As an editor, I’m often asked what is the common mistake made by new writers. For me, several things typify a novice writer, and I’ve found these errors vary little, even regardless of the genre an author might be attempting to write in. So in a series of ongoing blog posts I thought I’d elaborate. Today’s post is probably the most common thing I see when appraising manuscripts by first-time novelists—confusing writing a novel with writing a play or a movie script.
While I call it “writing a script not a novel”, other editors and experienced authors call this “telling not showing”—a phrase often bandied around on writing message boards. It’s not uncommon for a first-time author to attempt to imagine events unravelling then depict them on paper just as if they were watching a movie. That can be a good thing, as it means that an author’s characters are alive (at least to them); however, it very often translates into writing that reads like a script and makes characters and settings seem wooden or forced.
Sometimes, the use of present tense makes this error glaringly obvious; other times extended paragraphs of setting are a giveaway. Whenever you see a sentence that starts with “There is…” that is usually an indicator that you’re writing a scene for a movie and not a scene for a novel. For example:
Joel walks into the room. He sees a long black coffee table with three patterned, coffee-filled mugs on it and a yellow sofa with a fluffy cushion. The room is only about two metres long by three metres wide and so dimly lit he can barely see the tall, blonde, long-legged girl stretched out on the sofa. She is brown-skinned with green eyes and appears to be wearing some kind of tutu and twirling a strand of her yellow hair around her slim index finger. There is a guitar propped on the floor next to the coffee table which she moves out of the way to stand.
“Hello,” she says seductively to him. “You must be the new flatmate.”
See what’s happening here? There are some other very obvious issues aside from the “script style” stage directing (misplaced modifiers, unnecessary description, adverbs in dialogue tags etc), but you get my drift. Now compare the above paragraph with:
Joel’s eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light in the tiny living room; when they did, he could just make out the long-limbed, tanned form of a girl stretched out on the yellow sofa. She cradled a half-full coffee mug in her right hand; in the other, she twirled a strand of her long blonde hair seductively. Joel noticed with intrigue that she appeared to be wearing some kind of tutu.
“Hello,” she said, moving a guitar, which was propped against the coffee table, out of the way so she could stand. “You must be the new flatmate.” Her green eyes studied him intently.
As you can see, the basic gist of the second paragraph is the same. Most of the elements are there, with the exception of some that are unnecessary. Do we really need to know, for instance, that the mugs are patterned or that the cushion is fluffy (or even that it is there at all if it doesn’t play a significant role in the story). The difference is that some of the action is woven in around the dialogue, and the scene setting occurs within the frame of that action (Joel entering the room, the girl cradling a coffee mug, Joel noticing with intrigue, the girl moving a guitar and standing etc). Some of the “props” (such as the coffee cups) also now have actions (in the form of verbs) attached to them rather than just being static nouns in a room.
I think new authors sometimes feel the need to over-describe like this because they believe it will help create a picture in the reader’s mind and make a scene authentic, but it is the characters, rarely the settings, that lend authenticity to a novel. To make characters believable, they generally have to be in action because, as we know, most people don’t just walk into a room and stand around checking out for the furniture for minutes. They walk in, glance around and start talking, drinking, eating or whatever it is they are doing.
People are also great multitaskers, so flesh out your settings while having the characters perform actions. When it comes to description and setting, less is usually more and the skilled novel writer finds a way to slip little nuggets of descriptive information in among the action, rather than writing long paragraphs of setting that leave the reader feeling like they’re reading stage directions.