Information Theory and Writing


I was thinking about what we mean by “wordiness.” We don’t mean having “too many” words. Then we would just say “long.” We mean having words that don’t do much.

High-entropy writing

In 1948, Claude Shannon published “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” an essay (or very short book) that’s surprisingly quick and easy to read for something with such profound mathematical content. It’s one of the three cornerstones of science, along with Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia. It provided equations to measure how much information words convey. Let me repeat that, shouting this time, because the implications surely didn’t sink in the first time: It provided EQUATIONS to measure HOW MUCH INFORMATION WORDS CONVEY.

These measurements turn out to be isomorphic (that’s a big word, but it has a precise meaning that is precisely what I mean) to the concept of thermodynamic entropy. The exact method Shannon used to measure information per letter in English is crude, but it’s probably usually within 20% of the correct answer. The important point is that, for a given text and a given reader, there is a correct answer.

The implications of being able to measure information are hard to take in without thinking about it for a few decades [1]. For writers, one implication is that the question “Is this story wordy?” has an answer. I could write a simple program that would analyze a story and say how wordy it was.

The caveat is simple, subtle, and enormous: A given text conveys a well-defined amount of information to a given reader, assuming infinite computational resources [2]. Without infinite computational resources, it depends on the algorithms you use to predict what’s coming next, and there are probably an infinite number of possible algorithms. I could easily compute the information content of a story by predicting the next word of each sentence based on the previous two words. This would warn a writer if their style were cliched or vague. But it would miss all the information provided by genre expectations, our understanding of story structure and theme, psychology, and many other things critical in a story.

But you can be aware of the information content of your story without writing that program or understanding how to measure entropy. One simple way is to be aware of the information content of the words you use. Writers say to use precise words and avoid vague ones. Maybe better advice is, use high-entropy words. A high-entropy word is one that can’t be easily predicted from what came before it. The word “fiddle” is usually unexpected, but is expected if you just said “fit as a”.

High-entropy writing can simply mean putting things together that don’t usually go together:

The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.

— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

An AMERICAN wearing a jungle hat with a large Peace Sign on it, wearing war paint, bends TOWARD US, reaching down TOWARD US with a large knife, preparing to scalp the dead.

— From a 1975 draft of the screenplay for Apocalypse Now by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola

When you use a word that’s true and unexpected, it’s poetry. When you tell a story that’s true and unexpected, it’s literature [3]. So aim for the unexpected plot and the unexpected word.

Meaning-dense writing

This is taken a bit too far in modernist poetry, which has very high entropy:

               dead every enourmous [sic] piece

of nonsense which itself must call

a state submicroscopic is-

compared with pitying terrible

some alive individual

— E.E. Cummings, dead every enourmous piece

The problem with measuring information content is that you would produce the most-unpredictable sequence of words by choosing words at random. Meaningless text has maximum information density.

What you want to measure is true, or, better, meaningful, information [4]. Writers often use words and tell stories that are technically low-entropy (the words aren’t unexpected). But whenever they do, if it’s done well, it’s because they convey a lot of extra, meaningful information that isn’t measured by entropy.

To convey a mood or a metaphor, you choose a host of words (and maybe even punctuation) associated with that mood. That makes that cluster of words appear to be low-entropy: They all go together, and seeing one makes you expect the others.

The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel.

— William Gibson, Neuromancer

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.

— William Shakespeare, As You Like It

In a metaphor or a mood, the words convey more information than you see at first glance. That someone would compare the sky to a television channel, and that the world’s channel is dead, tell you a lot about Gibson’s world. That men and women are “merely players” conveys a philosophy. An extended metaphor doesn’t just tell you the information in its sentences. It points out which parts of the two things being compared are like each other, in a way that lets you figure out the different similarities from just a few words. That is extra meaning that isn’t measured by entropy (but would be by Kolmogorov complexity). It may be low-entropy, but it’s meaning-dense.

Rhyme greatly decreases the entropy of the rhyming words. Knowing that you need to say something about a frog that rhymes with frog reduces the number of possible final words for this poem to a handful. Yet it’s still surprising—not which word Dickinson picked, but all the things it meant when she suddenly compared public society to a …

How dreary—to be—Somebody!

How public—like a Frog—

To tell one’s name—the livelong June—

To an admiring Bog!

— Emily Dickinson, I’m Nobody! Who are You?

Sometimes you use repetition to connect parts of a story:

        ‘Twas the day before Christmas, and a nameless horror had taken residence in John’s chimney. Again.

        ‘Twas the day before Christmas, and a nameless horror had taken residence in Jack’s chimney.

… or to focus the reader’s attention on the theme:

                    “It’s just that I’ve plans for Christmas and—”

… “Don’t you worry about me. I’ve plans for this Christmas.”

… “Indeed, Your Excellency. I’ve plans for Christmas.”

… “Yes. I am. Now go. I’ll keep. Don’t you worry. I’ve plans for Christmas.”

… He had plans this Christmas.

… or to make a contrast:

              Smash down the cities.

Knock the walls to pieces.

Break the factories and cathedrals, warehouses and homes

Into loose piles of stone and lumber and black burnt wood:

You are the soldiers and we command you.

Build up the cities.

Set up the walls again.

Put together once more the factories and cathedrals, warehouses and homes

Into buildings for life and labor:

You are workmen and citizens all: We command you.

— Carl Sandburg, And They Obey

That’s okay. The repetition is deliberate and is itself telling you something more than the sum of what the repeated parts would say by themselves.

Predictable words are no better than vague words

Some words have lots of meaning, yet convey little information because we’re always expecting someone to say them.

