Because some stories need to be told.
In 20 years of writing, I’ve never before encountered a story that demanded to be written, the sort of story where you’d actually be happy to discover that someone else had beaten you to the punch and written the exact same thing, because you just want it to be out there. But then, I hadn’t met the Night Witches.
I discovered the Night Witches by way of recon pilot and fabulous hat-wearer Eugenie Shakhovskaya after innocently asking my father-in-law, who is a war aviation buff, whether any women had flown in World War I. Not being particularly interested in World War II, I didn’t pay much attention to Shakhovskaya’s Great Patriotic War counterparts until I found myself with an orphaned plot thread about a female pilot who rescues a man. I toyed with possible settings. Why not a historical one?
Then I began reading about them. Young women 18 or 20 years old, flying slow, flammable wood and canvas biplanes designed as trainers and retrofitted to hold a few bombs. Shutting off their engines to glide over their targets making no sound except the whistle of wind through the control wires, a sound that reminded the Germans of witches’ brooms. Risking their lives to defend their beloved Motherland against invaders with the stated goal of wiping them all out. Why don’t we already have a book about this? Why don’t we have a movie about this?
The people. The stories. A navigator setting a distance record gets lost in the frozen Far East. A student sends a distraught letter to her astronomy professor after hearing that a bomb hit their observatory. A pilot has a confrontation with her commanding officer and later dies in a suspicious accident. Stories that demand to be told.
But the single biggest reason I wrote Among the Red Stars is because I made the mistake of telling my father-in-law that I was thinking of writing something about the Night Witches. He promptly told everyone he knew. At that point I had to write it.
You can see my pitch and first 250 in the Pitch Wars alternate showcase here.
Illustrations, top to bottom: Marina Raskova in the Far East; Polikarpov Po-2; Lilya Litvyak and her Yak-1. You can read my blog series about the Night Witches here and see the entire illustration gallery (for entertainment purposes only) here. See the rest of the blog hop after the cut.
Among the cliches that often turn up on lists of novel openings to avoid is the car ride. I don’t know about you, but speaking as a reader, that isn’t something I would have guessed. It’s neither as overdone as the waking up scene nor as obviously stupid as the looking in a mirror scene. There are, however, good reasons to avoid it. Let’s have a look.
An obvious first point: There’s nothing about cars, per se, that makes for bad openings. So let’s expand the rule to include similar types of scenes:
- Flying on an airplane
- Walking to school
- Moving to a new house/apartment/dorm
Collectively, we’ll call these travel scenes. The most obvious reason these should be avoided is because they’re banal and uninteresting, but that’s not really much of an argument; the slice of life genre concerns itself with the mundane and can be fascinating. So there’s more going on.
Let’s expand further by returning to our old friend, the waking up scene. What category encompasses both it and the travel scene? Simple enough: They’re both transitions from one state to another. We can now formalize the original rule as follows: Don’t begin a story by transitioning from one place our state of being to another. And we can consider why.
One problem with transition openings is the lack of stakes. Not only are these scenes mundane, but we know how they’re going to end, and in many cases, such as the airplane flight, it’s a captive environment. What’s our investment in an opening where a character is driving to work? Are we worried zie won’t make it? The actual story can’t begin until the protagonist gets to the end state. (This illuminates some exceptions to the rule: A kidnapping scene, for instance, could be a car ride with very high stakes.)
The other problem with transition openings is slightly more subtle. It’s that the opening is wasted establishing something that isn’t going to be used in the story. Take the moving scene. If the protagonist leaves zir home in the first chapter and doesn’t return, any time spent describing the home is basically wasted*. Consider the notorious opening dream scene. It has the exact same problem: Whatever is described in the dream sequence immediately becomes pointless when the character wakes up and the actual setting must be described all over again.
So there you have some of the reasons why a car ride makes a bad opening. Cars are not the problem. Lack of meaningful stakes and establishing a scene that will then be immediately abandoned are the problem, and both of those are things that you should avoid in your opening, regardless of whether it begins in a car or not.
*Purists are going to point out that there are reasons to describe a location other than because you’re going to spend time there; for instance, describing someone’s room tells you about zir personality. True, but that’s a low-value use of precious words in the opening, where every word counts.
