Let Me Tell You

I have a beef with “show, don’t tell,” and it’s not just that I have a beef with pat advice about something as complex as writing fiction. “Show, don’t tell” is supposedly “good” writing’s admonition to avoid exposition. Yes, the dreaded “infodump” is seen as a hallmark of bad writing, but it’s faulty logic to conclude that therefore all infodumps are bad. Try telling that to Neal Stephenson the next time he wants to exposit about Sumerian or [you fill in topic here]. Stephenson’s infodumps are just as slick and muscular and witty as the rest of his writing—just as good.

But science fiction and fantasy have always had a complicated relationship with “show, don’t tell.” When one is worldbuilding, there is a tendency to pause the plot in order to tell the reader everything they need to know to orient themselves in the character’s experience. Ultimately that’s the question we need to ask: what is the reader’s experience of this story and do they glean from it what I intended? Do they feel angry, enlightened, sad, emboldened? Did they experience sense of wonder and were they supposed to?

For the reader to feel what the writer intends, they need to understand the world where the story is taking place. “Show, don’t tell” is touted often in writing classes without regard for genre as if there is a hierarchy of fiction styles—with “literary” at the top—and all advice about “writing” is genre independent. Literary fiction, as it is constituted in the English language today, is the genre that considers itself “not a genre.” That’s its defining feature. Therefore there can’t be too pat a love story (that’s romance), or too neat a resolution to an investigation (that’s mystery), and magic’s okay so long as it still occurs in a “universal” context and doesn’t need to be explained, because as soon as you explain it, that’s fantasy.

The first literary writer I heard express open frustration with the literary establishment’s rules for literary fiction was David Foster Wallace, at a talk he gave at the Boston Public Library shortly after Infinite Jest was published. In lit fic you aren’t even supposed to use brand names, he said, because that would “date” your story to a specific time, and literary fiction is supposed to take place in a “universal” world… Which he then pointed out was still supposed to have telephones and automobiles in it (so obviously WAS dated) but not—apparently—IKEA or Coca-Cola (i.e. not THAT dated). Wallace called bullshit.

Wallace was white, male, and privileged, but he was treated as a “young whippersnapper” by the establishment who wanted to tell him what he was and was not allowed to do in his writing. He had no qualms calling out the older generation of writers who had established the rules for modern fiction under the assumption that their experience was “universal.” It wasn’t. It was only “universal” for them. The particular strain of the literary establishment Wallace pushed back against was strongly invested in this mythic ideal of universality. Why? What did they gain from this idea?

They gained the ability to write stories where they could “show” and not “tell,” that’s what. They had this ability not because they were masterful stylists of language or because they dripped with innate talent. The power to “show, not tell” stemmed from the writing for an audience that shared so many assumptions with them that the audience would feel that those settings and stories were “universal.” (It’s the same hubris that led the white Western establishment to assume its medicine, science, and values superior to all other cultures. We’ll come back to that shortly.)

Look at the literary fiction techniques that are supposedly the hallmarks of good writing: nearly all of them rely not on what was said, but on what is left unsaid. Always come at things sideways; don’t be too direct, too pat, or too slick. Lead the reader in a direction but allow them to come to the conclusion. Ask the question but don’t state the answer too baldly. Leave things open to interpretation… but not too open, of course, or you have chaos. Make allusions and references to the works of the literary canon, the Bible, and familiar events of history to add a layer of evocation—but don’t make it too obvious or you’re copycatting. These are the do’s and don’ts of MFA programs everywhere. They rely on a shared pool of knowledge and cultural assumptions so that the words left unsaid are powerfully communicated. I am not saying this is not a worthwhile experience as reader or writer, but I am saying anointing it the pinnacle of “craft” leaves out any voice, genre, or experience that falls outside the status quo. The inverse is also true, then: writing about any experience that is “foreign” to that body of shared knowledge is too often deemed less worthy because to make it understandable to the mainstream takes a lot of explanation. Which we’ve been taught is bad writing!

And science fiction (and fantasy), by definition, falls outside the status quo. I look at those rules and I think no wonder a lot of MFA programs don’t allow genre fiction. What they want students to learn, what they define as good writing, runs counter to the purpose of science fiction and fantasy, which is to displace the reader from the status quo right from the start and never re-establish it. SF/F can certainly make allusions to the Bible and Shakespeare if the writer wants to, but obviously the idea that a story must take place in some “universal” setting goes out the window when the first thing that changes is reality itself.

Worldbuilding makes a certain amount of explanation necessary. Otherwise the writer risks leaving the reader stranded in a character’s head so foreign to them that they can’t make sense of what the character is seeing. You can parody bad 1950’s sci-fi pulp exposition like this: “He got into his automobile, whose internal combustion engine was invented in 1884, and put the key, a uniquely shaped piece of metal that fit in his hand, into the ignition slot.” It works as parody because of course it’s ridiculous that in his day-to-day experience a character would think about these things that he and the reader both take for granted.