What words do I mean? I refer you to (Samsonovic & Ascoli 2010). These gentlemen used energy-minimization (one use of thermodynamics and information theory) to find the first three principal dimensions of human language. They threw words into a ten-dimensional space, then pushed them around in a way that put similar words close together [5]. Then they contrasted the words at the different ends of each dimension, to figure out what each dimension meant.

They found, in English, French, German, and Spanish, that the first three dimensions are valence (good/bad), arousal (calm/excited), and freedom (open/closed). That means there are a whole lot of words with connotations along those dimensions, and owing to their commonality, they seldom surprise us. Read an emotional, badly-written text—a bad romance novel or a political tract will do—and you’ll find a lot of words that mostly tell you that something is good or bad, exciting or boring, and freeing or constrictive. Words like “wonderful”, “exciting”, “loving”, “courageous”, “care-free”, or “boring”. Read a badly-written polemical or philosophy paper, and you’ll find related words: “commendable”, “insipid”, “bourgeois”, “unforgivable”, “ineffable”. These are words that express judgements. Your story might lead a reader toward a particular judgement, but stating it outright is as irritating and self-defeating as laughing at your own jokes.

Our most-sacred words, like “justice”, “love”, “freedom”, “good”, “evil”, and “sacred”, are these types of words. They are reifications of concepts that we’ve formed from thousands of more-specific cases. But by themselves, they mean little. They’re only appropriate when they’re inappropriate: People use the words “just” or “evil” when they can’t provide a specific example of how something is just or evil.

Avoid these words. Don’t describe a character as an “evil sorceress”; show her doing something evil. Sometimes they’re the right words. Most of the time, they’re a sign that you’re thinking abstractly rather than concretely. More on this in a later post.

It’s meaningful for characters to be vague!

The flip side is, have your characters use these words to highlight their faulty thinking! A character may refer to someone as an evil sorceress to show that they are jumping to conclusions. A character might calls things “boring” to show that she’s just expressing her prejudices and isn’t open to some kinds of things.

[1] 70 years later bioinformatics is crippled because biologists still won’t read that book and don’t understand that when you want to compare different methods for inferring information about a protein, there is EXACTLY ONE CORRECT WAY to do it. Which no one ever uses. Same for linguistics. Most experts don’t want to develop the understanding of their field to the point where it can be automated. They get upset and defensive if you tell them that some of their questions have a single mathematically-precise answer. They would rather be high priests, with their expertise more art and poetry than science, free to indulge their whimsies without being held accountable to reality by meddling mathematicians.
[2] And assuming some more abstruse philosophical claims, such as that Quine’s thesis of ontological relativism is false. Which this seems to coincidentally prove false.
[3] When you tell a story that’s false and expected, it’s profitable.
[4] The best way I know to define how much meaning a string of text has is to use Kolmogorov complexity. The Kolmogorov complexity of a text is the number of bits of information needed to specify a computer program that would produce that text as output. But this still fails completely to penalize random strings for being random. A specific random sequence still has Kolmogorov complexity equal to its length if you need to re-produce it. But you don’t need to reproduce it. There’s nothing special about it. The amount of meaning in a text is the amount of information (suitably compressed) that is required to produce that text, or one sufficiently like it for your purposes. For any purpose you can have for a random text, there are a vast number of other random texts that will serve just as well; the length of a computer program to produce a suitably random text is short.
[5] People usually do this by putting words close to each other that are often used in the same context (the same surrounding words), so that “pleasant” and “enjoy” are close together, as are “car” and “truck”. This work instead took antonyms and synonyms from a thesaurus, and pushed synonyms towards each other and pulled antonyms apart from each other.

Alexei V. Samsonovic & Giorgio A. Ascoli (2010). Principal Semantic Components of Language and the Measurement of Meaning. PLoS One 5(6):e10921, June 2010.

Lead Your Readers


I see dances as metaphors that societies create for romance. In most dances older than me, the man “leads”, and the woman “follows”. The degree to which the man really leads can vary from a circle-sweeping Viennese Waltz, in which everyone knows more-or-less when to step where and the man’s “leading” is a mutually-agreeable fiction, to salsa or swing, where the woman may find herself spun in a circle or turned upside down with less than a second’s notice.

But whatever the dance, the man doesn’t drag the woman around the floor. He senses where they both are already going, and adds a flourish or twist. His movements should be congruent enough with what they’re both doing to be anticipated, but not so predictable as to be expected, for the same reason a woman might anticipate a present from her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, but doesn’t want to tell him what to get her.[1]

(In club dancing, by contrast, there’s no leading, no following, no synchrony of movement, no interaction other than eye contact sometimes followed by grinding bodies together. Make of that what you will.[2])

Let’s see how far we can take dance, and leading in particular, as a metaphor for writing.

Leading in writing isn’t just foreshadowing. It’s leading the reader through the mutual creation of a story. If your character’s throwing a pot away symbolizes a rejection of love, you’ve got to draw the reader’s attention to it. Just tossing it out there is like trying to spin a woman without lifting your arm beforehand. (The arm lift says, “Get ready to spin.”) But having a character look at the broken pot and think it was “broken, like my heart”, is like yanking the woman’s arm to make sure she makes the turn. It gets you both through it, but it’s more work and it isn’t much fun for either person. Following has to be challenging, or it isn’t really dancing. A proper dance, like a proper story, is the work of two, not one.

To lead well, you must learn how to follow. Dancing the woman’s part teaches you which parts of the man’s movements are the leads, how obvious they need to be, and how irritating they are when overdone. It’s easy to know when you’ve missed a dance lead, because you stumble and run into people. But you can’t tell when you’ve missed an author’s lead; you just think the author is being stupid. So you need to pre-read for other authors and ask them to tell you what you missed.

