Sunday, February 5, 2012

New Novelists - Have You Tried Writing A Movie?

I have a pet peeve about first person point-of-view.

I find there are a fair number of books that rely heavily on telling, rather than showing:

I’m told a male lead is hot, sexy and caring, even though his actions are shown as manipulative, cruel and insincere.

I’m told a female lead is tough, even though she is shown as indecisive, passive and reactive.

This inability to look past actions makes me a terrible mind control candidate. I judge by what I see rather than what I'm told. I guess you could call me a "visual reader". You'll probably find "visual writers" penning movies, TV shows, comics or graphic novels.

I have enjoyed many books where the writer is being contrary on purpose. Sadly, there are just as many books where there is no supporting evidence to signpost this intention.

I can’t say this method is storytelling is wrong. There are dozens of books on bestseller lists (both-legacy and self-published) that do this. But, I've also read just as many first person books that are able to propel a story and characterisation forward visually, without having to tell me who the characters are.

So how can a teller become a seer?

There are many valuable tools for writers, but it wasn't until I wrote a screenplay that I really started to understand show-don't-tell in prose.

In screenplays, you only write what you see and hear. It's like plonking your novel in a sensory deprivation chamber. The kind Uncle Walter is so fond of. Your readers no longer have an ESP plug into the characters heads, which makes it vital that everything they say and do speaks for them. And you can't cheat by having everyone just say what they are thinking. You'd have to add "crazy" and "overly dramatic" to the character descriptions of every single one of your characters.

Writing a screenplay makes it easier to spot the problems.

If you rewrite your 300-page novel as a movie, and you can only manage 20 pages of story, then you'll know you are spending too much time in your character's heads.

A character-driven story can still have a satisfying beginning, middle and end, complete with stakes, obstacles, climaxes and resolutions. First person point-of-view doesn't replace this or make it any easier. If anything, I've always considered first person one of the hardest formats to write because it is rather tempting to just tell readers the plot, rather than let them see it for themselves.

Think of your favourite movies and TV shows.  Can you recall specific examples where action spoke louder than words ever could?

What/when was the last script you read? If it was Shakespeare in school, that's okay too.

Have you ever tried writing a screenplay? Would you be willing to give it a try, if you haven't?

I'll talk more about screenplays later, but in the meantime, there are plenty of scripts online that you can try out for yourselves. Remember to stick to movies/TV shows that you like or are in your preferred genre.

Some places to read more about screenplays:


  1. That's funny, because I'm writing a screenplay right now :) I agree that it does really help with the "show don't tell" thing.

    I think the last script I read was Castaway. It was particularly interesting, because for a large portion of that movie the main character is all alone on the island, yet the script was able to show what he was feeling.

    1. I haven't read that particular script, but I have read Joss Whedon's Hush - which was also an episode of TV using actions rather than dialogue. I shall check that one out when I get a spare moment.

      Another good script to read is Strange Than Fiction. It's the first time I read a screenplay and thought the script was better and funnier than the movie. I think it all came down to the writing style, and how the writer was able to convey so much with so little.

  2. I thought about trying to become a screenwriter at one point, but I couldn't see myself dealing with the Hollywood Scene. I was going to write for Frasier (shows you how long ago I had this notion :P).

    But, yes, one of my biggest pet peeves is when authors tell me that the lead is smart over and over, and then she never does anything vaguely intelligent in the story.

    1. A couple of the screenwriting books I own talk about Hollywood. I can't blame you from shying away. I would do the same.

      Still, writing for Frasier would have been one heck of a challenge. I think half-hour situation comedies are one of the hardest to write. I've only ever attempted teleplays and television movies. I used to fancy that I would one day write Hallmark fantasy mini-series or tele-movies.

      Yeah, I think sometimes writers forget that readers have seen a lot of other books too so they can take shortcuts with exposition. We don't have to have a talking head character over-explain things to characters that are meant to be smart. I can't stop my eyes from drifting away from the book when a "smart lead" can't cotton on to something I picked up 5 pages before. That's why I give some writer's 5 stars *wink*. My eyes never leave the page.

  3. I'm and Professional and Creative Writing student hoping to write for television someday, although from some of the scripts I've produced I should probably try to write plays. The trouble I have is that I use too much dialogue, I'm more interested in plot, so when it comes to setting the scene, all the 'visual' stuff, I get restless and try to return to the 'action' as soon as possible. Any tips?