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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » On Showing vs. Telling and the Law of Unforseen Consequences

   
Author Topic: On Showing vs. Telling and the Law of Unforseen Consequences
Jsteg1210
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I have been taught and told and honestly believe that showing is better than telling. I'm sure you've all had the same lesson. If you haven't, I mean simply that it is usually far more powerful and effective to show a reader something than it is to tell them (ie: having women fall all over a character instead of saying he that is handsome).

When providing description I have taken to mimicking some of my favorite authors by providing only a few key details and allowing them to grow fractally in the reader's mind. I've found by accosting my readers mercilessly that it is very effective in creating a very real and detailed image for them; they have filled in all the missing details themselves.

Here's the problem: the details are all different for each person. This normally doesn't matter, but at times I've had readers walk away with a completely different story than the one I thought I had written. Imagine someone asking you why all those women were so desperate to get laid in the example above. Is there a time when it is better to flat out tell the reader what's what? Am I using the wrong descriptive tact entirely? Has anyone else run into this problem?

Thanks,

-Josh


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Survivor
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It sounds a bit like you might be making a key mistake about the relative amount of information involved in showing versus telling. Showing takes more information, a lot more. To show that a character is irresistably attractive requires ten solid lines, where it would only take one line to tell it.

Telling is where the readers "have filled in all the missing details themselves." Showing involves presenting those details to the reader. The approach you describe, giving a few key details and letting the reader fill in the rest, is neither showing nor telling, and it is no wonder that the audience ends up having to simply guess wildly at what you mean.

Then again, that's just a guess based on what you said here.


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Christine
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Story in author's mind

Story on the paper

Sotry in reader's mind

They are not the same thing no matter what you do. Each reader will take away something unique.

Plus, telling is not the root of all evil. Sometimes you should tell. Sometimes it's just too annoying to show all the time.


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Jsteg1210
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I think I may not have gotten the point across, let my try from a different angle. This has to do with the preconceptions and assumptions of the reader, I didn't mean that the image is unclear so much as it colored with the palette of the reader's own mind. The reader doesn't wildly guess at the writer's intentions, but is absolutely sure that this is what was meant. No matter how much detail is added this is true.

Say you try to show that a city is old by describing in detail the state of it's crumbling foundations. Then a reader asks you why you had depicted the city folk as so lazy (by not repairing the foundations), and asks what it has to do with the story.

Does that make more sense?


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MichelleAnn
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What Christine said!

The rule of show not tell is a good one,but it's more a reminder than a true rule. It's a cautionary phrase that reminds you that telling everything leaves the tale flat as opposed to showing which engages the reader.

That doesn't mean that you never tell though.
Michelle


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Rocklover
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May I suggest 2 books that may help you?
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card and Description by Monica Wood, both of the series, Writer's Digest Books.
They cover the basics very well and will probably answer some of your questions in detail.
Good luck!
Judith

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theokaluza
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It doesn't seem like you're actually having a problem with showing versus telling. You're having more of a problem, I think, with where to draw the line between being too descriptive and not being descriptive enough. Or being too clear, and not being clear enough.

There's always going to be the kind of ambiguity that you're talking about in writing. You might say that "James didn't like the fellow's hat. The way that it reminded him of the brown cowboy hat that his father used to where when he was drunk, and a beating was coming."

Did you imagine a dark brown hat, a light brown hat, a ten gallon hat, a hat with a drawstring, a hat with a band around it, a hat with an upturned brim or a flat brim?


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Jeraliey
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I kinda like that every reader takes away something different. It's like the author wrote millions of stories. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

I also tend to impose my own interpretations on the things that I read (even if I know they're not right). I'd be a hypocrite if I had a problem with someone else doing the same to my writing.


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TaShaJaRo
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From my own experiences as a reader, I think people get out of a story what they put into it from their own life experiences. Sometimes, no matter how thoroughly you describe something, or explain a theme, the reader still may re-translate it to mean something that matches his own life experience.

When I read The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, I was amazed at how much he was writing about me! I highly doubt, that if I were to actually meet him and ask him, "were you writing about thus and such?" that I would get anything more than, "that is not exactly what I was thinking when I wrote it but that is a fair interpretation."