Dancing the woman’s part also teaches you that the key to leading is not doing anything that feels like leading when you’re not trying to lead. That’s the TL;DR of this post. When I fail to follow some clue the author planted, it’s not usually because the author planted that clue poorly. It’s usually because I’m stupid. But when it’s not because I’m stupid, it’s because the author wrote many other beautiful things that looked like clues, like a dancer who keeps tugging at the woman’s arms even in the middle of a step.

Things look like clues if they’re vivid, unexpected, or repeated; if they stand out stylistically; if they get a lot of words. When William Gibson wrote, “The sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel,” it wasn’t just to say that the sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel. Writing “The sky was grey” in such a long and unexpected way was like highlighting it in yellow and writing “Symbolism!” in the margin.

Have you ever bought a used book from the college bookstore and found it had every sentence on some pages highlighted? Don’t do that. Seriously. It makes photocopies and scans hard to read. Also, don’t highlight everything in your story with a vivid or startling description. If you have a loving description of how the tramp handles his cigar, but it’s just a cigar, you may want to dial it back a bit if you don’t want to foreshadow a certain narrative turn. After the reader’s wasted enough time puzzling over red herrings, she’ll assume everything that stands out is just another meaningless yank on her arms. [3]

The better you get at dancing, the fewer people you can dance your best with.[4] The most exciting dance moves require a great lead and a great follower. There are writers, like James Joyce or E. E. Cummings, who seem to me to have been very good, and then to have become unreadable. Whether that’s because they were corrupted by too much praise, or because they went beyond my ability to dance with them in their own specialized style, is probably unknowable, if it’s even the sort of question that has an answer.

[Summary: Think of each line of your story as being like a movement made by a man leading a woman in a dance. The lead must be congruent to what has come before, yet not predictable. It must be strong enough to be followed, yet not obvious. And you must eliminate extraneous movements that could be mistaken for leads.]

1. I’m unsure if that alone requires a “sexist” tag.
2. I count it as a victory for the men.
3. No one has challenged me on this yet. This might be bad advice. From what I know of paperback romance novels, they take a different approach: Describe everything vividly all the time, and compensate for this by laying everything out explicitly for the reader.
4. I speak from observation, not from experience.

(NOTE: If you found this post sexist, please let me know in the comments. I knew footnote 2 implies men are… unromantic, but I thought it was funny enough to keep.)

Build-ups and Resolutions vs Shocks and Limbo


WARNING: Contains violence.

I’ve blogged before about what makes a narrative a story, and in particular I briefly noted that it’s possible for stories to be complete in the way poems should be but not in the way stories should be. Lately I’ve been reading stories in literary journals (the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Tin House, Narrative, The Kenyon Review), and trying to figure out what they want.

What they want seems to be the same kind of non-story that I said is only complete in the way a poem is—a narrative that establishes a situation, a mood, an inconclusive ending, and (though not all journals require this) a bleak and hopeless outlook on life. I don’t like these kinds of stories, though I can see some merit to their incompleteness. More on that in a later post.

Writers for literary journals often talk about wanting a story to grab them, shock them, make them feel something, wring them out. They sounds like women explaining why they love a man who beats them. I think they like these incomplete stories because they hurt more. They bring the reader to despair and then leave her there.

Someone I know told me he once read a short story that threw him into a fearful and depressive rut for an entire day. It was like he couldn’t get out of the story. It took him to an awful place and then just ended, leaving him there.

Maybe that’s why traditional stories have conclusion and closure—so they don’t take people into an altered state and leave them there. They need something to say, “You are now exiting the story.” Maybe the usual purpose of fiction is to talk people through intense emotions in a controlled way: foreshadowing what’s going to happen, warning them when things are about to get bad, giving them something to hold on while taking them through something terrifying, then carefully, gradually setting them back down on the ground.

I vaguely remember a passage from a short science fiction story that I read in college, that went something like this:

We walked down the broad stone staircase toward the Potomac. A jogger in an orange sweatsuit sat halfway down the stairs, shading his eyes and staring dully at the water while sipping from one of those plastic water bottles with a permanently-attached straw. A few pigeons clustered around him hopefully, ignoring us as we passed.

The river was beautiful, I suppose, but the wind blew off the shore, and the water was so far below us, and so well-guarded by railings and hedges, that it was more like an ornamental backdrop to our conversation than a place. We paid more attention to the squirrels that regarded us with mixed curiosity and indignation as we walked impudently across their lawns. Unlike the tourists who passed us going the other way, the squirrels weren’t afraid to make direct eye contact. She kept trying to lure them in closer by pretending to have food in her hand. A friend had told her that she’d touched a squirrel on the Mall, and now she didn’t want to be outdone in communing with nature, even though the squirrels were so fat and slow that their claim to membership in Nature was just a technicality.

We were passing by the Kennedy Center, across the street from us, and she wanted to go up and walk around its terraces. I said we didn’t have time. She gave me one of her impish grins, and dashed towards it, and a bus smeared her across the driver side of a dirty white Honda Civic parked by the side of the road.

When I read that I stopped, shocked by the sudden violence. But the writer part of me was wondering, “Why haven’t I read anything like that before? It’s so effective.”

It’s effective at shocking the reader, but readers don’t want to be shocked, not really. Even in horror novels, writers just don’t throw the reader into horror with no warning. Yet real life does. Tolstoy was in an artillery regiment during the Crimean War, and his book War and Peace is sometimes praised for its realistic portrayal of war. What struck me most about his war scenes was how boring they were. Tolstoy somehow managed to describe bloody battles up close in a way that wasn’t exciting, just confusing and exhausting.

