Commentary: Showing instead of Telling Magic

CASH has been a part of the Angelfools universe for several years by the time our story begins, and the average citizen does not view it as extraordinary.


As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a big fan of showing instead of telling. When writing from a first-person perspective, I think this makes the most sense: Alex knows what he knows, and he wouldn’t mentally explain it to himself unless he really needs to concentrate on it. So the reader learns about the setting through his observations, actions, and dialogue. What does Alex think is important? How does he treat other people? What does he remember and what is he making up as he goes along? The reader is in the same boat.

However, this can present a problem in speculative fiction when I as the author introduce elements that are fantastic or impossible to the reader, but are mundane to the characters. This is most obvious with CASH, which pulls triple duty as an in-world economic mainstay, a crucial plot element, and a central symbol for the narrative. But CASH has been a part of the Angelfools universe for several years by the time our story begins, and the average citizen does not view it as extraordinary. This is similar to how a novel set in contemporary times would likely not explain how cellphones or the internet work. In science fiction, this is sometimes known as the Heinlein method. While some sci-fi authors will explain in great detail the minutia of their imagined worlds, Robert Heinlein simply wrote “the door dilated.”

Another example: my friend Ted Tinker’s ongoing novel Akayama DanJay features “hallucinogenic bugs” that the characters smoke. The crickets are grown like plants, which is completely normal for his world. Tinker doesn’t write as much as a paragraph talking about the worldwide bug-smoking culture; instead, he shows how the characters participate in it, with bits of direct expository information woven throughout the narrative where it is appropriate.

Thus, after downing their CASH drinks, Alex and Charlie telekinetically spin coins in the air, and neither of them have second thoughts about it. So the reader learns that CASH bestows supernatural abilities on those who imbibe it, and that use of these abilities is neither magical nor mysterious. We also saw in the previous chapter that there are different varieties of CASH, presumably bestowing different abilities. Furthermore, we learn in this same chapter that Alex’s lightning is NOT a function of CASH use — Charlie and others see it as extraordinary, potentially linked to Alex’s visions.

I will say here that although I have included “magic” in the title of this commentary and the linked chapter, CASH is not magic. The “science” behind it is fictional, obviously, but it is merely advanced biotechnology that would be “indistinguishable from magic” to us.

Author: Ben Ginsburg

I'm a writer, a storyteller, and a dreamer. As a recent graduate of UC Davis with a shiny new B.A., I decided its finally time to start writing that novel. So join me as I write, rewrite, and talk about it.

One thought on “Commentary: Showing instead of Telling Magic”

  1. Good explanation of how things related to us through your character’s voice are filtered by his perspective. Seems natural to him, seems like magic to us. This also means there may be things that aren’t true, even though the narrator includes it in the story (I’m not saying that’s happening… just that you have that option). Or that there’s part of the story that’s missing from the narrator’s understanding and becomes evident to us only when he discovers he was wrong. Lots of elbow room for you to play with~


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