What I learned about my writing from watching the Twilight: Breaking Dawn movie

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.

About susannahsharp

I'm pursuing a life-long dream of writing now, something I am really enjoying. My first book should be out by Christmas. I want to blog about all things Irish; offering some book reviews for romantic, not smutty, books; and also things pertaining to reading and writing.
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26 Responses to What I learned about my writing from watching the Twilight: Breaking Dawn movie

  1. The part you mention where she is nervous is one I don’t remember from the actual book. I saw the movie (once…*grin*) and find myself comparing scenes to the book. That was a good scene for showing!

    • Thanks for reading, Brinda. I always do that in movies made from books I read, compare the written scenes to the visual ones. It’s interesting to see how they come across in film versus print (or how the filmmakers have mutilated the marvelous story!). But yes, as I said, for me it was a real “light bulb” moment when I saw this one.

  2. Suzanne says:

    I agree. I get so tired of the raised eyebrow, arms crossing, scowls, etc. I liked the example you gave of squeezing too much tooth paste. Original and unique to the scene. I too will work on this. Thanks.

    • Thanks for reading, Suzanne (that is really weird to type as that is my real name). I think for me that has been the hardest part of this revision — trying to give some life to my hero since we don’t get to see inside his head and he otherwise comes across as so flat because I haven’t done a good job of showing what he’s thinking. But creativity is really the key, and I am definitely going to be working on some unique ways to show all those wonderful churning emotions that I know he has in there somewhere!

  3. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie! (I need to see it again.) I agree that I get tired of those same old phrases; but I’ve also found myself stymied trying to avoid those phrases during a rough draft. I’ve learned to just let go – have my characters be nodding, scowling fools because at least it gets the draft written. When I revise, I take as many of those out as possible and that is when I go into creativity mode. Often I’ll jump up and act out the scene I’m working on – and that’s when I get those “squeeze the toothpaste too hard” moments.

    Great post – thanks!

    • It is a great scene, isn’t it? Normally, Kristen Stewart isn’t that expressive. I’ve often said that she is only herself in the film (and other movies as well) and the filmmakers give her characters where that’s what’s needed, but she never really “acts.” In this movie, I have to say, she really moved up several notches in my opinion. She became Bella here and I hope, hope, hope that carries over into the second half of the story. This is one of those scenes where she shines. And I appreciate your sharing your process about letting the cliched phrases fill in during the first draft and then revising them right out of there. I definitely am going to work on that. As I start each scene’s revisions, I am going to analyze what emotions are needed and then (this is the key) spend the time to craft the “STTTH” moments, because those are the moments that stick with a reader.

  4. Edi Ojeda says:

    Great post, Suzanne! I didn’t have the light bulb during the movie but I did reading your post.

    By the way, I loved the movie too.

    • Glad I posted this, then. I had a few other thoughts about what to post today but the one I had planned on just wasn’t working out and after struggling and sweating, I decided to go to this one. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. It is so appreciated. I’m glad you enjoyed the movie! I just can’t believe they’re making us wait a whole year, especially since I know it’s already done.

      In fact, let me share a deep, dark secret with you guys. My daughter has a friend whose mom works in the industry — I’m not exactly sure what she does or anything, but she gets DVDs of movies before they’re even in the theater and about two weeks ago she got BOTH halves of the Twilight film. My daughter was invited over to watch them both, but she couldn’t go. I asked if it would be too weird if I went in her place. She gave me the look that only teenage girls can give their mothers and said flatly that I couldn’t. Dang it.

  5. Shannon-Nicole says:

    Thanks for this post. I haven’t seen the movie…yet. Now I’m going to go. I’m reading a book right now where the characters are talking at each other, telling each other “don’t be nervous.” I keep putting the book down in frustration.
    Thanks Again!

  6. That’s one thing I have heard over and over again in my various writers’ classes: “Trust the reader. They’ll figure things out.” It sounds like the author of the book you are struggling through didn’t trust you! Sorry about that on your behalf. Good luck getting through it.

    If you do get to the movie, let me know what you think of that scene. It’s a good movie. Ya know, not a life-changing event, but a worthy addition to the franchise.

  7. Barbara says:

    Hi: I haven’t seen the movie yet either, but heard it has some real emotional scenes. But,I also have the bad habit of using the same physical descriptions to portray emotions. I’ve found a site that has an emotional thesaurus

    It has links for many emotions. As I access the Internet via adaptive equipment, I can’t tell you where the links are, but there are quite a few. Hope it can help.

