Novels Are Not Movies

Last Monday I talked about showing versus telling and how the phrase “show, don’t tell” has led to an overuse of showing in modern fiction. Young writers, eager to hone their craft, grasp onto the advice like a knife and hack all traces of telling from their stories, convinced telling means death to their publishing hopes.

Granted most new writers tend to tell instead of show, and therefore produce bland, actionless stories. As a result, they are told to think of themselves as a filmmaker looking through a camera. Focus in on the action, paint the scene with words, and . . . Cut!

This is a worthy exercise, but when it’s overused, all that action can become just as boring and unsatisfying as a bunch of telling. Why? You get a lot of action, but you never get to know the characters.

As a writer, have you ever thought to yourself (emphatically), “Who is this character? Who is she???” I have, which meant, my readers were going to ask it, too. Not good.

As a reader, have you ever been agitated by fiction that is non-stop action? Forget sitting down for a “relaxing” read. These types of novels put you to work as they jump from scene to scene, conjuring pointed image after pointed image.

I ran into both of these problems when writing The Exception. I am a fan of showing, and use the technique quite a bit. But, as I was revising The Exception, I encountered frustration. The characterization was flat, the pacing was like the steady beat of a base drum, and parts of the story . . . well, they just weren’t believable. Why would my main character do that? What was her motivation? Why should I or anyone else care?

To remedy my frustration, I started telling my character’s back story in little snippets. This served two purposes. First, it allowed my readers to stop, relax, and take a breath. Second, it gave them insight into my character’s motivations and actions, which in turn, made my “showing” weightier and more significant.

I must confess I didn’t know what I was doing. I just sensed something was wrong, and so I took steps to fix it. During my last editing session, I almost grabbed the “show, don’t tell” knife and hacked a large portion of the telling from my manuscript. My thought process was this…”Drats, there’s some telling. How amateur. That’s amateur, right? But. I like it. I think it works. Hmmm. Oh well. I’m leavin’ it.”

I’ve learned my lesson. Novels are not movies. Movies are primarily visual, while novels are primarily imaginative. As authors, we provide the construct. Our readers provide the visual. Writers have a wide array of building blocks, which we can arrange in a variety of ways, defying the laws of science if we so choose. Why limit ourselves to rectangles and two dimensions?