Show, Don’t Tell: A Disney Lesson

The other day, I came across one of those children’s books that is a condensed Disney movie. They take the pictures from the movie, slap on some summary of what happens, and call it a picture book. I assume the idea is to get kids reading with stories they already love, but looking at it, I just remembered how much I hated those books when I was little.

And then I wondered why I hated them so much. After all, the books have the same artwork as the movie, the same characters, and the same story. Was it just the lack of music that made me want to put them down?


It’s not the music that makes the difference, of course (although Disney sure knows how to write show-stoppers). In the movie, every scene is laid out beat by beat so you get to see Cinderella’s stepmother manipulate her; you get to feel her panic as she is trapped in the attic when the Grand Duke comes with the slipper. The picture books simplify the problems and the solutions into mere sentences. ¬†For example, one Cinderella book I have (since it was my favorite, I actually have a few) reads:

“‘CINDERELLA’ called the stepmother. Cinderella went downstairs. ‘I want you to clean the floor and wash the windows and dust the drapes,’ said the stepmother.”

The scene in the movie goes much differently: after the mice have managed to get into Drusilla and Anastasia’s breakfasts, the stepmother calls Cinderella in for a talk. The bedroom is dark and sinister, and the cat Lucifer grins as he anticipates Cinderella’s punishment. As Cinderella tries to apologize, her stepmother cuts her off, and then the stepmother alternates between a “killing with kindness” voice and a harsh bark to order Cinderella around. THAT is how Cinderella gets told to clean the floor and wash the windows and dust the drapes. It is the product of a scene that establishes Cinderella’s relationship with her stepmother, a scene that establishes the stepmother as the villain, and a scene that just plain engages the watcher’s emotions.

So when the picture book reduces it to a mere order that occupies Cinderella’s time until the ball, it oversimplifies the plot and the character questions. And as a five-year-old, I knew it and didn’t like it. You can bet older readers are going to see through it just as quickly.

Last week I talked about cutting out the extra parts of your novel to get right to the good stuff. What these picture books show, though, is that there is a place for showing. I don’t want to just be told that Cinderella’s stepmother was mean: I want to see it, and see how Cinderella reacts to that. By telling the unimportant stuff, you leave room for showing the meat of the scenes that will engage the reader and thicken the plot.

(If you want to watch the scene I’m talking about, it starts in this clip at about 3:05)


I’ve been reading a lot of submissions recently with bad dialogue and, unfortunately, that mistake is enough to make me reject a manuscript.

There seem to be three main ways in which writers err with dialogue. First, they use it to dump back story. This is very tempting and also a very big no-no. Back story is basically anything that’s happened before the action of the story occurred. Writers spend so much time getting to know our characters and stories in their imagination that we usually have TONS of back story, and it’s very tempting to share it all with the reader. It’s kind of like a parent who wants to tell everyone exactly how many words their two-year-old can say and where they were when they first said it and what the baby’s reaction was and what the parent’s reaction was, yada yada yada. Those details are very important to the parent, but the average listener really doesn’t care. The difference between the parent and the writer is that the parent can get away with it. Writers, if they want to be published, have to learn to curb that back story to the bare minimum. Then they have to figure out how to integrate it into the real story. Here’s where the dialogue issue comes in. A tempting shortcut is to simply have the characters “say” the backstory. For example,

“I like those shorts, Susie.”

“Thanks, Jack. You bought them for me at the mall, remember? Last Christmas right before Grandma died. Then we all had to go to the funeral.”

“Yes, and then you moved to New York and started college. I haven’t seen you since. I sure have missed you.”

Basically, the characters are telling each other things that they already know and have no plausible reason to be saying other than to be informing the reader (who they, of course, don’t know exists). This shortcut, while effective at getting the back story out, alienates the reader because the dialogue becomes stiff.

Stiff dialogue is a HUGE problem. You can create great, vivid, sympathetic characters, but if they sound like robots in their conversations, the reader is going to disengage. And when a reader disengages, they don’t end up liking the story. Above all, you want the reader to like your story. So stiff dialogue is a problem!