Image from Spirited Away.
Battleship Potemkin aside, the Soviet Union has not gone down in history as a great creator of culture. The Western perception is generally that the USSR couldn’t produce great movies because its cinema was part of the state-run media and therefore it could only produce propaganda. To determine whether this is true, we must address two separate questions. First, did the Soviet cinema only produce propaganda? And second, is propaganda inherently not artistic?
The answer is no on both counts. The second question is easy: There are countless works that are undeniably propaganda and also undeniably great art. Virgil’s Aeneid, for instance, was commissioned by an autocrat to legitimize his reign, yet it’s a masterpiece. And Potemkin itself contains the famous Odessa Steps sequence.
The more interesting question is whether the USSR produced any cinema that wasn’t propaganda. It’s true that, especially in the early Soviet Union, the state kept the cinema on a tight leash and often produced propaganda of the most heavy-handed, creatively bankrupt kind, like this clip from the 1924 science fiction film, Aelita, Queen of Mars.
But at the end of the day, states don’t create films. People do. There are always auteurs willing to subvert or work around the rules in order to create art. Hollywood, for instance, produced plenty of great films in the 40s and 50s, despite laboring under the onerous Hays Code.
Auteurs in the Soviet Union and its satellite states also had their own opinions–often going against the party line–and expressed them through film. Czech puppeteer Jiří Trnka created the short masterpiece Ruka (The Hand), an anti-statist work with the unusual distinction of being banned in both the USSR and America.
But there’s an even simpler reason why the Soviet Union could indeed produce great movies: Even in the most oppressive atmosphere, not every independently conceptualized, creative idea will fall outside the acceptable. Working within the rules doesn’t mean being defined by them. Thus there are films from the Soviet Union that are neither pro-Soviet propaganda nor controversial enough to run afoul of the censors, not because they are mealy-mouthed and meaningless but because they explore simple, universal ideas, ideas found in art across all cultures.
I leave you with a beautiful example: Yuriy Norshteyn‘s Hedgehog in the Fog.
Disney’s 75-year canon is so cohesive that sometimes it’s hard to remember that these various films were made decades apart in drastically different social environments. Both the culture as a whole and cinematic culture in particular underwent major changes during this time, which Disney films manage to reflect while still maintaining the essential DNA that marks them as part of the same family.
One of these changes was the evolution of title sequences. In Disney’s early days, when title sequences were necessary to display the film’s credits, took their inspiration from theatrical overtures. They had no animation, but were lavishly painted with still images representative of the film’s themes, accompanied by bold orchestral music. The credits of Dumbo (1941), for example, use bright colors and bold fonts to evoke circus playbills. The music is inspired by a circus organ.
There was plenty of room for variation within this formula. Bambi (1942) features only muted silhouettes of leaves, accompanied by a gentle love song that makes heavy use of strings. Long before the advent of the Disney pop star, in this era the studio’s songs took their inspiration from opera and choral music.
This style of title sequence would be used for 20 years, all the way through the last of the Golden Age films, Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Between 1959 and 1961, Disney underwent a major shakeup. Nearly bankrupted by Sleeping Beauty and being weaned off its reliance on Walt Disney himself, it was forced to slash budgets and explore new approaches in order to remain relevant and in the black. Watch how these changes are reflected in the drastically different title sequence of the studio’s next film, 101 Dalmatians (1961).
Animation appears in the credits for the first time, mostly animated text and abstract shapes. Gone are the full-color painted title cards. The art in this title sequence is far simpler, making sparing use of color. Gone, too, is the orchestral/choral soundtrack, replaced with a much looser jazz piece in keeping with the visuals. This sequence is also half again as long as those of earlier films.
None of this is a slight: This may be Disney’s finest title sequence. Notice the careful composition of each shot and the creative use of dalmatian spots as design elements. The music punctuates each beat of the animation. Every part of the sequence underscores what role is being listed: Typewritten text for the writers, character animation tests for the animators, and so on, moving gradually from pure abstraction into more and more realistic scenes before transitioning smoothly into the film itself.
