Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Show and Tell

Every writer has been told by a writing teacher or editor to SHOW rather than TELL.

A simple way to understand this precept is to use synonyms. To “tell” something is to summarize  it. To “show” something is to illustrate it. In both fiction and nonfiction, if you want the reader to feel an emotional impact, show the reader what is going on. This is harder than simply summarizing, but always well worth the effort.

Here is an example of the difference between telling and showing from my first novel, Pandora’s Genes. The first passage is a summary of a short but crucial scene about halfway through the book. The second passage is the scene as it appeared in the published book.

Passage A:
Zach was sent away as his wife, Leya went into labor. He knew that she was in danger of dying and was very upset. To take his mind off his anxiety and sorrow he chopped wood.

Passage B
    It was a cloudy summer day, not really hot, but so humid with an impending rainstorm that the least exertion left him sweating and feeling tired. He positioned a log on the chopping block, brought the axe up above and behind his head, then swung it, thunk. He did this again and again, the movements easy from long years of practice. Wood chips flew around him, stinging his bare chest and arms. Cut wood piled up around him, and his breathing grew heavy as his arms began to tremble with the effort. He did not dare to stop, afraid to lose the comforting sound of the axe blade biting into the wood.

   After a time, his muscles stopped responding, and he was forced to rest for a moment. The sounds of the woods became deafening. He heard birds calling their territorial limits to one another; insects scuttling in the leaves; the warm breeze before the storm, pushing the branches of trees. He shivered as the wind took the sweat covering his skin. Sighing, he sat on a log and examined the axe minutely. He had made it himself from an old pre-Change axe blade, and a stout piece of hardwood he had carved himself, carefully fitting it to hold the metal, and binding the two pieces together with strong new-vine ropes. The ancient blade was as shiny as it must have been when it was new: he took care to keep it clean with fish-oil, and sharp on his whetstones. There were nicks and scores in the metal, but it was probably, he thought, in nearly as good condition as when it had been made, untold years ago. He ran his fingers over the blade and looked for signs of wear on the handle. This was the fourth handle he had made for the blade, carefully carving and polishing during long nights in the cabin while Leya read or worked on her projects from the Garden.

   He stood, already feeling stiff, and began to gather the wood he had cut into bundles of seven to ten each, tying them carefully with new-vine, and placing them to the side of his work area, in a small shelter he had constructed. A squirrel suddenly clambered down from a tree behind him. He turned, startled, to see the little animal poised on its hind legs, its nose vibrating with its breath, every nerve in its body stretched as it tried to sense possible danger. It looked at him, its black eyes as shiny as the axe blade, then just as abruptly it ran up the tree and disappeared along a leafy limb.

   Zach picked up the axe and began again to swing it, cutting the wood as if he could cut out everything else that was happening. Never had he worked so long and so hard. Soon there would be enough wood cut to last the Garden through the entire winter. And there was already more than enough for him and Leya. He became aware of another sound and realized that it was his own breath, rasping, wet, and too rapid. Still he did not stop, not even when the raindrops finally began to fall, washing away the dirt and sweat, then soaking him as a summer cloudburst developed. He could scarcely see what he was doing through the falling water, but still he swung the axe back and up, then down, splitting each precisely placed log as he did so, stopping only to move more wood into position.


   He turned, the axe half-raised, poised to split another log. Her head and shoulders covered with a dark shawl, the old woman stood looking at him. Her face was composed and without expression, and as soon as he saw it he knew the worst had happened.

When you have finished writing a story or novel, go over it for places where you can change summaries into illustrations. For example, if you have a character “crying hysterically,” think how you might show that. (Jodie’s chin began to tremble and her mouth turned white as she bit down on her lower lip. But the trembling spread, from her face to her throat, and then to her lungs as she began to gasp, tears now spilling down her cheeks and onto her hands.) 

One of the greatest compliments I've received about my writing was in a review by Eoghann Irving of my short, gritty novella, The Ptorrigan Lode, which begins: 
If you want a great example of showing and not telling, then this is it.

As a short story it doesn't have much space in which to both create a futuristic world and set up a plot and yet the author Kathryn Lance makes it looks easy.
It wasn't easy, of course, but I'm glad it worked. 

