Author Archives: Leigh Galbreath

Historical Mythology: Don’t worldbuild without it

In preparation for the next volume of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve been rereading the series so far, and it struck me how much the historical mythology he has created helps his world live and breath. It made me want to write this post about how important historical mythology is in creating a fully realized world.

Now, when I say historical mythology, I’m not necessarily talking about religion or explanations of the natural world. What I’m talking about is the how people use history to explain the here and now. It’s the mythologizing of real historical events and people. It’s putting a spin on what happened to come up with a why and a how that serves the present.

We all know that it’s as important to know what happened before a story began as it is to know where the story is told. No story takes place in a vacuum. There has to be a “before” if there is a “now.” How deep you go into that history depends, of course, on what genre you’re writing. A Paranormal Romance will give history less weight than an Epic Fantasy.

But knowing knowing the history is only part of the process. The other is how that history becomes part of a person or places mythology. Historical mythology is one of the building blocks of backstory that I think people forget. Very often we treat what we write as truth, and the reader will read it as truth. In that epic fantasy you’re writing, you might have an extensive historical time-line of what really happened. But people don’t remember history as what really happened. We remember history by being told about it from others, and as the old adage says, “History is written by the victors.” Historical mythology is how that real history is remembered over time, and it applies to the world, such as with wars and social changes, but also to the personal, such as with what happened to a father and son that caused them to stop speaking.

One of the truly interesting thing that happens when you start looking at history from a mythology standpoint, is that you see how it can change depending on the point of view. Using Martin as an example, one of the more important moments in recent history is the war that made Robert Baratheon a king. This war was sparked by Prince Rhaegar Targaryan running off with Lyanna Stark. A Stark would say that they went to war because Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna, but a Targaryan would argue that the two were in love. Ask someone not of either family, and the whole issue might have been just an excuse to dethrone Rhaegar’s completely insane father. One makes the war about vengeance, another love, the third justice. In this way, the mythology aspect simplifies the incident and gives it meaning. Over time these varying points of view will perpetuate, merge, and come in conflict with each other. We can already sense the impending conflict when the last of the Starks finally meets up with the last of the Targaryans.

In a way, this sort of humanizes the world. It makes the history of the people and places as frail and faulty as the people who live with it. I don’t know about you, but I’m still reading Martin to find out if any of the points of view above are what really happened.

So, when you’re writing that personal story, whether it takes place in an epic world or down the street, think not only of the real history, but how that history can be simplified, misunderstood, or all out mangled. Then, look at how that altered version affects the characters you’re writing about. Not only can this make for great conflict when the various versions meet up, but it gives the world you’re creating a more realistic, human scope.

The Art of Implication or Show Don’t Tell is for Losers

I’m a fervent believer in the old adage Show Don’t Tell. We’ve all heard it. We all hate it. We all know it’s essential for good fiction — the writer’s Golden Rule. It reminds us that simply telling a story isn’t enough. We have to bring the story alive through choice details that make the simple statement redundant and useless.

So, why do I say that it’s for losers?

Because, lately, I’ve come to realize that the adage doesn’t do the work. I’ve been reading a lot of works in progress by unpublished writers, and I repeatedly come across the same issue. It’s an issue, I myself, have to deal with. It’s not that we’re bad writers. It’s not that we don’t know the adage and put it to good use. The issue is that we don’t use it as widely or was deeply as we should.

First, lets look at the adage itself. Show Don’t Tell only mentions one of the senses. While our mentors might mean to use all the senses, it’s not evident in the statement — and as we all know, words are powerful things. They work on us even at a subconscious level, and the amount of times new writers forget about the other four (or five depending on the story you’re telling) backs me up. As many of us have heard before, genre fiction is immersive. Our readers don’t just read the worlds we create. They live in them. If we were writing scripts, showing the world might be enough. But novel and short story writers must use every sense to make their worlds real. Readers must smell the newly turned earth of the farmer’s field, taste the smoke of the soldier’s recently exploded bunker, feel the slick sweat of the rebel about to be put to the question.

Second, the adage doesn’t encompass the most important aspect of putting across a powerful story — emotion. You can’t show emotion with any power anymore than you can tell it. For example, showing a facial expression is about as informative as just saying that someone’s happy. And depending on how it’s carried off, saying that someone’s happy is easier to understand. But you can imply emotion. When we describe the smell of our farmer’s new turned earth, we imply the satisfaction of  the fruits of a plowed field. When we describe the feel of our rebel’s slick sweat as he awaits his torture, we feel his terror, his discomfort. Emotion, my friends, is the universal language. A reader may not understand a character’s political or religious views. They may not understand how a character’s background may motivate their actions, but they will understand a character’s emotions. Emotions are the true connective tissue between a character and a reader.

For this reason, I’ve come to think that the adage should actually read Imply Don’t Tell. I mean, that is what we’re talking about when we Show, right?

Which brings us to my third reason that Show Don’t Tell is inadequate. Show Don’t Tell is primarily a tool for narrative. We use it for description. We use it for action. But when was the last time someone told you to Show Don’t Tell a piece of dialogue? Doesn’t really work, does it? And when was the last time you realized, or were told by a reader, that your dialogue is flat, repetitive, overwrought, over-simplistic, or just plain unbelievable? That’s happened to all of us. Great dialogue implies subtext, motive, tension without saying it allowed. Great dialogue implies physical and/or emotional danger. When one character asks a question, the person answering doesn’t give a direct answer. They answer a little to the side, in a round about way. And even when they do answer directly, they do so with loaded words that imply more than they’re saying.

So, I put to you all, when you’re writing or revising and you come across a telling statement, don’t wonder how you can show it. Wonder how you can imply it. For, when you think about it, implication is what we’re best at. We can’t in reality, make other people see what we see, feel what we feel, no matter how good a wordsmith we are. If that’s what you want to do, go become a movie director. Writers can only imply with these paltry things we call words and hope the reader get’s somewhere close to the point. By implication, we leave a few cracks for the reader to fill in the gaps, and that is half the fun of reading.