The Play-By-Play: Advice for New Writers

When I was eighteen, I wrote a story (and I use the word “story” very loosely because it was extended fan fiction). After my homework was done and while my entire dorm slept, I spent the wee hours of seven months writing an epic “story” the size of a large novella. And I loved every second of it.

In fact, while I now shudder at said content (as most writers do when reading their old material), I remain eternally grateful to that story as it taught me some very important lessons, one of which, I’m sharing with you today.

The Play-By-Play

In my experience, new writers often write too much. I am one of those writers who sees my scene like a movie sequence, and so when trying to covert that scene onto the page, the end result is literally every single character movement. My fanfic was 40,000+ words, and I only had one break in the time sequence, and it was when the characters were sleeping. The story took place over the course of twelve hours, and I gratuitously translated every second of those hours into verse: “I did this, I did that, I stood here, I breathed there, I moved my arm, I shuffled my feet, I gasped in alarm, I cried, and then I breathed some more.”

While scene descriptions, character quirks, and action details make the best stories real and alive, I believe there is a point when the literal “play-by-play” can distract from the scene instead of add to it. This sounds rudimentary, but I see this in writing all the time, including in published books. A scene that should take three well-crafted sentences takes a whole page.

So I challenge all new writers working on a scene to ask: is there any benefit for their reader to know this? Maybe. Perhaps the scene establishes setting, explores the character’s personality or flaws, etc. But do the readers need to see the character wake up, take a shower, put on some shoes, eat some Pop-Tarts, catch the bus, trip up the front steps, grab the books from his locker, and go to English class where he realizes he left his paper at home?

In my pretend story, the real action begins when our young hero realizes he forgot his paper because that scene introduces the conflict. Unless our protagonist had a fight with his mom or saw his crush on the bus (both introduce plot), the readers don’t need to know every detail of his morning.

The “play-by-play” was how I learned how to interact with my stories. I see my character from the very beginning to the very end, and I record every step in between. It’s still the way I see my stories. But as writers, we must decide which steps establish setting, conflict, theme, and character development. The writer may know the protagonist’s favorite breakfast cereal, but the readers don’t necessarily need to.

And please, let me be very clear here: this writing style is by no means a bad thing. I don’t believe any style of writing is “bad.” If you are writing and creating stories, you are participating in something that I believe is good and beautiful. However, this writing style could occasionally benefit from editing, whether that’s by you or someone else.

So while creating your story, remember it’s okay to skip pieces of the “play-by-play.” Instead, include only what is vital to the story. No more, no less.

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