    • I went over there and looked at this and it’s incredible! It’s just what I was planning on doing with my notebook but now I don’t have to do that quite as desperately. I am going to pick a scene in the next day or two and try to revise it using this marvelous thesaurus and all of its associated companions about color, characteristics, etc. Maybe next week’s post will be about how much fun I had with it and how it worked for me! Thanks for sending me the link, Barbara.

      • What a find! The emotions thesaurus is amazing. Thanks for sharing this.
        Emotions are tough to write without using the same old words and expressions.
        This will help me quite a bit.


  8. Robin Hillyer Miles says:

    Have you seen Atonement? There’s a part where Keira Knightly has stepped out of a fountain, dripping wet and stormed off into the house. James McAvoy sits on the edge of the fountain and gingerly places his hand on the surface of the water exactly where she just stepped out. It was so sensual and moving and … oh my, you must see it. And it is all done in silence.

  9. I loved the movie, have seen it twice, and I love that scene. I have an issue with show vs tell being a newbie so your notebook idea is great, Thanks.
    Fun read!

    • It’s an easy thing to see and recognize, I think, but a very difficult thing to actually do in your own writing. I’m sure that’s why it’s constantly mentioned, because very few people actually do it well. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  10. MonaKarel says:

    We learn when showing dogs never to say “relax, it’s okay, don’t be nervous” It either confirms to the dog that they should be nervous, or sounds like the handler is trying to convince themselves. Much better to SHOW them what to do, instead of TELLING them what not to do. And OMG Susannah, you just popped me into my own epiphany. Too late for NaNo but I can see why I’m hitting a wall. THANKS

    • Interesting comment, Mona. Thanks for sharing that with us. And I am sure that what is true for dogs is also true for people. I know when I tell my husband not to get upset about something, it makes it even worse! And sorry about missing NaNo for you, but hopefully the epiphany will serve you later as well.

  11. I’ve only seen the movie once but will go back again by myself to really “see” it for myself. You’re absolutely on target about Bella’s anxiousness and turmoil about having sex for the first time. In film, emotions are more effectively visualized as opposed to a descriptive litany of frowns, raised eyebrows and pounding hearts in text. I guess on some level writers have to think like a screenwriter.

    I enjoyed your observations. Now I’m going to write Bella’s scene and see if I can do it justice.

    • I think your observation about thinking like a screenwriter is a worthwhile one up to a point. I was reading something else that pointed out how movies jump around with just straight cuts between scenes and various actions and yet the audience manages to follow along with what is happening and we need to be able to do that in our writing as well without a lot of backstory or transitional material. So we can definitely learn a lot from a WELL-CRAFTED movie or show. There are, of course, a lot of turkeys out there, too.

  12. khakicrouch says:

    Great job at showing us the scene. I haven’t seen any of these movies or read the books. I too tend to fall into the tell trap trying to find another word to use. This gives me the excuse to watch my most favoritest (I think I might have stolen this phrase) movies. I never went to the movies and saw Lord Of The Rings. I never heard of the books or anything. Then a girl went to work at the convenience store where I used to work. We worked together and she would talk about the movies and tell me things about them. By now they had been on STARZ and other movie channels, still not grabbing me to watch them. But as my friend and coworker talked and described I was interested. I borrowed her movies. I was HOOKED. I can watch them over and over back to back. The ones I like best are the extended versions. There is so much more information in them. I was so hooked the first thing I attempted to write was a LOTR fan fiction. Not a very good one but it got me started now with your post it gives me a good reason to go back and rewatch them-lol. I fell for the king and Viggo Mortensen through the movies. I have several of his older movies and as many of the newer ones that I can grab too.

    • LOTR is a truly life-changing experience in the theater. Those movies are absolutely breathtaking in scope, story, and craft. Against those masterpieces, I think the Harry Potter movies, much as I enjoy them for what they are, looked very bad in comparison. My family and I look forward to the day when someone will remake the HP films with the same sort of vision and commitment to the source material Jackson used in those three films. And yes. Viggo Mortensen. Nothing more needs to be said about that. Sorry, am I drooling?

  13. I haven’t seen the movie, so I was glad that you shared your ‘aha’ moment. Well worth reading and marking as a favorite. thanks

  14. Thanks, Louise, for dropping by. I appreciate it! If you chance to see the movie, let me know what you think of that particular scene.

  15. Pingback: My experiment with the Emotion Thesaurus | Susannah Sharp

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