We fiction, memoir, and essay writers are all bombarded—understandably—with the need to SHOW, not tell. The temptation to tell rather than show—at its simplest level, to write “he felt sad” rather than letting his actions and dialogue reveal his reactions—haunts us all. It’s easier: We don’t have to hunt for ways to describe expressions and behaviors. And after all, “he felt sad” takes up a lot less space than “The room around him seemed to darken, the sounds of cheerful conversation to slow to dirge-like rhythms.” And hey, will readers interpret such descriptions the way you intended? Maybe the guy is just having a heart attack.
Hardest of all may be recognizing when we’ve slipped into telling. In my writing group, we all get called on it regularly.
One exercise I’ve found extremely useful in helping me recognize telling is the SCREENPLAY exercise: convert a troublesome scene to screenplay format.
Why does this work? For me, it works because, unless you allow yourself the indulgence of a voice-over, filmgoers must rely on action and dialogue to interpret characters’ moods and thoughts and to understand what’s going on.
The rules are simple: at no point in the conversion of your scene can you indicate in your stage directions that “he thought” or “he worried” or “he felt—afraid, tired, hopeful, disappointed.” You may never enter your character’s mind. After all, your audience can’t. They can only see and hear what’s on the screen.
Too stifling? Surely in a mystery, for example, the character has to speculate internally about the meaning of clues. In a romance, the protagonist has to tell us of her ecstasy. Well, maybe. The screenplay exercise can clarify just how much telling we really have to include.
For a sense of what this exercise can contribute, here are a few lines from my novel King of the Roses and the corresponding lines structured as a screenplay. Note that I converted the whole book, a choice that requires me to scrutinize every word because screenplays are radically length restricted (a 358-page book becomes a 100-page play). But casting individual scenes can provide some of the same benefits.
Set-up: A criminal who demands that Chris hold the Derby favorite finds Chris alone in a restaurant and escalates his threats. The criminal speaks the first line.
From the novel:
“I tried to get a hold of you last night. Why didn’t you answer the phone?”
“I was out.”
“No you weren’t. You just didn’t answer the phone. This isn’t a little romance we have here. This is business. What about it?”
Chris felt his spine crawl as if he were already dead, with demons dancing on his grave. The man stared at him steadily, tilting his head a little so that Chris could see his white, speckled scalp where his hair thinned on top.
“So when would I get paid?”
“You jocks is all the same. Money, money.”
“I haven’t seen any money.”
The man’s lower lip went on curling, but his eyes hardened. He stood up suddenly, clutching his overcoat to his paunch.
“I’ll tell you one thing I bet you have seen,” he said. “I bet you’ve seen what a jock looks like when he falls off in a race and gets his face stepped on. I bet you’ve seen that. Huh?”
From the screenplay:
I tried to get hold of you last night. Why didn’t you answer your phone?
I was out.
This isn’t a little romance we have here. This is business.
So when would I get paid?
You jocks is all the same. Money, money, money.
I haven’t seen any money.
The man stands, clutching his coat to his paunch.
I tell you one thing I bet you have seen. I bet you seen what a jock looks like when he falls off and gets his face stepped on. I bet you seen that, huh?
So what has this exercise done for me? Above all, it has forced me to look really hard at the inner reactions I’ve chosen to include in the prose-narrative format. Obviously they aren’t essential to meaning. I get to ask myself whether they add enough to justify the departure from action, from showing.
So the conversion allows me to see where my dialogue on its own takes readers. It also forces me to find the actions that express the characters’ reactions. I have to convert feelings into motion. Once discovered, these motions and actions can go back into my prose.
Again, you don’t have to go this spare. But you might make decisions about where to cut and where to add with more insight if you’ve tried the bare-bones telling that screenplays require.
You don’t need fancy software to do this. For the actual screenplay, I used Microsoft Word’s “styles” to create the various format patterns screenplays require. (The formatting didn’t translate directly into this blog post.) By the way, learning to use “styles” helps when you convert your Word document into the format for various e-publishing contexts. The important thing, however you structure your exercise, is to remember: no “feelings.” Just things viewers can see: action and dialogue.
Do you have strategies for detecting “telling”? Share!