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How to Show Not Tell: Write Your Book the Way a Director Films a Movie

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

Have you ever received the feedback from a beta reader or book editor to "show, not tell"? This can be confusing, even for seasoned writers. You might read a published book and find your mind wandering because the author has gone off into a world with no visuals. This is the world of the tell. A shown world is visual and active. It creates a moving picture, a movie in the readers' brains. Now don't despair. A book can be told in places, and this is why the book is better than the movie. You get more detail when the author tells you backstory or the complex emotion behind the punch in the wall. But like all things writing, there is a fine balance between giving the story away to the reader and making them work for themselves. So how can you discern what is too much or too little tell?

My favorite way to show a written scene in a book is to think of myself like a movie director. In a movie you have to show everything, and any info given outside of this scene would be in a "voice over." If you think about writing your book like a movie director would shoot a film, then you will be adding in the rich and needed visuals, action, and dialogue without thinking about the "voice over" until you realize it's absolutely impossible to show what you want in this scene without it. Then, and only then, is the tell or the "voice over" necessary.

When thinking about writing like a director, you need to have a check list in your mind or in your notes. Here are some of the points you should be hitting. It might help to think about a few of your scenes, especially the first one in the manuscript, and take notes on each of the points below.

1. Camera angle:

  • What do you want the reader to see in the scene? What is in the background that you do not want them to see yet? Will you hint at the unknown? Will your characters know what you do not want the reader to know? How will you set up the scene to create the desired results?

2. Scenery:

  • This is your world-building. And yes, you need to build a world when writing realistic fiction too. You're essentially setting up the scene. This is your set design. The details you decide to add in your setting are your props. Make sure when you add in a prop, your characters have a reason for the interaction. Does it influence mood or emotion? Does it influence the story or hint to something coming in the story? Is it the world around them that allows them to perform certain actions? Whatever the case, make sure all world-building details have a purpose. If they do not, it would be like a movie zooming in on a coffee mug from which no one drinks. Wouldn't you be confused and irritated watching that movie?

3. Characters:

  • Your characters need to have a reason for being in this scene. They should only be in the scene if they are acting upon the story. If not, if they are extraneous like extras in a film, their visibility should be blurred or left to the bare minimum. A simple observation of the people around the main characters is necessary scene building, but too much concentration on what these extras are doing, without a very specific purpose, can distract from the story. Imagine a film focusing on extras while the main characters are having an important discussion in the background. You would be trying desperately to get back to the conversation, frustrated at being forced to watch something unimportant. Imagine the action film where in the heat of a chase, we see the people watching from the streets and lose sight of the chase. This kills the tension of the scene, and you might slump back in your seat and lose your interest in the chase. Make sure all characters in the scene are necessary and following the action and story of the main characters. Make note of all characters in the scene, even the extras, and their role in advancing the story. This will help you decide what their dialogue should cover.

4. Action in Dialogue:

  • Action in dialogue is important because it creates visuals, increases or decreases tension, and can be a way to better portray character. The best way to write dialogue is in a setting that promotes interesting action. If your characters are talking while driving, you might want to add that they're in traffic, increasing their agitation, showing the character honking while yelling or in a pause of the dialogue. Avoid most dialogue scenes where nothing is happening unless the dialogue is so heavy and elaborate (i.e. political or world-building complexities, complicated emotion, or plot twist solving) that adding action will confuse the reader. Know when to focus in on the face of the character to show emotion and when to say it aloud. Again, only tell us if the emotion is so complex that it cannot be shown. This is your voice over, and think about how sparingly this is used in films. Most emotion is shown in a film through the actor's actions or facial expressions. Before writing your scene, ask what the characters will be doing while they talk. Is more action or less action needed? What can you show about the characters through their actions in between the dialogue?

    • I want to note that this is something you can think about last in writing. It's easy to interject action between dialogue, but if a dialogue-heavy scene is set in a place where there is no room for interesting action, you might have to rewrite the entire scene.

5. Necessity:

  • Whether or not the scene itself needs to exist is all dependent upon the plot. This is more complex and confusing to figure out on your own, so a good developmental editor will be able to tell you what scenes can be cut to trim down to the necessary story. Films have editors for this too! Haven't you ever seen the deleted scenes after the credits? Unfortunately you can't do that in a book, but I suggest keeping every scene you write in a separate file. You never know who might want to see it when you're a famous author!

More questions on this? Find me on Instagram @eybookedits to continue the conversation!

Looking for an editor who can point out what scenes need more showing and less telling and what scenes are necessary or not, plus SO MUCH MORE?

Check out EY Edits Service section. EY Edits are market-targeted to help you craft a best-selling novel even if you're self-publishing.


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