I had an epiphany. Really I did. I was able to see my writing in a new light.
I’ve seen the Breaking Dawn movie three times, okay. Three times. You may laugh. But I really enjoyed it the first time and I just HAD to go the second and third time with a group of friends and then with another friend who wanted to see it. They twisted my arm. Okay, maybe not so much. But that’s beside the point.
It’s a fun movie and relatively faithful to the book, with a few necessary additions to make it more visually appealing. But I did not want to post today to talk about the movie as a whole. I wanted to talk about one scene and how, as I was watching it the first time, a bit of a light bulb went off over my head (in my imagination – no one’s movie viewing experience was disturbed!) and I had a startling new insight to my own writing which I hope I can share with you.
There’s a point in the story just as Edward and Bella are ready to, hmmm, consummate their marriage, where Bella is very nervous. In the book, she expresses her fear that Edward won’t think she’s pretty enough, etc. But in the movie, she never says anything like that. She just literally “shows” us that she’s nervous and self-conscious about her looks. Her hands tremble a bit as she grabs her overnight bag and then she looks in the mirror, drumming her fingers on the edge of the sink. When she brushes her teeth, she squeezes way too much toothpaste on the brush and it falls off, making a bit of a mess in the sink. She drums her fingers some more. Then she shaves her legs and we can see her hurrying because she’s agitated. When she goes to get into a swimsuit for their sensual swim, she can’t find anything she likes –Alice has only packed really sexy little outfits which she is totally uncomfortable with. Finally, she sits on the floor in a towel with her feet a bit turned in, with the most forsaken look on her face. Finally, she says to herself, “Don’t be a coward,” and she walks out of the bedroom down to the ocean. I won’t go any further into the scene, because that is all I need to talk about here.
Never once does the word “nervous” cross her lips. Never does Edward say to her, “Don’t be nervous, Bella.” Never does she even speak other than her frustrated groan at her selection of swimsuits. But everyone in that theater knows that Bella is completely stressed out about what is going to happen.
THAT’S the infamous “show versus tell.” Her actions show us how she is feeling, not her words or anyone else’s words. We shouldn’t have to tell the reader our character is angry or happy or excited. We should be able show him doing things that express that emotion, using rich verbs and nouns, and then the reader is drawn into the scene, just like everyone in the theater can totally feel for Bella as she sits there on that floor.
I think we all know we are supposed to do this, or at least if we’ve taken even a rudimentary writing class or read along on a writer’s blog. But it’s harder than it sounds, right? Why?
Literally I was thinking this through as I was watching the next scenes in the movie, and another light bulb went off.
Because I don’t have very many ways to describe someone being angry or happy or sad. I have a few clichéd descriptions and I keep pulling those same old phrases out. Character A scowls at character B. If she’s childish or particularly peeved, she might stick her tongue out. Character B raises an eyebrow or frowns. After a few tense scenes, we’ve seen those same actions several times and I get bored of them, so then it’s easy to fall back onto the old telling mode.
I think what I need to do is come up with some different ways of showing a particular emotion. Maybe a little database, so to speak, of how someone behaves when they’re angry or happy or frustrated or sad. Maybe I can sit for an hour or two and, if necessary, even act out exactly how I show my family I’m mad. Or I’m happy. Or I’m excited about something. Then, if I can jot those sorts of actions down, I have some information I can use when I need to use those actions in a scene. Of course, each character will have their own particular habits, but most signs of emotion are fairly universal. Some may be a bit more subdued or silly than others, but they will generally be understood by the reader.
I think that will really help make my writing a lot more varied. I know I definitely need it. I am getting so tired as I do these edits of having Riordan scowling or Sunny giggling. It’s definitely not fun to read.
So maybe, if this is a problem for you, if you aren’t good at showing versus telling, this is something you could do, too. Maybe as you read a book or watch a movie or a TV show, you could start keeping a list in a notebook of how actors show their emotions or how authors have “shown” you someone’s feelings rather than just told you. I like that idea and think I’m going to get started. And maybe I’ll just have to go see Breaking Dawn again.