But what about when the reader can’t take things for granted? Some they can pick up from context: if my main character starts talking to her horse and the horse talks back, we probably don’t have to stop to explain: oh by the way, horses talk in this world. But if she’s about to ascend to the crown by a loophole in lineage created by magical heredity? The reader had better understand both the loophole and magical heredity. The best way to make things clear for the reader might simply be to tell them.

Here’s a question that I once asked as a joke at a writers conference and unintentionally ignited a near-religious schism: Is the Council of Elrond telling, or showing? (Or is it showing by telling? Or telling by showing?) I’m less concerned with what we label it and more concerned with whether there was a more effective way to convey the information to the reader. Every story is “told,” ultimately. The narrative voice we choose is literally the writer establishing themselves on the page, whether invisibly (third person, omniscient, past-present) or very visibly (first person, colloquial voice, present tense), to create the desired effect.

The decisions about what to reveal to the reader and when and how is the craft of fiction. One way to avoid parody like the one above is to make our viewpoint character a naïf, a newcomer to the world we have created. We could then “show” the reader everything because they will learn about the world right along with Harry Potter going to Hogwarts and Frodo traveling outside the Shire for the first time.

That gives us two new problems: One, it’s cliché. Two, it’s colonialism.

Cliches are a fact of life. One genre’s cliché is another genre’s necessary condition. In SF/F we accept the naïve newcomer as a useful narrative trope, but here’s where colonialism intersects with it: stories that center the naïve reader will always be about the impact that stranger has on the world that is new to them.

George Lucas looked at all his notes for the multigenerational saga that is Star Wars and realized the one about the clueless farm boy who saves the universe was the one he should start with, even though it didn’t come first chronologically. What about stories that are about the places and people that don’t center a naïve protagonist? SF/F abounds with those, too, and they are no less compelling: In Neuromancer, Case is no naïf, he knows every seamy detail of his world intimately. Likewise Anita Blake, who knows all about vampires, werewolves, and zombie-raising before we even meet her in Laurell K. Hamilton’s books. For every Meg in A Wrinkle in Time there is a Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451.

So if relentless centering of the naïve is not necessary in SF/F in order to meet the demands of literature, can we take things one step further? I would like to “decolonize” fantasy and science fiction. Literary fiction, I fear, is beyond help because of its overreliance on shared knowledge for its power. The only way to meet the literary “standard” of a “universal” story while writing about any marginalized individual—whether by culture or subculture, whether of color, queer, or even just a woman—is to make the story accessible to the educated white upper middle-class point of view. Even many of the great works of gay male literature like Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story fit squarely into this tradition, exploring the angst of discovery of one’s own homosexuality within the framework of a “great American novel” akin to The Catcher in the Rye.

But SF/F can do better. We can break the status quo and leave it broken into a completely new shape. This doesn’t reduce the potential power of an SF/F story: it increases it. Instead of a set of shared assumptions about “universal” setting, the SF/F writer has more control over every aspect of the reader experience. All fiction is metaphor, but in a story where the society, customs, and language are crafted rather than inherited, the reader experience of that metaphor can be all-encompassing. The reader learns powerful cultural norms and acquires the new language the same way they acquired their first one: through experience.

A powerful example of this comes in Samuel R. Delany’s masterpiece, Stars in my Pockets Like Grains of Sand. Delany deconstructs the trope of the naïve narrator by making Rat Korga not a hero but a nobody—who survives his planet’s apocalypse by pure chance and then is plopped into a pluralistic, diverse society very different from the conservative society in which he was enslaved. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, critic Gerald Jonas marveled at Delany’s ability to immerse the reader in a world and a society as intricate and subtle as found in “real world” literature. “To unpack the layers of meaning in seemingly offhand remarks or exchanges of social pleasantries, the reader must be alert to small shifts in emphasis, repeated phrases or gestures that assume new significance in new contexts, patterns of behavior that only become apparent when the author supplies a crucial piece of information at just the proper moment.” Instead of leaning heavily on shared cultural assumptions, Delany teaches the reader new ones.

My favorite recent example of this kind of relentlessly detailed, re-centering worldbuilding is Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s comic book series Monstress. There’s no naïve narrator here. The reader is thrust into Maika Halfwolf’s complicated, danger-fraught quest—for revenge, self-knowledge, and to possibly to save her kind—without any lead up at all. If The Lord of the Rings were Monstress, the story would’ve started already in Moria. Different races, societies, magical orders, cities, and families weave together in a dense tapestry that serves its own internal logic perfectly. Monstress borrows from any and every genre—high fantasy, horror, steampunk, alternate history, magical girl manga, paranormal romance—and makes itself an entirely new thing that has to be met on its own terms. To help the reader along who is craving more “telling,” every issue includes a bonus feature, a “history lecture” of a professor cat to her kittens. Monstress rewrites the rules so completely that it isn’t until a male character shows up on the last page of issue 4 that one realizes he’s the first male to appear since the very first scene of issue 1. It doesn’t feel “strange” to have an almost completely female cast in Monstress—it doesn’t even feel like some kind of explicitly feminist literary experiment—and it doesn’t feel “political” to have diverse ethnicities and skin tones represented, because it comes across as simply the way things are in that world.

