Children of Time – Sometimes It’s Tell, Not Show

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s award-winning novel Children of Time breaks one of the most common rules of good fiction. It’s a book that wouldn’t have worked without breaking that rule and which gains much of its power by breaking it. As such, it makes an important point about “rules” of writing and how they work.

And did I mention that it’s a damn good read? Because that’s going to be relevant later…

Adrift in Time and Space

Children of Time is set in the distant future. On a planet far from our own, scientists prepare an experiment in evolution. But just as they’re about to trigger the process, political dissent tears society apart. The experiment starts, transforming a planet, but not in the way the scientists planned.

Countless generations later, the desperate survivors of a dying Earth approach the planet. There they find a civilisation of highly evolved spiders protected by a technological ghost. As both humans and spiders struggle to make sense of their worlds, the stage is set for a dramatic clash of civilisations.

Explaining the Alien

One of the great joys of reading Children of Time is learning about the spider civilisation. As usual, Tchaikovsky brings a flair for invention and extrapolation, creating a society that makes sense but is utterly different from our own. Communication, social structures, technology, all are very different from those of humans. As the book progresses and the spiders evolve, they keep getting stranger and more fascinating.

To let us understand this society, Tchaikovsky often has to explain aspects of the spiders’ lives. From political changes to new inventions, there’s something to reveal in nearly every spider chapter. While some of this is shown through the spiders’ actions, we’re flat out told about much of it.

This goes against one of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers – “show don’t tell”. We’re taught to use action and implication to let readers work out what’s going on. It’s helpful advice, as it makes more engaging prose and lets readers feel smarter as they read. So how has a book that tells so much become a best-selling, award-winning, much-beloved success?

You’re Always Telling Something

One answer is that this book needed to tell. The appeal of the spider civilisation is how it works. To show this without telling would take hundreds more pages. It would be a drag on a tense and thrilling novel. A few paragraphs of explanation set the scene to let us get into the action.

Tchaikovsky’s skill as a storyteller plays a part. Sure, the explanations stand out as more expository than in many books, but they’re still a good read. He understands how to make this interesting.

But behind all this lies another issue – the limits of “show don’t tell”.

Writing involves telling. Any time we “show” a piece of information in a story, we do so by “telling” other things. To show that a character is upset I have to tell what he looks like and what he’s doing. To show that someone is smart I have to tell you about a clever thing she says or does.

In this case, telling us how the spider civilisation had progressed shows us that it is advancing. Telling us about individual social and technological developments shows us the outline of evolution in action.

It also gives us the knowledge to understand what later actions will show.

Context is Queen

“Show don’t tell” is invaluable writing advice. But asChildren of Time shows, it’s context dependent. What you show, and what you tell to show it, depends upon the story. As Terry Pratchett said, rules are there so that we think before we break them.  Good writing follows the rules. Great writing knows when to break them.

Children of Timeis great writing.

My Friend Webby – a science fiction flash story

Picture by OliBac via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by OliBac via Flickr Creative Commons

I don’t understand when other kids complain about their brothers and sisters. Sure, sharing your toys can be annoying, but having no-one to share with is even worse.

Until Webby arrived, I had no-one.

They were building new houses across the street, using special spiders. Not the red ones they send when somewhere gets polluted, that spin webs to catch the chemicals. These were the green ones that eat bits of old buildings and spin new walls. There was sheeting all over the skeletons of the houses, to stop the spiders getting out. But there must have been a hole in one of the sheets, because on Saturday morning I found Webby on my windowsill.

He was the biggest spider I’d ever seen – bigger than my hand, maybe as big as Dad’s. He was the same green as a plastic toy tree – bright and shiny. I was scared, but excited too, so I opened the window and let him in.

As soon as Webby came into the room he started spinning things. First he made a little cage around one of my army men, then a tiny thin wall between the lamp and my bed. I touched the cage. It wasn’t sticky or fragile like a normal spider’s web, but so strong that when I pressed down on it it didn’t break.

When Webby had finished his wall, I pointed at the cage and then at another army man. Webby seemed to understand, because he built a cage for that man too, and then for the next six I pointed at. I tried making different shapes with my hands, and he spun shapes like them. It was awesome.

As I crouched next to him on the floor, watching Webby weave a circle, I noticed that his head was a bit lopsided. It looked like he’d been hit there and it hadn’t healed right. I felt sorry for my new friend.

I felt even more sorry a few minutes later when Webby slowly stopped moving and curled up around himself.

“Are you OK?” I asked. He didn’t move. “Are you hurt?”

I thought maybe he was lonely without other spiders around, or maybe he was just hungry. I didn’t want to take him back to the building site if I didn’t have to, so I decided to try feeding him first.

Cradling Webby in my hand, I carried him down to the kitchen and set him down by the sink, next to the dirty dishes and cutlery. Reaching up and across the counter, I pulled the cookie jar over to me, took the lid off and reached inside. The jar was made of shiny metal, all smooth and cold. I wasn’t meant to eat the cookies without asking, but this wasn’t for me, so I figured it would be OK.

As I turned back to Webby, I almost dropped the cookie in surprise.

He’d eaten half a table knife, and was weaving something spiky on the side of the sink.

That was when Mum walked in. She looked at the jar first, and frowned at me. But then she saw the spikes on the sink and Webby eating a spoon.

Mum screamed. She doesn’t like mess or spiders.

“Kill it, Sammy!” she shrieked. “We can’t have that thing in the house.”

I had to think quickly. I didn’t want to hurt Webby, but if I didn’t do something then Mum might get brave and squish him.

Webby dropped to the floor, and I moved so that Mum couldn’t see him. In one hand I held up the lid of the cookie jar. With the other I made a circle in front of me and then pointed at Webby.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. If he hadn’t understood then I didn’t want to see what happened next.

I slammed the lid down on Webby. There was a clang.

“Got it, Mum,” I said. “I’ll clear this up. I know you don’t like spiders.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” She kissed me on the top of the head. “That’s very kind. When you’re done, you can have a cookie.”

Taking deep breaths, she left the room.

Hardly daring to look, I lifted the lid of the cookie jar up off the floor.

Webby was crouched close to the ground, surrounded by a cage of hard webbing. The lid was dented.

He lifted his lopsided head to look up at me, and I smiled.

Now Webby lives in my drawer. I give him boxes to spin his webs in, so that Mum won’t see the things he makes. He eats old cans I take up for him, and Mum’s really happy that I’ve started offering to take out the recycling.

Sharing my room isn’t annoying, not when I get to share it with Webby.

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If you enjoyed this then you might also like my collection of science fiction stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves. And for free stories straight to your inbox every Friday, sign up to my mailing list.