Simplified character animation from the film would remain the most common title sequence style for the next 20 years, but there were many exceptions. The Sword in the Stone (1963), for instance, is a throwback to Golden Age credits, while The Jungle Book (1967) pans across jungle scenes, using rich, liquid colors and prominent use of shadow to set a scene that’s mysterious and a little threatening. The use of the depth-of-field camera marks this as animated, rather than still, footage.
The artistry of 101 Dalmatians did not endure. As the studio’s decline continued, title sequences were an obvious place to skimp. The opening credits of The Aristocats (1970), for instance, use nothing but animated linework recycled from the film.
The Rescuers (1977) is another throwback title sequence that uses painted stills and an orchestral soundtrack. It is distinguishable from a Golden Age sequence only by its use of zooms and pans. However, it’s unique in another way: It’s the first Disney film ever to feature an animated scene before the title sequence. Before this, the film’s actual content always began after the opening credits.
Another major change in cinema took place around this time: The universal use of closing credits. Before the 1970s, most films did not use closing credits, making the title sequence essential. But with the advent of closing credits, title sequences became optional. The only information that needed to be conveyed at the beginning of the film was the title itself.
Animated prologues became common and quickly eclipsed title sequences in importance. A new type of title sequence emerged in response: The fully-animated sequence. These scenes use the same style as the rest of the film; they differ only in containing minimal activity and no dialogue. For the first time, the title sequence contained content that was part of the story, as in The Fox and the Hound (1981).
This was the death knell of Disney title sequences as an art form. Instead of thematically setting the scene, title sequences now had to literally set the scene, and there was very little room for creativity and innovation. However, it’s possible to have an artistic fully-animated title sequence, as demonstrated in The Rescuers Down Under (1990). This short, intense sequence is not part of the story, but instead sets the tone through its music and use of shape, space, and motion.
Fully-animated title sequences continued to appear for the next decade or so, but during the Disney Renaissance, films began to ditch opening credits altogether. Mulan (1998) has a gorgeous animated ink wash title sequence where what initially appears to be an M turns out to be a picture of a mountain, but it’s a scant 40 seconds long.
Title sequences had all but vanished by the 2000s. The last example I can find is Lilo and Stitch (2002), a film which returned to many classic techniques that Disney had otherwise abandoned. This well-executed sequence combines both story content and thematic shots of fish, dolphins, and waves.
The age of the title sequence is over. But in the past decade, a new form of credit sequence has emerged: The closing credit sequence. This sequence appears before the actual credit roll and lists all the people who would have been mentioned in the opening credits. Since it’s necessary to visually distinguish this sequence from the credit roll — and to keep the interest of an audience that’s ready to leave — these scenes have become fertile ground for artistic experimentation. Elements from all the previous eras’ title sequences can be found in Disney’s modern closing credits, plus modern innovations.
The closing credit sequence from Bolt (2008) is typical. The simple cel animation contrasts with the CG of the film, yet fits thematically. It features content involving the main characters, but it’s not part of the story; rather it’s supplemental material that enhances a story that’s still complete without it.
It’s fun to see credits once again being used creatively. Will closing credits stick around? Will title sequences make a comeback? I don’t know, but whatever happens, we will have Disney films to chronicle the journey.
[Trigger warning for discussion of rape and sexual violence. Spoiler warning for Garth Ennis’ Battlefields Vol. 1.]
One key decision I made while writing Among the Red Stars was the choice not to have any of the characters experience sexual violence. Some people may be puzzled by this choice; after all, isn’t rape a common war crime committed against enemy women in many armed conflicts, and weren’t the Night Witches, in combat against the Nazis, particularly vulnerable?
I’m not a historian and I won’t deny that many atrocities took place on the Eastern Front, but the women of Aviation Group 122 make virtually no references to sexual violence. (If you need a brief explanation of who these women were, go here.) One of the only mentions comes from Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, who wasn’t a Night Witch but the commander of a mixed-gender attack squadron:
I don’t know if I lost consciousness, but when I opened my eyes there was a fascist standing over me with his boot on my chest. I was seriously injured: I had a broken spine, head injuries, broken arms, and a broken leg. I was burned on my knees, legs, and feet, and the skin was torn on my neck. I remember the face of the fascist; I was very afraid that I would be tortured or raped. (Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death 224)
Timofeyeva-Yegorova only mentions the fear of being raped, which implies that it didn’t actually happen to her. It’s possible that the women simply chose not to mention the sexual violence that took place, although, as the above quote shows, they didn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of physical violence and injury. But rape clearly wasn’t a ubiquitous part of the Night Witch experience. Most of them never even met enemy combatants face to face.
