‘Show Don’t Tell’ – How to Best Follow the Principle
It’s a term you hear frequently when it comes to storytelling – ‘Show Don’t Tell’.
But what does it mean exactly? And how you can you take that principle and use it in your screenwriting?
Let’s take a look…
The Meaning of ‘Show Don’t Tell’
It might seem obvious what ‘Show Don’t Tell’ means. It kind of does what it says on the tin. But you need to take a closer look and analyse what the phrase is really trying to tell you.
…a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description.
‘Show Don’t Tell’ is a principle perfectly placed for use on screen. This is most obviously because cinema and TV is a visual storytelling platform, where images make up the primary way of telling the story.
‘Show Don’t Tell’ is about action. It’s about showing your audience your story, characters and themes rather than telling these elements to them.
What ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Looks Like
It would be easy to think that ‘Show Don’t Tell’ is purely about visuals. It is more about the meaning and purpose within each scene and how the scene conveys that meaning and purpose.
What is the scene seeking to tell the audience?
‘Show Don’t Tell’ can be exemplified in a number of different ways. For example:
- Characters acting/behaving a certain way or reacting to a situation could reveal character.
- Characters reacting to a situation could reveal plot. This action will consequently move forward their journey in relation to their goal and therefore move the plot forward.
- A visual metaphor or imagery present in the scene could reveal theme.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekov
‘Show Don’t Tell’ Within a Scene
To highlight the principle of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ even more, here’s how the principle could be ignored within a scene.
- A character describing one character to another could reveal character – ‘They’re this way because of this reason’.
- Dialogue in which the characters seek to explain the plot to each other could reveal plot. This is really to just a way of describing it to the audience.
- A character expressing their opinion could reveal theme. This therefore does the work for the audience and undermines the potential satisfaction that will come for the audience in doing the work themselves.
‘Show Don’t Tell’ is about how much the script feels like a movie or TV show.
- For example, a novel is more likely to contain long description about how the characters are feeling.
- A play is more likely to contain dialogue that seeks to over explain.
- An essay or documentary is more likely to contain open debate and discussion around a subject or theme.
There are obviously exceptions to these rules. However, such exceptions need to be clearly defined in their purpose.
So, How Do You Employ ‘Show Don’t Tell’?
The best way to think about using ‘Show Don’t Tell’ is to think about what and how many different techniques you are using to tell your story.
For example, you need to convey a piece of information about the plot to the audience…
- Think about the logic of the scene.
- Think about how the character is interacting with the scene around them.
- How does how the character interacts with the scene reveal the plot?
A simple example of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ would be rather than a character telling another character they are paranoid, we would see that character’s paranoia reflected in how they interact with the context around them.
- Showing rather than telling within this scene creates an opening for visual storytelling techniques.
- Not only that, it also generates a mood for the audience to feel.
- Rather than merely being told that a character is paranoid we get to feel that paranoia along with them.
- Therefore, as an audience we are automatically more invested.
A simple example like this one reveals just how much more scope employing ‘Show Don’t Tell’ gives your script. Telling limits your script’s options, whilst showing opens them up.
How to Check for ‘Show Don’t Tell’
Whatever your screenwriting method, it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in the flow of writing.
- You might forget to employ ‘Show Don’t Tell’, as you’re letting your characters lead you and your imagination is flowing.
Checking for ‘Show Don’t Tell’ within your script needs to be an essential part of any editing process.
- You are essentially checking that each scene is meaningful.
- You’re making sure that it’s helping convey your ultimate goal for the story and that it justifies its existence on screen.
So what can you do to check your script is utilising ‘Show Don’t Tell’…
- Is your dialogue layered or is it hollow?
- What is the dialogue hiding?
- Is there enough of a gap between what the dialogue means to the audience and what it means to the characters within a scene?
- What is the conflict and pressure on characters within a scene? A complete lack of this will make the scene uninteresting and meaningless.
- Is there enough for a camera to do within this scene?
- Do the characters have opposing aims within a scene?
- Is the dialogue realistic? Would a character in real life actually talk like this?
- If the dialogue is unrealistic (perhaps heightened or stylised), is there a purpose behind this?
- What does this scene reveal to the audience about plot, characterisation or theme?
‘Show Don’t Tell’ isn’t always about dialogue being used as the ‘Tell’. But this is the most common way that a lack of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ manifests.
When going through your script and applying edits, think about the following…
- If you had to, how would you condense the dialogue of a sentence or monologue, into one word?
