Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Showing vs. Telling--at the Movies

My husband (who I normally call Honey Bear--and will for the rest of this and every post, since it has so much more character than plain, old “my husband”) is one of those someday novelists. You know the ones. They’re always saying things like, “Someday, when I write my book, I won’t spend so long coming up with character names,” or “Someday, when I write my book, I’ll outline it first.”

Those are the kinds of things Honey Bear always says, at least. And when he says things like that, I smile and respond, “Of course you will, Honey Bear.” Because we all know how those someday novelists are.

But for all of my pleasant-faced condescension, I usually find myself thinking about the points he makes (like that whole outlining thing, for instance), and tweaking my ideas about writing accordingly. In fact, something he said recently changed my entire mindset about the story-old struggle between showing and telling: “Someday, when I write my book,” he said, “I’ll probably write it like I’m describing a movie, since I see more than hear the scenes in my head.”

That got me thinking about movies in general, and the methods by which they communicate their stories, and I realized something: Movies, by their very nature, have to SHOW EVERYTHING. I mean, how annoying would it be if the character wandered onto the screen and some disembodied voice announced, “Margaret was tired when she got home from the party, and her feet hurt”? Instead, we see Margaret stagger through her front door, toss her purse on the console, massage the back of her neck, and plop down on the sofa to take her heels off.

It takes a lot longer to say all that, of course--the movie communicates that information in a few seconds--but that’s why they say a picture’s worth a thousand words. So maybe we picked the wrong medium, but now we’re stuck with it, and all the description that goes along with it.

Now I realize film and literature aren’t exactly interchangeable; both have their own rules and standards, and one of the advantages of books is their ability to interpret the action in (hopefully) witty or unexpected asides. Heck, even movies benefit from the occasional voiceover. (The fairy-tale-esque narration at the beginning of PENELOPE, for example, is spot-on.) But just as voiceover should be used sparingly in film, so should tell-heavy asides be used only once in a while in books--no matter how witty or unexpected.


Myrna Foster said...

This is a great post. We hear "show, don't tell," but there are instances where we should compress things by telling. I don't need to know everything, and I enjoy reading the kind of wit that goes into books like Jane Austen's.

Charity Bradford said...

I loved this post. "Show not tell" is my current mantra with revising (along with "kill the passive voice"!)and it helps me to think along the movie line. I see my book in my head like a movie anyway, so now I just need to find the right words to describe what I see when I close my eyes.


Anonymous said...

Super interesting husband has often asked me "How do you do that? How do you know what kind of facial expressions a character has and what his body language is?" I think I freaked him out a bit when I told him that I actually "see" these people in my head! LOL...non-writer types are so hard to understand!

Liesl Shurtliff said...

Since you were comparing book sto movies, STORY by Robert McKee sheds a lot of light on this particular subject. It's a screenwriting book but I've found that most things translate to novel-writing as well. I highly recommend it.

"Show don't tell," is one of those dangerous writing rules. It's more about learning when to show and when to tell. I'm still figuring it out but my basic thought is show when you need immersion, tell when you need movement. And as impossible as it sounds you can sometimes do both at the same time.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I'll have to check that out, Liesl. And I like your show vs. tell rule of thumb, immersion vs. movement. Good point.