In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,
A writer often indulges in play-by-play narration when he sees a scene vividly in his mind’s eye and wants the reader to see it precisely, too. Moments with lots of physical action are magnets for this mistake. What some writers don’t realize is that the reader can fill in lots of blanks on her own. In most cases, leave the play-by-play narration to the reader’s imagination and fight the urge to describe every minute detail of otherwise unimportant events or physical actions.
Your writing will always come alive when you avoid too much play-by-play narration.
These last few weeks I’ve been hard at work on the second draft of my new young adult thriller, Fear of Water. This is my twentieth novel in less than ten years, and I’m bound and determined to get this one right! I wrote it in 31 days last summer — so, yeah, really fast — but I’ve been going super slow on the second draft, taking eight long weeks to work my way through the manuscript.
Just yesterday I revised chapter fifteen, about twelve pages of writing where lots of events happen, a couple major revelations are revealed, and an emotional cliffhanger takes place. Reading through this chapter I kept telling myself, this should be more riveting. This should be one of the most powerful chapters yet.
Yet much of the writing of this particular chapter just felt dead on the page. The rhythm seemed off. I wasn’t connecting to the writing in this chapter than I have been in most of my other chapters.
By the final page of the chapter I was getting frustrated, partly because I didn’t think the chapter was working as well as it should have, but mostly because I couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong with it. Was I just a bad writer??
No. The problem, I discovered, was that there was way too much play-by-play narration.
It actually wasn’t until reading Mary Kole’s terrific craft book that I finally found a name for this.
I’d never called it play-by-play narration before, but I have that name for it now thankfully, and I’ll be keeping a look out for it in the days to come as I continue revising my latest work.
It’s something that completely deadens a scene. That makes it read awkwardly, tiredly. That makes it feel twice as long than it really is, and even just one instance of this early in your novel might tip the reader off that you don’t really know what you’re doing, and that reader might put your book down for good, you never know.
Play-by-play narration is essentially telling the reader every single little thing that happens in a scene. Telling the reader every single time your character walks from point A to point B. Every single time your character lifts her eyebrows or puts her hands on her waist.
It’s essentially treating a scene like it’s playing out in real time, when, just like in movies, you should always get to the heart of the scene… and then get out. Show us what really matters, then move onto the next scene, and the next one after that.
This is something I taught my students in a screenwriting class last year.
You can sort of get away with more play-by-play narration in a novel because you have more space to write than you do in a screenplay. If you want your next chapter to be seventeen pages long, there’s no rule to say it can’t be done. Your chapters can be as long as you want, within reason.
Screenplays are a different beast because, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan, you kind of have to follow the rules about keeping your scenes to about two to four pages.
So many of my students were writing scenes that went on for ten, twenty, sometimes thirty pages, and what I found them to be doing always was writing play-by-play narration. Having a scene begin where two characters walk into a room, and the scene wouldn’t end until both characters left the room.
Think about movies you watch. When a character leaves a house and drives across town to the mall, do we see every bit of the journey? The grabbing the keys, the walking to the garage, the getting into the car, the opening of the garage door, the backing away from the driveway, all ten minutes of the drive itself, then parking the car, getting out of the car, walking to the mall, opening an entrance door, entering the mall.
It’s exhausting, right? And so totally unnecessary. No, you most often will see a character step out of a room, and then boom, in the next shot, they’re entering the mall.
Your viewers can put two and two together. They can figure out what happened between the cut.
You don’t need to give us every detail, whether you’re writing a screenplay, a short story, or a novel.
Again, you might be tempted in your fiction writing, especially in a novel, to write out every single beat of a scene. You have the room to do it, so why not?
Try to avoid doing this whenever possible. Sure, in a first draft, you can write a lot of play-by-play narration. Go nuts if it gets words down on the page, and if it helps get you to the next scene, the next chapter. As I said, I’ve written twenty novels, and I’m certainly guilty of writing lots of play-by-play narration in each of my first drafts.
It’s why I usually end up cutting 10,000 words or more in each of my second drafts. The first draft of Fear of Water was 81,000 words. I still have six more chapters to revise in my second draft… and the book is now at 72,000 words. My second draft might get all the way down to 67,000 or even 66,000 words.
That’s 15,000 words deleted without changing anything major about the story’s narrative! That’s 15,000 words mostly of eliminated play-by-play narration.
This is of course the very nature and importance of revision. To find those scenes that tell too much and shave it down in a way that gets to the heart of what’s going on, of what the reader truly needs to know.
Mary Kole is absolutely right: you want to leave most of the play-by-play to the reader’s imagination. You want to trust that the reader understands more about your characters, about your scenes, than you think.
So avoid play-by-play narration whenever possible. Your writing will always be the better for it!