Happy Monday! It’s been far too long since I last published a “Writers on Writing” post. Who better to revive it than the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin? As a prolific writer in many forms, she was also prolific in her writing advice and observations.
I don’t think I need to introduce Ursula or explain her work any further. I’ve probably done that enough lately. In case you don’t know who she was, you can check out this post in her memory and her Wikipedia page.
Her quote which I want to focus on today is about a much-debated topic in writing, show vs. tell:
Thanks to “show, don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshop who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.
–Ursula K. Le Guin
I’ve discussed this issue before, particularly the necessity of personalizing the well-worn advice to your writing. With Ursula’s words in mind, I want to discuss it in the context of popular genre fiction such as fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction.
Wanting to show readers your world through vivid descriptions is fine and dandy; in fact, it will enhance the reading experience. But what about those fictionalized details which are harder to describe? Names, dates, histories, laws, languages? How do you convey those when you’re “afraid to describe the world [you’ve] invented”?
World-building is the source of all life for science fiction and fantasy. Even historical fiction requires tremendous amounts of world-building; you’re working with real historical documents, but you still have to bring the past to the present for your readers. Yes, this means vivid sensory descriptions–showing–but it also requires exposition–telling.
In world-building, you cannot rely on show or tell on its own. If you show the prince’s contempt for his younger brother through scowls and body language, you best back it up by telling your readers how the royal hierarchy works. If you tell them that an alien race was chased underground thousands of years ago, you should follow that up by showing their reactions to seeing the sun for the first time. By excluding tell or show out-of-hand, you’re only giving your readers half of the world you’ve created.
Do I agree with Ursula that “show, don’t tell” has turned writers against exposition? Yes, to a degree. Some writers show too much, some writers tell too much. Some, however, have reached the point where they know their own voice, their own rhythm enough to be able to adjust the advice based on what they are writing. I’d like to think that I have reached that point as a fantasy writer, but there’s always room for improvement.
Genre writers, how do you handle “show, don’t tell?” Have you reached the point where you can adjust your strategy based on your work? Or do you still struggle with this balance? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.