But it isn’t purely a question of historicity. Thematically, how does the inclusion of a rape scene affect this kind of story? What message does it send?
One of the few English-language fictional representations of the Night Witches is Garth Ennis’ graphic novel Battlefields: The Night Witches. Despite its gorgeous illustrations and solid writing, I found myself not liking it. Partly this was because I’ve read so much about the topic that I’m now impossible to please, but another major reason was the prominent role of rape in the storyline. One Night Witch gets gang-raped and murdered by the Nazis, two more shoot themselves to escape the same fate, and a fourth is rescued by another Wehrmacht soldier, all in one short volume that only manages to give two airwomen names.
Rape, a gendered threat, thus replaces death as the primary danger these women face (only one airwoman is actually killed in combat). This framing emphasizes women’s unique weakness. Sexual violence, of course, can and does happen to men during wartime as well, but neither Battlefields nor war fiction in general acknowledges this. Thus, the focus subtlely shifts off of women as strong and heroic and onto women as weak and vulnerable. These women aren’t defying death, they’re avoiding rape. The reader’s implicit reaction isn’t “Those total badasses,” it’s “Those poor things.”
We do need stories that tackle real-world problems like rape. But we also need stories where women are allowed to be brave and tough and adventurous without the specter of gender-specific violence constantly hanging over them. Among the Red Stars is about real-life heroes and I intend to portray them as exactly that: Not victims, not “poor things,” but heroes.
PO-2 illustration by me. Photo of Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova found here.
Today I’m going to discuss a real writing problem I’ve run into for which I have no solution.
Filler is bad. This I trust to be a universally recognized fact. What exactly constitutes filler is up for debate; it’s easy enough to define it as “anything that isn’t content,” but that just shifts the question to what exactly constitutes content. The old chestnut that content advances the plot or builds character strikes me as too limited. Vivid descriptions neither advance the plot nor build character, yet they are essential; strengthening the themes of the story (say, through a parallel side plot) is another kind of content. But we all know filler when we see it: Those dull passages where people you don’t care about do things you don’t care about.
Common wisdom states that filler should always be removed; a good story is composed entirely of content. I believe common wisdom is right, but there’s an equal and opposite problem: If every scene in a novel is important, it can start to feel like too much. The reader might be overwhelmed and unable to keep track of the plot if zie is constantly faced with one thing after another without any downtime, and the whole thing may feel too rushed. But how can you slow it down without adding filler?
Most of the possible solutions are not really solutions at all.
- Add subplots: If the problem is that the main plot advances too fast and if the overall story isn’t too long, a subplot can be a great breather. Make it something lighter in tone than the rest of the story and without high stakes or too much complexity. But if your novel is already on the long side — or if an excess of complex subplots is the problem — then that’s not a good answer.
- Remove subplots: The inverse solution. This is a good idea if your novel is too long and too full of convoluted plot threads for anyone to keep track of, and most of the time it falls under the “no filler” rule as you prune subplots that don’t actually contribute to the overall narrative. But what if the story is neither too long nor too short? What if all the material that’s in there is good, but it simply happens too fast?
- Rearrange scenes: If there are particular important scenes that are getting lost, taking a close look at your organization may help. Space out those important scenes, especially side plot scenes that may not obviously tie in with the main story, in between slower-paced, less important scenes. But reorganizing is no help if many scenes are getting lost or if there are no less important scenes to juxtapose them with.
- Add description: I feel the need to mention this one for completeness. Sometimes a novel may be paced too fast because it’s too terse. Descriptions serve an important pacing purpose by preventing the plot from reading like an outline, and they also work as a moment of downtime because they rarely contain essential information. But there’s a limit to how much description you can include without sounding like Bulwer-Lytton. So, again, this only helps if your story was too short and description-light to begin with.
