Tuesday, August 14, 2018

On the screen or in the mind?

We go to movies or stage plays to be entertained. Sets and stages are created as backdrops for the story, and actors are chosen to portray the characters, delivering lines the scriptwriter has written and engaging in actions called for in the script and/or by the director. Story-appropriate sound effects complete the desired ambiance to complete the story. Viewers then can fully engage the senses of sight and sound, as well as emotions, to bring the story to life exactly as the writer(s) and director intended.

Of course, taking a script to screen or set is more complicated than the overly simple description above, and one or several variables may come into play along the way that complicate the process even further. Still, the end result will hopefully accomplish its purpose, whether to entertain, educate, terrify, or otherwise affect the viewer.

While stories often entertain, there much of the similarity between story writers and screenwriters and playwrights ends. Because novelists don't have access to the accompanying sets and living, breathing actors don't exist in our writing world, the challenges can be greater. We must use words to replace sets and visible characters who speak with inflection for the audience to hear and who act out their emotions for the audience to see. Words alone must create in the mind of the reader mental pictures that rival those on the stage or screen.

Let's consider two ways to present a short scene in a story. In the first one, sentence structures and lengths vary, and neither run-ons nor fragments in the narrative mar the flow. It sets the scene and tells the story, but it doesn't pull the reader in. The second invites the reader into the action and paints a vivid word picture that lifts the story off the page and onto the screen in the reader's mind. These examples were taken from a writing manual I created several years ago.

Example 1: 
     Maria stood in the bay window of her large bedroom, smiling as she looked out over the scene below. Claws, the feral cat that seemed to dare her to pick him up again wandered across the manicured lawn, past the bed of fall flowers, toward the patch of colorful woods that stood between
the house and the stream that cut the property in half. She watched him quicken his pace and knew he'd spotted his dinner. Laughing out loud as he pounced, then ran toward the path in the woods, she realized his prey had taken flight. She also realized the kitty food she kept in the bowl on the porch would remain untouched. When she looked again, Claws had disappeared into the trees. Turning away, she walked out of the room and down the stairs. It was time to fix dinner.

Example 2:
     Laughing, Maria bolted out the door and sprinted across the manicured lawn in pursuit of the feral cat.
     "I'll catch you yet, Claws!" She cast a glance at the scratches on her arm. "One of these days you'll be purring on my lap."
     The cat shot a fleeting look in her direction and detoured through rows of crimson and yellow nasturtiums.
     "Don't think you can distract me just because I love these flowers." Slowing her pace, she reached out to touch a blossom. "Yum! These are ready to eat." She blew a kiss in the direction of the blooms and resumed the chase.
     Claws had stopped running and assumed a stalking stance. Looks like you've found dinner. I need to be a lot more  creative than putting out a bowl of kitty morsels if I hope to ever tame you.
     Suddenly, he leapt forward and darted down the wooded path that led to the stream.
     She chuckled and called after him. "The victory's yours today, but I intend to win the war."
     On the way back to the house, she stopped to pick a handful of tangy nasturtiums. Tonight's salad would be special.

Which example creates a more vivid word picture in your mind?

Suggested reading:
Hollywood and Screenwriting
Lessons Learned from Writing Scripts and Acting
Say It with Gusto

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and suspense. You can contact her through her websites: LSLaneBooks.com and DenverEditor.com.


  1. Nice post, Linda, and it is really a no-brainer as to which example is more vivid. I think having the two examples like you often do in your posts, really is helpful for new writers. I can remember when I was first starting to write fiction, coming from a journalism background, I didn't get it when my critique group kept telling me that I was telling and not showing. If someone had just taken the time to rework even a small part of one of my scenes to "show" me, I would have gotten it much sooner.

    It isn't enough to just say, "Show, don't tell."

    1. It took me a while to grasp the difference when I started out. Now it's an ongoing education that has evolved from show, don't tell to deep POV with lots of lessons in between. In the beginning, my goal was to be an author, a storyteller. Rather than a straight line to the goal post, however, it's been a journey with detours and side trips and sometimes getting lost. The journey almost ended when a very young (early 20s) head of a writers group wrote a 3-page critique of a pre-print copy of my first book. She found fault with almost everything right down to the my choice of protagonist and insisted the story I really wanted to tell was that of an important but secondary character. Her harsh words almost ended my writing career before it got off the ground. It would have been more helpful had she given me some positive pointers and shown me the difference between between showing and telling.

  2. Great examples. I think it really helps to "illustrate" writing tips in this way.

    1. I agree, Diana. It's a form of a picture being worth a thousand words.


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