Write Like a Playwright

The best three words to get a good discussion going among writers are: “Show, don’t tell”. When I first heard this instruction, I actually did explode: What do you mean, ‘show’, don’t ‘tell’? I want to TELL a story, for Pete’s sake!

Always remember Jimmy –
Show, don’t tell.

I want to be a storyTELLER – it’s in the job description, you see? And now you tell me that I’ve got to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’ my story? How should I do that, exactly? Put a few arrows around the page, pointing to the words? Draw little pictures of stickmen? Get my printer to emboss cupcake shapes into the pages?

However, that was sometime ago now, and I ascribed my misunderstanding to the fact that I’m left-handed and, all my life, little sayings that everyone understands have left me baffled, unless and until they are explained differently. In this case, it happened with an example I want to share with you. Now, because you read Indies Unlimited, you are clearly a cultured person and doubtless go to the theatre (work with me here, I’ve heard that a little flattery goes a long way). Imagine you’re in a theatre now, watching two characters on the stage. They say this:

“I love you, John.”

“I love you, too, Jane.”

At this point, what does not happen is this: the playwright does not leap onto the stage shouting at you, “There, did you see that – did you?! How she said she loves him but actually she hates him because she’s found out he’s having an affair! And did you see him? He said he loves her when really he hates her because she’s cleverer than him and earns more money!”

As needs must, this example is simplistic: the playwright can give some limited stage directions, and the actors will interpret the roles. Nevertheless, the playwright must move the story forward through the dialogue:

“I love you, John.”

“I love you, too, Jane.”

“I’m so happy to hear that, John. I was so worried when I saw you with that harridan Betsy at Charlie’s bar yesterday lunchtime, but I know you were only comforting her.”

“Yes, of course, dearest love – whatever else could you think? And I’m so happy that you have another million-pound bonus and will be able to afford that thoroughbred you’ve always wanted.”

That’s better (although not much, I grant you). Now, let’s see how a fiction writer, who is determined to TELL their story, might set this exchange up on the page:

“I love you, John.” John heard the words but knew Jane was lying. The only thing Jane loved was her job and the huge bonuses she made. He knew she’d buy a horse with the next one, and hated her for it.

Nevertheless, John felt compelled to respond, “I love you, too, Jane,” he mumbled, although he knew he sounded desperate and he could feel her eyes boring into him – was it possible that Jane had seen him the previous day with Betsy?

These, then, are the two extremes of the balance that each writer must strike, but in a nutshell “show, don’t tell” means, “let your readers work stuff out for themselves”. The trap that beginning writers tend to fall into is that they feel they must make everything explicit, and often repeat in beats (which is the name for lines of exposition between lines of dialogue) what their characters have just said in dialogue. The way to spot this in your own writing is to look for what I call the “No, really?” factor – and I mean this sarcastically, as you might expect. Look through a passage of your dialogue and see if you’ve repeated something that’s just been said. Another short example:

“No, Bert, I won’t do it. No way.”

“Come on, John, you’ve got to. I need you to do it.”

“I said ‘no’ and I meant it. Never again.”

Bert could see that John was going to take a lot of persuading this time.

Now, that last line has a sky-high “No, really?” factor, and absolutely should not be there. Even if we expand it, e.g. ‘โ€ฆpersuading this time to rob the bank’, it’s still poor writing because that information should come out in the dialogue. This scene might continue with the characters giving out that information, but the “No, really?” line is still damaging the flow of the story. What’s happening here is that the writer is thinking out loud (well, on the page), as she/he juggles the characters’ lines and how the conversation drives the story forward. The “No, really?” line is the writer giving him/herself a little signpost as the scene develops.

It is possible, of course, to go too far the other way. Recently I read a scene in a mainstream published novel where two detectives left a suspect’s house to return to their car, in the pouring rain. There then followed a full page of back-and-forth dialogue – as in a play, without a single beat – before one detective turned the key in the ignition. The dialogue was fine; discussing the suspect, a bit of back-story about one detective; but, without beats, I had no idea how they got from the front door of the suspect’s house to inside the car, or how wet they got while they were having their chat – I was left to assume too much.