- Obviously, you don’t have to carry this through…that would make for a very monosyllabic film!
- BUT, what it will do is take you to the core of what you want your characters to be conveying within a scene.
- A technique like this strips everything back and takes you to the core motivations for the script in general. Then, you can build from there.
Examples of ‘Show Don’t Tell’
In the spirit of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ rather than just tell you, let’s take a look at some examples that exemplify how best to use ‘Show Don’t Tell’.
The Wire Season 4, Episode 3 – ‘Home Rooms’
Early on in this season, we are relatively new to the character of ‘Dukie’. He’s one of four teenage friends who we come to know over the course of season 4.
At this point in the season we are still learning about these four characters and their personalities.
- Over the course of this episode, we see Dukie playing with a pocket fan he finds on the ground.
- He fiddles with the broken fan quietly until he eventually manages to fix it.
- It seems a curious motif until it gains meaning in the last scene of this episode.
- A classmate lashes out at another in a violent attack. We’ve seen this classmate bullied throughout the episode.
- After the classmate lashes out, she sits down whilst others scramble to help the victim. She breathes heavily and takes a moment to herself.
- Dukie approaches her and offers her the pocket fan.
- This reveals so much of Dukie’s character. He relates to the classmate who has carried out the attack, which gives a clue into both their backgrounds. This act also reveals his empathy and caring nature.
- The other three boys who make up the four friends at the heart of the season are also present in the scene. Their own different reactions to the attack is also revealing of their characters as well as foreshadowing later plot developments.
We rarely hear them express emotion towards each other. But we don’t need to, seeing instead how much they care about each other through how they act towards and for each other.
- When Marge is called in early for work, Norm gets up as well to make sure she eats breakfast.
- Despite the fact that Marge is investigating a murder, she devotes just as much time to asking about Norm’s painting and the competition he is entering, as he does to asking about her work.
- The familiarity and friendliness with which Marge’s colleagues talk to Norm also indicates how much of a unit they are within the community.
- The way they treat each other is also revealing of the film’s themes. In contrast to the murder and scheming that makes up the primary narrative, as Marge says herself ‘There’s more to life than a little money’.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Sticking with the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis is filled with great ‘Show Don’t Tell’ writing. Llewyn’s (temporary) cat is a particularly standout example.
- Llewyn is stuck with a friend’s cat when he leaves their apartment (when they’re not there) and the cat sneaks out. Locked out, Llewyn has to take the cat with him.
- This apartment is in Upper Manhattan. As Llewyn travels to where he lives and hangs out, Downton Manhattan, the gulf between the two areas is shown via the cat.
- As the subway hurtles downtown, the cat seems increasingly skittish, eventually trying to escape Llewyn as they reach downtown.
- The context of Downtown Manhattan at the time (1960s) is expertly shown through a cat’s face.
- Subway signs illustrate the journey downtown to Greenwich Village and the cat’s increasing nervousness acts a metaphor for the status and reputation of the Village at the time.
The Social Network
It would be easy to think that copious dialogue means that a film is telling rather than showing. The Social Network demonstrates that this isn’t neccesarily the case.
The dialogue is purposeful and highly revealing of character at almost every turn. For example, in a scene where Eduardo finds a cease and desist letter and confronts Mark…
- Mark’s initial ignoring of Eduardo’s questions and return to asking about girls at a party, is revealing of his interests and motivations.
- Mark repeatedly differentiates between the use of ‘we’ and ‘I’ in the conversation. This foreshadows the conflict over the ownership of Facebook.
- The two characters are constantly at cross purposes within the scene and their dialogue reveals this.
- This demonstrates the wider theme and plot – how the two (and more) characters see the same situation differently and fight over who is right.
Telling Not Showing
Sometimes the best way to show how to do something, is to look at how NOT to do it. Suicide Squad is full of examples of the script telling rather than showing.
The script buckles under the pressure of having to introduce so many characters. Characters directly explain the characteristics and personalties of other characters.
‘This is Katana. She’s got my back. She can cut all you in half with one sword stroke just like mowing the lawn. I would advise not getting killed by her. Her sword traps the souls of its victims’.
- We are told about what characters can do rather than shown what they can do.
- Often an expositional sequence will accompany a voiceover narrating the story of this character.
- This might seem like a balance between showing and telling but it’s not.
- As they are both doing the same thing, the telling overrides and undermines any demonstration, ultimately making such a demonstration, pointless.
This is lazy and unimaginative storytelling and only serves to highlight the importance of the principle of ‘Show Don’t Tell’.
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