The final way that dialogue trips up writers is when they use it inappropriately. It is really tempting to just give your characters rein to have long conversations that are filled with quips and retorts and all the useless things people actually talk about in real life. As a writer, I know it’s a lot of fun to write those scenes because it’s like you’re actually there in the room with the character. But as a reader, it doesn’t work. Those scenes inevitably drag out. Dialogue has to be used to push the story forward, not to imitate real life. To go full circle, that’s also why back-story-dialogue usually flops: it doesn’t add anything to the scene. Dialogue, like any interactions with characters, needs to move the scene towards its main point, and the scene needs to move the story towards its main point.

But all hope is not lost. If you’re erring with dialogue, that just means you need to learn how to fix it! And while there are of course classes and articles and even books on the subject, I think watching TV is really helpful. You have to be careful, since television and movies often use dialogue precisely for back story dumping, and some shows have horribly stiff dialogue (for an example of both of these, check out this article), but in general script writers have good dialogue skills.

And for a completely unrelated link: do you want to know which famous writer you sound like? This website is a great tool for procrastination!

How fictitious is fiction?

Several queries I’ve read recently have said “My novel is 99% true life” or “My novel is based on the events in my life” or “My experience as a schizophrenic in jail – just like the protagonist – makes me the perfect person to write the novel.” This makes me nervous.

I suppose on the one hand, using life experience is good because it makes your writing authentic. I wrote a short story that takes place in Warsaw and I used all my knowledge of the city and Polish culture to make it as real as possible. But the story wasn’t about my experience or even anything I’d ever done in Poland. It was more 3% experience and 97% fiction. Because if I had tried to make it a story about what I had experienced, I think it would be an absolutely horrible story. Once you commit yourself to trying to convey your experiences, you lose some of the autonomy of fiction. You will stick too closely to the facts of what you experienced and forget to create. Worst, in revisions it will not only be about fixing your writing but changing your experience. All in all, too much truth in a story makes for a bad writing experience. And once you’ve gotten one book published about your experiences in Panama, where will the next one come from? Will you even know how to create a story of your own?

I know I take this to the extreme; I never consciously base any characters on people I’ve met in real life. People always tell me: oh, you must have so many ideas to write about! Or, that was a bad experience, but it will be great in a novel someday! Or, oh, Whidbey Island will be great for writing because you can have your pick of horses, boating, biking, hiking…! And I smile and nod and try not to roll my eyes because I really make it all up as I go (sorry to break the news to those of you who’ve ever said something like that to me). Of course, I’m no expert and I know people really do use their experiences. But I don’t think it should be a claim that you put in your query as if to prove that somehow it makes your story better. If anything it makes it less of a novel and more of a memoir. Which one do you want your book to be?

Open Mic Night

Last night I went to my first Open Mic. It’s surprising that it’s my first one since they’ve happened at least once a quarter all year, but this was the first one I actually knew about beforehand. Anyway, I went without anything prepared (just some old drafts) and wasn’t planning on reading. Of course that didn’t turn out. Since friends were there, I was signed up to read despite my protestations. To make it worse, I realized two things about my story as I got up there to read: 1. All I had was the old draft with some awkward sentences; 2. I had submitted this story to the magazine that was being launched that night (which is why there was an open mic) and it had been rejected. And now I was reading it for them.

Oh well. I got through it. I even did my best to speak up, although I never lifted my eyes from the paper. And at the end there was applause (we’ll pretend they didn’t clap at the end of every reading). But the whole experience got me thinking:

Who invented readings? Aren’t the majority of authors introverts who shy away from speaking in front of large groups of people? Why do we expose ourselves to such torture?

Of course, I realized very quickly that readings are one of the first forms of advertising for writers. But in this day and age with all the blogging, tweeting, facebooking, interviews, contests, etc. that authors do to get their names out there, are readings still even necessary?

My conclusion is yes. Although personally I much prefer reading over listening, readings are still really important. After all, there is nothing stronger than a personal connection with an author. A few years ago I got to hear a bestselling author (who shall remain nameless) give a talk about writing. He came off arrogant and pompous and I was glad I didn’t have to hear him again. Still, I felt obligated to try one of his books. The writing was stiff and I couldn’t get through the first chapters. Another reason for me not to like him. Yet whenever I see a book of his in the bookstore, I get excited and point it out to whoever I’m with and say: “I saw him speak!” And most of the time I even take the book off the display to see what it’s about. So if an author who gives me a great sense of dislike can still make me look at his book in the store, just think how powerful an author who meet the people who actually like them.

I guess I’ll have to go to the open mics next year and get some practice reading out loud.