Friday, February 20, 2015

Genius from a Pizza Commercial – OR – Show, Don’t Tell

This post is about some writing advice. It does relate, I promise, just bear with me for a minute.

In the small town of Bloomington in southern Indiana, home of Indiana University, there are a shit-load of pizza places. I haven’t been back to that town in several years, but I can remember several off the top of my head: Pizza Express, Mother Bear’s, Crazy Aver’s, Bistro, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Uncle D’s, Buccetto’s, Rocket’s and Café Pizzeria. I got my degree in Economics there and I actually wrote a paper on the market for pizza in town. Needless to say, there were a lot of commercials on TV for the various pizza places. But I only remember the commercials for two of them: Mother Bear’s and Crazy Aver’s.

I remember the Mother Bear’s commercial because it was ridiculous. It had a grown man with stubble wearing fairy wings, a blonde wig, and a tutu. It was weird, but not terribly effective except for being memorable for its weirdness.

The commercial for Crazy Aver’s, however, was just fucking genius. The commercial was just dead silence with non-moving images of delicious pizza. The reason this is so brilliant was because TV is full of noises. When the TV goes silent, it grabs your attention. If you’re having a conversation, or if you are watching and nodding off, you turn back to look at the TV to make sure it didn't turn off. These commercials always played late at night. In a college town, that usually meant a drunk and/or high audience that was easily distracted.

So you turn to the TV to see why it has suddenly gone silent, and you see a picture of a delicious, melty-cheese, pepperoni covered culinary masterpiece. Your mouth starts watering. Another pizza appears, this one some kind of specialty with meat and vegetables. Another pizza appears, this one with a cold, sweating glass of soda next to it. Then the voice comes on: “Crazy Aver’s Pizza, Order now!” and the phone number appears on the TV.

Fucking. Brilliant.

I have no idea how many pizzas they sold me this way, but everyone I knew said the same thing. That commercial is genius. This doesn't even consider that this was probably the cheapest commercial to make in history.

Anyway, there are two writing-related points to this:

First, with regards to the opening line(s) of a story: You don’t have to make a lot of noise to grab attention. Your story doesn't have to open in the middle of an epic battle. You don’t need to curse like a sailor, or say something poetic, or paint beautiful word-imagery to hook someone. You just have to give them a reason to look. A few examples:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” – George Orwell, 1984

“The trick to walking around in someone else’s body is not getting caught.” – Rick Wayne, The MinusFaction

“Marley was dead, to begin with.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

“Aliens suck at music.” – Rob Ried, Year Zero

They make you want to know what the fuck is going on, don’t they? I've noticed a lot of sci-fi novels drop you into a battle right at the beginning. Anything by Dan Brown is probably going to open with a grisly murder scene. A lot of classical literature will try to open with a lot of detail of the setting, or what the author wants to be a clever and memorable line, usually one that doesn’t really have a lot to do with the plot (This does not apply to Jane Austen, that woman was a genius). I'm not saying any of these books are bad, but you don't HAVE to start your story that way. The lines above, they hook you without trying to throw a lot of noise at you. They get your eyebrow raised and your eyes locked on the page.

The second bit of wisdom from this commercial is something you’ve heard a thousand times, “Show, don’t tell.” Aver's didn't have to tell me anything about their pizza. They just showed it to me and made my mouth water. This little nugget of wisdom is tough, because we are using words. Using words, by their very nature, is pretty much the definition of “tell”. Confusing? It was to me for a long time, until I figured it out by watching one of the greatest movies of all fucking time, Star Wars. It does a great job of showing a lot of information without having to tell you anything. Let’s novelize that scene:

As the men in faceless white armor examine the bodies of their recent kills, a heavy robotic breathing sounds from the blown-open doorway. Both stormtroopers immediately drop what they are doing and come to rigid attention. A tall figure, dressed all in black, face covered by a black mask, and figure shrouded by a black cape steps onto the ship. He looks down at the corpses littering the hallway. None are who he is looking for. He moves on, followed by his guard.

What did I just show you about Darth Vader? First, he’s important. The troopers came to attention. Second, he’s a cold bastard. He took just long enough to see that his prey wasn’t among the dead. Third, he’s scary looking. I didn't say he was scary looking, but the description, with a few choice adjectives (shrouded, repetition of “black”) pretty much ensures you know he’s scary looking. That paragraph is 82 words, and it advances the story while also conveying what I want you to know about Darth Vader. If I wrote the next few scenes out, you’d know Darth Vader is powerful, evil, and someone you do not fuck with. I wouldn't have to say any of that, because what he does, along with a few short descriptions, will get the point across.

I hope you enjoyed this, now go write something!

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