3. Show, don't tell
How strict should we be with the cardinal rule of storytelling? Can stories be all-tell or show-and-tell? Featuring Game of Thrones, Inception (2010), and Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The cardinal rule of storytelling
So here’s something we all probably know by now. “Show, don’t tell” is the oldest and most ubiquitous advice in the history of creative writing. You were likely told to do it by an English teacher at school or by someone with whom you shared your work. In my case, I don’t even remember the first time I ever heard “Show, don’t tell.” I could almost pretend that the approach appeared fully formed in my head as soon as I decided to become a writer, as if it were the instinctive mode that writers assume once they start telling stories.
Of course, that’s not really the case, and one thing I learned while preparing for this post is that the advice is usually attributed to Chekhov, which means that it’s only been in circulation for a little over a hundred years. Thinking back to older works of literature, I realize that the converse approach—“Tell, don’t show”—has also been in vogue for a very long time. For instance, much of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy is packed with expository interruptions, giving way to extended monologues delivered by characters who make their one and only appearance and are never heard from again. While Dante undergoes an overarching internal conflict during the Comedy, it’s something that the reader has to juggle alongside the anecdotal narratives of the souls who beg Dante to listen. Read this way, the journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven could be seen as a framing device for thematically linked stories, rather than the three movements of a sustained narrative.
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This isn’t to say that “Show, don’t tell” is necessarily bad advice, or that we should abandon it wholesale for its opposite. What I really want for this post is to look at that advice through the lens of cinematic experience, and see if this can provide us with a new perspective of how both approaches can serve our work.
Showing in visual media vs. showing in literature
First, let’s turn to the source material for this newsletter. Landau and Frederick use “Show, don’t tell” to rightly emphasize the visual element of the film medium. They write that a clever visual cue can reveal “unseen inner psychology, hidden histories, and emotional conflicts far better than exposition can.” I’m inclined to agree that this approach is more useful to film than it is to fiction. Off the top of my head, one of my favorite examples of this is in the adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, popularly known by the title of its first entry, Game of Thrones. I can no longer remember where it was that I first heard this, but one of the challenges that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to overcome while adapting the series came from working out how to render some of Martin’s deeply introspective chapters for a visual medium.
It’s interesting to read Tyrion Lannister’s train of thought and see how he reckons with his intelligence, how much he owes it to his privilege and the kind of family he comes from. On the other hand, it’s much less interesting to see Peter Dinklage sit at the table for an hour, and have his voice-over read the text as the hour whittles away. To solve this problem, Benioff and Weiss often had to conceive of action- or location-based situations that would allow their characters to act out or even speak out their inner monologues in interesting ways. It’s been a while since I’ve seen all of Game of Thrones and read the books from which they were adapted, but one Internet list points to Tyrion’s trial at The Eyrie in Season One as one change from the books that helped to evoke the comic aspects of his personality. It’s no surprise then that Tyrion remained a standout character from start to finish.
In prose writing, these cues work roughly the same way. Although our medium isn’t visual in nature, the scenes we write do make plenty of room for visualization, through various details from the clothes our characters wear to the environment that surrounds them. From there, the function of images in our work—revealing unseen psychologies, histories, etc.—is generally similar. A character’s green sweater might allude to their sense of being an outsider, while someone heading through a snow-covered city to meet a date would suggest that their relationship has already gone cold.
On top of that, what makes writing different, as we’ve already brought up with the Game of Thrones example, is direct access to our character’s interiority, which allows us to complement those visual cues with our character’s thoughts. So while we might read about a gnarled tree and think, “Freaky,” our character might look at that tree and think, “Well, good thing nobody ever thought about looking for my mother’s corpse here.” The interiority of our characters enriches images through specificity. What was once just a scary-looking tree is also the keeper of a macabre secret, making it much more than it appeared to be.
This feels… different
In art, this technique is more widely known as defamiliarization, the process of presenting something known or common to the audience in an unfamiliar way, so as to unlock a new way of looking at that object or at the world. There are various ways to execute this technique. Pairing objective details with a character’s interior reaction is certainly one of them.
Let’s look at some illustrative examples from cinema. Genre films, especially those in the science fiction category, are great sources of defamiliarization examples, and if we look to some of the more popular ones to come from the last twenty years, we’ll find plenty of ways that storytellers invest meaning through a considered mix of showing and telling.
A simple application of defamiliarization comes in the Christopher Nolan film Inception (2010), in which a team of highly skilled thieves are tasked with infiltrating the subconscious dream space of their targets in order to extract—or plant ideas. The premise in itself is defamiliarization at a high level—we’re considering not only the possibility that thieves can enter one’s dreams to steal ideas, but also to make their targets think they are in control of their thoughts. But the simple application of the technique in this film comes with the plot device called the “totem”—supposedly a personalized object that each thief takes with them into the dreams to help them test if they are asleep or awake. Because these totems are personalized, they take multiple forms throughout the film. When Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) first introduces the idea of totems, his totem is revealed to be a weighted red die. Later, the film ends on an ambiguous note—a shot of Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s totem, a top spinning almost indefinitely. The film cuts away before we ever find out if the top falls to reveal that Cobb is in fact awake, introducing the possibility that he may still be trapped in the dream world. It’s one of the most widely debated endings of Nolan’s films, which is impressive considering how it goes down without a single line of dialogue. Nolan trusts in the audience’s ability to recall the new meaning that the film has invested into this image, which is the mark of truly inventive and effective science-fiction design in film.
