Short story writing: dramatizing a story
Dramatizing a short story
One principle no fiction writer can afford to ignore is that a story should be shown and not told. Another way of putting this is to say that a story should be dramatized. Strictly speaking this means to write the story as a play, and our meaning here is similar, but the stage we are writing for is the reader's imagination.
What is the difference between a story which is told, and a story which is dramatized? From the reader's point of view a story which is dramatized is one where he witnesses the actions and dialogue of the characters for himself, as opposed to hearing a narrator 'telling a story'. For example he does not read:
John told his wife Janet that he would be late home from the office that evening, then left for work before she had time to ask him why.
Instead he reads:
"I'll be a bit late home tonight Janet," said John, picking up his briefcase and opening the front door.
From the writer's point of view it means we must refrain from putting ourselves in the position of a reporter who passes on information to the reader. We put our characters on stage, we make them act and speak, and in the case of the central character we make him/her think and feel and perceive too, but we ourselves remain unseen. We do not intrude upon the action by coming between the reader and the characters by putting ourselves on stage to address the reader directly.
Appeal to the reader's senses
A useful thumb-rule to bear in mind is to appeal to the reader’s senses. Let the reader see and hear (and perhaps, if appropriate, smell taste and touch) the events of the story for himself. You will hold the reader’s attention better this way than if you offer him explanations or appeal to his reason.
The antithesis of dramatization is authorial intrusion, and this occurs when the narrator addresses the reader directly. For stories written in the third person it is not always easy for beginners to see what is and what isn't authorial intrusion, because as we are reading: 'John said this', 'Mary did that', it looks as if we are being told the story by a narrator. The key to understanding dramatization, and to putting the technique into practice, is to see that the narrator's point of view is merged with that of the central character, and that authorial intrusion occurs when this 'merger' is broken by the narrator talking directly to the reader to tell him about the character. Here are three examples to illustrate the point:
a) Mrs. Jones pulled her blanket tightly around her shoulders and huddled close to the electric fire. Life is often difficult for old people in winter.
The second sentence above is authorial intrusion. The narrator is addressing us directly and telling us something which Mrs. Jones is neither thinking or saying at the time.
b) Mrs. Jones pulled her blanket tightly around her shoulders and huddled close to the electric fire. Her face was wrinkled and her hair was wispy and white.
Again, the second sentence is authorial intrusion. The narrator is telling us about Mrs. Jones, and not dramatizing her actions or thoughts.
c) Mrs. Jones got up from her chair and went over to the mirror. She picked up a comb and as she began to tidy her wispy white hair noticed a few more wrinkles in her face.
There is no authorial intrusion here. The narrator has recreated (dramatized) Mrs. Jones's actions, perceptions, and thoughts, so that we share them with her without being told about them.
Presenting a story dramatically, without authorial intrusion has become much more important in modern fiction than it was in previous centuries. There may be exceptions, particularly if a writer has an exceptionally entertaining style and deliberately makes the authorial narration a prominent feature, but as a general rule when you begin a story, merge your point of view with the point of view of the central character, and show the events as a drama in which he/she plays a part. Live the story with your character, and keep yourself as author backstage and out of sight.