I haven’t been in a war, but I bet that part of why war isn’t (for most people) thrilling is that it doesn’t have a soundtrack or dramatic cinematography to tell you what to pay attention to. For a conflict to be exciting requires some certainty and dramatic structure: Will this next scene decide something? What’s my motivation? What am I trying to do? Am I, in fact, in danger? A character in a novel usually goes into a conflict with a cause worth fighting for, some specific tactical objective, and a clear threat to watch and overcome. A character in a Tolstoy war scene wanders around the battlefield in a haze of gun smoke, unsure where the battle is, how much longer it’s likely to go on, or what he should be doing. Men around him fire muskets blindly into the smoke, or work on their cannons like auto mechanics, or stand around waiting for orders, and every now and then, one of them is dashed to the ground by a cannonball or a stray musket ball.

(Throwing all wars together as “war” is an oversimplification. The thick smoke, close ranges, and bad communications of 19th-century wars, the grinding trench warfare of World War I, the blitzes of World War II, the surreal aimlessness of Vietnam, and the diplomat-soldier of Afghanistan are all different.)

I bet that one reason war can be traumatic is the suddenness and unexpectedness of violence. It can teach people that just because things are quiet right now doesn’t mean you won’t be covered in blood two seconds from now.

This isn’t what we read fiction for. We want, if anything, fiction that helps us cope better with the world. That’s why stories have build-ups and resolutions. They’re going to hit us with some strong emotions, maybe good, maybe bad. But they’re going to walk us through it slowly, so we can be ready for it, like a fencing instructor teaching a move in slow motion. And they’re going to take us out of it and close it off, so we know we’re safe again.

When have you seen a writer do something suddenly, without warning, or end a story without closure, and you thought it was the right thing for them to do?

Three Kinds of “Non-Story”


Summary: Three common errors that make narratives non-stories:

– Character does the right thing for the wrong reasons
– Character already knows the thing they “learned”
– Author passes the protagonist ball among characters for a single character arc

In 335 BCE, Aristotle kicked off literary theory by writing

Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements used separately in the various parts of the play and represented by people acting and not by narration, accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.

(Did you notice the origin of “Show, don’t tell” is in that quote?)

Today we’d say that much of what Aristotle said about tragedy and comedy was, well, wrong. But it’s more useful than a lot of later theories, because Aristotle was also something of a logician and an ontologist, and tried to define drama in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. [1]

The problem with later literary theories is that they were developed by non-logicians looking at famous literary works and trying to come up with things they all had in common. It’s like trying to define “bird” by looking at a hundred different birds, and coming up with, “X is a bird if X has wings.” You didn’t look at airplanes or bats or beetles, so you didn’t realize that having wings is necessary but not sufficient.

For instance, Aristotle says that a story’s protagonist must be virtuous, as people do not want a story about “villains making fortune from misery”. Later literary theories fail to mention this point! Every later theory I can think of would happily accept a story in which the protagonist was morally repugnant, and “grew” by “learning” a new way to exploit people. Hell, they even gave a Pulitzer to one such story, A Confederacy of Dunces. [2]

(Let’s get this clear up front: When I talk about whether something is a story, I don’t mean whether it satisfies anybody’s definition of a story. I mean whether it feels to me like a dramatic story. A Confederacy of Dunces does not feel to me like a dramatic story. But I’m not counting comedy in my definition of story. Like poems and songs, comedy is probably different enough to get its own rules.)

So it’s easy to write something that satisfies most theories about what a story is, and find when you’re done that it isn’t a story.

Here are some other common kinds of narratives that look like stories if you compare them to a “Hero’s Journey” or other checklist, but are not:

– Stories that wrap up the plot, but don’t then relate that plot resolution to larger character issues.

– Stories in which the theme is told rather than shown. Covered in “Show Us The Theme.”

– Stories in which the character does the right things for the wrong reasons. Take the scene in Return of the Jedi where (spoiler alert!) Darth Vader saves Luke from the Emperor. Suppose that what really happened is that Vader had just remembered that the Emperor was a big jerk and kept threatening to kill him, and this was a nice chance to off him and rule the galaxy. That wouldn’t be a story.

– Stories in which the character already knows the thing she’s supposed to be learning. Suppose Ebenezer Scrooge were a generous soul who loved Christmas at the start of “A Christmas Carol”. Not a story. This is okay if it’s a pure adventure story with no character growth, but it’s disastrous when the story is framed to look like a story about character growth.

– Stories which pass the protagonist ball for a single character arc. Suppose that in The Old Man and the Sea, the old man had hired a tourist to go out and catch a really big fish for him. And then suppose that the tourist tried and tried and was finally able to catch the fish because his fishing guide finally overcame his fear of shiny pointy things and attached a real fish-hook to the end of the line. One person had a problem; another tried to solve it; a third grew in a way that allowed it to be solved. Note that this is possible when you have multiple people in a group cooperating and therefore sharing “intentionality” (goals and intentions). But the tourist doesn’t know what the old man’s problem is, and never discovers that he’d been fishing without a hook all this time. The protagonist’s character arc is split across three people. No one person experiences the entire arc.

It also isn’t that cut and dry as you might be trying to match this story pattern:

– Character X has a problem.

– Character X tried but fails to solve the problem.

– Character X grows in a way that enables him/her to solve the problem.

You can fill in the blanks and say the story matches the pattern but it still might not be a story if you don’t be aware of the issues I pointed out.

The three biggest problems I’ve ever seen in indie writing (or even my own work for that matter) is:

-If the character already knows the thing they’re learning.
-Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. 
-Passing the protagonist ball.

These three problems appear as separate when we define a story in terms of a protagonist’s character arc. I think that if a story had all three of these problems it’d most likely be because they’re all manifestations of a single underlying problem: A story is (usually?) a moral lesson, and this narrative doesn’t have any moral lesson.

