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The Princess Bride—Storytelling Done Right

April 13, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 30, 2011

The Princess Bride is a great piece of movie-making. 

Based on William Goldman’s novel, the movie tells the story of Buttercup and Westley, how they face adventures and overcome challenges to find true love. The movie is touching, humorous, and campy.

Very campy. And witty as well.

It also provides a marvelous lesson in storytelling.

The movie version uses a frame to set up Westley and Buttercup’s story. A boy is sick in bed, and his grandfather comes to visit. The boy’s playing video games, but grandpa’s going to read him a book. A book about fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, True Love, and miracles. The grandson tells his grandfather he’ll try to stay awake.

It’s at this point that the grandfather begins to read. Sitting in the boy’s bedroom, he introduces the story—Buttercup was raised on a small farm in the country of Florin . . .

Immediately, the scene changes to a medieval farm. The grandfather is still reading the narration, but viewers see Buttercup and Westley. They hear Buttercup bossing around farm boy Westley and his trademark reply, As you wish.

The movie allows viewers to experience both the medieval farm world and the modern world where the grandfather is narrating. When grandpa reads that Westley and Buttercup kiss, the scene switches back to the boy’s bedroom. The medieval world is abandoned, but only for a moment. When grandpa continues reading, the scene again switches to the farm where Westley and Buttercup are falling in love.

I find this opening to The Prince Bride accomplishes exactly what we want to achieve with our fiction.

We want to move from narration, from words on a page, to total immersion in the fiction itself. From someone presenting—telling—a story to his readers, to a story that’s saturated, drenchingly rich, in color and in action and in emotion.

We want our readers to hear not a narrator (unless the narrator is integral to the story), but the characters themselves.

The Princess Bride highlights the difference between showing and telling quite brazenly. The grandfather is telling the story, but once we move into the medieval world, his voice fades out and we hear only the words of the characters. We see only the world of Florin—the farm, Prince Humperdinck’s castle, the Cliffs of Insanity. We see the clothing of the period and hear the different accents of the people in the story.

No longer do we see Peter Falk as the grandfather and Fred Savage as the grandson, sitting in a bedroom. We are immersed in the story itself.

In The Princess Bride, readers are purposely pulled from the adventure story when either grandfather or grandson comments, yet that happens less and less as the story progresses. When the medieval story is interrupted, it’s done for comic relief which in itself plays into the story and maintains the fiction that the grandfather is reading the tale.

Except for the few interruptions, however, we are completely inside Buttercup and Westley’s story. The outside world is forgotten as Buttercup is kidnapped and then rescued, as they face the dangers of the Fire Swamp, as Buttercup barters for Westley’s life and then the two of them face Humperdinck’s wicked plans.

May I suggest that you do the same for your stories as Goldman did for his? So immerse your readers in the fiction that they don’t see words on a page or hear some narrator reciting. Give them action and scenes and characters speaking in their own voices, speaking words that only they would say.

Don’t put barriers or an artificial distance between your reader and the story; put your readers in the story, as though they were right there feeling and hearing and experiencing.

Engage the reader’s imagination. Don’t merely tell what happened, make it come to life.

This means showing scenes, not reporting events.

Reporting
Ellie sat in her car, replaying the argument with her boss.

Tom had said he’d wanted her to charm Felix, not run him off. He’d pounded the desk when he said it, making Ellie jump. Then he’d leaned over the desk so far that she leaned away, fearing he’d hit her.

Even now, in the safety of her car, Ellie shivered.

——————

Showing
Tom stormed into Ellie’s office, slamming the door behind him.

“Damn it, Ellie! I told you not to let Felix get away without signing. Are you so sexless you can’t even charm a newly divorced, fifty-something sad-sack?”

He pushed at the front of her desk, knocking files to the floor and overturning her fresh cup of coffee.

“We needed that account.” He leaned across the desk, his eyes narrowed. “I needed that account.”

Ellie slid her chair back until it hit the wall behind her. What the hell was wrong with him? He was a partner, not some loose-cannon salesman.

Tom shook his head. Then he pounded one fist into the center of her desk.

“You just cost me my job.” He shook his head a second time. “And I’m not going to let you get away with it.” He turned and left Ellie’s office, once again slamming her door.

The outer office pulsed with silence.

Ellie looked down at her hands. Then she quickly slipped the shaking fingers under her thighs.

That’s when she noticed that her legs were shaking just as hard.

 __________________________________________

Check your manuscript. Examine it chapter by chapter, scene by scene. Make sure you have scenes. If you don’t, if your main character is reporting what has happened to her, as if she were telling a best friend or writing in her diary, rework those sections of the story. Turn off the narrator’s voice and show the events. Move from a grandfather reading a story to his grandson to the majesty of your story setting and your story’s events.

Easy to do? Of course not. Film is a visual medium, so we easily see what the director wants us to see. But you’re a writer. You too can direct the focus of each scene. Where do you want readers to look? What do you want them to see and experience? What do you want them to feel? Create a world for your characters to play in, a world in which they can love and fight and overcome. Make it real. Make it touchable and believable and true.

Write characters who are more than description and more than stick figures walking through your setting.

Give characters thoughts and emotions and actions. Give them dreams. Reveal their dreams through their actions and dialogue. Don’t say that Ellie suddenly feared Tom; show Ellie in her moment of fear.

Give it all to the reader, the angst and the anger, the love and the passion, the hatred and the fear and the joy. Give us not only the rainstorm but the effect of the storm. Show how a steady, unrelenting rain changes not only a character’s physical world but also his psyche. Dig deep. Entertain. Bring story to life on the page.

Move from telling to showing. Make the readers forget their world for yours. Enthrall them. Capture them. Make them regret that your story must come to a close.

And do as the grandfather in The Princess Bride did. Give your audience what will entertain. The boy got an adventure story about swords and fighting and pirates and torture and revenge and shrieking eels. He got the story that entertained him.

Do the same for your audience. Entertain them. Give them words and scenes that free their imaginations and that take them to the fictional world you’ve created for their enjoyment.

Take a lesson from the movies, from a movie that was first a book.

Bring your story to life on the the movie screen of your readers’ minds.

*******

If you’ve never watched The Princess Bride, try it out. Watch it for fun and then watch it with an eye toward storytelling. Study the way it works as a movie and study the method grandpa used to capture his grandson’s attention. You may find a trick or two for ensnaring the reader.

A very short snippet from The Princess Bride.

***

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10 Responses to “The Princess Bride—Storytelling Done Right”

  1. PC Wheeler says:

    I love “The Princess Bride”, both versions, and I thought your comparison here was very apt. It definitely helps to bring home the difference between show vs tell.

  2. My favorite movie of all time!

    I’ve got the book right here as well. I haven’t opened it in years. I’m getting ready to write a new scene. Before I do, I think I’ll read a few sections for inspiration.

    Thanks for a great article.

  3. PC, the movie really shows that difference, doesn’t it? I love that smooth transition from narration to experience, from words to events, in the opening scenes. Well done. And of course the story is just plain fun.

  4. Newbie, nice to see you again. The Princess Bride is one of my favorites too. How could it not be with its sweeping adventure, the humor, and the wonderful campiness? I hope you pick up some great inspiration when you read.

  5. Pat Bertram says:

    ABsolutely spot on as usual, Beth. Thanks for your wonderful work in demystifying the storytelling process.

  6. Thanks, Pat. Don’t you love how The Princess Bride makes the approach to storytelling so clear?

  7. Great illustration of exactly what I’m trying to teach my multimedia storytelling students. THANKS!

  8. Stretch, you are welcome. I hope your students pick up some good tips and turn out great projects.

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