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. And witty as well. It also provides a marvellous 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.
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.