Balancing dialogue with beats is one of the hardest parts of writing strong, entertaining fiction: too many beats and the reader will get fed up with you constantly interrupting the action, instead of letting the characters get on with it; too few and the reader will get confused and be unable to visualise the scene. If you’re just beginning to write, write like a playwright. Look at your dialogue, strip out all the beats and see what’s left. How many of the beats can be converted to dialogue? Instead of telling the reader that one character is making coffee, have that character ask the other character if they prefer it strong or weak, with milk or without, and give your reader the pleasure of working out what’s going on. Only put back the beats you really, really, need to make things clear, then you can toss the “No, really?” lines in the trash.

Finally, it does get easier; practice does help. In my first novel I sweated buckets over each beat between each line of dialogue. Now I’m well into writing my third, and the worry isn’t so strong. I can sense that I have a better feel for the balance, and some of my recent scenes shouldn’t need too much editing. This isn’t complacency, more like the result of having some modest experience. Do I miss those days when I sweated buckets? No, not really.

Author: Chris James

Chris James is an English author who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published three full-length science fiction novels and is currently writing a series of short story volumes inspired by characters in songs from the rock band Genesis. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

24 thoughts on “Write Like a Playwright”

  1. Really good advice Chris. How the hell have all you authors managed to write such fantastic books? It’s so hard! I think the only book I’ll ever write is one full of snippets of advice about writing that you guys offer! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Excellent post, Chris. Great information told in that British banter style of yours. You were the first person who explained the concept of show don’t tell. I’ve been trying to work out what you meant for over a year!

    Seriously, this is a really helpful outline of it. Thanks from all us newbies!

  3. South paw, eh? That explains everything. lol

    The best piece of advice Nino Ricci, Winner of the Governor General’s Award in Canada gave me in my one on one with him was “Don’t talk down to your readers. If it is obvious don’t add it. It parallels nicely with the ‘show don’t tell’ you are describing.

    Thanks, a fun way to illustrate a great point.

    1. Thank you, Yvonne – I love that Amercian expression “south paw” ๐Ÿ™‚ but I don’t think it’s a writer “talking down” to a reader, more that the writer wants to help the reader by making everything as clear as possible – good intentions (with which the road to hell is paved, etc)

  4. Awesome post, Chris. I agree. It’s taken me a few years to train myself not to explain everything to a reader. When I did a writing course one thing that kept drumming into my head was – “Readers aren’t stupid! Respect their intelligence.” I say that to myself a lot when I’m editing ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks, Melissa. Often I think it is something best left until editing. There’s nothing wrong during the first draft to leave those little signposts as we craft the story – they’re a bit like scaffolding around a new building – but we should take them out later.
      I often think of Agatha Christie – she shows everything in a story and leaves the reader to work out the identity of the murderer with the detective, but I would love to see one of her first drafts ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Love this, Chris! I have a good writer friend who used to explain things to her readers too much, but it was because she didn’t trust her writing enough to get across her intent. Now, after publishing several books and gaining experience she’s learned to trust her voice and readership. Her book sales have proven to her several times over that she gets it. Thanks for the fun explanation ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Mmmm…. been guilty of that. A few edits ago now but still, I wish I’d had this clear explanation when I kept reading ‘show and tell’ instead of ‘show don’t tell’. Even now the first thing that pops into my head is a picture of a classroom full of kiddies proudly displaying their pet frogs. ๐Ÿ™

  7. First, I thoroughly enjoyed that because I hear your voice in my head and I can see your head-bobbing goofily endearing smile (thanks to the internet). ๐Ÿ˜‰

    This is a hard thing to explain and you did it really, really well. Funny. And spot on. The only thing I would add is that a lot of telling is insecurity…you got to have faith that the reader will get it if you do it right.

    You did it right.

    1. Thanks, brother, much appreciated. There is a lot more to it depending on each type of scene, but yes, it can be tough to let go and trust the reader to get it (btw, I do videos on request :))

  8. A really good post, Chris. ‘Show don’t tell’, the so called writing experts say it all the time but generally, at least it was true for me, you work it out for yourself before you actually know what theyโ€™re talking about. I havenโ€™t seen it explained so well.

    I also agree that some authors get too smart; I sometimes find myself thinking, โ€˜What the f*** just happened? How the hell did we get from there to here?โ€™

    1. Thank you, TD, much appreciated. Generally I agree with you – it IS something that each writer needs to realise and get their head head around in their own way. But it is a dead giveaway when you read a synopsis or first chapter, and you see that the writer is determined to tell you everything.

    1. It is important not to go too far the other way – any dialogue will need some beats for the sake of context. Tell that voice to be quiet if it gets too loud – the reader still needs to know what’s going on.

Comments are closed.