For more on the difference between showing and telling, see #2 in my five-point revision checklist.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

What Makes Science Fiction Different from Other Literary Genres? #SFWApro

I don’t think science fiction is what you think it is. I have adored science fiction since I was a child. It is interesting and exciting because it answers questions that begin “What if?” Though the genre has a reputation for being less-well-written than some other genres, that is not true. As with any fiction, some is good, some is bad, some is ordinary. Still, there are several major differences between sf and other genres, and I believe it is these differences that persuade many people that they don’t like or won’t like anything labeled sf.
1. Science fiction stories often begin in the middle
In the early eighties I took a graduate seminar in literary analysis. On the first day of class, the professor gave us a sheet of paper with the beginning lines of several novels. Most of them were enigmatic, and, as the woman sitting next to me noted, seemed to come from the middle rather than the first part of a book. The other participants too seemed baffled, sure that this was some sort of trick. I, on the other hand, had no problem at all: “These all seem to be the opening lines of science fiction stories,” I said.

The professor was impressed, and began a discussion pointing out that more than in other genres, science fiction stories start in media res, simply plunging into the world where the story takes place. This adds to the verisimilitude of sf stories; after all, how likely would you be to read further in a mainstream novel that began by explaining that the story takes place in the twenty-first century, in a mid-sized city in a nation called the United States? That unremarkable information is assumed in mainstream fiction, and similar facts are assumed in science fiction also; any background material that is needed for understanding is filled in as needed later in the narrative.

2. Science fiction makes demands on the reader
A science fiction story is, in a way, a compact between the knowledgeable reader and the author. Part of the fun of reading an sf story or novel is trying to orient yourself and figure out what is going on. The best sf writers can be trusted to eventually give you enough information that you will be able to fill in the background for yourself. In this way, science fiction is like detective fiction, in which you trust the author to feed you all the clues needed to solve the mystery.

3. Sometimes science fiction stories can’t be figured out
A few science fiction stories, like many mainstream stories, leave some answers unresolved, but the remaining questions themselves become part of the story. The best example I can think of is Roadside Picnic, the award-winning short novel by Soviet writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, which tells about a future earth in which mysterious, never-identified aliens have left contaminated zones filled with dangerous but valuable artifacts. We never find out who the aliens were, nor why they visited, but the story itself is fascinating and gripping, and the fact that we never find out what is really going on tells us even more about the world of the story.

4. Science fiction helps us adjust to a changing world
I was once fortunate enough to interview Isaac Asimov for a magazine I worked for. My editor wanted his opinion on “What is the purpose of science fiction?” The great man thought for a moment, then said, “Science fiction accustoms us to the future.”

No matter what happens in our often-scary new world, I’ve seen it before in science fiction, and often in works published or produced long before the present day. Suicide bombers and random assassins? These were the “muckers” in Stand on Zanzibar. Genetic manipulation of humans? Brave New World (published in 1931!).  iPhones and the Internet? Star Trek and Speaker for the Dead. Deadly climate change? Mother of Storms.

In my newest novel, Pandora’s Promise, I write about a dangerous world 100 years after modern technology is wiped out by a recombinant-DNA disaster. But my story ends on a note of hope--for the human race and the remaining creatures on earth. I can’t reveal here what that hope is (the “Promise” of the title), but I can tell you that my wish is for it to come true, as so many other science fiction predictions have done. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Five Techniques for Effective Flashbacks

In a long work of fiction, what’s the best way to insert crucial background information without boring or confusing your readers? This common writing problem is especially acute when you are writing a sequel or a series. There is no one right answer for every scene, but each of the following techniques can be effective.

1. Use a straightforward flashback. In old movies, flashbacks were fairly common, and were usually introduced with a musical crescendo and a wavy dissolve to the scene being revisited. In fiction, the transition is often made with a character musing about something that happened in the past: “Jeb couldn’t help thinking about his brother, and how the two of them had often arm-wrestled to decide who would go first in a game of Risk….” [Seque to flashback scene.] The problem here is making the introduction to the flashback seem natural. I have found that a straightforward flashback works best if the transition itself has emotional resonance that the reader is aware of. For example, in my latest novel, Pandora’s Promise, Zach has been conscripted to fight a battle, and he doesn’t know what to expect. As he waits nervously in the pre-dawn with his fellow warriors,
Zach had a few bites of the porridge. He knew from experience that he fought better on an empty belly. After eating he sat on a rock just outside the tent, drawing on a pipe of newsmoke as he watched the early morning sky and thought of the battles he had fought.
The fights against the President’s men had been the easiest, in a sense, because he and Will had been so certain they were in the right. He still remembered his first battle—a skirmish, really—a carefully-planned assault by Will on one of the President’s more remote, but strategically located, outposts to the west by the river.
The plan had been for Will’s men to surround the installation before dawn, then storm it before the defenders were fully awake…. [Seque to the scene, which is crucial to understanding Zach’s attitude toward fighting as well as his relationship with his brother Will.]
    This simple technique can work well, as long as it isn’t overused.