I don’t know if a story has to have a moral lesson, but most of the great ones have some kind of lesson.

For a better understanding of what is and is not a story, we’ll have to dig deeper than the formula of “character X grows to overcome a problem”, and probably talk about morality.


[1] Necessary and sufficient conditions are now known to be insufficient to define natural linguistic terms. This was discovered by philosophers in the 1930s, then by anthropologists and linguists in the 1960s, and then by artificial intelligence researchers in the 1990s, all independently of each other, because people are stupid that way.

[2] The specific point of the virtue of the protagonist may be overlooked because it isn’t fashionable anymore to reference morality in literary theory. If, as I argued in “Sex, violence, and meaning”, stories are morals, this causes problems for modern literary theory.

Show Us The Theme


There is one part of every story that must be shown rather than told: The theme. If the theme is something that can be told better than it can be shown, then what you’re looking at isn’t a story.

Why do we write stories rather than essays? Writing a story is harder and takes longer. But a story can do some things better than an essay can. The civil rights and gay rights movements didn’t succeed using logical arguments, but with fictional and true stories about black and gay individuals. A story can bring you into someone’s world, make them a non-stranger to you, and suddenly you find your attitude towards them has changed, without an argument. A story can explain someone’s behavior in terms of their previous experiences, and we may understand them better by imagining how we would respond to those same experiences than by following a chain of logic in a psychology journal.

This may be due to the peculiarities of the human mind. We’ve evolved to understand other humans, not essays. We can comprehend a person who is a mass of contradictions better than we can comprehend an essay that dissects the epistemology of a tangled philosophy. Stories are our native language, and we may perceive things in them more easily than if they were stated formally.

(More easily, not more reliably. Stories are a dangerous methodology for discovering truth. This, again, is due to the peculiarities of the human mind. Certain things only “make sense” as stories because they trigger context-insensitive emotional responses that short-circuit logical thought. So storytelling is a double-edged sword: It can convey truths that can be perceived only in a story, and lies that are convincing only in a story, and it’s difficult to know which you are doing at any given time.)

This is the true root of show versus tell. A story, fundamentally, shows. An essay tells.

Neither stories nor essays are mere communication. They’re creative. Communication passes on chunks of information. Creativity takes chunks of information and assembles them in new ways. If a story doesn’t give us any new or interesting combinations of old familiar chunks, we get the uneasy feeling that it wasn’t really a story, and it wasn’t.

“Showing” means, I think, that we can picture the assembly of those chunks in the real world and mentally simulate what they’ll do. “Telling” means we are given the chunks, and a sentence or formula to plug them into.

That is far from meaning that body language is “showing” while adverbs are “telling”. The chunks that we assemble may be entire chapters of a novel. I previously mentioned something in a previous post about Showing and Telling that has to do with “implication outside the initial scope”, quoting that post for the relevant bit:

There is a technique where you baldly state how a character feels or what a character thinks about something, and that statement can imply things far beyond the scope of what you wrote. If you’ve ever read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” you might remember how the style is very simplistic, with Christopher telling the reader all sorts of things that other writers might try to show instead, like the things that makes him happy, or his favorite foods, or what might make him sad. The thing is, telling here is not an error, because what the writer was trying to portray subtly is not Christopher’s emotions or his interests. The thing the writer was trying to infer here was Christopher’s simplemindedness, and the relationship he has with other people.

You are told many chunks of facts about Christopher. These chunks describe events or pictures in the world. You assemble them in your model of the world, and you see a bigger picture of Christopher emerge. That’s showing, but on a higher level of abstraction than that of body language or adverbs.

A good essay uses showing to give examples of its points, and a good story may use telling to build its chunks (as in the above example). So what’s the difference between a story and an essay?

If the top-level creative concept is shown, it’s a story. If the top-level creative concept is told, it’s an essay.

The story of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov is almost entirely “telling” dialogue. Christ returns a second time to earth, and is immediately jailed by the Catholic Church. The Grand Inquisitor explains to Christ why they must kill him, and his reasons sound convincing.

If the story ended there, it would be an essay. But it goes on for one more paragraph:

When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more… come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”

The kiss is Christ’s response to everything the Inquisitor has said. We feel that Christ has won the debate, and yet no one can tell why. There is no shorter way to explain the story than the story itself, and that is what proves it is a story.

The key distinction is whether the story leading up to the twist just plants clues about a fact that is to be revealed, or plants clues about the causes and consequences of what is to be revealed, which the reader can assemble into a theme. The latter is a story; the former is a story essay.

EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel, chapter 7: Prophecy


Aspects of the Novel

EM Forster, 1927

Chapter 7: Prophecy

The word “prophecy” is a little misleading, because Forster is among the few people in the past thousand years to use it correctly. It means, or meant, not predicting the future, but speaking for the gods, whether about the past, present, or future.

Forster isn’t sure that what he discusses here is real, because it happens so seldom: “Though I believe this lecture is on a genuine aspect of the novel, not a fake aspect, I can only think of four writers to illustrate it—Dostoevsky, Melville, D. H. Lawrence and Emily Bronte. … Always, at the back of my mind, there lurks a reservation about this prophetic stuff”. He’s conscious that it’s different from most other chapters (lectures) in the book: “For the first five lectures of this course we have used more or less the same set of tools. This time and last we have had to lay them down.” You don’t need to understand or use it to be a great writer; few have. But if something will help me write like Dostoevsky and Melville, I want in.

Before reading this, you need to read my post on chapter 6, Fantasy.

