When I talk to writers or write critical reports for writers I often use the film analogy. It’s a really useful way of explaining the difference between showing and telling. I can not tell you how many times I have written the phrase film it, don’t report it. Telling a reader what a character is doing is like a running commentary in a film or a subtitle: John looks through the window. His hands tremble. He sees the body stretched out on the sofa. Oh God, he thinks… Showing is bringing this scene to life so it lives inside the head of the reader. John shuffles closer, breath coating the glass. Behind the brown sofa a TV flickers, the face of the weather girl. On the sofa, someone is stretched out but not comfortably; his neck tilted at a strange angle, his arm trails off the edge. A finger of whiskey is splattered across the pine floor. John’s breaths come faster, Oh God…
This is written very ad hoc and would no doubt benefit from revision, but you get the idea. It takes more words and is longer but see how showing builds a picture. Telling is more the way a reporter would do it. You get the facts in, reporters love adverbs, fiction writers would do well to lose the adverbs as these are telling. Reporters might create some drama, but not in a visual way. The writer creates unease.
Don’t tell the reader how to feel, create the feeling
Make your writing as visual as possible.
I say to writers: imagine a scene in a movie. Imagine the camera angle, the way the shot pans out, what you show to the audience. In a moment of drama you don’t have the man comment, look I can see a body in the room, you show the body in the room. Similarly, you don’t write he sees the body in the room.
Now let’s take the film analogy a step further. Let’s see how you can use it with voice. Here I mean character voice and not your authorial voice which is a different thing. Author voice is style. When writing character voice you stay inside the head of one character in a scene, preferably a chapter, you don’t shift viewpoint by head-hopping midscene as it weakens the connection to the reader. So even in third person, we are inside the head of your character, showing only what he feels, sees, thinks and remember he must assume the emotions and motivations of the characters around him. So no Bob feels angry, first you show it, second you don’t know for certain he’s angry if you’re in another character’s head.
You are a puppeteer, the director of the scene. It’s not your voice the reader hears but that of the character. Your job is to create the right shots, show the audience the right things, film the body language and show the subtleties of action, the close-ups, the audience is active in the process. There is no commentary saying, Bob feels guilty, only a glance, a tremble, an expression. It’s not written as: he wears a guilty look, it’s shown in the way his face changes. You now decide when to cut to another scene. You are director and editor.
I love the film analogy for explaining this. And much as directors have a style they might be recognised for, the same is true of the writer. It’s how the writer or director sets the scene and directs the action, how he tells the characters how to speak, what to say, what to do as they speak that demonstrates his style. It’s never his voice we hear; only the characters. His voice is his style.
I took this analogy even further with a short story of mine that never found a home. It’s called Director’s Cut and it was experimental in that I used film script and film treatment amongst a more traditional narrative. It’s an old director’s last day on the lot, when it will be revealed which ending is being used for a 911 fireman movie. I use treatment to handle some of the descriptions of the alternative endings and script for some flashback scenes of his own life. The scenes appear quite benign and with none of the drama of the treatments, but actually it’s what’s written between the lines, the subtext that creates the tension with these scenes, and the moments were selected deliberately to show key moments in his life.
I also used some film terms to capture scenes, he sees things in wide angle, hears things off set, that kind of thing. It got a distinction in my MA but has never been able to find the right publication. I might share the opening of it here tomorrow, see what you think. Comments welcome.
Right, off I go. Some important directing to do. I have left my characters on the allotment with a startling revelation at the end of the chapter. It’s an EastEnders duff duff moment…