In his excellent book The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, Jeff Gerke urges novel-writers to stop seeing themselves as storytellers and instead think of themselves as filmmakers.
In a lot of novice manuscripts (and, frankly, in some published manuscripts from experienced writers who should know better) the opening scene, if the book were a movie, would be a person sitting in a chair.
For half an hour.
The character is pondering, reminiscing, ruminating…but he’s not doing anything. Writing about people thinking about stuff does not make for a great novel. Great novels are about people doing stuff. It’s okay to have introspective characters. But don’t let introspection go on and on. A paragraph or two at most. Give it some action to break it up. Give your characters something to do and, whenever possible, someone to talk to.
Thinking in terms of exterior visuals rather than internal thoughts will also help you connect your hero’s inner journey to the outer story. Let’s go back to my tropical storm moment.
I did not want to drive to work that day. The storm was fierce, and the preschool was closed, and all I really wanted to do was stay home with my son. But I worked for a newspaper, and unlike schools, newspapers do not shut down for storms. So I drove.
All of that was telling. You could not really put a camera on any of it. Even “the storm was fierce” isn’t specific. “I drove” is a nice strong subject-verb pair, but there’s no context.
Through the gray haze of rain pouring down in sheets, I could see only the taillights on the bumper in front of me. The highway rose, crossing over a street below, and a gust of wind tugged the car, threatening to pull the wheel from my grip. I could imagine that howling storm picking up my little car like a Matchbox toy and throwing it onto the street below. I gripped the wheel tighter in my sweaty hands and slowed even more, my heart pounding.
You see what I did there.
- Specific visual: rain … taillights
- Context: highway
- Physicality: gust of wind … tugged
- Sound effect: howling
- Simile: Matchbox toy
- Visceral reaction: sweaty hands … heart pounding
This is just a snippet. If I were to dramatize this whole event—finding a babysitter, dropping my son off, letting my boss know I’d be late but I was on my way—it would go on for pages. When we convert “telling” passages to “showing,” manuscripts often grow drastically in length. That’s OK. Better to have a long story fully dramatized than a short one that’s just abstract information. Abstracts don’t give readers the emotional experience they are looking for in novels. Drama does.
The kinds of things you choose to include—which visuals, metaphors, sensations, and so on—and which words you use to evoke them will all be characteristics of your unique voice as a writer.
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