This is a confusing chapter, perhaps more confusing than chapter 8, Pattern and Rhythm, which I don’t intend to review. I’d better just quote Forster’s opening of the chapter:

What will interest us today—what we must respond to, for interest now becomes an inappropriate word—is an accent in the novelist’s voice, an accent for which the flutes and saxophones of fantasy may have prepared us. His theme is the universe, or something universal, but he is not necessarily going to “say” anything about the universe; he proposes to sing, and the strangeness of song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock. How will song combine with the furniture of common sense? we shall ask ourselves, and shall have to answer “not too well”: the singer does not always have room for his gestures, the tables and chairs get broken, and the novel through which bardic influence has passed often has a wrecked air, like a drawing-room after an earthquake or a children’s party.

Prophecy—in our sense—is a tone of voice. It may imply any of the faiths that have haunted humanity—Christianity, Buddhism, dualism, Satanism, or the mere raising of human love and hatred to such a power that their normal receptacles no longer contain them: but what particular view of the universe is recommended—with that we are not directly concerned. It is the implication that signifies and will filter into the turns of the novelist’s phrase, and in this lecture, which promises to be so vague and grandiose, we may come nearer than elsewhere to the minutiae of style. We shall have to attend to the novelist’s state of mind and to the actual words he uses; we shall neglect as far as we can the problems of common sense…. Before we condemn him for affectation and distortion we must realize his view point. He is not looking at the tables and chairs at all, and that is why they are out of focus. We only see what he does not focus—not what he does—and in our blindness we laugh at him.

…humility is in place just now. Without its help we shall not hear the voice of the prophet, and our eyes will behold a figure of fun instead of his glory. … Like the school-children in the Bible, one cannot help laughing at a prophet—his bald head is so absurd…

Forster contrasts a passage from George Eliot with one from Dostyevsky. Both are scenes of, I think, guilt and repentance. Eliot’s is straightforward Christian dogma. Dostyevsky’s is a dream sequence. Again I can do nothing but quote it:

“Why are they crying? Why are they crying?” Mitya asked as they dashed gaily by.

“It’s the babe,” answered the driver. “The babe weeping.”

“But why is it weeping?” Mitya persisted stupidly. “Why are its little arms bare? Why don’t they wrap it up?”

“Why, they’re poor people, burnt out. They’ve no bread. They’re begging because they’ve been burnt out.”

“No, no,” Mitya, as it were, still did not understand. “Tell me, why is it those poor mothers stand there? Why are people poor? Why is the babe poor? Why is the steppe barren? Why don’t they hug each other and kiss? Why don’t they sing songs of joy? Why are they so dark from black misery? Why don’t they feed the babe?”

And he felt that, though his questions were unreasonable and senseless, yet he wanted to ask just that, and he had to ask it just in that way. And he felt that a passion of pity, such as he had never known before, was rising in his heart, that he wanted to cry, that he wanted to do something for them all, so that the babe should weep no more, so that the dark-faced dried-up mother should not weep, that no one should shed tears again from that moment, and he wanted to do it at once, at once, regardless of all obstacles, with all the recklessness of the Karamazovs. . . . And his heart glowed, and he struggled forward towards the light, and he longed to live, to go on and on, towards the new beckoning light, and to hasten, hasten, now, at once!

“What! Where?” he exclaimed, opening his eyes, and sitting up on the chest, as though he had revived from a swoon, smiling brightly. Nikolay Parfenovitch was standing over him, suggesting that he should hear the protocol read aloud and sign it. Mitya guessed that he had been asleep an hour or more, but he did not hear Nikolay Parfenovitch. He was suddenly struck by the fact that there was a pillow under his head, which hadn’t been there when he leant back exhausted, on the chest.

“Who put that pillow under my head? Who was so kind?” he cried, with a sort of ecstatic gratitude, and tears in his voice, as thoughsome great kindness had been shown him.

He never found out who this kind man was, perhaps one of the peasant witnesses, or Nikolay Parfenovitch’s little secretary had compassionately thought to put a pillow under his head, but his whole soul was quivering with tears. He went to the table and said he would sign whatever they liked.

“I’ve had a good dream, gentlemen,” he said in a strange voice, with a new light, as of joy, in his face.

Mitya’s dream drives him to despair, but when he awakes and finds that someone has put a pillow under his head, him, accused of murder, it redeems humanity in his eyes. He is willing to sign anything because, for the moment,he no longer believes in the categories of innocent and guilty. His dream was terrible, yet he says it was good, and it gives him joy.

The first writer is a preacher, and the second a prophet. George Eliot talks about God, but never alters her focus; God and the tables and chairs are all in the same plane, and in consequence we have not for a moment the feeling that the whole universe needs pity and love—they are only needed in Hetty’s cell. In Dostoevsky the characters and situations always stand for more than themselves; infinity attends them; though yet they remain individuals they expand to embrace it and summon it to embrace them…

The world of the Karamazovs and Myshkin and Raskolnikov, the world of Moby Dick which we shall enter shortly, it is not a veil, it is not an allegory. It is the ordinary world of fiction, but it reaches back…. Mitya is a round character, but he is capable of extension. He does not conceal anything (mysticism), he does not mean anything (symbolism), he is merely Dmitri Karamazov, but to be merely a person in Dostoevsky is to join up with all the other people far back.

Consequently the tremendous current suddenly flows—for me in those closing words: “I’ve had a good dream, gentlemen.” Have I had that good dream too?

