.” Certainly. But that’s different from being essential to the plot. This is the whole point: Things that aren’t essential for the plot may be essential for other important elements of the novel. I could tell the same story actually writing on page 30, “By the way, reader, at the end the main conflict is resolved due to the fact that the hero knows Russian.” Yes, it would be the same plot, but it would be a very different novel. It certainly would be a different experience for the reader, who would be denied suspense or surprise.

Tight writing

Writers frequently admonish other writers and aspiring writers to omit everything that doesn’t advance the story.  This is bad advice, as one can see by imagining what would happen if anyone ever actually followed it:  Every novel would be a half page of bullet points.

Take Gone With the Wind.  Margaret Mitchell was so wordy!  The novel would have been better if she had written this:

• It is 1861 in Georgia, USA.  A young woman, Scarlett, is in love with Ashley.  (Ashley is a man; this isn’t “hot girl-on-girl action!”  More’s the pity.)
• Ashley loves her but they can’t hook up because he’s engaged to marry someone else.
• The Civil War starts, disrupting everything. Scarlett goes to Atlanta and Ashley goes off to fight the Yankees.
• A scoundrel named Rhett Butler occasionally bumps into Scarlett in Atlanta.
• Scarlett has romantic feelings for Ashley and Rhett (though she takes a long time to admit to herself that she feels anything other than annoyance for Rhett).
• The Union forces invade Atlanta and Rhett helps Scarlett escape.
• Scarlett returns to the plantation where she was raised and through sheer determination ekes out a hardscrabble living.
• She marries Rhett Butler, but she treats him poorly and he leaves her.
• Scarlett, the consummate survivor, faces the future knowing that it will be hard but that she will abide.

There!  So much better than that redundant pleonastic bundle of excessive surplusage that is the original version!  It hits all the crucial plot points, while taking up less than a page.  Imagine how much lower the publisher’s printing costs would have been if they had pared it down to that.  Didn’t Mitchell have an editor?

Ok, sarcasm off.  What’s stupid about this approach?  Well, what’s stupid is this:
The point of telling a story is… telling a story.  Presenting a list of bullet points is not telling a story.  Also, the purpose of telling a story is, above all else, entertainment, that is, the pleasure of the reader.  Telling a story is entertaining (if it’s done well).  The only way to make a list of bullet points entertaining is to include a reference to hot girl-on-girl action.

A good example of a writer who ignores the silly advice to axe everything that doesn’t advance the plot is Neal Stephenson.  Stephenson includes anything and everything that pops into his little head, provided it’s entertaining.  For Stephenson, a plot is merely a structure upon which to hang entertainment.  And it’s a good thing, too, or we’d miss Jack Shaftoe’s syphilis-induced hallucinations of singing skeletons (Quicksilver), a description of a witch’s sabbat that our hero blunders into (Quicksilver), and a duel at dawn, carried out with spare cannons from a warship (The System of the World).  We also occasionally get some beautiful prose, as when a man enters a church in Quicksilver and the sun shining through the stained glass windows turns them into “a matrix of burning diamonds.” Story-wise, do we actually need singing skeletons or a matrix of burning diamonds?  No.  But they make these works more enjoyable, which is the point.

Stephenson is something of a maximalist, and I am not suggesting that most authors should try to emulate him.  The point is, you can pull off a hell of a lot of digressions from the main thread, as long as you pull them off with pizzaz.