Writers Workshop – Show Don’t Tell And The Godfather

I love The Godfather – both the book and the movie.  For a variety of reasons, both are writers workshopnear perfect examples of storytelling.  I thought since it’s the 40th anniversary of the movie release of The Godfather, I’d use the book and movie to show some points that indie authors should be aware of when they write.  In this post we’ll discuss how to show things to the reader instead of telling the reader.  Fair warning, there will be Godfather spoilers in these posts.

Writers Workshop – Telling The Story

I’ve read The Godfather a couple of times and although I think there are small things that maybe could be improved (a tendency to use the word was too much), I still think Mario Puzo did an outstanding job.  And if you examine the character development, you see clearly how Puzo shows the motivations of his characters, and this is what makes these mafia guys sympathetic for us, even though they’re crooks.

A critical mistake writers make is to tell the reader what is occurring, rather than show it.  Now I know many of you are saying I don’t do that.  But many of us tell instead of show without realizing it.  So first, what does it mean to tell versus show?  When you’re telling the story, it’s expository through the narrator.  When you’re showing, it’s an experience that the readers gets through the dialogue, action, thoughts, feelings, senses and so on.

Writers Workshop – The Godfather As An Example

There’s a great scene in the book and movie that shows (pun intended) exactly what I mean.  The don has been shot and Michael Corleone is visiting him at the hospital.  The guards have been removed from the don’s room and Michael is suspicious, sensing that Sollozzo is going to try to kill the don.  Michael waits out in front with Enzo the baker.  A car drives by the hospital entrance, moving on after seeing Michael and Enzo standing guard.  And here’s our example of showing, not telling:

In the movie, Enzo reaches into his pocket for cigarettes.  As he tries to light one, his hand shakes so violently that he can’t light the cigarette so Michael helps him.  As Enzo brings the cigarette to his lips, his hand continues to shake.

The book says Michael gave Enzo another cigarette and noticed that the baker’s hands were shaking.

Now I could rework the line in different ways but the point is that Puzo didn’t say Enzo was scared.  In the movie Enzo doesn’t say I’m scared.  We know that the baker was terrified.  It’s subtle but communicates so much.

Writers Workshop – Tools To Use

Showing involves dialogue, the senses, description and more to let the reader know what’s going on.  I see so many novels these days where the author is just telling me things.  He was a fat and unhappy man.  So?  What makes me care?  How about he hefted his bulk out of the chair, the perpetual frown etched on his flabby face.  Now I get a feel for this man.  I could make the second example even better by hinting at why he’s unhappy.

And how about dialogue?  Why explain to the reader how divorce was a painful experience for Sally because it made her feel like her parents didn’t love her?  Wouldn’t it be better to have Sally have a conversation with her friend, in which Sally hints at the pain and alludes to the fact that she didn’t feel loved?  And then build on that throughout your story?  Again, it’s subtle, but oh so powerful.

Writers Workshop – Similes And Metaphors

Similes and metaphors can be used to show rather than tell, but with a caveat.  Do it right :).  What do I mean by that?  A simile or metaphor can create an image for a reader, but they need to be within what your character would think or say and they need to be used sparingly.  I see many indie authors try too hard with their similes and metaphors.  They insert them into the story with abandon, either overloading the reader with he did such and such like a ____ every other sentence, or they have characters using a simile or metaphor that’s out of character for the character to say :).  For instance, having a prime and proper grandmother say he’s a can short of a six-pack.  Her character doesn’t fit this phrase and it jolts the reader from the story.

Writers Workshop – Odds And Ends

Now we all know, for every rule there is an exception.  Sometimes we need to tell in order to transition from one point in our story to another.   And different genres will use showing versus telling differently, but as a rule, if you’re doing a lot of telling, chances are your overall story is suffering because of it.  In a well-written story, the key points and scenes will be shown to the reader: it creates drama and lets the scene stand out from other, less important scenes.

Keep these things in mind as you write.  Read what you’ve written and if it feels flat and uninspired, it may be because you’re telling and not showing.  Stay tuned for more in the writers workshop, where we continue to use The Godfather for examples of great storytelling.

About Renée Pawlish

Award-winning author Renée Pawlish writes the bestselling horror book, Nephilim Genesis of Evil, the Reed Ferguson mystery series, short stories and non-fiction ghost stories.
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10 Responses to Writers Workshop – Show Don’t Tell And The Godfather

  1. The Godfather is a favourite of mine also – great blog.

  2. Caleb Pirtle says:

    You nailed it. So often, writers get in a hurry and don’t let the reader make the discovery. Never say, “He’s scared.” Write in such a way that the reader thinks, “He must be scared.” Well done and great advice. I’ll try not to get in a hurry and make that mistake again.

  3. The Godfather was just voted Best Picture Ever in a Time.com readers poll (March 12, 2012 issue). What is not surprising is that all the contenders featured strong, memorable characters. Thanks for your insights about showing not telling to connect the reader to the character, and therefore the story.

  4. Renée Pawlish says:

    I’m glad you like the post and thanks for your comment.

  5. Show, don’t tell. We’ve heard that from day one but you have made those words come alive with your crystal clear examples. Hopefully the advice has become part of me and will surface as I write.
    Great post!

  6. Melissa says:

    I adore both the movie and the book, all of Mr. Puzo’s books actually. He is a great story teller that really made me want to write. Great post.

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