Show don’t tell

Show don’t tell

The Hospital ClubI’ll be leading the Writing Salon at the Hospital Club on Monday at 1930 in the Chalk Room.  I hope to see some of you there for a look at the tricky world of show don’t tell. Here is the full blurb.

If any of you need a break from Euro 2016 or simply can’t bear to watch England’s final group game then please join me at 1930 in the Chalk Room.

On Monday we’ll be looking at the tricky business of exposition and the terrifying phrase show don’t tell.  We’ve all heard it many times. It’s either a great piece of feedback or it’s something people use when they can’t think of anything better to say.  A bit like, make it funnier.  However, it can be a dagger to the heart of a writer.  When you fall foul of overhanded exposition the words show don’t tell cut deep.

So on Monday rather than me tell you what I mean. I’m going to show you.  I’ll play you a sequence from a film that contains no dialogue and yet it manages to convey a huge amount of information.  If we had the time I’d play you the heist sequence from the 1955 French film Rififi.  A gang of thieves rob a jewellery store in Paris and the robbery takes up 30 minutes of screen time.  Not a single word of dialogue is uttered. Nor is there any music.  Just heart stopping drama.  Instead though I’ve chosen something a little more modern and about half the length.  We’ll watch it twice and on the second viewing there will be commentary to help explain the exposition.

I’ll bring a series of examples from TV which help to cast light on good exposition and I will also explain how both filmmakers and TV writers disguise heavy sections of exposition.  Our challenge then will be turn this into something tangible on the page.  Can we write half a page of exposition which is all show and no tell?

We’ll find out on Monday.  I hope to see you in the Chalk Room at 1930.  And if you can then look up Rififi.  It’s on Netflix and it is stunning.  You’ll note that the Ocean’s Eleven franchise borrowed heavily from it.

Enjoy the weekend,

Show don’t tell

Creating worlds

The Hospital ClubI’ll be hosting tonight’s Writing Salon at the Hospital Club on the subject of Creating Worlds. Here’s the blurb that went to salon regulars.

Henry James called it his “theory of illumination.” He imagined his main character occupying the centre of a circle. Inside the circle, surrounding the main character, are other characters that he or she interacts with. James felt that every single interchange between the characters should “illuminate” different aspects of the main character, just as lamps illuminate different aspects of a dark room.

That’s fine, in theory. Except that characters don’t live in circles. They inhabit worlds and on Monday I’d like us to build a world for our character.  We don’t know who the character is yet, but together we are going to create one.

For me STORY is the intersection of LIFE (your character) and TIMES (the world they inhabit) and so over the weekend I’d like you to do two things.

  1. Scan your shelves for books / short stories / films etc for good examples of  worlds radically different to our own. This could be a fantasy story, something from Science Fiction, or perhaps an historical novel.  The genre doesn’t matter. What matters is that the worlds the characters inhabit have been created. They have their own rules and structures.
  2. Open up two Wikipedia pages.  Into one type “London” and into the other type “Middle Earth”. You’ll see two radically different worlds, but after a while you’ll notice something interesting. The entries are very similar in their structure.  You’ll see history, geography, culture, politics, social structures and so on.

On Monday we’ll create our own world. We’ll define the no-go areas of this world, and then we’ll go into them. We’ll define the stakes and then raise them. In short we’ll have everything we need to write the Wikipedia page for our world.  Then we’ll create a character and put them into that world.  By the end of the salon you’ll have a sense of how you might use this approach to build your own world and we’ll also have a working example.  Maybe one of you would like to use the example and turn it into a short story.

If you are stuck for inspiration then go and see the remake of The Jungle Book. The pack of wolves and their “law of the jungle” is exactly what I’m talking about. Oh…and Christopher Walken as King Louie is utterly brilliant.

See you all on Monday 16th May at 1930 in the Chalk Room.

Show don’t tell

From page to screen

The Hospital ClubI’ll be hosting tonight’s Writing Salon at the Hospital Club on the topic of From Page to Screen.  Here’s the blurb that went out with the invitation.  I hope to see you there.

“Very roughly, the book will be about the influence of a first wife on a second, until wife 2 is haunted day and night… a tragedy is looming very close and crash! Bang! Something happens.”

This is how Daphne Du Maurier outlined her idea for Rebecca, her towering 1938 novel. As you may know the book was adapted into a film which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1940. It was produced by David O. Selznick, who was fresh from major success with Gone With The Wind, and it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It is, staggeringly, the only Oscar-winning film Hitchcock made.

There are several examples of Best Picture winners that started life as best-selling novels. My favourites are No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, In the Heat of the Night by John Ball, The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore, and of course Rebecca.

On Monday I’d like us to examine this in more detail. Filmmakers are turning to books in ever increasing numbers and this is having a hugely positive impact on book sales. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter last year, Reece Witherspoon shone a light on the work her own production company Pacific Standard does in bringing novels to the silver screen.  Her company’s recent film credits include Gone Girl and Wild. It is clear that already successful books become even more successful when they get the Hollywood treatment.

There are books that it seems impossible to imagine as films. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was a good example until Ang Lee proved that it was absolutely possible. But what impact does a film version have on the original text?  Does it make the text better (Fifty Shades of Grey) or is it simply a pale comparison… you’ll have plenty of your own examples of this.

So, on Monday, please bring along your favourite examples of books that have made successful transitions, books that should never have attempted to be films and books that you either want to see on screen, or desperately hope never make it. Perhaps you feel that some things should remain as they were originally conceived. You may also feel though that it is impossible to imagine the books without the film. I certainly feel this way about The Hunger Games.

It’s not just film of course. TV is getting in on the act in a big way. Over the weekend I’d like you to think of the best and worst examples of transitions from book to screen. I’d also like you to bring in a passage from a book that you think outlines why the transition was good or bad.

I’ll start us off by offering an example of a book that would have been consigned to the scrapheap if it weren’t for the remarkable film version it spawned. French film director François Truffaut famously said “out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen.” All will be revealed on Monday.

I’ll leave you with this statistic. Rebecca was published in 1938. It still sells 4,000 copies a month. A month!