The prophet—one imagines—has gone “off” more completely than the fantasist, he is in a remoter emotional state while he composes. Not many novelists have this aspect. Poe is too incidental. Hawthorne potters too anxiously round the problem of individual salvation to get free. Hardy, a philosopher and a great poet, might seem to have claims, but Hardy’s novels are surveys, they do not give out sounds. The writer sits back, it is true, but the characters do not reach back. He shows them to us as they let their arms rise and fall in the air; they may parallel our sufferings but can never extend them—never, I mean, could Jude step forward like Mitya and release floods of our emotion by saying “Gentlemen, I’ve had a bad dream.” Conrad is in a rather similar position. The voice, the voice of Marlow, is too full of experiences to sing, it is dulled by many reminiscences of error and beauty, its owner has seen too much to see beyond cause and effect. To have a philosophy—even a poetic and emotional philosophy like Hardy’s and Conrad’s—leads to reflections on life and things. A prophet does not reflect. And he does not hammer away. That is why we exclude Joyce. Joyce has many qualities akin to prophecy and he has shown (especially in the Portrait of the Artist) an imaginative grasp of evil. But he undermines the universe in too workmanlike a manner, looking round for this tool or that: in spite of all his internal looseness he is too tight, he is never vague except after due deliberation; it is talk, talk, never song.

The extraordinary nature of [Moby Dick] appears in two of its early incidents—the sermon about Jonah and the friendship with Queequeg.

The sermon has nothing to do with Christianity. It asks for endurance or loyalty without hope of reward. The preacher… works up and up and concludes on a note of joy that is far more terrifying than a menace.

I think he’s getting at something like awe.

Melville… reaches straight back into the universal, to a blackness and sadness so transcending our own that they are undistinguishable from glory.

The preacher’s terrifying joy is an emotion religious fanatics have when they believe they are seeing the awful perfection of God, which gives them joy despite having nothing joyous about it. It is like what Buddhists have when they meditate on what they believe to be the sordid and pointless nature of the universe to a point where suddenly it flips and becomes a thing of beauty. It’s like what Jorge Luis Borges described in “The God’s Script”, in which an Aztec priests, through years of study, sees the mind of God encoded in the spots on a jaguar. He engaged in this study to gain the power to free himself from his dungeon and kill the Spanish; having gained the power, he sees everything that is as beautiful and will not change it. It’s like what some scientists feel when they look at the history of human love, hatred, greed, deception, and nobility, and understand what produced it, and how astonishing the end result of simple principles is. And it’s something like the fascination of Cthulhic cultists, enraptured by something so far beyond them that seeing from its perspective erases the distinctions between good and evil.

I think that might be what he’s getting at. There’s more to it than that, because he also talks about the mysterious coincidences in Moby Dick: that the narrator is saved from drowning by a dead man’s empty coffin; that the name of the wrecked ship they encounter is the Delight (harking back to the sermon mentioned above); and other things that seem to have symbolic power but no symbolic intepretation.

That’s as far as I understand it now. Feel free to ask questions, but don’t expect that I know the answer.

EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel, chapter 6: Fantasy


Aspects of the Novel

EM Forster, 1927

Chapter 6: Fantasy

Chapter 7, “Prophecy”, is a remarkable chapter. It illustrates why literary critics should be writers: Forster posits an elusive quality of some novels that has no name, and that he isn’t entirely sure even exists. A critic striving to understand what a novel means or how it fits into the writer’s biography wouldn’t even sense its presence, and would certainly not be able to describe it if he did. Forster is at his limits as an author just finding the metaphors to explain it. This shouldn’t surprise us. If the essence of a novel could be communicated in a straight-forward manner, without metaphor, analogy, connotation, or drama, that novel should have been an essay instead.

But to understand what Forster means by prophecy, you must first understand what he meant by fantasy; otherwise you may think that’s what he means by prophecy. So this post will talk about chapter 6: Fantasy.

Forster senses something strange and outside the elements of character, plot, setting, etc. Yet he finds this mysterious fifth flavor in works of drastically different sorts; so he divides it into “fantasy” and “prophecy”:


Perhaps our subject, namely the books we have read, has stolen away from us while we theorize, like a shadow from an ascending bird. The bird is all right—it climbs, it is consistent and eminent. The shadow is all right—it has flickered across roads and gardens. But the two things resemble one another less and less, they do not touch as they did when the bird rested its toes on the ground. Criticism, especially a critical course, is so misleading. However lofty its intentions and sound its method, its subject slides away from beneath it, imperceptibly away, and lecturer and audience may awake with a start to find that they are carrying on in a distinguished and intelligent manner, but in regions which have nothing to do with anything they have read. …


The novels we have now to consider all tell a story, contain characters, and have plots or bits of plots, so we could apply to them the apparatus suited for Fielding or Arnold Bennett. But when I say two of their names—Tristram Shandyand Moby Dick—it is clear that we must stop and think a moment. The bird and the shadow are too far apart. A new formula must be found: the mere fact that one can mention Tristram and Moby in a single sentence shows it. What an impossible pair! As far apart as the poles. Yes. And like the poles they have one thing in common, which the lands round the equator do not share: an axis. What is essential in Sterne and Melville belongs to this new aspect of fiction: the fantastic-prophetical axis. …


When we try to translate truth out of one sphere into another, whether from life into books or from books into lectures, something happens to truth, it goes wrong, not suddenly when it might be detected, but slowly. It is not possible, after it, to apply the old apparatus any more. There is more in the novel than time or people or logic or any of their derivatives, more even than Fate. And by “more” I do not mean something that excludes these aspects nor something that includes them, embraces them. I mean something that cuts across them like a bar of light, that is intimately connected with them at one place and patiently illumines all their problems, and at another place shoots over or through them as if they did not exist. We shall give that bar of light two names, fantasy and prophecy.”

Forster does not intend either word, fantasy or prophecy, to denote the supernatural. “Fantasy,” he writes, “implies the supernatural, but need not express it.”