Do you have any other suggestions for how to slow the pacing of a novel without adding filler?
Critics are used to being able to state nearly any media-related opinion with some degree of immunity, but there is one pitfall that they fall into with surprising regularity: Making an a priori declaration about the inferiority of one form of media or another and then attempting to justify it with a posteriori arguments. This is always going to be a mistake. Ebert fell into this trap with his curmudgeonly announcement that video games could never be art, for which he had to apologize. Other critics ought to learn from his mistake, yet they don’t.
The latest curmudgeon is Ruth Graham in this Slate article denouncing adults who read young-adult literature. Her thesis, such as it is, is that all YA books are perfectly good for children and teenagers, but that they lack the complexity to be proper literary fare for adults.
Before I dig in, I’d like to mention that I’m not myself a fan of the young-adult genre. My personal predilections skew towards tome-length classics with bigger casts and more subplots than you usually find in YA, and I don’t relate to most teenaged protagonists. While there are plenty of YA books that I’d classify as “good books,” I’d hesitate to argue that there are any that qualify as “great literature,” and I have a low opinion of many books that get trotted out as examples of high-quality literature for young people, like Harry Potter. Thus, I’m not criticizing Graham because I’m defensive about books I love. I’m criticizing her because she’s wrong.
It’s difficult to know where to begin. Like most people inclined to write off large categories of things out of hand, she doesn’t seem particularly familiar with what she criticizes–she classifies The Westing Game and Tuck Everlasting as YA books from her youth, when in fact they are both middle-grade novels for younger children–and it’s tempting to dismiss her criticisms as being simply misinformed. But the real problems with her view run deeper.
There’s the aforementioned a priori versus a posteriori problem. Graham, to her credit, acknowledges that it’s unfair to judge the entire YA genre based on trash like Twilight (although she fails to acknowledge that most adult fiction is also trash; the closest she comes is a sidelong jab at the inferiority of genre fiction), but she nevertheless feels confident making dismissive generalizations about YA: That adults only read it for “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia;” that it “present[s] the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way;” that “the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence.”
The problem with her reasoning is obvious: She has stated unequivocally that all YA literature is unfit for adult consumption, but then she has supported her position with a number of concrete traits that she claims all YA shares, thereby tacitly admitting that if even one YA book did criticize the teenage perspective or present an ambiguous ending, it would be worthy of adult readers and her whole position would be negated. And, of course, there are YA books that fulfill her criteria. I’d love to see her twist herself into a pretzel trying to explain how Code Name Verity, the entire first act of which consists of a girl being tortured by Nazis, is escapism and instant gratification.
Conversely, as Neil Gaiman pointed out in a deleted tweet, the classics that she presents as examples of acceptable adult fare are guilty of the very sins that she reviles. Charles Dickens, for instance, made likable protagonists, morally unambiguous situations, and tidy endings his stock and trade (and works like A Christmas Carol, written for children, ought to be off-limits by Graham’s standards anyway).
An even larger problem is her silly either/or framing of the issue, which makes the morally correct act not reading the wrong books, rather than reading the right books. Either position is nonsense, of course, but at least putting a moral value on reading the “right” books is, at the end of the day, encouraging people to read, whereas Graham puts the moral value on avoiding the “wrong” books and is therefore fundamentally discouraging people from reading. Reading a wide variety of books is apparently not an option to her; immediately after acknowledging that “[t]here’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader,” she turns around and contradicts herself by saying that people who read YA “are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature.” This focus on the purported mediocrity of YA perversely places the wide-ranging reader of all genres on a lower moral level than someone who avoids reading the offending books by simply not reading at all.
Finally, Graham may claim that she disapproves of YA based on the experience it gives to the reader, but her essay betrays another motivation: Appearances. She doesn’t like YA because it’s for kids and she wouldn’t want to be caught reading something for kids. It’s right there in the subtitle: “You should feel embarrassed.” The social pressures of reading play heavily into her reasoning. “I know, I know: Live and let read,” she grumbles, like an oenophile who honestly resents that he can’t prevent the diner at the next table from ordering a sauvignon blanc with his steak. Her concern about appearances explains why reading both adult and YA literature is not an acceptable solution: It’s not that reading YA prevents you from appreciating the complexities of adult literature, but that reading YA may give the appearance of not appreciating the complexities of adult literature. Read whatever you like, but if it isn’t great literature, have the decency to be ashamed of it.
