Showing More, or Lessons from Your Favorite Actors


The old adage given to most young (and I mean young in writing years, not in age) is: “show don’t tell.” Good advice, and while there’s a place for story telling in any story, showing is important enough to get top billing. You can see this in action in any decent film with good actors at work.

Actors have to show more–telling in a movie gets you boring exposition or, even worse, the deadly monologue from the bad guy as he explains evSilent Film Becky Sharperything. When you’re working in a visual media, telling ends up being talking heads. So movies have to show more–and actors have to put their characters into action. But novelists get to cheat.

In a novel or short story, the writer can just put down the words: “He was angrier than he’d ever been in his life.” Not great prose, but the reader gets the idea. Give that to any actor, and you’d end up with an actor struggling how to show that on the screen. So that’s one way a novelist can switch over from telling too much to showing more–imagine your favorite actor in the role.

What would an actor do to show this character’s anger on the screen? Would his jaw tense, his fists bunch? Would he hit something? Or would he smile, pull out a gun and shoot someone. Would he turn away, and turn back with a punch? Or would he offer up a cutting remark? It’s those little bits of business that an actor uses to better show their character in action–to put the characterization on screen. And it’s just those bits of business that a novelist needs to create to make a character come to life on the page.

Years ago, I took some improve classes. They were fun, and I was going out with an actor–and it was a great way to meet other cute guys, too. It was also great to get my head wrapped around thinking like a character, instead of myself. I had to start thinking about “how do I get this emotion across” or “how do I show this better?”  And that’s a great exercise for a writer, too–to act out your scenes.

Silent Film Star Theda BaraAnd this is where I study my favorite actors, too. How is he underplaying this scene–getting everything across with just a twitch, or a tilt of the head, or a slump of the shoulders? How is she making me see and feel the sorrow her character is dealing with–and not just with tears? I look for the honest performances–the ones that seem effortless, but which have had all the hard word done before the actors show up in front of the camera. I look for the actors who may know how to overplay a scene for farce, but who also know how to pull back and let their characters listen and react in ways that help me start to understand their characters.

All of this has gone into the Show and Tell workshop I teach–and which I’m giving for OCC RWA chapter this September (starting Sept 11). And it does seem to be the show part that most folks are working on, and which gives them the most trouble.

But narrative is a part of any story or novel–the narrative is often the stitching that holds all those great “showing” scenes together (which is why the workshop is called Show AND Tell).

Regency Actor GarrickHowever, next time you’re watching a favorite TV show or movie, or at the next play you go to, start to watch like a writer (or another actor, or the director). Look for those little bits of business that put a twist on the dialogue, or which reveal a ton about what the character is thinking or feeling. Would you have done something differently in that scene? Chosen to play it another way? Study the pros–and then write a scene that would earn the undying love of your favorite actor if you were to give them such a juicy, emotional scene with so much character hidden in the actions that show us the real person.

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