Genre writing, show don't tell, and what actually sells
Is SFF using fewer tools than contemporary lit? Yes. The answer is yes.
I’m about a third of the way through Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood, a book I picked up at the library on impulse. It’s far too early to say whether I like it or not but I’m fascinated.
One of the things I’ve been trying to do over the last few years, in fits and starts, is to read more what might be considered mainstream literary fiction, contemporary fiction, mimetic fiction, whatever you want to call it. I became a fairly rabid science fiction fan around the age of 10, and while I’ve never been exclusively an SFF reader, it’s made up about 90 per cent of my lifetime fiction intake, especially during my teen years, when I inhaled books at a rate of two or three a week.
I’ve more and more realized that my reading habits were a kind of invisible prison.
Science fiction and fantasy does a lot of things well, and there are a lot of beautifully written books in the genre. We have our great writers and prose stylists.
But it can’t be denied that the bulk of the SFF remains powered by relatively straightforward plots of adventure, intrigue, or mystery. These are tales where people often punch and shoot their way out of problems, where things explode (often on a scale well beyond that possible in the real world) and how and when they explode is of great importance to the plot.
Moreover, that explodiness will, in general, be described on the page, as it happens.
This is because we have drilled into us “show, don’t tell.”
Writing books and courses, writers groups, online advice – it’s one of the most common, most basic precepts of writing, at least if you’re working in a genre mode.
We’re told it’s a universal value for writing. People rail against it, they claim it was invented by the CIA, but it’s the dominant model.
But Birnam Wood isn’t even on the same planet as “show, don’t tell.”
Here’s a representative (portion of a) paragraph from early on in the novel, in which Shelly, one of the main characters, muses on her position in Birnam Wood, a small New Zealand environmental/community garden organization, and her relationship with its charismatic leader, Mira:
And Shelley wanted out. Out of the group; out of the suffocating moral censure, the pretended fellow feeling, the constant obligatory thrift; out of financial peril; out of the flat; out of her relationship with Mira, which was not romantic in any physical sense, but which had somehow come to feel both exclusive and proprietary; and above all, out of her role as the sensible, dependable, predictable sidekick, never quite as rebellious as Mira, never quite as free-thinking, never – even when they acted together – quite as brave. She wanted out with a force of feeling that was as abrupt and absolute as when she had first known she wanted in, and when she probed the conviction, she found that she could not explain the reason for her disenchantment any more clearly than she could explain what had so powerfully attracted her to Birnam Wood in the first place – and even more: she found that she did not want to explain it, did not want to understand it, did not want to subject to scrutiny that awful buried certainty that whatever she did or said, however she acted, whatever life she chose, she would always be wrong, ill-intended, ill-prepared, and incomplete.
There are things that happen in the first 80 pages of Birnam Wood, there are a couple of significant encounters, the wheels of plot are set into motion.
But by far the bulk of the novel is closer to the excerpt above. It’s like being body-slammed by interiority. It is pages and pages of long paragraphs detailing the character’s inner emotional lives, backstory, their relationships and what they think of them.
In between these passages, the characters agonize over the wording of text messages.
I’ve seen Birnam Wood described in multiple places as a thriller, and that seems accurate if you were to describe the plot, as seen from a great height: a secretive and eccentric billionaire attempts to use a small environmental group as a pawn in his operation to run an illegal and highly profitable rare-earths mine in a remote corner of a New Zealand national park. His mining has already caused a landslide that killed five people, and he plans to blow up the site after he’s done to cover his tracks.
That seems thriller-y, right? But in execution, it couldn’t be farther from it. When we do get out of people’s heads, we get scenes that do pass the show-don’t-tell test, but they’re typically conversations. A dinner party, a meeting between the billionaire and a toadying right-wing talk show host, a tense argument where the Birnam Wood members get into an ideological and personal spat.
Will the book end with explosives, attempted murder, narrow escapes, someone cutting a wire while the last few seconds count down on a large bomb?
I don’t know. (Almost certainly not that last one.)
But I am haunted by the thought that if you brought this manuscript in to a science fiction critique group, it would be rejected out of hand for doing so much telling up front.
And if you dug deep enough into why it is better to show than to tell, eventually someone would bring up the fact that it simply wouldn’t sell if written this way.
But the truth is, Birnam Wood is far more commercial than most SFF.
