Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Movies have a distinct advantage over novels. The former dramatize, or show, the incidents of the plot as they occur. The latter describes them. Yes, yes, novelists are told to “show not tell,” and, for the most part, most try. Still, their medium is words, not pictures, and even images, or word-pictures, aren't really pictures; they're descriptions of images, written in words. The truth is plain and simple: novelists can't “show,” not really; they can only tell.
It may be argued that what is meant by “show, don't tell,” is not that novelists shouldn't describe action, but that they shouldn't explain things. Explanations, or exposition, as it's called in literary criticism, is the sort of telling novelists are told not to write. Readers don't want paragraphs or, worse yet, pages of exposition; they want action, they want immediacy, they want drama.
Fair enough. “Don't tell” refers to exposition, not description (although, novelists are also instructed, there should be no more description than necessary, either. Provide just enough detail—often a sentence or two will suffice—to convey a general idea of the setting, a character's looks, a building's appearance or whatever and move on. Readers are likely to have seen the very person, place, or thing the novelist is describing to envision it on their own, without seemingly endless descriptions.
Again, fair enough. Mark Twain said “eschew surplusage,” and he's a writer whose work is esteemed both literary and entertaining, a sometimes rare combination.
Dean R. Koontz
Even with exposition avoided and description greatly curtailed, novelists can keep their writing interesting and entertaining by using a few techniques. Dean Koontz shares a few tips in an interview with The Rumpus. Page by page, sentence by sentence, and word by word, he strives for perfection:
I rewrite the page until it’s as perfect as I can get it, which will never be perfect. . . . The constant rewriting until the page really flows and the prose really excites me and I move on to the next
page . . . .
Twain also reminded other writers that “there's a difference between lightning and the lightning bug,” suggesting that literary lightning results from using what Alexander Pope, in defining style, called “proper words in their proper places.” In an interview with Brad Crawford, Koontz said:
I like prose to have hidden rhythms; I like prose to have a music beneath the surface. It’s almost never recognized by the reader in a conscious way, but it is recognized unconsciously. It’s why readers feel the prose flow, why it speaks to them. A poet once reviewed one of my books and recognized that entire passages were written in iambic pentameter . . . .Different poetic meters affects us emotionally in different ways. It’s not anything anyone’s going to see, but it’s one of the great techniques to suck a reader right into the heart of the story.
Polished writing and cadence—there's no substitute for them in attracting and holding readers' interest, but there's a tip I'd add to the list of techniques novelists can use to maintain their readers' involvement as they move their stories forward. For want of a better term, I'll call it locomotion, or motive power.
To present a scene using motive power, envision it as images, chosen and arranged according to a specific purpose and a well-considered design, as if the sequence were being shown on a movie screen. Think of the written scene as a filmed shot. Before starting with your own story, watch a scene from movie. Then, transcribe what you see, so to speak, into words. I did this in a previous Chillers and Thrillers post, “Making Every Word (or Image) Count.” The scene I used is the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's classic film Jaws, but my purpose in doing so, it the earlier post was to consider how “
Young and blonde, Chrissie Watkins runs along a ramshackle fence, pursued by a young man.
Tripping. He falls, but he's on his feet again in a second.
Continuing to run, she glances back, shedding her jacket.
She pauses, removes a shoe, stumbles onward. Behind her, the man doffs his sweatshirt.
As he tumbles down a hill at the side of the trail, Chrissie, now completely nude, runs toward the ocean.
Entering the surf, she dives into the sea. By the time the man reaches the beach, she's nearing a buoy some distance off shore.
She sinks. For a moment, she's lost to sight.
Resurfacing, she gasps, water streaming down her face. Smiling, as she treads water, she looks west. The sun is low.
On the beach, the man is a silhouette against the wash of the surf. His outline, like a stretch of low land and scattered clouds, is lit, yellow and pink, by the setting sun. Struggling to remove a shoe, he falls drunk, perhaps.
In the distance, Chrissie resumes swimming, turning her head from side to side, smiling.
Sinking, she kicks and waves her arms.
She surfaces, smiles. Then, her head jerks backward; she's pulled violently downward.
Her eyes widen. She turns her head slightly to her right, looking puzzled. Her head dips below the surface, then reappears. She looks panicked. In a splash, she vanishes beneath the waves. When her head bobs up, pierces the surface, her mouth is open, her eyes shut tightly, a grimace of terror and pain freezing her features.