Bullshit. If you’ve judged something to be worth reading, embrace it. You should never be ashamed of your own likes and dislikes. An adult would know that.
This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.
One of the benefits of the rise of YA literature has been an expansion of literature for girls and the sorts of topics they can cover. With hits like The Hunger Games, YA girls’ literature has moved away from being dominated by books about romance and relationships and into genres like sci-fi and action/adventure, incorporating a wider variety of female protagonists in the process.
However, there hasn’t been a corresponding expansion of literature for and about minorities. The face of YA literature is still distinctly white. There are few YA books featuring nonwhite protagonists, and those are usually books about racial issues, such as Malorie Blackman’s excellent Noughts & Crosses. Minorities in YA literature rarely get a chance to have other goals and conflicts outside of race issues. But one good counterexample is Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith.
Flygirl tells the story of Ida Mae, a Southern black girl who passes as white so that she can join the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II. Race and gender politics both play important roles, but always in support of the main narrative of Ida Mae’s journey to become a WASP. The different issues are skillfully balanced; gender isn’t used as a metaphor for race or vice versa, but both parallel and highlight each other.
Early in the story, Ida Mae applies to get her pilot’s license with an instructor who she knows will pass black pilots, only to be denied because of her gender:
Mr. Anderson looked at me and said, “You can fly, no doubt about it. But no woman’s gonna get a license out of me. Go home, Miss Jones. You’ve failed.” (Flygirl 4)
Later, when the war breaks out and she wants to join the WASP program, she finds herself in the opposite situation:
In fact, it’s like Uncle Sam runs two armies at once—one all white and the other colored. Grandy says that’s the way it’s always been. They’ve finally decided to let women fly military planes. I don’t know why I thought that meant colored women, too…
“[I]t’s like when I tried to get my license. If you’re colored, you get the short end of the stick. If you’re a woman, you get the short end of the stick. So what do we get for being colored and women?”
Jolene sighs. “Beat hard with both ends of a short stick.” (Flygirl 32-33)
When Ida Mae pretends to be white in order to enroll in the WASP training program, she is surrounded by other women who share her passion for flying, and as she makes new friends and works through her training, she begins to form a new identity as a white woman. When her mother comes to the base to report that her brother is missing in action, Ida Mae is forced to pretend she’s her maid:
I will go to hell for this, I think. I should go to hell. My mother’s face looks back at me in the dark, my own mother who let me treat her like a servant just so she could talk to me. When the first tear rolls down my face, I can’t tell if it’s for Thomas or for pure shame. (Flygirl 166)
But sooner or later, she will have to decide who she really is. Is she willing to be a pilot if it means denying her race and even cutting off contact with her family? Or should she embrace her racial identity at the cost of being a WASP? And where does her gender fit into all this, in an army that’s hostile to women in almost any role?
Flygirl is a great example of a book with a nonwhite female protagonist that nonetheless isn’t “about” race or gender. It deals with both topics as they relate to the greater story, addressing them straightforwardly without being preachy or didactic and without attempting to offer easy answers to the complex, thorny problems of race and gender in mid-20th century America. On top of it all, it’s a great read with an engrossing story and memorable characters. You should definitely check it out.
This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.
One of the areas in which the male-dominated nature of the media often shows through with dazzling clarity is in the gender representation of alien species. All too often, artists and designers will come up with a creative, complex, fascinating design for the species, but then hit a brick wall when trying to make it female. For instance, the art director of Mass Effect 3 said:
We usually try to avoid the females because what do you do with a female Turian? Do you give her breasts? What do you do? Do you put lipstick on her? There’s actually some of the concept artists will draw lipstick on the male one and they’ll say “Hey, it’s done” and we’ll go “No, can you take this serious?”
He deserves mild credit for recognizing that putting lipstick on a male creature is not, in fact, actual design, but instead he’s gone the route of leaving female aliens out altogether (In fairness, female Turians were eventually introduced, and it was awesome). He is still suffering from that mental block: A complete inability to imagine how gender could be depicted separate from our cultural signifiers.