It might or might not be a colossal hit, but it’ll outsell 95 percent of whatever’s published in SFF hardcover this year. It’s written by a previous Booker Prize winner, it’s getting a huge push with reviews in the New York Times, the Guardian, NPR, and on and on. In short, it’s a commercial book, intended for a mass audience. If you take the bus or the subway, you’ll probably see someone reading it in the next few months. It’s going to be on the schedule for a hundred book clubs by mid-spring.
For a long time, there’s been this subtle undercurrent in the SFF community, this assumption that, yes, “literary fiction” (an impossibly broad term, seldom used by those to whom we apply it) might get the respectability and the cachet, but SFF and romance and mysteries sold better. We grubby genre writers and fans knew what people really liked.
But that’s just not true.
Forget terms like “literary.” Conventional, mainstream, contemporary fiction sells better than just about anything else. I remember Silvia Moreno-Garcia pointing this out in a Twitter thread some years back, and those with more industry knowledge, editors and agents, turning up to agree, but it was more than a little surprising to me at the time.
And if you’re writing something that’s structurally, or stylistically, formally weird, or even that just breaks the “show don’t tell” rule, who is more likely to buy it – genre readers, or contemporary fiction readers?
(This tweet turned up in my timeline after I’d started working on this post. I swear.)
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror should never feel like it’s limiting.
I think about it this way: there is a big chest of tools that are available to anyone sitting down at a keyboard or picking up a pen.
Mimetic fiction, literary fiction, whatever you want to call it, leaves aside a whole big set of tools right off the bat – it confines itself (mostly) to what we might call consensus reality, the past and present as we think we know it.
Whereas science fiction and fantasy eagerly pick up a different set of tools – we can write and read books set literally anywhere! Anywhen! From the heat-death of the universe to the surface of a neutron star, from within the minds of aliens and gods to realms where physics works by different rules, where magic and miracles are a part of everyday life.
Theoretically, SFF writers should have access to all the tools. Every single one in the box.
In practice, what gets published in mainstream SFF deliberately avoids many of those tools, or uses them rarely, in works clearly labelled as “literary SF” or “slipstream,” or “speculative fiction.”
I don’t know if you’d like Birnam Wood. I don’t know yet if I like it.But every time I pick up a work of contemporary fiction these days, and compare it to the sci-fi I’ve read recently, it’s the contemporary fiction that feels more expansive, more free.
Next time I write one of these, I might just talk about why I think that happened.
Speaking of literary fiction/fantasy, I’m reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (another Booker-winner’s follow-up novel) which was, of course, shelved in the literature section of the bookstore, along with or instead of in the fantasy section when it debuted. As with Birnam Wood, I’m not sure how I feel about it – or if my feelings are separable from my ideas about how fantasy novels are “supposed” to work.
Remember, do not like, subscribe or tell anyone about this newsletter. Write your feelings about this post down on a scrap of weathered parchment. Stuff the parchment in an old wine bottle, and bury that bottle beneath the lightning-blasted pine on the heath. When you die, with the last rattle in your chest, implore your heir never to dig up that cursed bottle, lest doom befall the estate!
I have written about this before, and I will write about it again.
I am a little uncertain whether the author is writing from a viewpoint of contempt for her characters. It’s a bit offputting.
This is really fascinating, Matthew. I'm similar with my reading habits, and about 6 years ago ended up significantly widening my bookshelves due to a job I was doing at the time which was tangential to the publishing industry. Reading stuff like Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan and lots of others really made me realise that my frame of reference had been really small.
What you highlight is also spot on: as genre writers it's easy to say that we have the biggest, most flexible toolkit. That literary fiction is boxed in due to being generally set in the modern, real world. The difference, I suppose, is that the innovation and boundary-pushing comes in the ideas and settings in genre stuff - whereas literary fiction has to find that innovation in other places, such as the prose itself. Generalising there, of course.
I have had a desire for a while now to have a go at writing something that is clearly speculative in its setup, but which is structured and delivered more like a literary fiction novel. Haven't quite found the right material yet, and not sure whether I'm quite there in terms of ability either.
Thanks, have subscribed! 👍
Really enjoyed this. I feel like the stranglehold of "show don't tell" is only starting to fall off even in literary fiction. I wonder if it has to do with fiction changing so much and so radically in the 20th century; maybe we cobbled together these "hard and fast rules" in a panic of trying to impose a new standard form, and we're only just now realizing that they don't have that much real relevancy. After all, whether we're writing SFF or mainstream fiction, what we really want is to tell good stories, not compose perfect specimens of an arbitrary set of technical rules we may not even agree with.