Which is a glorified way of saying, "that's an 'interesting' way of looking at it."

We read fiction to be taken on a journey. To do that, we have to be able to relate to the events or the characters in some way. If we don't, then we FIND a way to relate, sometimes twisting the author's meaning in the process.

I don't think it's something you can fully prevent.


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ChrisOwens
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The book Self Editing For Fiction Writers covers this in chapter 1. There first chapter is called Show and Tell. Don't go to either extreme. Strike a balance. There's a time for both.

[This message has been edited by ChrisOwens (edited February 26, 2005).]


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AeroB1033
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I often honestly wish that nobody had ever come up with the phrase "show, don't tell". It's too ambiguous, and too often people misunderstand or misapply it, and furthermore, it's not always even the correct advice for each situation.

Let's take, for example, the original poster's suggestion that it's better to show women falling over a guy than to say he's handsome.

"Billy Bob had always noticed how women's gazes lingered over him a little longer than other guys. He rarely gave much thought to his appearance, just took it for granted that women found him attractive, and that he could date most anyone he wanted to."

This is actually telling, not showing. Showing takes a long time and requires walking through each step in the process. You might show the scene where he first realizes that women find him attractive, and you might show several scenes of him approaching or even dating various women, and so forth. But what's the point? Unless your story is actually about that (and please, God, don't let your story be about that), why would you want to spend pages showing us something when you could simply tell us about it in one paragraph like the one above?

You might be able to make those scenes interesting the reader. You might not. But either way, you're spending a lot of time on something that isn't actually the focus of your story, which makes the reader think it's important. So it better end up being significant to the story, or the reader will say, "that's it? You spent 10 pages talking about how attracted women are to this guy for that?"

My point is, showing and telling are different tools for different situations. You show the scenes that are significant to the story, and you tell the rest.

And by the way, "show, don't tell" is often misinterpreted and applied within the context of writing a scene itself. New writers often think that this advice means they should describe everything and let their readers draw conclusions about it. You end up getting a lot of physical description and direct description of the actions people take in each scene, but you don't get any of the POV character's attitude or thoughts. It's as if you're reading something written for the stage or film, and the result is a very dry piece of fiction that completely ignores fiction's great strength--the ability to get inside a character's head.


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Survivor
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Yes, that's something to remember as well. As writers, we don't literally show anything but the simple text. We tell the reader that a character is a woman, that her hair is red, that John thinks women with red hair are incredibly hot, and so forth.

Pay special attention to my last element, though. In good writing, the things that we are telling the reader are mostly things that we can't show even if we were using an entirely different medium like film. Most literature concentrates on telling the reader things that are in the mind of the POV, narrator, author, or what have you.

If you are using your POV correctly, then the whole "showing v. telling" debate shouldn't even arise in your writing. You're telling things that cannot be shown, and using them to "show" the reader everything else.


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KatFeete
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I've had this problem too. The only solution I've been able to find is lots of first readers, so I can nip the problem in the bud on the rewrite. *grin*

To use a real, and current, example, from my own work: I developed a subculture called "spacers" or "spaceborn" who played an important part within my work. Now, my conception of the spacers was as a sort of specifically-ignorant group - the kind who can't or don't graduate from high school, certainly never make it to college, and yet are the only people you'll let near your car or want fixing your plumbing. I grew up around these kind of people, so I have a lot of respect for them. Imagine my surprise when both my first readers had hugely negative responses to the spacers, finding them unbelievable, unrealistic, and almost offensive!

I went back and added more detail, and the second round of responses has been far more positive. The new readers are tripping over entirely new problems. *wry grin*

I think the major difficulty here is assumptions. I grew up around people like the spacers, as I said; I assumed everyone else did, and would get, with a very few hints, what I was talking about. They didn't. You may assume - to use your first example - that women only fall all over a man if he's handsome. Other readers may have entirely, indeed radically, different assumptions.