Now let’s rewind about a century and turn to about the last person you’d expect to demonstrate progressive gender representation: Pulp adventure writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. Best known as the creator of Tarzan, Burroughs also wrote the John Carter of Mars series, which can be summed up as “man goes to Mars, has adventures.” The first alien species that John Carter encounters in the 1917 book A Princess of Mars are the Tharks, or green Martians. These are not the little green men that would be popularized later, but something far more unusual:
They seemed mostly head, with little scrawny bodies, long necks and six legs, or, as I afterward learned, two legs and two arms, with an intermediary pair of limbs which could be used at will either as arms or legs. Their eyes were set at the extreme sides of their heads a trifle above the center and protruded in such a manner that they could be directed either forward or back and also independently of each other, thus permitting this queer animal to look in any direction, or in two directions at once, without the necessity of turning the head.
The ears, which were slightly above the eyes and closer together, were small, cup-shaped antennae, protruding not more than an inch on these young specimens. Their noses were but longitudinal slits in the center of their faces, midway between their mouths and ears.
There was no hair on their bodies, which were of a very light yellowish-green color. In the adults, as I was to learn quite soon, this color deepens to an olive green and is darker in the male than in the female. Further, the heads of the adults are not so out of proportion to their bodies as in the case of the young.
The iris of the eyes is blood red, as in Albinos, while the pupil is dark. The eyeball itself is very white, as are the teeth. These latter add a most ferocious appearance to an otherwise fearsome and terrible countenance, as the lower tusks curve upward to sharp points which end about where the eyes of earthly human beings are located. The whiteness of the teeth is not that of ivory, but of the snowiest and most gleaming of china. Against the dark background of their olive skins their tusks stand out in a most striking manner, making these weapons present a singularly formidable appearance.
These aliens, then, are exactly the sort of thing that puzzled the Mass Effect art director. In some ways they resemble insects, in some ways reptiles or amphibians, in no way humans. Obviously it wouldn’t make sense to give female Tharks breasts, since they aren’t mammals, and because they don’t wear clothes or have hair, options for tertiary characteristics (dress, makeup, hairstyle, etc) are limited. You might well expect Burroughs to take the easy route and simply make all the green Tharks male. But he doesn’t. Here’s how the female Tharks are described:
The women varied in appearance but little from the men, except that their tusks were much larger in proportion to their height, in some instances curving nearly to their high-set ears. Their bodies were smaller and lighter in color, and their fingers and toes bore the rudiments of nails, which were entirely lacking among the males. The adult females ranged in height from ten to twelve feet [males are about fifteen feet tall].
Female Tharks vary from the males, but (aside from size) the differences between male and female Tharks are not at all like the differences between male and female humans.
It’s important to note that Burroughs did not design the Tharks out of some egalitarian ideal. He was about as diametrically opposed to feminism as it’s possible to be. The Tharks are portrayed as a brutal, savage species, while the more civilized human Martians fall into very rigid, traditional gender roles, and his stories are filled with the typical rugged heroes and fainting damsels. For instance, in Warlord of Mars, when Carter and his wife are beset by attackers, his wife’s contribution to the fight is to hide behind him and sing to raise his spirits while he defends her.
Burroughs must have simply observed that mammals, reptiles, insects, and so on all have their own types of gender differences and concluded that his distinctly non-human aliens ought to have distinctly non-human gender features.
If he could do it in 1917, today’s designers have no excuse.
Today I’m going to return to the old writing principle of showing, not telling. I’ve previously expressed skepticism about the necessity of always showing. Telling can and does play an important role, allowing the author to describe events that took place over a long period of time or that are of minimal importance without taking the focus off the central story. However, when you’re writing a scene that takes place all at once and that’s dramatic, visually interesting, or important to the main story, showing is the better option. It lends a vividness and immediacy to the scene that telling would dampen.
