“Show, Don’t Tell” explained

This is one of the most misunderstood rules in all of prose fiction.

It’s important to understand that every single sentence you write is simultaneously telling one thing (the explicit/referential meaning of the sentence) and showing others (that which is implied or inferred by the sentence).

So, the famous example of “showing” by way of “the light glinting in broken glass” is indeed “showing” the reader that it is night, because that is not made explicit but rather inferred by the reader. However, the sentence is “telling” us that there is broken glass and that light is glinting in it.

The general recipe for “show, don’t tell” is this: think about whatever it is you want the reader to feel or imagine or understand, and then don’t write that thing. Instead, write around it, so that the reader can feel what you are getting at by way of implication or inference.

Showing is always more evocative than telling, since the reader supplies the information from their own imagination, which is necessarily more vivid than reading it on the page. Showing uses more of the reader’s brain, and places the target image in their imagination, not just within their linguistic processing.

“Show, don’t tell” applies to all aspects of writing, including theme, tone, character, emotion, plot, setting, description, etc. You can show any of these things, or you can tell them.

For example, to “tell” emotion is to say, “John was angry”. To “show” the same emotion is to have John punch someone, or tell them to fuck off. Likewise we can identify “telling” for character, as in “John was the sort of guy to get angry easily”, for setting, as in “they were standing in a grocery store”, for description, as in “it was really dark”, and so on, all of which can be translated into “showing” statements by picking out the right sort of evocative details—details which imply or allow the reader to infer that which you intended to convey.

There are many literary techniques for “showing”.  For example, the techniques of metaphor, irony, understatement, ambiguity, and unreliable narration all depend essentially on what is not stated by the writer. Each of them, in their own way, refrains from telling directly, and instead shows just enough for the reader to comprehend the meaning on their own—these techniques all rely on the reader to do some work to find the underlying meaning, where it’s hidden between the lines. They are all examples of showing, rather than telling.

In literature, the written text includes narrative gaps that are filled in by the reader. According to some critics, in particular reader-response critic Stanley Fish, this is the distinctive feature of literature: plain-language is referential and expository, whereas literary language reveals additional meaning through intentional interpretive gaps. According to this view, “show, don’t tell” is not just advice on good writingit is the essence of literature. Plain language puts the meaning in the surface level of the words (it “tells”) and literary language puts the meaning in interpretive gaps filled by the reader (it “shows”).

Before writing anything, you should figure out what it is you are hoping to express. You can think of what you want to express as the “target”—it could be a character trait, an emotion, a theme etc. The goal of “show, don’t tell” is to write in such a way that you express the “target” without saying it explicitly.

Colony–“one-shot” anthology released

What happens when you get a team of writers together and give them 24 hours to write and edit an entire speculative fiction collection on the theme of “Colony”? This anthology happens!

Colony Cover - ebook

This speculative fiction anthology was created during an intense, 24-hour period of writing and editing. A team of authors residing in Toronto were given the theme of “Colony”, and a strict timeline to produce stories based on that theme.This is more than a collection of imaginative and entertaining stories—it is also a feat in creative writing. It embodies the efforts of authors writing and editing fervently under absurd time pressures. They set themselves a challenge and pushed themselves to the finish line. The Colony anthology is the result of their efforts.

I hope you get a chance to read it, and let the authors know what you thought of their work!

Publication in Polar Borealis

My creepy short story ‘The Santas’ is going to be published in Polar Borealis! And just in time for Christmas, too!

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I was very happy to find a good publisher for this story, and also to find that it’ll be published in time for the season.

Without too many spoilers, the premise of the story is that “Santa Claus” is just one of many “Santas”, magical beings who are summoned by using different rituals. Cookies and milk and stockings by the fireplace summon Santa Claus. But in ‘The Santas’, we meet some of the lesser known -and far creepier- Santas.

That story is coming in issue #5 of Polar Borealis, which will be free to download!

Open Call – Strange Economics SFF anthology

The Strange Economics anthology will feature SFF stories on the theme of “economics”, broadly interpreted. It’s paying a semi-pro rate of CAD1.5c/w. Simsubs are allowed. Submissions are open until January 30, 2018, so there is still some time to come up with a story, write it, polish it, and submit it.