The frustrating thing is that assumptions are the hardest thing to root out yourself. You really do need first readers to help you spot them. I am a big advocate of having other people read your work, as you can see. *grin*

The difficulty that then remains is first, in deciding what assumptions you can live with and what you can't, and second, in figuring out how to correct the latter without being obtrusive or resorting to telling. As an example... to the people I'm writing about, skin color is utterly unimportant - they're so far beyond racism that it's hardly even a joke any more. Therefore they never mention it. Knowing my audience, I'm pretty sure most of them think most of my characters are white, including the MC. (She's not. More like Hispanic.) On reflection, I've decided that I don't care. It's an annoyance, true, but not enough of one that I care to twist my character's point of view and have her explicitly mention something she never would on her own.

The spacer thing, on the other hand, was alarming. The spaceborn are a major part of my story and such a big misconception was worth correcting, even if it meant stepping outside the character a little. The problem was finding an appropriate spot. I finally tweaked the story to make her less experienced with and more nervous about the spacers than I'd originally intended, and then had her briefly review the spaceborn's history and position, orienting herself, if you will, before she had to talk to one. My readers have accepted this pretty well. So far, anyway. *relieved sigh*

As far as showing versus telling... to me, telling means two things. One, you flat-out state something rather than giving the reader information to deduce it:

She was angry.

"Dammit!" she said, slamming her fist down on the desk.

There's two problems with this. One, readers don't trust you. *grin* At least, not as much as they trust themselves. They won't believe something you tell them nearly as happily as they believe something they worked out for themselves. And it keeps their little brains working and engaged with the story, always a good thing.

Two, telling often - I've found in editing my own work and that of others - shows up when the writer doesn't trust her own showing, sometimes with reason:

"I guess we probably should follow him," she said decisively.

Now there is no way you can convince me, no matter how often you tell me it's true, that this sentence was said in a decisive way or by a decisive person. So telling is sometimes an attempt to contradict what's shown. Another example would be if you told your readers the MC was handsome, but then had every woman he met dissing him. You want the story to go one way, but you're writing it another. This not only fails to convince the reader but it actually inspires them to distrust you, since you're telling them something that blatantly, by the evidence of their own deductions, isn't true.

So, yes, telling is a bad habit. It can still be used in moderation, and in science fiction and fantasy - with their unfamiliar settings - it's sometimes necessary to flat-out say "A trawl is a kind of moving sidewalk," or "flikk is a slang term for the ID card everyone has implanted in their arm, often used to just mean 'a person'" (two bits of info I'm currently trying to work into my own story. Darn first readers.) And sometimes, yes, it's fine to say that the MC is handsome. Just make sure it's important enough to use up some of your "telling-not-showing credit" on, that you don't interrupt the story too massively, and that what you show doesn't make you a liar.


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Jsteg1210
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Is there any way that this aspect of story telling can be used to add layers or depth to your piece? Bring the readers' preconceptions into sharp relief in their own mind? (For some reason I'm thinking of Hendrix's use of feedback in his guitar playing) Does anyone know of an author or piece that does this?
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KatFeete
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The king was pregnant.

A line from Ursula LeGuin's famous book The Left Hand of Darkness, which addresses - pretty well, I think - the assumptions we make about gender. LeGuin herself was not entirely satisfied with the book, but it's a good one.

Other than that... hmmm. I'll have to think. The usual way of dealing with such a thing is to ignore the issue and let them form the assumption, then, quite casually, let something drop about halfway through that makes them go "Hey, what?! But you can't... but I thought...."

In a similar way - dealing with the race problem I talked about earlier in my story* - I at one point have the character be mildly startled by someone else's apparence: "It wasn't often that you saw someone with white skin." On review, though, the remark didn't work. The American assumption would then be that all my characters are black (instead of shades of brown, as I personally imagine). And saying "such pure white skin" doesn't work at all. I'm still fussing with that.

So the technique's out there - but it's hard, and it must be handled with care, lest you replace one assumption with another.

* I seem to be discussing my own stuff a lot, and it sounds horribly egotistical. It's not, really, it's just that it's my own work that I think about the most, and it's my own work where I know what's going on in my head. I'll try and think up some more examples.


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Survivor
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quote:
I developed a subculture called "spacers" or "spaceborn"

The most likely problem is that you chose the worst possible name for this subculture. The people you describe are rooted solidly in practical reality and usable skills that they use on an everyday basis to benefit themselves and others. Consider some other terms; "pounders", "bolt/gear/hammer-heads", "low-techs", and so on (along with terms that have been used historically for the people that do the actual physical work of society). These terms all call to mind the sort of physically robust person that might eschew more theoretical "work" in favor of doing things with their own hands. "Spacers" and "Spaceborn" definitely call to mind people that, whether or not they are well suited to more abstract productivity, are not well suited to fixing your plumbing or your car.