The supernatural is absent from [Tristram Shandy], yet a thousand incidents suggest that it is not far off. … There is a charmed stagnation about the whole epic–the more the characters do the less gets done… facts have an unholy tendency to unwind and trip up the past instead of begetting the future… and the obstinacy of inanimate objects, like Dr. Slop’s bag, is most suspicious. Obviously a god is hidden in Tristram Shandy, his name is Muddle, and some readers cannot accept him.


I’m sure he’d say that Tolkien wrote fantasy, but I’m almost as sure he would not consider Game of Thrones to be fantasy at all. It’s merely a world in which magic does certain things, as electricity does certain things in ours. I doubt that he’d call Harry Potter fantasy either. In chapter 3 Forster wrote:

If we were to press her [Moll Flanders] or her creator Defoe and say, “Come, be serious. Do you believe in Infinity?” they would say (in the parlance of their modern descendants), “Of course I believe in Infinity—what do you take me for?”—a confession of faith that slams the door on Infinity more completely than could any denial.

I think that Forster would like to capitalize Magic as he capitalized Infinity, and if, when asked about Magic, you nodded and said, “Yes, yes; you can do magic if you have the right genes and a good wand from Ollivander’s,” he’d say that the Magic had become engineering through familiarity. Magic was Star Wars before Midichlorians. Magic is what you find in The Last Unicorn:

But he had judged them too easily. They applauded his rings and scarves, his ears full of goldfish and aces, with a proper politeness but without wonder. Offering no true magic, he drew no magic back from them; and when a spell failed — as when, promising to turn a duck into a duke for them to rob, he produced a handful of duke cherries — he was clapped just as kindly and vacantly as though he had succeeded. They were a perfect audience.

Cully smiled impatiently, and Jack Jingly dozed, but it startled the magician to see the disappointment in Molly Grue’s restless eyes. Sudden anger made him laugh. He dropped seven spinning balls that had been glowing brighter and brighter as he juggled them (on a good evening, he could make them catch fire), let go all his hated skills, and closed his eyes. “Do as you will,” he whispered to the magic. “Do as you will.”

It sighed through him, beginning somewhere secret — in his shoulderblade, perhaps, or in the marrow of his shinbone. His heart filled and tautened like a sail, and something moved more surely in his body than he ever had. It spoke with his voice, commanding. Weak with power, he sank to his knees and waited to be Schmendrick again.

I wonder what I did. I did something.

Sometimes our hopes and dreams are built into the physics of the world so that it is more along the plan of Keats than of Newton.

He tries to distinguish them:

The general tone of novels is so literal that when the fantastic is introduced it produces a special effect: some readers are thrilled, others choked off: it demands an additional adjustment because of the oddness of its method or subject matter—like a sideshow in an exhibition where you have to pay sixpence as well as the original entrance fee. Some readers pay with delight, it is only for the sideshows that they entered the exhibition, and it is only to them I can now speak. Others refuse with indignation, and these have our sincere regards, for to dislike the fantastic in literature is not to dislike literature….

So fantasy asks us to pay something extra.

Let us now distinguish between fantasy and prophecy.

They are alike in having gods, and unlike in the gods they have. There is in both the sense of mythology…. On behalf of fantasy let us now invoke all beings who inhabit the lower air, the shallow water, and the smaller hills, all Fauns and Dryads and slips of the memory, all verbal coincidences, Pans and puns, all that is mediæval this side of the grave. When we come to prophecy… it will have been to whatever transcends our abilities, even when it is human passion that transcends them, to the deities of India, Greece,Scandinavia and Judæa, to all that is mediæval beyond the grave and to Lucifer son of the morning. By their mythologies we shall distinguish these two sorts of novels.

To demonstrate fantasy, he cites a passage from Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm–one with nothing definitely supernatural in it; you’ll have to click on the link to read it–then writes:

Has not a passage like this—with its freedom of invocation—a beauty unattainable by serious literature? It is so funny and charming, so iridescent yet so profound. Criticisms of human nature fly through the book, not like arrows but upon the wings of sylphs.

Humor has something to do with his distinction between fantasy and prophecy. Fantasy can be humorous; prophecy cannot. He compares fantasy to a flute, prophecy to a song, probably an operatic aria in a foreign language. The fantasist knows what he is doing, and if he’s trying to make a point, he makes it, like Tolkien with his message that the world and Man were created perfect and have both gone downhill ever since. The prophet wants desperately to tell us something, but doesn’t know what it is.

If it still isn’t clear what he’s talking about–and I don’t think it is–you can read the whole thing here. It might become more clear when I go over chapter 7, but honestly, I doubt it will.

My guess is that he thinks fantasy is when the world itself has a personality or an attitude. The real world is unromantically steadfast; apples fall regardless of their consequences for people. Fantasy worlds take an interest in their inhabitants and take some side.

– The King of Elfland’s Daughter spends a lot of words describing the personalities of Elfland versus the human world, and unlike in the real world, which we reshape according to our wants, the characters from Elfland inherit their personalities from their world.
– The world of Tristram Shandy can’t be driven just by physics, because some kinds of things happen more often than they should, and the opposite kind doesn’t happen at all.
– Tolkien’s worlds have themes running through them that are consistent, but contradict Earthly physics. It is a created world, made right in the beginning, but that only decays and runs down as time goes on, like a person growing old. It’s a place with no food chain, where a host of equally-dangerous, mutually-hostile things somehow co-exist in close proximity, in numbers greater than the land could possibly support, where a troll, goblin, dragon, or spider could easily satisfy its hunger by going over some hills to Hobbiton yet does not because something in the world says this kind of thing must be in this kind of place.
– You get the sense that Wonderland isn’t just a place that happens to be full of crazy people—Wonderland itself is crazy, or a practical joker; it changes to frustrate or rescue you, according to its own impish logic.