Show, Don’t Tell

When the words just get in the way of your writing
August 22, 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about how my novel is coming along. So it’s time to rectify that.

Truth is, I’m still busy writing away and progress is being made, if not in yards then in inches (or, for you millennials, “if not in metres then in centimetres”).

Lately, however, my pace has picked up somewhat, and I’d like to tell you why. You see, I happened upon something a while back that’s made a big, and hopefully lasting, difference to my writing. And the phrase “show, don’t tell” is at the heart of it. But not in the way you might think.

First let me describe my state before this paradigm-changing revelation. Before this I was still outlining my novel, caught in the deadly cycle of vision and revision. I was trapped in that god-like “I can do anything I want in my imaginary world… bwahaahaa!… uh, but what exactly do I want?” scenario. There were too many directions I could go. I was a Plotter bogged down by plot, so to speak.

Plotting (or planning), you see, was how I successfully wrote several college textbooks. I would produce a fully-realized and detailed outline and then fill in the details to create my first draft. The draft was then edited, refined, and honed until it was just right. It was, for me, a tried-and-true formula. It should, I therefore reasoned, work just as well for writing fiction. Right?

Trouble is, it didn’t. Oh sure, I’ve come up with several (and by that I mean over a dozen) outlines for my story. Each with its own variations and unique twists. Each a potential story. Each an outline that I could have gone with. And yet none that I felt was the story I wanted to tell. None that matched the adventure I saw in my mind’s eye. The outline, you see, had become a thing in itself. It was cold, hard, lifeless. Sure, it was information. It was structure. It was construct and plot and characters. But it was not story. It didn’t live or breathe like I felt it should. It felt like… well… like a textbook.

And so I was stalled. I wasn’t able to turn any of my many outlines into the story I wished to tell. Something was getting in my way. And that’s when it dawned on me. I realized that what was getting in the way was – wait for it – words!

Okay, why wasn’t there a big fanfare just then? Why aren’t there any fireworks going off? That’s earthshaking stuff, isn’t it? I mean, think about it. A purveyor of words, a wordsmith, stopped and stymied by the very tools of his trade. Words. Is no one gonna give me a high five for my revelation?

Well, maybe it’s just me then. But this sure rocked me back on my heels – the fact that I wasn’t able to turn all that planning, all those mindmaps, all those carefully constructed lists and points into a story was because too many words were getting in the way. Yikes! To me this was akin to being a chocolatier who can’t practice their confection because they are allergic to chocolate. This was a true epiphany. It was also, unfortunately, a potential deal breaker. What kind of writer is allergic to words? Apparently, me.

But, never one to give up on a dumb idea, I pushed on. I continued day after day, month after month, reworking my outlines, looking for the right combination of plot points, scenes, and structure to spark my creative juices, whereupon I was certain the words to my first draft would soon come gushing forth like a fountain from my pen … er, fingers. Sorry, bad metaphor. Anyway, it wasn’t happening.

Now, one thing I discovered when writing textbooks was that, when the words didn’t come, it was best to let others who had succeeded speak to me through their words. In other words, I read. In that case I read other people’s textbooks looking for inspiration.

For my novel I just tweaked this process a bit. I read writing books and magazines. I read writing blogs. I read fiction. I even started reading movie screenplays because Zite (a diabolically-addictive online newsmagazine site that will gobble your life away in two or three-hour chunks if you let it) featured some writing articles that offered free access to many well-respected movie scripts and screenplays. Coincidentally, around the same time, I discovered a free (note the recurring theme here) iPad app for downloading and reading even more free screenplays. Great deal, I thought. Who can pass up free, eh?

So, instead of frequent trips to the public library, or forking over large sums of hard earned cash to buy real print books or to download their cheaper digital doppelgangers, I switched to reading freely-downloadable screenplays. And, you know what, I actually learned a few things along the way.

First, I learned that screenplays are formatted in such a way that one page corresponds to one minute of screen time. So, a typical 2-hour movie corresponds to a 120-page script that can be read – no surprise – in two hours. A whole story from start to finish in two hours. And TV shows are even shorter, if not as artistically satisfying.

I also discovered that screenplays are mostly action and dialog with only a hint of narrative. They are deliberately short on the kinds of details, inner dialog, and wordy narrative that make up most novels. And, because movies and TV are visual media, the writing in most screenplays is highly visual.

I soon found myself enjoying reading these scripts, deriving much the same satisfaction as watching the films themselves. Of course, I made a point of reading quality screenplays… those that have won their screenwriters awards and acclaim. Juno. Crazy Heart. Taxi Driver. Thelma and Louise. Groundhog Day. Slumdog Millionaire. Casablanca. Chinatown. The Shining. All good stuff.

But, besides just the enjoyment of reading these scripts, I began to realize a couple of other things. First, good screenplays are the epitome of show, don’t tell. And second – and here’s my revolutionary discovery – they use very few words.

Boing! (that was a light bulb going on over my head … see, I told you I was having trouble with words). Anyway, that’s when it dawned on me – maybe, just maybe, writing my story initially as a screenplay might get things started quicker… might cut to the chase, so to speak. Granted, it would have to be a longer screenplay than most because a novel is far longer and richer in story elements and plot than most movies. But the minimalist approach just might be the answer to my “words” problem. Scenes consisting of nothing but bare-bones descriptions, a few visual actions, and some tight dialog might just be the approach I had been looking for.