You only grew up around these kind of people, I am one. That can surprise some people that only know me from limited samples of my writing, since I prefer SF and Fantasy. I very nearly didn't bother graduating from high school, and I quit fooling around with college after I got my associate's degree. I'm the handyman in a family where we laugh at the idea that anyone would need to buy one of those "do-it-yourself" books to figure out how to fix something (of course, I sometimes wish that some of my family would just buy the books, but that's another matter).

Anyway, if I were reading your story and you introduced these people as "spacers/spaceborn" or whatever, I would have a very hard time seeing them as the kind of person you meant them to be (unless the story is set on a space station and "spacer" just means someone that has practical knowledge of working in space).

The problem here is that you must have a very strange conception of what the practical laboring class is like if you thought that "spacers" would be a term that most people would acknowledge as a reasonable name for them. I have no idea why you would use that term, since it implies the opposite of a person that prefers practical application to airy musings. But as I said, if this story is set in space and your term simply refers to people that have real experience with the environment, disregard what I'm saying.

SF and Fantasy both use the "betrayal of preconception" twist a lot, compared to most other writing. SF uses it the most, particularly in stories written during the sixties and seventies. The presumably white, male, human POV character turns out to be black, or female (or genderless), or non-human at the end of a story that comments by analogy on bigotry or some such. After a while stories stopped being built entirely around that one concept, and it became a lot more subtle (except in Star Trek episodes, of course).

I would never flat-out say "A trawl is a kind of moving sidewalk," or "flikk is a slang term for the ID card everyone has implanted in their arm, often used to just mean 'a person'". I might have a character say it to another character, like if a time-traveler from the future were telling a story and the character listening kept asking questions about unfamiliar words.

quote:
"So I jumped on the eastbound trawl to stay in range of the flikk and..."

"Er, what's a trawl? Or a flikk?"

"Oh. Well, a trawl...it's a sort of walkway that moves along the ground...well it doesn't really move. I think that by this time you already use something kind of like this for moving freight and stuff, don't you?"

"Like a conveyer belt?"

"Yeah, we just call them trawls. And a flikk is...well, in this case it was the guy I was chasing, but really it means the...an implant that has the owner's personal information on it."

"Like an identification?"

"Yeah. That's called a flikk, and you use them to flikk at stores and stuff. The security systems automatically scan them to identify people too. So when you mean a particular person you don't really know, you call 'em a flikk."


There's a point here, too. Could I have made this dialogue snippet shorter? Sure, but then it wouldn't have been very plausible as dialogue, would it? You need to be willing to maintain the integrity of your narrative elements. Don't just plop down exposition chunks.


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KatFeete
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quote:
I would have a very hard time seeing them as the kind of person you meant them to be (unless the story is set on a space station and "spacer" just means someone that has practical knowledge of working in space).

Got it in one. The entire story is set on a space station; spacers are people who were born and raised in space and can therefore handle stuff like freefall and microgravity changes casually. And, hey, that's an interesting example of reader assumptions there... thank God that is one fact I worked in pretty early on.

I'm in a peculiar upbringing situation. My extended family is upper-middle class and yes, I went to college, by choice (I like school....) My brother didn't, also by choice. My parents were back-to-the-land hippies who stuck with it; we've owned a commercial dairy since I was seven, and most of the people I grew up around were other farmers or the like.

But, yeah, the assumptions people made were a big shock to my worldview. Like a comment I dropped that spacer kids were doing work by the age of ten. Now I was working from the age of eight on, feeding calves, stringing fence, "helping" (ie, getting the way) with milking, carting haybales, and my alltime unfavorite, Picking Up Rocks. This is more or less what I had in mind - that kids would be dragged along to work and taught simple assembly jobs, or the running of a diagnostics computer, or "this is the proper atmospheric mix - if it's off, you do this." The response, though, was immensely negative. What most people think of when they think of kids working is dank factories and twelve-hour days and child labor laws... and I don't have the space in this book to put in a whole scene explaning. Curses.

quote:
I would never flat-out say "A trawl is a kind of moving sidewalk," or "flikk is a slang term for the ID card everyone has implanted in their arm, often used to just mean 'a person'". I might have a character say it to another character, like if a time-traveler from the future were telling a story and the character listening kept asking questions about unfamiliar words.

