By Darlene Cah
I write fiction, specifically short stories and flash. But before I entered the world of narrative, I wrote and performed sketch comedy, humorous essays and, as a copywriter in traditional advertising, radio and TV commercials. I didn’t even consider trying my hand at fiction. Frankly, it scared me. Still does, sometimes. Then I discovered flash fiction and I dabbled in writing stories as short as 150 words or fewer. Writing 1,000 words felt like I was writing a novel! I found the skills I had learned by writing commercials and later sketch, lent themselves perfectly to writing short, tight stories. Now, as a digital marketing writer at an independent TV network, I occasionally need to read movie and TV scripts, and I’m reminded just how visual fiction should to be.
Show Don’t Tell
We all learned that rule for writing fiction. It’s a good rule. It’s practically the only rule stage and screen writers. As fiction writers, we can get into our characters’ heads; have them reveal their thoughts and motivations. Screenwriters and playwrights do not have that luxury. They have dialogue and action, maybe a bit of stage direction.
The thing I love about reading original screenplays at work is I have no pre-conceived ideas about the films—because when I get them they haven’t been shot yet. They haven’t been cast, either, so I can’t even picture particular actors in the roles. Everything I see in my mind and the unfolding story must be conveyed through location descriptions, action and dialogue. Talk about bare bones! Characters’ relationships, emotions, and desires are revealed in the words they speak and how they say those lines, in the actions they take and the emotions behind them. I love seeing if what I pictured in my head is close to what ends up on the screen when the film is shot, edited and finished.
So let’s play a game. I’ll set up a scene and toss out a few lines of dialogue. What do you see from this short exchange? What do you picture the characters doing as they talk? What does their conversation imply? How do they sound? What do they look like? What are their traits? What do the surroundings look like? Smell like?
Two women sit at the counter at a diner. A large sign on the wall opposite the counter reads: Moonbeam Diner. Felicia, reading the menu, sits slightly turned away from Brenda, who is staring into the dessert display. A waitress sets coffee cups in front of both women and leaves.
Brenda: I’m surprised you came.
Felicia: Yeah, well, mom is the queen of guilt trips.
Brenda: She can be persuasive.
Felicia: Persuasive. More like manipulative.
Brenda: She doesn’t want to see us like this.
Felicia: Right, and whose fault is that?
Brenda: Now who’s being manipulative?
Felicia: I learned from the best.
Brenda: What? Me? Come on, Felicia.
Felicia: No, you come on, Brenda. You’re just like mom. Look. You even tap your fingers like her. And you’re both against me.
Brenda: We. I don’t want to see you get hurt. You can be a little…
If you were to rewrite this scene as fiction, how different would it be? How much more detail would you add?
Reading and writing other genres allows you to see your characters and story in a different light. Are you up for a challenge? Bartleby Snopes has an All Dialogue Contest. It’s run on a rolling rejection basis with the final deadline on September 15, 2016. Check out the guidelines and give it a shot.