2. Reveal crucial information in a conversation. This technique is very common, both in printed fiction and in movies and television, and the temptation to use it is often overwhelming. However… and it’s a big however, it must be used with care. If you want to impart background information by having two (or more) characters talk about it, don’t have one character tell another something they both know. Ever. Under any circumstances. This elementary rule of good writing technique is frequently violated,  especially in television shows, and especially in soap operas, to often ludicrous effect. For more on what I call “The Soap Opera Rule,” see How to insert background information in dialogue.

If you want to reveal information in a conversation, it’s essential to have one character remind or reveal information that he and we, the readers, know is new to the other character.

3. Write a prologue. A lot of writers use prologues, and I have done so myself, most notably in Pandora’s Children, the second novel in my Pandora’s Trilogy. At first glance, a prologue--incorporating a summary of what came before the new book begins--seems like the perfect way to join the previous book with the new one. Soon after Pandora’s Children was published, however, I read that most readers do not like prologues and simply skip them. (You mean to tell me that all the care I lavished on that prologue was wasted?) With some distance, I re-read the beginning of the novel and realized that the prologue hadn’t been necessary after all; that the bits of crucial info were few and could have been done another way that was more organic to the story.

I wrote a prologue to my new novel, Pandora’s Promise, but no matter how carefully I tried to craft it, I realized that it was simply slowing the story down. Yet the information--an event that takes place between the end of the previous book and the beginning of the new one--was crucial to the entire plot and had to be imparted somehow. But how?

4. Use a physical object to connect two points in time. The more I thought about the information I had to get across, the more I realized that Zach didn’t need to be present for its revelation. The information, that an important character from the previous two books, had committed suicide, rocks Zach and sends him on what turns out to be a life-changing quest. But though we readers know that something emotionally wrenching has happened to Zach, we don’t find out what until a scene that takes place six months later, between the other two lead protagonists, Will and Evvy. The physical object that ties the two points in time together is the suicide note the dead man left for Zach, which is reproduced in full in this scene. In the note, he talks about a “trinket” he had found that he left for Zach. That trinket proves to be key to the book’s most important plot point.

Toward the end of the book I used another, more startling, physical object to lead to an important flashback. In this scene, the Principal (Will) is sitting alone in his office, awaiting an important meeting:
On his lap, where he could easily drop it into a desk drawer in the unlikely event that someone should enter without knocking, was a long, soft coil of hair... Evvy’s hair, which was all that remained of her.
This hank of hair, which (erroneously) has convinced him that Evvy is dead, is the gateway for a lengthy flashback that ties up all the plot points that are not directly connected with the ultimate conclusion of the story.

5. Find a unique way to bring the past into your story.
Since Pandora’s Promise is the third of three novels, there was a great deal of earlier information that I felt had to be included sooner or later in the new book. But I didn’t want to stupefy my readers with flashback after flashback. And then I hit upon the idea of the empathic elephants, who are able to read the “sense-images” in Zach’s mind and project them to other humans who are present. This perfectly solved my problem, because not only was I able to incorporate several scenes that would otherwise have seemed out of place, but because the elephants themselves turned out to be warm and believable companions--several readers have told me their chapters are their favorite parts of the book. Here’s an example of how I used this technique. In this scene, [Rushing River], the elephant, expresses curiosity about how Zach and Evvy first met.
Zach had never before shared the story with anyone. He paused to set his thoughts in order, then began to tell [Rushing River] how the Principal had sent him to procure Evvy from her parents, nearly seven years ago, when Evvy had still been a very young girl. At first Zach simply spoke aloud, so that Jonna and Billy could hear him too, but as soon as he formed words, [Rushing River]’s curiosity opened a series of vivid sense-memories, as if his words had created a library of images for [Rushing River] to peer into. Though he had participated in the events, he was shocked at how detailed the memories were; not only could he see all that had happened, he could hear and taste and smell as he had done at the time. He realized that his memories must have been formed in far more detail than he was consciously aware of. Next to him Jonna gasped. “I can see it, Zach! I can see everything you remember!”
Throughout the rest of the elephant scenes, the humans and elephants continue to exchange thoughts and memories and even philosophical musings.

As for what the elephants are doing on the Great Plains and how they became empathic, you will have to read Pandora’s Promise to find out.