I recently made use of this principle in my new novel. Early in the story, the heroes arrive at Moscow during the panic of October 1941. Valya recounts the scene in a letter. Here is the first version of the scene she describes:
I could see Iskra pale and her eyes widen when she saw what had become of her beautiful hometown. We could hardly go a block without passing a cordoned-off factory or apartment building reduced to rubble by the bombings. Other city blocks were intact but eerily abandoned, their inhabitants fled or herded into empty apartments in other buildings to save on heating costs. Bulbous barrage balloons rested in every park and open space, even Red Square, giving the strange impression of a city filled with beached whales. The main streets are crisscrossed with sandbag barricades and tank stoppers and everywhere is choked with traffic. We were constantly weaving our way through cars, wagons, people on foot, and even herds of livestock, all fighting to get out of the city.
There’s no organization, no plan. People are smashing windows and looting shops and the soldiers and police stand by and do nothing. And really, what could they do? Millions of people swarming the streets with no money and hardly any supplies. The industrial workers are a hair trigger away from a full-blown riot anyway: They were promised a month’s pay to keep them going during the evacuation and most of them didn’t get it. Some shopkeepers are throwing their doors open and letting people take what they like. They figure the Nazis will have it all in a few days anyway.
This paragraph is 100% telling: Valya doesn’t mention any specific blocks, streets, or open spaces; those are just general things she saw. As a result, despite the dramatic things that are happening, it’s difficult to care very much about Moscow or its inhabitants. It’s a serviceable way to set the location, but it doesn’t add much to the story.
When I wanted to add some additional details, I seized the opportunity to rewrite this scene and incorporate more showing. Here is the result, omitting the paragraphs of additional detail that I added.
We stood at the corner waiting for a bus, but a passerby pulling a hand cart shook her head and told us, “You’ll be waiting there until you’re as old as me. The buses aren’t running.” So we walked, weaving our way through cars, wagons, people on foot, and even herds of livestock, all fighting to get out of the city…
We wound our way through streets that have become a maze of tank traps and checkpoints. Even Iskra’s reliable sense of direction was at a loss here. We had to stop and ask for directions from a sturdy woman in a headscarf who was helping to construct a wall of sandbags. Despite the throng in the streets, the apartments buildings in this part of town were eerily dark and empty, no light shining from windows blown out by air raids. Notices posted on the chained front gates announced “ATTENTION: THIS BUILDING HAS BEEN CONSERVED TO SAVE ENERGY.” We picked our way around the pale, bulbous form of a grounded barrage balloon. They occupy every park and open space, even Red Square, giving the strange impression of a city filled with beached whales.
Iskra stopped in front of a cordoned-off block of apartments that had been reduced to concrete rubble in a bombing. She turned pale and her eyes widened. She said, “This was where we lived.”
I fumbled for something to say, but all I could come up with was, “At least it was empty. So no one got hurt.”
“Yeah,” she said vaguely. “It’s not as if I had a home here to come back to anyway.”
As we neared the city center, the chaos grew. A mob had formed outside one factory. Workers were hitting the chained steel gates with sledgehammers and trying to scale the walls. The panicky factory director stood a safe distance away inside the gates, unsuccessfully trying to calm the crowd down. A burly man armed with a crowbar demanded, “You promised us a month’s pay to keep us going during the evacuation!”
“The banks don’t have any money,” the director protested weakly, and ducked as someone threw a rock through the gate. Across the street, a couple of militiamen stood by and did nothing. And really, what could they do? Millions of people swarming the streets with no money and hardly any supplies. Some shopkeepers are throwing their doors open and letting people take what they like. They figure the Nazis will have it all in a few days anyway.
There’s still some telling and even some of the same sentences, but we’re moving away from generic situations. They now stand in front of a specific bombed building and see a specific angry mob of workers. Notice that we don’t necessarily need more detailed descriptions of the objects in question (although it never hurts): Just mentioning that it’s an individual thing makes us feel closer and more connected to the action. The only part that remains completely unaltered from the original is the bit at the end about the shopkeepers; I could have expanded on it, but by this point I feel I have enough anecdotes.
There are times when you just want to get from the airport to the university and you don’t care what lies in between. For those times, telling is fine; there’s no need to drag us through a detailed description of something that doesn’t matter. But in situations like this, the journey is just as important — or at least as interesting — as the destination, and showing us what’s going on makes the story come to life.