What Writers Can Learn from Much Ado About Nothing

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Joss Whedon’s film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is a bit special. And by a bit I mean it is freaking awesome. I saw it last Friday and loved every minute of it, it had me laughing throughout and the acting was perfect. It is one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. You have to go watch it, go do it now. Don’t keep on reading, go see for yourselves why it is good, the rest of this post will be here for when you are back.

I sat and enjoyed every minute of the film but throughout part of my brain was pointing out lessons I could learn from how it was done, lessons that could help improve my writing.

Almost everyone learns Shakespeare at school in the UK and US, we read the books and are shown a few adaptations of them, often from the stage. Often it is looking at the words on their own, but seeing Much Ado About Nothing is a great reminder of how much of the play is not about the words, but about how it is acted. As a writer I took three main things away from watching it.

Dialog can only do so much

It seems odd as that is one of the great things about Shakespeare, his fantastic dialog, but character actions and body language add layers and other levels to what the dialog is doing, they can enhance it or reveal differences in what a character is saying and thinking.

So Benedick and Beatrice, who seem to not like each other, overhear people talking about each other and about how the other likes them. The dialog in these scenes would not do much on its own, it is the hilarious actions of both characters as they try to hear what is being said whist trying to not reveal themselves (and failing but with the characters they are overhearing pretending not to notice).

After these scenes there are others where both characters pretend nothing has changed and that they aren’t thinking about each other, but their body language and actions tell a different tale.

Words alone can only say so much, we are such an expressive species with our body language that a lot can be said without anything actually being voiced out loud. My current second draft is quite dialog heavy and this lesson is one in particular I will be bearing in mind when I go back to edit it.

How to show…

This is related to the point above but elaborates on it and looks at it from a different direction.

Because the play is so much about what is not said as much as what is, it is interesting to see how the story is moved along by this. Not much time is wasted on huge speeches or long monologues, it is a combination of sharp dialog (and plenty of puns!) along with how the characters react and their body language that reveals a lot of the depth and nuances in the story. Simple shots such as one character looking longingly at another as the dialog talks about something related to them both conveys a lot to the viewer.

Writers are often told to show not tell, to let the characters and the writing describe emotions, reactions and hidden thoughts instead of ramming it home by dialog, and this film has examples of it throughout. The whole thing could be used as an example if you really wanted to.

..and when to tell

However, on the flipside, several big events that provide bug pushes to the plot moving forward happen almost entirely off screen. There is one where one character is led to believe that his wife to be is seduced by another, and all that is shown is a flashback to them looking up at her window as he sees a silhouette of two people coming together. The scene is also alluded to in the plotting of the villain in the story, but still for something that drives the main events in the story it gets very little screen time.

Show don’t tell is often repeated as the only way to do things when the truth is you often need to tell. If you show everything you are going to end up with endless pages of descriptions for things that might not really matter to the overall story. Sometimes you need to just tell people what has happened and then let that have its effect on the story. Focus on what is important, on what the real focus of the story is, and don’t waste words on things that the reader/viewer can just be told.

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Those are the three points I took away from this film, such an excellent adaptation of Shakespeare that is definitely made by how it is filmed and by the actors that star in it. As I move into the editing stage of my book I’m going to make sure all three of the above will be ingrained in my mind and I believe all writers can learn something from them.