How do I balance showing and telling in (especially) genre fiction like fantasy and sci fi. How do I reveal plot points in a short story?
Warning this passage contains minor spoilers for Kelly Link's The Faery Handbag. You may want to read it first.
There are two things at play here. How much do you need to tell? (That is, can you leave things implied? Unsaid? Mysterious?) Or if you do need to reveal information in a straightforward way, at one point should you do that? Can it be trickled in, or is it easier if you just drop it on the page and have it out there. Here’s an example of a story that focuses on worldbuilding first, The Faery Handbag
It’s a long short story (8000 words). But the first 566 or so words (7%) sets up place, character and atmosphere (creating a sense of magical possibility without stepping over into full fantasy). Then the next group of sentences set up the transition into the main premise of the story.
EXERCISE: Print out the first 673 words (up to ‘But it’s true’.) With a pen in your hand, do a straight line underneath sentences, phrases or images that feel very grounded in the real world, familiar and realistic. Use a wibbly line to mark passages, images or phrases that feel other-worldly or imbued in magical possibility. See how the author does the work of both drawing you into the world of the story by anchoring you with concrete imagery and opening up new possibilities to take the reader where she needs them to go by implying a heightened reality, or strangeness within the familiar.
It’s at the 5724 word mark (71% into the story) that we are told exactly what this narrator’s problem is, what the big problem that drives the story is and even then this problem never gets completely solved in the story – the story is about the slow reveal of the world. Sometimes the whole story is really just about revealing the story so far.
Black Swan Event
by Margo Lanagan relies on some prior knowledge of fairy tales. Maybe you have that knowledge, maybe you don’t. Does the story come together for you? Try using the same technique from above – identifying the grounding passages and the more defamiliarizing or mysterious passages. How does the story deviate from your expectations, how does it meet it? Does the setting make the story more or less strange?
1. Set a timer for five minutes. Make a list of abstract nouns (awe, courage, law, love etc). Find a method for randomly choosing one. (Cut them up and put them in a hat, ask someone else to choose one for you, close your eyes and point...) This is the theme of your story.
2. Draw a map of somewhere you know well. It could be your own street, a route you take every day (such as your trip to work, uni or school), a wild place you used to play in as a child. Take your time over the map. Put in as much detail as you can. Annotate it with memories and story snippets (birdseed lady's house, barking dog etc).
3. Take a fairy tale and write out the main plot points and motifs. For example, Hansel and Gretel: poverty, cruel or weak parents, pebbles shining in the moonlight, birds and breadcrumbs, a candy house, a stranger, a bird cage, an oven, gold).
4. Combine your personal map with the fairy tale story twists and turns and motifs (you may, like Margo Lanagan's story, take up long after the original story leaves off, or you may, like Kelly Link, repurpose one specific motif to create an original fairy tale) to tell a story that explores your theme.