Some ideas/prompts/suggestions for stories:

  • Job market implications of genetic engineering and “designer babies” on society: Do parents seal the employment fate of their children? Why would anyone engineer their children for the jobs no one wants?
  • What kind of work will people do when human labor is no longer necessary? Does work still exist? How are resources distributed? How do people spend their time? Explore these question in a SF world, where robots and AI have eliminated the need for work, or a fantasy world, where magic or gods have eliminated the need for work.
  • Supply and demand in a world of magic: a critical spell/ritual ingredient is in short supply.
  • Some people think capitalism is the final stage of human history, and no other systems are going to arise. If that’s right, what will the capitalism of the future look like? If that’s wrong, what other system might take its place? Tell a story about either of these futures.
  • A market for human souls: a “collector” who makes their living selling souls to demons, but questions where to draw the line (and by extension, the variable value of human life).
  • How will interplanetary trade work? What might go wrong?
  • A story that illustrates the prisoner’s dilemma in an SFF context.
  • A story that illustrates the sunk cost fallacy in an SFF context.
  • A story that illustrates negative externalities in an SFF context.
  • An SFF story that illustrates irrational economic behavior, or how biases/beliefs/ psychological predispositions sometimes make us act in ways that don’t seem to make economic sense.
  • There is an asteroid worth $10,000,000,000,000,000,000. What would happen if someone managed to collect it? Write a story about the company that makes this happen, and what happens as a result.
  • Global warming will create new economic challenges over the next hundred years. Write about one or more of those problems, and how people deal with them.
  • Space Tourism. Write about the business in the near-future.
  • Mars or moon colonies. Some run by China, one run by NASA, some run by multinational corporations. Tell a story about the differences in how they’re run, and the potential conflicts that arise, for example, when resources are scarce.
  • Pollution is an example of a market failure. Tell a story about how a future society tries to deal with this market failure. Come up with a policy solution, and tell a SF story about why it works, or doesn’t. Or, create a fantasy analogy for pollution, such as a side effect from using magic. Maybe using spells releases demons into the wild. Should the peasants be expected to deal with the demons? Or maybe the peasants get fed up with the wizards not dealing with the problem.
  • Space pirates.
  • Corporate neo-feudalism.
  • What if the gap between rich and poor continues growing? Is there a breaking point? What does that look like?

Happy writing!

Submission guidelines for Strange Economics can be found here.

Strange Economics anthology

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I’m very happy to say that the Strange Economics anthology is over 80% funded!

Strange Economics is an anthology of speculative fiction on the theme of “economics”. If that sounds like your thing, or if you just want to support the project, please take a minute to check out the fund-raising reward tiers and see if any of them appeal to you. All of the money we raise goes to the authors involved.

If you’re a speculative fiction author, there is an open call for submissions. We pay 1.5c/word CDN for accepted stories. If you have a story that you think might fit, we’d love to see it.

Bitter Knowledge, by Yannis Ritsos

“Bitter Knowledge” is a poem by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990). It can be found in the collection “Late into the Night: the Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos”.

Consider reading my analysis of Ritsos’ poem “Maybe, Someday” before this one. These two poems can be read together, and it makes more sense for the other one to come first.

As with any analysis of a poem, we should begin by reading it in its entirety first, and appreciating it as a whole.

Bitter Knowledge
by Yannis Ritsos (translation karlóvasi, 6-30-87)

Stay in this sheltering half-light with folded hands.
There’s nowhere for the lame night-watchman to sit.
The chairs were sold off two weeks ago. Out front,
they’re hosing out some large barrels. Barges
lie beached in the harbor. The newscaster’s voice
carries from across the street. I don’t want to hear.
I sweep the charred moth wings off the table
from the night before, knowing only
that all their weight is in their weightlessness.

Tone

The tone is depressed, wistful and resigned. A number of images point to giving up or feeling powerless: the “folded hands”, the “lame” watchman with nowhere to sit, the charred wings. The images also create a deep feeling of emptiness or lacking purpose: The barrels, being hosed out, empty; The watchman, nowhere to sit; The barges beached on the harbor, inert; The moth wings, discarded, burned, brushed from the table. The images in this constellation all show loss: a loss of purpose or function.

The overall impression created is one of sadness, emptiness, and loss.

Watson’s tone analyzer confirms this reading, identifying sadness and fear as the prevailing moods.

Interpretation

Ritsos is talking about his life as a poet. He is the “lame night-watchman”, powerless as death (“night”) approaches. The “bitter knowledge” of the title concerns his life’s work.

Late into the night of his life, he is reconsidering his contributions, weighing the value of his life’s work. The charred moth wings “from the night before” are the totality of his life’s work: insubstantial, charred, fragile, crumbling at the slightest touch. Their value: nothing, except proving their “weightlessness”.

Ritsos devoted his entire life to poetry. He hoped that he might share the beauty of the world as he saw it, through his poetry. This was his driving passion: to end the loneliness of living in his private world; to bridge the divide between separate beings; to commune with others through his craft. At the end of his life, he came to dismiss his life’s work -sweeping it from the table- as a total failure.