telling -vs- showing · writing tips

Is it wrong to think about my WIP as a movie?

Let’s face it – we writers want our book to be loved by everyone, the same way we love it. And somewhere deep down inside ourselves, if we’re going to be entirely honest, we can see it as a movie unrolling on the big screen. We know who would be perfect to play the part of at least our main character, probably even one of the secondary characters.

(I’ll confess right here, most of my secondaries talk like Patrick Warburton – I just love his voice and his deadpan delivery.)

Is this a healthy mental outlook? Probably not. If Peter F Hamilton‘s books still haven’t been made into movies, there’s no chance mine will. None. If I ever finish it. If I find an agent. If – anyway, you can see why it’s not necessarily healthy to think this way.

But I think I’ve had a breakthrough because of it. Let me explain.

Imagine you want me to tell you about the classic opening scene of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Here’s what I would probably say (I promise, it won’t take long!):


‘The monolith as it appears in 2001: A Space Odyssey‘ – Wikipedia

“The scene opens with apes in a harsh landscape. They fight with other apes, but it’s mostly posturing. Then one day a monolith appears. They build up the courage to touch it. Soon it looks like the monolith’s communicating with one of the apes. The ape looks from the monolith, to a big bleached skeleton on the ground nearby, and back, cocking his head. Then he picks out a big solid thigh bone, gives it an experimental hit or two on the ground, and before we know it, he’s thrashing it, over and over, destroying the skull at his feet. By the time the other apes show up for another fight, our apes are ready: armed with thigh bones, they attack and kill the other apes. Our victorious leader yells and tosses the thigh bone into the sky, and the camera pans up, watching it tumble, end over end, until it cuts to a spaceship four million years later.”

matchcut‘A bone-club and an orbital platform: the two subjects of the iconic match cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey‘ – Wikipedia

So far, so good.

Now just pretend 2001 is actually my new idea for a book (I wish!), and I’m sitting down to write it.

“The apes were sitting in a harsh landscape. They’ve had fights with other apes, but it was  mostly posturing. Then one day a monolith appeared. Eventually they built up the courage to touch it. Then the monolith seemed to communicate with one of the apes. The ape looked from the monolith, to a big bleached skeleton that was on the ground nearby, then looked back and cocked his head. One of the bones was a big solid thigh bone, and he gave it an experimental hit or two on the ground. Suddenly he was thrashing it, over and over. There was a skull at his feet and he destroyed it. The next time the other apes showed up for a fight our apes were ready: they were armed with thigh bones, and they attacked and killed the other apes. Our victorious leader yelled. He tossed the thigh bone into the sky, and as it tumbled back to earth it resembled the spaceships that would be invented four million years later by his descendants.”

See what I did there? Everything became a bunch of past tense descriptions fluffed with adverbs that pulled the reader from the story. When I read stuff like this, I tune out within two sentences. I’ll bet you just did too.

(Sure, the first version of these two scenes isn’t finalized either, but admit it, it was more interesting than the second.)

And I know I’m not alone – I’ve bought books just like this and never finished them.

And I also know, I’m telling instead of showing.

But it’s all well and good to say what‘s gone wrong – why did it go wrong? How do I not tell a story?

Well, you’ll be happy to know, it’s movies that gave me the answer: I’m working from the outside in instead of the inside out.

You know, when you first sit down to a movie and they’re still setting the scene and you’re trying to process what you’re watching, trying to figure out which character you need to pay attention to, or whether to stick it out? You’re not yet detached from reality. You’re watching from the outside in. Once suspension from disbelief kicks in, you forget it’s a movie. You feel and see through the character’s heart and eyes. Inside out.

Well, it’s the same when I write. I get so focused on other things: bringing the plot threads together, remembering to say everything, that everything comes out like a bunch of outside-in stage directions. But every now and then, I write a scene that I can’t believe I wrote. A scene from the heart, the words flowing like magic. I don’t read it, I never wrote it: I lived it.

So I think it’s fine to imagine my WIP as a movie. So long as I suspend my own disbelief and immerse myself in my story. Live it with my characters. Be surprised by their actions and show what’s actually happening now. Hmmm… I wonder if that’s why some authors prefer to write in first person?

Now forgive me, but I have to get back to it – a week ago I told my characters where to stand and what to say, and I’m worried they’ll have made unscripted decisions. Some of them might even have exited stage left.




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