There’s simply no reason for SF/F’s default to be centered on the status quo. Literary fiction can’t escape the centering of the upper-class educated white experience that is baked into its DNA. We, on the other hand, can escape it on rockets or brooms or on the backs of dragons. We live in a time when we should be redefining our own status quo with diversity and inclusion, not creating new catch-22s that perpetuate previously centered viewpoints.


Cecilia Tan

Cecilia Tan is a co-writer of Geek Actually, a web fiction serial centering female nerds of color. She is the founder of Circlet Press and the award-winning author of over a dozen novels. Her series The Vanished Chronicles will debut from Tor Books in 2018.

4 Responses to “Let Me Tell You”

  1. TheJourney

    What a beautiful and thought-provoking essay. I’d never thought about the possibilities of fantasy and science fiction in quite this way before….

    I’m not sure I agree with everything here, though (or maybe it’s just lack of understanding). Um, so the first thing, is the trope of the naïve protagonist really necessarily colonialism? They’re often white or male, but they don’t have to be. A story like Binti features a naïve protagonist who changes two fairly unfamiliar foreign societies (though also her own), but as a black women, she’s hardly the standard white male wish fulfillment. I’d read that particular story even as anti-colonialist, personally.

    And I always thought there was so much more involved in colonialism than just an outsider changing a society in some broad sense: political control, exploitation, denial of self-determination. Do all of these necessarily exist just because someone comes from outside a society and makes a change? Immigration, say, changes a society, and contains (even in real life) many stories of naïve individuals changing a society, but I wouldn’t equate it with colonialism. Elon Musk or Jawed Karim immigrated to the US, a foreign culture, and changed it, in my mind for the better, for example.

    I do think that the standard idea of the newcomer to a world being automatically more important, because reasons, than anyone there has overtones of colonialism, though….

    So that was one thing….

    The other thing was, speculative fiction does have so many possibilities to expand beyond stereotyped experiences. But by a lot of measures, isn’t speculative fiction less diverse than capital-L literature? Now, don’t get me wrong – I read basically only fantasy and sci-fi – but even if in theory it’s easier to write about people of all genders and ethnicities and cultures in SF, somehow it often seems to end up being more monochrome than literary fiction. If “show, don’t tell” is a great obstacle to diversity in literary fiction, why is SF doing worse? Or am I incorrect in thinking that it is?

  2. Knuckleballhq

    You make several points reflected in a novel I’m attempting to peddle to agents, with the expected failure. My rejections are the usual rubber stamps, and it’s a delight when an agent states she wouldn’t represent it because. My novel is a little speculative but no dragons or dual suns. It addresses a social ill based on little-publicized techniques addressing remedial justice, law, and reducing war and violent threat. I wish I had an idea what in my query they were really rejecting; are they looking for something just a little different from published work that may sell a whole 5000 copies, or are they nervous about repping a breakthrough concept? I wish there were some way to actually speak to an agent, to figure out what’s really on their mind besides “I couldn’t quite connect with this story.” I’m not incorporating a friggin’ dragon just to get a bite. Cecelia, I think what you and I therefore ask of literature may battle uphill to find a market. We could do much in the world if not for this fog between final draft and print. I’m considering writing a study guide, thinking that may spark enough curiosity so an agent will chomp on. Other than that, I’m spinning my wheels.

  3. Omnidoll

    Cecilia, thank you for this deeply explored essay! You and I met, actually, in an MFA program

  4. Omnidoll

    (Apologies, trouble with my phone accidentally caused my comment to load early.) The point I was about to make, in thanking you, was that you really pinned down nagging suspicions I had, even back in the day, about that ubiquitous fiction program rule.
    Close to that time, in my own search for answers to the unlabeled silences governing writing, I discovered Toni Morrison, especially her critical writing in _Playing in the Dark_. I ended up publishing on rhetorical techniques of indirection (book, chapters, and essays) among marginalized authors and filmmakers. Sometimes there can be ways to push back via that coming “at things sideways,” where the presumed societal assumptions can then be twisted into new directions.
    But I feel like you blew the lid off a large Catch-22 that’s dogged non-majority writers (including myself) for a very long time. Congrats, also, on all the amazing things you’ve gotten done since our time on Beacon Street!

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