Gone are the days of the long narrative passages we used to see in novels written by greats like Dickens and Steinbeck. Even though literary prose is still highly praised and found in many bestselling commercial novels, the trend over the last few decades has been to “show, not tell.” Meaning, readers prefer scenes in which they are watching the action unfold in real time—instead of being told what is happening by the author or even by one of the characters.
Sol Stein, in his book Stein on Writing, says,
Twentieth-century readers, transformed by film and TV, are used to seeing stories. The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes.
This is even more true in the twenty-first century. As literary agent and author Donald Maass says in Writing 21st Century Fiction: “Make characters do something that readers can visualize.”
Just How Do You Show?
As much as we writers hear the phrase “show, don’t tell,” we never hear anyone explain just how to do that.
- Is there only one way to “show” a scene?
- Is there a “best” way?
- Is there a secret to doing this well?
I believe the key is in what Stein spoke of—how the reading experience has been affected by film. Film technique is the ultimate in showing instead of telling. In fact, even in scenes in which a character is talking about what is happening, whether a character on the screen or as a voiceover (when you just hear someone talking but don’t see them), you still see something happening on the screen before you. In a novel, if the author interrupts the present action to explain something (narrative or exposition), the reader stops “seeing” what’s going on.
Back in the day, because film had to be edited laboriously by hand and was tricky to do seamlessly, many movie scenes were filmed using one camera from one angle in one continuous shot. Take a look at some of the dance scenes from some old Fred Astaire movies and you’ll be amazed how he performed his dance sequences so perfectly in one long shot! It makes me wonder how many takes they’d have to do to get that perfect sequence.
Now with the wonders of modern technology, film editors can cut and splice with ease and create scenes out of numerous segments from different camera angles. Just pay attention the next time you watch an action movie like Die Hard. See if you can count all the individual cuts and camera shots that have been pieced together in a segment. Sometimes there are dozens—forcing your eye to shift from close-up to zoom, to panning the action, to an inserted detail, and the list goes on.
If novelists approach their scenes in a similar fashion, they’ll produce powerful, riveting scenes. These scenes don’t have to be high action; any scene can benefit from this technique. Too many novel scenes feel like the camera is stuck in one spot watching what is happening, and that can make a scene flat and boring. Imagine two people talking while they sit and drink tea with the camera only showing their two faces. Boring. But you don’t just want to “move your camera around” randomly. And this is where the secret comes in.
The Secret to “Show, Don’t Tell”
Let me preface by saying something I say often, to the point of excess: every scene needs to have a point or it shouldn’t be in your novel. With that said, let me add this: every scene needs a high moment, where that point is made. When actress Rosalind Russell was asked “What distinguishes a great movie?” she answered, “Moments.” And that’s so true for scenes.
We remember great scenes because they contain a great moment. Often that moment is not something huge and explosive. On the contrary—the best moments are the very subtle ones in which the character learns or realizes something that may appear small to the outside world but is giant in scope to the character.
So, once you determine the “moment” in your story, think about the best way to show it. If you are revealing something small—like a word, an expression or reaction, or a physical detail, you’ll want to have your “camera” up close. If it’s a big explosion in a city center, you’ll want to use a long shot to see the impact on a huge scale. Once you envision that moment and how you mean to show it, you can work backward to build up to it. Just like a movie director does when planning the segments to shoot a scene, writers can storyboard or plan out each segment leading up to their “moment” to give it the greatest punch.
Learn from today’s top movie directors and watch how they tell a story on the big screen by using camera shots. Pay attention to the key moments in each scene and notice how the filmmakers “show” instead of “tell.” If you take the time to study great scenes in movies, you can discover ways to fashion great scenes in your novels. Don’t be surprised when readers keep saying to you, “Wow, I could really picture your novel as a movie.” Take that as a compliment.