To my untrained eye the writing in the best screenplays is tight – to the point. Minimal dialog and action move the story forward. Nothing wasted. Nothing added as stuffing. Perfect for someone like me who wants to get his story down quickly in the fewest possible words.

And guess what? It’s worked so far. It lit a fire under me (and, oddly, that’s a good thing). In the last three weeks I’ve written 86 pages of story in the form of screenplay scenes. Me, the writer stymied by words, actually writing. And the best part is, I’m enjoying it. The scenes feel alive. The characters are living their lives and following the plot lines I have always envisioned for them – more or less.

You see, I must confess that there have been some deviations. When you write a scene with minimal description, getting down to the essential action and dialog between the characters, they suddenly start doing and saying the most unexpected things. It’s kinda like your kids. You can have all kinds of hopes and plans for them, but when they go off on their own and start using their own best judgement, all those plans you’ve made often go right out the window. Well, my characters often do something like that.

Oh sure, I can hear you Pantsers out there saying “See, we told you. But nooooo, you Planners always have to exercise such tight control over your characters. So how’s that working for ya?”, or something like that. Well – and this catches in my throat a little – you Pantsers may actually be on to something. By keeping the words to a minimum,  by using my outline as merely a starting point, my characters are now making their own decisions, finding their own voices and personalities, and thereby are making the story so much more fun to write. Really.

Now, I want to stress that I have not abandoned my outline. I still think it was a necessary process (sorry Pantsers, but it’s true). It’s just that, in trying to go from my outline to the pages of my first draft, the words somehow got in the way. By adopting the screenplay format I did an end run around all those clumsy words and found a way to tell the story without getting bogged down in descriptions, details, and lengthy narrative. By using the screenplay approach, my story is emerging much faster than it ever would have using a traditional approach. And that means it’s more present, dynamic, and satisfying for me.

A few other things have made this change in approach even easier. A while back I had purchased a copy of Storyist for my writing. I later abandoned it in favour of Scrivener which had, in my opinion, more flexible outlining tools. But as I considered using the screenplay method I discovered that Storyist has a Screenplay template that puts the structuring of script elements (Scene, Action, Character, Dialog) a single keypress away. Just write and format. Piece o’ cake. Once structured this way, scenes can then be easily listed, searched, even rearranged (although I haven’t yet done much of that). Storyist makes an easy writing task even easier. It also comes as a low-cost iPad App, so how could I pass that up since I use an iPad for my on-the-go writing?

This screenplay approach has turned out to have many hidden benefits. The screenplay’s action/dialog format makes me think about my scenes in ways I never did when structuring my story as an outline. A screenplay makes every scene very tangible. What are the character’s doing? What are they saying? To who (sorry, to whom?) How are they visually acting and reacting? What is happening around them? It all becomes so real. And I can address those issues and answer those questions right then and there in just a few words. No large blocks of awkward narrative getting in the way. It’s seat-of-the-pants writing for Planners.

Another interesting thing I found with a screenplay is that, since narrative is limited, I must rely on the actions and dialog of the characters to tell the story. And isn’t that the whole idea behind “show, don’t tell”? So far I can see no downside to this approach.

My plan is that, after the screenplay is finished, I will re-write it as a first draft using conventional prose, fleshing out the details and narrative, making it an even richer reading experience, conveying those things that can’t or shouldn’t be expressed with actions or dialog. But doing so knowing that I didn’t let the words get in the way of a good story.

I’m sure that many of you experienced writers still won’t be convinced that this is a wise approach. Perhaps you foresee many traps and pitfalls that I will encounter. Maybe so. But so far this approach is working for me. Perhaps that’s because my story is a techno-thriller. It has lots of action, and the dialog supports the motives, actions, and feelings of the characters. I suspect that if my story had long sections of introspective soul searching, contemplative angst, or inner dialog this screenplay approach might not work as well.

There are many how-to books for novice screenplay writers. Any of Syd Field’s books come to mind. And there is some great software specifically designed for writing screenplays. I use Storyist, but there are other dedicated screenwriting applications like Final Draft and Movie Magic that have become industry standards. But I think those are best left to professional script writers who plan to submit and distribute their work in screenplay format. Since I plan to flesh out my story as a full-fledged novel, Storyist is all I really need for now.

So far it seems this approach offers many benefits and few drawbacks. And, as my wife pointed out, once I’m done I’ll even have a finished screenplay all ready for the movie adaptation. Hey, Tom Hanks, you looking for some work?

One Response to Show, Don’t Tell

  1. Sounds like a great technique since it is working for you. I take novel writing as an artists canvas for painting, there are many different techniques to go about it each producing wonderful results and so it must be with novels. Some artists make a detailed sketch in charcoal first before adding the paint. Others make a partial outline and some none at all, letting the mood of the moment or the canvas itself suggest the next step. I used the outline method for my novella, but for the novel I had a very brief sketch and just wrote as thoughts emerged and developed.

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