To consider a more abstract, thematic example, let’s turn to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004), whose best scene comes roughly three-quarters into the film. In this scene, Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) faces off with Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) atop a moving elevated train.
To buy himself an escape, Doc Ock sabotages the brake mechanism on the train. If Spidey doesn’t stop the train, hundreds of people will instantly die. With the end of the line close by, Spider-Man does the impossible and uses dozens and dozens of webs to slow the train down. The effort is enough to knock him out unconscious, but not before the passengers on the train grab onto him to keep him from falling off.
Spider-Man is brought to safety. The passengers lay him on the ground, but then they notice that Spider-Man’s mask is missing. One onlooker wonders if the hero is still alive, but nobody answers. The camera pulls in on another passenger. “He’s… just a… kid,” he comments. “No older than my son.”
It seems like a small moment, but maybe one of the most impactful ones to ever come from a comic book movie, bringing us into the interiority of someone Spider-Man has committed himself to protecting. For this person, Spider-Man has been an enigma. His first line suggests that he’s never even considered the possibility of this hero being a young person. Yet when he sees him up close, the discovery compels him to speak his thoughts aloud. He’s just a kid, he says, as if nobody else can see it.
But then he says the second line—”no older than my son”—and we get the sense that this onlooker is surprised by how far from an enigma Spider-Man actually is. He’s seen someone like this before—in his own home. For us viewers who have known that Peter Parker is Spider-Man for two whole movies, the novelty of his identity has long worn off. But this passenger’s reaction seems to renew that novelty somewhat, allowing us to feel it again very briefly from another perspective. And while these lines are spoken by a single person, the sense of surprise that permeates them seems to extend to the entire car. These lines singlehandedly set the tone for the remainder of the scene.
So while showing can provide our readers with interesting depictions of a character’s interiority, and telling can give them that interiority like no other art form can, a careful mix of both can enrich our readers’ experience by allowing them to compare their reactions to what they are visualizing with what our characters feel about it.
Before we wrap up with exercises today, I just wanted to call attention to Brandon Taylor’s newsletter post on cinematic fiction. I think it’s a fantastic essay that elaborates on what we’ve been talking about today with more literary examples. I’m also wondering if you have favorite examples of stories that break the cardinal rule and choose to tell or show-and-tell in interesting ways. Let everyone know in the comments below!
For this week’s exercises, let’s consider how stories defamiliarize everyday details, objects, and environments. The first exercise is simple, because it sets the stage for you to practice your own attempt at defamiliarization in the second example.
From a reading or film, identify an act of world-building that moves you. Most people might immediately look to speculative fiction when they think of world-building, but world-building happens in realistic environments all the time. When two people turn a house into a home by filling it with keepsakes, that’s an act of world-building. When someone decides that a certain route to work is their favorite, that’s an act of world-building. The key to this activity is to be able to point out everyday details that most people might encounter or have access to, but show how this one is made special by a character’s specific relationship to it.
Imagine any kind of chair. It can be a real chair or a chair whose design you’ve completely made up, defying the conventional understanding of what constitutes a chair. For five minutes, describe as much as you can about the chair in terms of its physical qualities. Once those five minutes are up, spend five more minutes describing as much as you can about the chair in terms of its historical qualities—where did it come from, where is it now, does anyone own it, does it transcend ownership? Once those five minutes are up, spend five more minutes describing a person for whom this chair would be perfect. It is completely up to you to determine why this chair works for this particular person.
Thanks for joining me on this week’s post. Before we end, I want to once again encourage everyone to follow this newsletter on Instagram. It’s been a great exercise for me to share what wisdom and knowledge I’ve collected about writing over the years, and has been an opportunity for me to share things that I’m not able to cover here in the newsletter. If you’d like daily writing wisdom and film recommendations (the latter of which is a format I’m considering taking on for this newsletter), then follow me on @101filmstofiction.
I also want to point everyone again to the video countdown I posted last weekend, which is by no means obligatory viewing, but is an avenue for expansion that I’m also considering for this newsletter. Would you like to see me try my hand at video essays in the future?
Next time, I’ll be discussing the various stages of film production and I’m going to consider how they stack up against our conventional phases of writing. Much like this post, which was more challenging to write than I initially anticipated, I’m still figuring out what I want to say about these stages that can teach us something about our process. But my gut is telling me that much of the discussion will revolve around one of my favorite films that happens to be about filmmaking, just as much as it is about writing. We’ll see if I follow through.
See you then!
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