Pretty much my problem, yes. With the trawl I think I can get around it - it's an actual physical object so I can get away with describing it the first time she looks at it without straining POV. Flikks, though... everyone has these. Nobody thinks about 'em any more. I can lean a little and have her engage in a moment of contemplation about them, but in the first chapter? I think not. Hell.

And after that I get to move on to the other eight thousand things people want explained....

quote:
SF and Fantasy both use the "betrayal of preconception" twist a lot, compared to most other writing. SF uses it the most, particularly in stories written during the sixties and seventies. The presumably white, male, human POV character turns out to be black, or female (or genderless), or non-human at the end of a story that comments by analogy on bigotry or some such.

Yeah, it was severely overused for a while - to the point where I rarely see it as a story's end, except, as you say, in Star Trek. I've seen it more for unimportant bits of story and in the middle. It's still overused, though... I'm trying to think up another way to use the reader's assumptions against them, and can't. But it's early in the morning yet.


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Survivor
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quote:
The entire story is set on a space station; spacers are people who were born and raised in space and can therefore handle stuff like freefall and microgravity changes casually.

You might have said that earlier, rather than what you actually said.

quote:
Now, my conception of the spacers was as a sort of specifically-ignorant group - the kind who can't or don't graduate from high school, certainly never make it to college, and yet are the only people you'll let near your car or want fixing your plumbing.

For instance, my one sister designs nuclear submarines for the Navy. She started when she was in her teens (it was where my dad worked). Eventually they realized that she didn't have enough formal education so they made her go to school part time till she had the right papers, but that was much later. Even so, your first description simply doesn't fit someone like her.

Spacers would have all kinds of technical qualifications that would be rather difficult for a non-spacer to aquire. And going on to higher education wouldn't change that. It isn't just the kids that can't or won't graduate that work, you know. We all did helped with the constant construction and remodeling projects from the time we were children. I've known how to do plumbing and electrical work since I was about eight, and I don't remember a time before I knew about drywall and spackle. Exposure to that didn't alter in the least the fact that most of us did pretty well in school, and all of us have some college.

What I'm saying is that I can see how you set yourself up for failure by presenting "spacers" as a kind of underclass that can't get a higher education. They're a group of people that have special opportunities from a young age to learn practical technical skills. It isn't remotely an issue of their being deprived of anything.

I'm not saying you think this, but you said this in your description of them. So of course the reaction was very negative. You're using language that calls up certain preconceptions, then being surprised when people bring those preconceptions to your narrative.

If you mention a flikk, then you can do it in a context that explains it. If there isn't a scene where the term makes sense in context, then you have no story reason for mentioning it anyway and therefore it shouldn't be in your story.


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wbriggs
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My thoughts:
1) Telling is essential, to skip parts that are not interesting enough to show. As in: "Months went by."

2) You'll get different details even if you show. For example:

quote:

"The coffee's cold, again?" John slammed the cup down so hard that some sloshed out on the counter. "If this happens again, bitch, you're fired!"

So: what color is John's hair? Does he have a beard? I showed, but I showed action (which I found interesting) and omitted to note that he has a plaid flannel shirt and one of his teeth is broken and ...


All that said, telling what should be shown is often the problem.


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KatFeete
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quote:
You might have said that earlier, rather than what you actually said.

This is the most common complaint voiced by my first readers, with variations. I tend to forget that not everyone is privy to the inside of my head, and that not everyone knows what the hell I'm talking about. It results in misunderstandings. As very well demonstrated here. *grin* Sorry; it's a fault I'm working on.

quote:
You're using language that calls up certain preconceptions, then being surprised when people bring those preconceptions to your narrative.

Yup.

