One of the most frequently repeated mantras of writing instructors and the leaders of writing workshops is “Show, Don’t Tell.” By which is meant, “Define your narrative situations by depicting people in conflict, not by telling your reader about the people and their problems.” Writers are urged to think of themselves as movie cameras, observing and recording the doings of their characters as they go through a series of significant events. Editorial comment by the author, standing outside the action and letting us know what to think about it as it occurs, is discouraged. “Plot is character in action,” we are told: you show your people meeting their challenges in the way that is characteristic of them—note the repetition of terms—and thus a story will unfold. Beginners are warned of the perils of “expository lumps,” great unbroken masses of author-provided data, which these days are more frequently called “infodumps.”
There is wisdom in such teachings. By and large I have lived by them myself over the course of a career that now stretches more than fifty-five years. I think of a story as a series of vividly visualized scenes that eventually reveal a meaning, without the need for me to provide extensive hints about what’s going on. (Except when I do feel that need. I’ll get to that next issue.) It’s an effective storytelling technique, long proven by example. No less a writer than Henry James—whose work is nobody’s idea of fast-paced action fiction—constantly abjured himself to “Dramatize, dramatize!”—don’t spell it out, just show characters in opposition, as though on a stage.
Ernest Hemingway, fifty years later, was a prime advocate of letting dialog and action carry the tale. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” one of the best short stories of the last century, begins briskly with the sentence, “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened,” and the story goes on from there without pausing for explanations. Even Hemingway can’t help a little auctorial intrusion: on page two he tells us that Macomber “had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward,” something that more usually he would have left for us to figure out for ourselves. But generally he lets his stories be told entirely through action and implication. For Whom the Bell Tolls, for example, begins without delay: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.” Eventually we learn that the man in the forest is there to blow up a bridge, but Hemingway tells us that important fact by way of a dramatized scene. Nowhere is there any solid slug of explanation. We learn about Hemingway’s protagonist and the job he must do by watching him go through his tasks and interacting with the other characters; there is a minimum of outside-the-frame commentary.
Science fiction seems to require such commentary, because so much of it deals with unfamiliar worlds far removed from ours in space or time. One can drop one’s characters down in modern-day New York or London or in a pine forest in Spain and let readers shift for themselves, and sooner or later they will figure things out, but when the readers are presented with the New York of AD 3874, or with a starship arriving on Betelgeuse XVI, it does appear useful to give the reader a few hints about what’s what in those strange surroundings.
Thus stories in the magazines of the pioneering publisher of science fiction magazines Hugo Gernsback often were festooned with helpful footnotes that explained the scientific background of a story or its extrapolative content. Here, for example, is Cecil B. White’s “The Return of the Martians,” from a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, in which the Martians instruct a scientist on Earth to transmit messages to them for exactly 0.0049 of a day, and a footnote tells us, “The decimal amounts to nearly seven minutes. The Martians, being unaware of our system of measuring time, were compelled to adopt this method of conveying the time interval to us. This system is used a great deal in astronomical work for, as will be seen, it facilitates computation considerably.”
This is telling with a vengeance. But Gernsback was, basically, a gadgeteer whose interest in science fiction centered almost totally on its value in arousing young readers’ interest in science and technology. In their earliest years his magazines reprinted a great many old stories by those great forerunners of science fiction, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, both of whom understood how to mix scientific speculation with storytelling while keeping a tale moving steadily. But when he ran out of reprints, Gernsback turned for his material mainly to a group of science-oriented amateur writers who cared very little about plausible characters or dramatic plots, and wanted only to tell tales of interesting scientific situations. Where that required a lot of explanation, most of Gernsback’s authors lacked the skill to work it into the narrative.
The big, dignified-looking Gernsback magazines went out of business in less than a decade, and their successors were pulp-paper periodicals with names like Astounding Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories that specialized in swiftly moving action-based stories for readers who had no interest in scientific lectures. These pulp magazines all too often went too far in the other direction, eliminating not only the lectures but the science, and serving up stories that were essentially just simple tales of cowboys and Indians on Mars, with ray-guns replacing the six-shooters and grulzaks instead of Indians. They were fun, and in the hands of a gifted storyteller like Edgar Rice Burroughs they had a kind of cockeyed splendor about them, but they held very little interest for any reader past the age of about fourteen.
It remained for Robert A. Heinlein, starting in 1939, to come up with a way of handling the speculative aspect of science fiction in a manner that would keep a story moving swiftly while at the same time holding the interest of readers more mature than those attracted by the pulps. He adopted—whether consciously or by independent invention, I have no idea—the show-don’t-tell technique of Hemingway, adapting it cunningly to the special needs of science fiction, and quickly he became the most interesting and successful writer of SF since H.G. Wells, forty years before.
Heinlein’s great innovation involved thrusting readers into the future as a going concern and forcing them to figure things out as they went along. Probably his most famous demonstration of the technique is found in the opening pages of his 1942 novel Beyond This Horizon, in which we see his protagonist riding to the thirteenth floor of a government building, where he gets aboard a “slideway” and steps “off the strip” in front of the door of the office he is seeking. And then: “He punched the door with a code combination, and awaited face check. It came properly, the door dilated, and a voice inside said, ‘Come in, Felix.’ ”
No one had ever written science fiction that way before. There are no footnotes and no explanations. Mounted a slideway. Heinlein doesn’t describe it. He just tells you that that’s how you move around in the future. Awaited face check. The door is scanning people. The door dilated. It didn’t simply open; it dilated. So we know that we are in a future where iris-aperture doors are standard items. And we are only a dozen lines or so into the world of Beyond This Horizon.
Heinlein seems to have hit on that method of depicting the future right at the outset of his career. His first published story, “Life-Line” (1939), establishes its conceptual framework entirely through dialogue and action. In “The Roads Must Roll” (1940), he does do a few paragraphs explaining the replacement of conventional highways with mechanized conveyor-belt strips, but only after the story is well along. In “If This Goes On—” (also 1940) he creates a strange, forbidding puritanical culture of the future purely by allowing us to inhabit it; there are no historical lectures telling us how we got from here to there. The story is as exciting now as it was seventy years ago. In the relatively late novel Friday (1982), we get the full Heinlein technique from the first words: “As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him. I have never liked riding the Beanstalk. My distaste was full-blown even before the disaster to the Quito Skyhook. . . .”
I quote Heinlein so much here, not only because he was the primary advocate of the Show, Don’t Tell school of writing science fiction, but because he also provides us with permission to depart from it when necessary. It can be found in his celebrated 1947 essay, “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” which is prefaced, significantly, by this notable quote from Rudyard Kipling:
“There are nine-and-sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays
And every single one of them is right!”
In his essay Heinlein concisely discusses what a story is, lists what he thinks the three main plots of all fiction to be, provides five excellent prerequisites for a story that is specifically science fiction, and offers five much-quoted rules for conducting a career as a writer, four of which strike me as exemplary (“2. You must finish what you start.”) and one that seems to me utterly wrongheaded (“3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.”). But while laying down all these laws, Heinlein also tells us this:
“Don’t write to me to point out how I have violated my own rules in this story or that. I’ve violated all of them and I would much rather try a new story than defend an old one.”
There we are. We have Rudyard Kip-ling’s assurance that there is more than one way to construct a satisfactory story, and we have Robert A. Heinlein’s admission that he would cheerfully break his own rules whenever it seemed necessary to do so. And so, having devoted this issue’s column to a defense of the classic writing-school slogan, “Show, Don’t Tell,” I’m going to come back to the theme next time and discuss the importance of not taking that slogan too seriously.