SHOW DON’T TELL

The most common advice in the book…so to speak. Every writer’s workshop or craft book offers the same maxim, and yet how often have you written a sentence, paragraph, or page, and been certain of your masterful avoidance of exposition, only to find on re-reading—or critical outside review—that the showing was somewhat less than desired. This is not to say that our writing doesn’t require telling, it does, and the best writing instructors I’ve experienced have said so while also delineating where best to use both.

As I noted in my last post, I’m a craft book junkie and as I cracked the spine on el numero 53…”The First 50 Pages,” by Jeff Gerke, I expected a nice overview of what to avoid in those critical pages of a manuscript (yes, having completed my first novel’s first draft I’ve become a bit obsessive about getting those early pages to sing), not, yet another, chapter sub-heading titled “Show vs. Tell.” But as I read his Rule of Thumb, I couldn’t help but be struck that his proclamation for presenting the subject with new insight was, in fact, correct. Mr. Gerke’s simple manner for determining show v. tell looks to the cinema for inspiration, and, unless you truly hate the movies, he’s on to something. The advice: read your words in question and ask, Can the camera see it? Now, of course, there’s a lot of nuance to this simple statement, and for that I heartily recommend his book, but overall it is an excellent starting point for beginning mastery of this ever-allusive goal.

And now that I’ve broached the subject of the movies, which I do love, of course (saw “The Deep Blue Sea” with Rachel Weisz, on Friday evening—it opens with her character’s attempted suicide…need I say more?), I’m reminded of a seminar a few weeks back at the AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). It covered getting the most out of your internet “presence” and offered advice on blogging, most notably that a blog should find a regular theme/focus, and not simply reveal whatever thought most immediately pops into the writer. In this way, the seminar presenter argued, the blog has a better chance of attracting readers interested in that theme/focus. So here’s my point: I took a screenwriting course at Manhattanville College (where I earned my Masters of Arts in Writing degree) last summer, during which I mentioned to the professor (writer, professor, and writing mentor extraordinaire, Jeff Bens), that he should teach a course titled: Better Than the Book. Simply put, the course would analyze movies based on books where, just maybe, the movie was better than the book.

Always a tough judgment call, but one that’s quite fun nonetheless, and anyone with a taste for great writing and movies can offer a perfectly valid opinion. Is Gregory Peck’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” better than Harper Lee’s original? Okay, that one’s pretty tough since they’re both so well adored. But what about “Wonder Boys”? I loved both book and movie, and yet, I’d give the nod to the movie…

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”? (Easy one, the book is SO much better.) “Little Children”? “Nobody’s Fool”? And can you imagine the conversation over the impending Leo DiCaprio version of “The Great Gatsby”?

Granted, this exercise starts with the written word: someone must’ve loved the words before a movie could even be conceived. And so often when a movie doesn’t live up to the words we easily chalk it up to the loss of internal monologue, the voice, the telling, if you will.

Now I’m not saying that all my future posts will flow from this concept, but there will be quite a few. In the meantime, just remember to always ask yourself: Can the camera see it?

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