My problem is that I don't see the bias in the language on my own. I went to college because I liked to learn. It was an immense surprise to me, once I got there, to realize that a lot of people were there only because they thought it would qualify them for a job. Frankly, it was a surprise to me that anyone thought a college degree would qualify them for a job all on its own, and, now that I'm out in the workforce, even more of a surprise to learn that this illusion extends to employers. I've never harbored any delusions that I'm "better" than other people simply because I put in four years and got a nice piece of paper, knowing as I do plenty of very smart people who never got past high school, and aren't, as far as I can see, the worse for it.

What I thought I was saying was that the spacers, like a lot of people I know, couldn't go to college. In the case of people I know, it's mostly an issue of money. For the spacers, it's a problem of all the universities being planetside, in an environment where they're immensely uncomfortable. In both groups it results in an aggressive "don't need no education" attitude that widens the gap between "us" and "them". The spacers aren't, from their point of view, deprived of anything useful, but they tend to be a little loud in proving to themselves that they aren't missing out, which reinforces the perception of non-spacers in the story that they're a bunch of ignorant barbarians.

Which is rather the problem, I suppose. I'm not just dealing with a prejudice in the reader; I'm dealing with a prejudice within the story against spacers which contributes to one of the major plot points. The problem for me is explaining the prejudice and showing it within context of the story without calling up the same prejudice within my readers and having them email me announcing that no way could someone who boasts about having no formal schooling could be fixing high-tech spaceships and running diagnostics on computers. They'd have to have a Master's degree at least. Telling them that this is, in fact, the way things work in the real world too doesn't seem to be helping.

At the moment I've just backed off on the whole thing and done some vague hand-waving instead, but I'm not very satisfied with that technique. Bugger.

I am appreciating this chance to write things out, though. I think a lot better when I'm explaining to other people (in spite of my notable lack of skill at aforesaid) and it's a relief to be explaining to someone who at least accepts my basic premise. So thanks a lot to all who're being subjected to reading this.


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Okay, now I think that I see this as going a bit past just the way you're putting it. There is a lot of your idea that I can buy, like there being a general attitude towards "dirtsuckers" and "groundworms". Or the inverse perception by planetsiders that spacers are a bit uncivilized and wild (probably liberally fueled by the kinds of little practical jokes that the knowledgable tend to pull on the ignorant, in both directions). But there's a big plausibility problem in your setup.

quote:
it's a problem of all the universities being planetside, in an environment where they're immensely uncomfortable. In both groups it results in an aggressive "don't need no education" attitude that widens the gap between "us" and "them".

I just don't buy that there wouldn't be significant research and higher science institutions based in space if people were living and raising families there. I just don't, there are all kinds of research that would benefit enormously from being based in space. In fact, if there weren't space based research as a serious commitment up front, there would never get to be people living in space, it isn't like getting on a log and drifting across the sea to a new island, you know.

So that isn't really a showing/telling problem, it's a problem where readers just aren't going to buy your basic premise. I don't buy it either. As I mentioned before, when you're dealing with a certain level of required technical expertise to attain minimum non-life/nation/planet threatening function, you'll be required to go get the certificate even though your direct supervisors know that you've learned to do your job perfectly well at a high level without them.

A planetside government with a significant number of people living in orbit is not going to tolerate just letting them ad hoc their way. There's too much potential for disaster both to the station, to other space based assets like passenger ships and so forth, and even to the ground. And a stationside government wouldn't permit it either. If I were living on a station, I wouldn't permit it.

Sorry about the wild goose chase. I didn't really understand the idea that you were presenting.


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Jeraliey
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Maybe there are orbital universities, but they're so ridiculously expensive to maintain that tuition is unaffordable for all but the wealthiest spacers.
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No. We're talking about people living and working in space on a regular basis. Even if there are elite institutions, there is a distinct public interest in making sure that there are plenty of opportunities for the local population to advance to advance on merit. To a spacestation, the citizens with practical experience in working in space, including technical knowledge of the station itself, are the equvalent of a warrior class in a feudal society. You need them, and there isn't any way you can simply deny them advancement.

You can probably make the higher education on the station severely lacking in the usual "culturing" that downsider universities provide, enough to serve a similar purpose to your initial concept. That's still iffy if you're dealing with an interplanetary or interstellar setting, but so be it. It's just a difficult thing to make stationers seem likely as being anything other than highly cosmopolitan.


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