Monday, June 9, 2014

#1 Thing Movies Teach Us About Writing Fiction

The number one thing movies teach us about writing fiction is how to show more and tell less.

"Show, don't tell" is today's mantra for the novelist. But how do we do that?

Author Jeff Gerke addresses that very question on his website: "Think of yourself as a filmmaker. You are allowed to include only that which the camera can see and the microphone can hear."

Picture your point-of-view character with a camera and a microphone on his or her head. The camera can only see what your character can see, and the microphone will only pick up what your character hears.

Read these sentences:

Bob had been in Mississippi the previous week on a business trip.

Mallory was double-majoring in finance and animal husbandry at Arizona State University, where she lived in a dorm with her friend Rachel and her nemesis Jill.

Suddenly, examples like these glare at you from your manuscript because there's no way the camera or the microphone could see or hear that information. That's how you know it's "telling" instead of "showing."

Movies get this technique right because there's usually no opportunity for information to be "told" to the viewer.

Watch A Few Good Men, and you learn that Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) is a spoiled, entitled brat in his first scene. Nobody has to announce that "Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee of the United States Navy was a spoiled brat who felt entitled to whatever he wanted." It's obvious from his words and actions.

In the Disney movie Frozen, the princess Anna doesn't have to announce that "Hans was a monster" when he turns against her. His actions and words, as he snuffs out every source of warmth in the room and leaves her to freeze to death, show viewers what he is.

Here's that first fiction example from above, rewritten:

Bob strode off the plane with his briefcase in one hand and his overnight bag in the other. Piles of snow along the edges of the icy tarmac glistened in the sunshine.

An attendant with an unnaturally white smile held the door for him. "Thank you for flying with us, and welcome to Denver."

"Give me snow over humidity and mosquitoes any day," he said.
She grimaced --- "Mississippi always feels that way" --- then looked past him to greet the next passenger.

Nothing in that rewritten passage can be seen or heard unless Bob sees, hears, and/or experiences it personally.

Imagine your character with the camera and microphone setup on his or her head. Rewrite one of your scenes with only what he or she can see and hear. Then compare it to the original scene and decide whether your writing is tighter and has fewer instances of telling.

You might be surprised.

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