A splash, and she is pulled across the water, past the buoy, only her head and shoulders visible above the water. She struggles. She's pulled to the right. She straightens, but, again, she's pulled to the right. Water churns about her.
On the beach, the man, her boyfriend, sleeps.
At sea, Chrissie struggles. Launched toward the buoy, she clings desperately to its platform. It turns. Cast off, she swims toward shore. A moment later, she's seized. Anguished, amid the roiling water, she cries out.
She is snatched underwater.
Her boyfriend continues to sleep, oblivious to the breaking waves washing over him.
The sky is nearly dark.
Even if we cast this passage in the simple past tense, as is conventional with novels, the sense of movement, of action, of drama that the locomotion technique produces remains intact:
Young and blonde, Chrissie Watkins ran along a ramshackle fence, pursued by a young man.
Tripping, he fell, but he was on his feet again in a second.
Continuing to run, she glanced back, shedding her jacket.
Pausing, she removed a shoe, stumbled onward. Behind her, the man doffed his sweatshirt.
As he tumbled down a hill at the side of the trail, Chrissie, now completely nude, rand toward the ocean.
Entering the surf, she dove into the sea. By the time the man reached the beach, she was nearing a buoy some distance off shore.
She sank. For a moment, she was lost to sight.
Resurfacing, she gasped, water streaming down her face. Smiling, as she tread water, she looked west. The sun was low.
On the beach, the man was a silhouette against the wash of the surf. His outline, like a stretch of low land and scattered clouds, was lit, yellow and pink, by the setting sun. Struggling to remove a shoe, he fell, drunk, perhaps.
In the distance, Chrissie resumed swimming, turning her head from side to side, smiling.
Sinking, she kicked and waved her arms.
She surfaced, smiled. Then, her head jerked backward; she was pulled violently downward. Her eyes widened. She turned her head slightly to her right, looking puzzled. Her head dipped below the surface, then reappeared. She looked panicked. In a splash, she vanished beneath the waves. When her head bobbed up, piercing the surface, her mouth opened and her eyes shut tightly, as a grimace of terror and pain froze her features.
A splash, and she was pulled across the water, past the buoy, only her head and shoulders visible above the water. As she struggled, she was pulled to the right. She straightened, but, again, she was pulled to the right. Water churned about her.
On the beach, the man, her boyfriend, slept.
At sea, Chrissie struggled. Launched toward the buoy, she clung desperately to its platform. It turned. Cast off, she swam toward shore. A moment later, she was seized. Anguished, amid the roiling water, she cried out.
She was snatched underwater.
Her boyfriend continued to sleep, oblivious to the breaking waves washing over him.
The sky was nearly dark.
This is not a story of our own, of course; it's a scene from a movie. By “transcribing” the scene, as it occurs on film, we mimic the way the film was shot, using short sentences, action verbs, few details, little characterization through description or interior monologue. The emphasis is on action, movement, drama. By writing our own scenes in the same manner, whenever possible (which is much more frequently than many novelists might imagine), we maintain readers' interest and entertain them. Trained by movies, readers will likely appreciate our style, even if only subconsciously. If they like our stories, they'll probably be back for more.
Edgar Allan Poe
One other tip, this one from Edgar Allan Poe (by way of an annotation in Kevin J. Hayes's The Annotated Poe). First, the passage from Poe's short story. “Metzengerstein”:
The career of the horseman was, indisputably, on his own part, uncontrollable. The agony of his countenance, the convulsive struggling of his frame gave no evidence of superhuman exertion; nut no sound, save a solitary shriek, escaped from his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through, in the intensity of terror.
Now, Hayes's note:
The cinema has much to offer when it comes to understanding Poe, partly because his work has contributed so much to its development. The great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein found that Poe's writing anticipated visual techniques that would not be fully utilized until the invention of motion pictures. This paragraph provides a good example. Poe depicts Metzengerstein in close-up (the “agony of his convulsions”), pulls back to show him from a distance (“the convulsive struggling of his frame”), and then supplies an extreme close-up (“his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through”). The rapid shifting of images quickens the narrative pace, which the ensuing cacophony of sound—the shriek of Metzengerstein, the clatter of hoofs, the roar of the flames, and the shriek of the wind—further intensifies, thus providing a narrative running start for the horse's final bound up the staircase.
Wow! Words in the hands of a master author who is both a short story writer and a poet can accomplish feats nothing short of amazing.
Using their techniques, we lesser mortals can still improve our own writing—dramatically.