A common “rule” in screenwriting that most of us have heard, usually when starting out is, “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s an attempt to steer us away from lengthy exposition scenes or having characters tell us, moment by moment what is going on. We are writing “moving pictures” so let’s stick to that and leave lengthy dialogue to the politicians.
However, as a “tool” it can be very useful and remind us to think carefully about the scenes, sequences and how our stories are structured. There are times when it is absolutely right that we show something visually, rather than have a character describe it. But, of course, like any other screenwriting rule, it is not always going to be the most appropriate way to write your scene. For every good example, there will be a bad example and for each of those good examples, I am sure you will be able to find another great example of a character “telling” the audience.
One of the examples explored in the Shorescripts link below is Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis in Jaws (1975). The speech is a long one, but a powerful one. The intensity and emotion of the experience is all there on screen as Robert Shaw recounts the events of the sinking and being hunted by sharks. It is a clear example of someone “telling” the audience and it works superbly. Would it have been better to “show” the audience? How would you do that? I’m not sure… a flashback? Possibly, but a flashback can be damaging to a film; a jarring interruption that takes you out of the flow of the scene. “Telling” worked in this case.
But “showing” can also work. You just have to get it right, just as with any screenwriting tool. Know when and how best to use it for the story you are telling at the time.
The reason I got to thinking about this was seeing the end of episode 1 of the new Westworld series.
Some spoilers coming up if you haven’t seen Episode 1 yet!
Towards the end of the episode there is a mass recall of “hosts” (the androids that populate the games in Westworld) because of a glitch relating to a recent update. Evan Rachel Wood’s Delores is one of those hosts and she is questioned by park staff to check her programming. During this process, Delores is asked whether she would “ever hurt a living thing.” In true Azimovian style, the hosts in Westworld are programmed not to hurt any of the guests and Delores answers unequivocally in the affirmative that, no, she would never hurt a living thing.
As the show ends, she walks out onto the veranda of her home, as she has every morning for however long she has been in her current role, past the host playing her father (newly changed from her previous glitching father), to look out over the prairie and absentmindedly swats a fly on her neck.
How good was that?
Simple, subtle but brimming with power and coolly setting up the coming storm that we all know is coming.
Don’t get led blindly down the “Show, Don’t Tell” alley just because you think that is what you have to do. As with all our screenwriting tools, be aware of it, learn how to use it and chose your moments – and blow your audience’s mind.
- Film is visual: Show, don’t tell – Scriptlab
- Shorescripts – Screenwriting Myth #5
- The Screenwriter’s Toolbox: Show Don’t Tell – Scriptchix
- 3 Reasons why “Show, Don’t Tell It” is bad writing advice – Bang2Write