Part 06 – Setting, Show don’t tell

by Al Kalar

A poet who reads his verse in public may have other nasty habits. -Lazarus Long


Every story takes place somewhere and some-when.

If you’re dealing with real places and real periods in the present or history, you’d best know everything you can about the topography, plant life, seasons, maps, and what is/was going on at that place/time. Research can be boring, but if you stumble here, hundreds of readers will take great delight in correcting you for your blunder.

Harry Turtledove is a history major and the publisher of several fine alternate history novels. He researches his stories meticulously. In spite of that, every now and then, his fans enjoy pointing out some small error he made in a book. Since he’s so careful, these incidents are not common, but they do happen.

Now, if Turtledove has this problem in spite of the fact that this is his area of expertise, how much more will you suffer if you mess up? You will, but do your best to create as few errors as possible.

Al Philipson used to live in Spokane and he set the start of one of his books, Children of Destruction,  in that city. Now, the beginning of the science fiction book is set in the near future, but what do you want to bet that some small item has changed since the last time Philipson visited Spokane and a denizen of that city will gladly tell him about it in glowing detail.cover

One big value of careful research is that you often discover stories that you would never come up with on your own. Turtledove once told me about a Civil War soldier he discovered in his research who was actually a woman in disguise. He used it.

If your book is set in a fictional world of your own devising, you still need to know everything you can dream up about that world. For instance, what is the topography, the dominate religion(s), form of government, attitude of the people, maps, historical events that impact the story. You should know more about your world than you need for the book, just so you’ll feel at home writing about it.

Oh, don’t spill everything you know; just what’s needed. This is similar to your character sheets. Know more than you tell.

Now that you have your setting, you can move your characters through it confidently and describe it to your readers in words that evoke sight, smell, touch, hearing, the taste of the air, and the weather. Don’t overdue it. Two paragraphs of purple prose on the beauty of a setting in the middle of a fire fight will definitely destroy the reader’s concentration and yank him out of your story line. Here’s an illustration of a simple use of setting at the right time courtesy of Al Philipson:

The morning sun filtered through a gray sky and glinted off wet streets as the three survivors loaded themselves and their possessions into the truck. Buck filled his lungs with the clean, moist air, sweetly scented with the smell of green, growing things; held it for a moment, then slowly let it escape. A robin warbled nearby, perhaps the same robin that interrupted his sleep an hour earlier.

That’s all the description he uses. After that, he gets on with the story.

Show, Don’t Tell

This is one of the most troublesome area new writers have to deal with. It’s the main reason the term “info dump” was invented. It’s so much easier to rattle off a bunch of facts and figures, history, whatever than to work these items into the story itself.

But readers and editors both hate this. The worst case of violating this edict can be seen in John Norman’s Gor series. John drops out of the action for huge run-on paragraphs of explanation; mostly stuff the reader could care less about. My personal guess is that it’s his way of filling up a book because his story line won’t create enough pages for publication. Norman gets away with this because he has developed a following that has learned to gloss over his meanderings and find the next “meat” in the story. His first book in the series didn’t have a lot of this problem; otherwise he may never have been published.

When you “tell” something, you drop out of the story to explain some bit or tell a section of story quickly. On occasion, this will work, but if you can at all bypass this, do so. An advantage of “showing” is that it takes more words and space. If your story is too short to make a good novel, “showing” will help to flesh it out and if done properly give the reader a better experience.

Here’s an example:

Mac launched the Intruder away from the ship. This involved coordinating with the ship’s controller, going through check lists with his Weapons and Electronics Officer, Lt. Arkady “Ivan” Ivchenko, warming up the engine, activating his launch and navigational systems, separating the umbilical and the launch bay links, and depressurizing the launch bay.


CoverHere’s how Bruce Davis brought the same scene alive in That’s Which is Human:

“Apache Mission, this is Normandy Control. Prepare for umbilical separation,” the launch captain said as the inspector exited the bay.

“Roger Normandy,” Mac answered. He looked down and to his left where Lt. Arkady “Ivan” Ivchenko sat hunched over his own pre-launch checklist. “Ivan, switch to internal power.” Ivan nudged the Intruder’s main engine to life and activated his launch and navigational systems. As the Weapons and Electronics Officer, he was responsible for navigation and targeting.

“Green Board,” Ivan said. “Clear for umbilical sep.”

“Normandy, this is Apache mission. Clear for umbilical sep. I am tactical at 1310 ship’s time,” Mac keyed the separation code into his command console and the Intruder freed itself from its last links to the launch bay. Mac looked up through the cockpit canopy, gave a ‘thumbs up’ sign and saluted, the traditional ready to launch signal. The launch captain returned the salute and held both fists above his head, indicating the start of depressurization.

Which version would you rather read?


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