Show, don’t tell, or, what The Da Vinci Code movie can teach writers about constructing a narrative

When a writer’s computer is in the shop, she is forced, alas, to try to figure out the mysterious phenomenon known as leisure time. What is it for, and how does one fill it?

For a serious writer under normal circumstances, the equation is very simple: time not absolutely dedicated to positively unavoidable pursuits — such as eating, sleeping, resenting one’s coworkers, etc. — is automatically writing time. But were you aware that there are people out there who DON’T use every second of their spare time to create things?

I know. Incomprehensible, isn’t it?

Apparently, people who don’t write fill their time in other ways — and not always with reading, as much as we might like them to do so in order to create demand for our books. No, they do things like having conversations with their significant others, watching television, playing sports, and climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro. The array is honestly dazzling.

At least, if my significant other is to be believed while he’s still in shock at seeing me outside my studio more than twice per day. Witnessing a minor miracle can play havoc with one’s reasoning skills.

In order to introduce me to this sort of “normalcy,” he rented the movie THE DA VINCI CODE — since I essentially spent the entire summer either locked in my studio or away at writers’ conferences, or writing this blog, I had missed the hype about it, which apparently was considerable. Now, I haven’t read the book, so I did not walk in with preconceptions about the story (other than the complaints one always hears about mega-sellers on the writers’ grapevine), but I must admit, I have never forgiven Ron Howard for A BEAUTIFUL MIND. It seems to me that if you’re going to tell the story of a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, and you profess to present his most famous theory on screen, you have at least a minor ethical obligation to present that theory correctly. Oh, and not to change a real-life story to encourage women to place their children in life-threatening situations on a daily basis. Little things like that.

But I digress — you see what mixing in the real world does to you? In any case, I wasn’t expecting much, other than perhaps some nice ranting opportunities for Sir Ian McKellen, who doesn’t seem to be hurting for them these days.

Little did I anticipate, therefore, what a gold mine of writing advice the movie would be! I didn’t start keeping track until about 20 minutes in, of course, but according to my informal hash marks, a good 90% of the relevant plot elements were given verbally by one of the characters, rather than shown by action. The plot was so reliant on spoken details that the screenplay could, with practically no modifications, have been used as a radio play.

Seldom, if ever, have I seen on screen a better illustration of the oft-given writing advice SHOW, DON’T TELL. This movie was positively aversion therapy for writers who favor telling their stories indirectly. As a writer on writing, if not as a viewer, I was in ecstacy.

Why is shoving most of the relevant plot elements into the characters’ mouths problematic? Leaving aside for the moment that film is, after all, a visual medium, and thus film buffs might reasonably be expected to be given information via, say, images or action, it’s just boring for the audience to receive so much of the important details through their ears.

In writing, as in film, it’s more entertaining if the author mixes up the means of conveying information. If interesting things are happening offstage, for instance, why not show the viewers that offstage scene, instead of making us listen to a summary of it? If an element important to the plot happened in the dim past, why not show a scene set in that dim past, featuring actual characters, rather than forcing the audience to sit through a silent version narrated by a voice-over?

The problem of telling a story indirectly arises very, very frequently in fiction manuscripts: all too often, essential plot points are conveyed either in narrative summary bursts or, even more frequently, by the protagonist’s going and finding someone to tell him or her a long-winded story that provides the relevant background.

The long, Spielberg-like explanatory exposition from a character who isn’t in fact central to the plot is particularly popular in novels. Call me sheltered, but in my experience, strangers seldom blurt out their most closely-held secrets to the first person who asks them, whatever happens in detective movies. To a professional reader’s eye, if a character appears in a manuscript a grand total of once, spills the beans, and disappears, it’s generally a sign of a plot that’s light on action and high on static verbiage.

The problem with conveying too much information this way, as THE DA VINCI CODE illustrates so beautifully, is that lengthy speeches are easy for a reader or viewer to tune out. People standing there talking can get old very fast. If you have a scene or two like this in your manuscript, it’s worth asking yourself: could any of this all-spoken explanation be replaced by an active scene?

To add insult to the injury to the reader’s intelligence, often, in spoken exposition scenes, the protagonist doesn’t even ask good questions to elicit the information necessary to move the plot along. Non-specific queries like “I need to know the truth” and “What do you mean?” are not, after all, staples of the hard-core interview. Nor does it make for very interesting — or particularly life-like — dialogue.

What it does make for is novel dialogue that reads as though it came out of a movie, and conflict that feels as though it’s second-hand.

Summarizing essential plot twists in narrative form, rather than showing the plot actually twisting by including the relevant conflicts in a scene, carries many of the same liabilities. Obviously, you will need to summarize from time to time, to avoid the problem of needing to describe every step a character took to cross a room, but in most cases, an active scene will be more engaging — and more memorable — than a mere explanation of the same activity.

Think about it: which are you more likely to remember tomorrow, someone at your work telling you about her brother-in-law’s narrow escape from a car crash, or seeing the near-miss between the cars yourself?

There is, as there so often is in dealing with the publishing industry, also a strategic reason to avoid telling important parts of your story indirectly: SHOW, DON’T TELL is widely regarded amongst agents, editors, and contest judges as one of the most damning critiques possible for a submission — and one of the most common. In the industry, writing that tells instead of shows is more or less synonymous with writing that needs serious revision.

And I think most of you are already aware of how agents tend to feel about manuscripts like that. If it were a movie, they would walk out of it.

But you’re all better writers than that, aren’t you? You know to read through your manuscripts carefully before you submit them, to catch this kind of static scene, right?

If you didn’t, you do now. Keep up the good work!

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