The Principle of Show, don’t Tell

“Show, don’t Tell” is a rule that’s very typical in the realm of writing. I remember this rule being talked about a lot during a screenwriting class I took in college. But what does it mean? It means that if you’re working with a visual medium—a movie, a TV show, a comic, a stage-play—it’s better to let the action do the talking as opposed to a nebulous narrator over the top of things explaining what’s going on. (It can also be applied to non-visual media, but we’ll touch on that a bit later.)

An example of this rule is in the screenwriting class mentioned earlier: during an assignment to write an introduction scene, a fellow student presented something along the lines of: “Enter Eric, who is the tired father. He’s glad his son is in soccer, but disappointed that he’s not doing very well.” The teacher of the class immediately stopped this presentation and said, “Wait wait, how are you going to portray, on-screen, that he’s disappointed in that specific way?” and the student had no answer to this question. That’s the difference between 1) writing something on a page and using a 3rd person omniscient narrator, or 2) showing it on a screen. Sure, you could just throw in a voice-over to explain all those ideas in simple words, but the choice of using a voice-over should not hinge solely on such a thing. It’s better to hone your craft in such a way to find a way to show the ideas through visuals, or at least through character dialogue.

Now, my screenwriting teacher was not simply saying that this introduction was garbage and to throw it out entirely and start over necessarily. He was saying that this is the challenge: Show, don’t Tell.

I am very much a proponent of this rule myself. As a comic artist, I can afford to buy into it. If you find yourself only telling and not showing, it might be a good time to re-think what subcreative medium you want to use for that given project.

In terms of my comic Adventurers’ Guild, I chose to make it a comic for very specific reasons. There was a short period of time when I tried to write it as a novel (or series of novels,) but I could tell pretty immediately that wasn’t the direction I wanted it to go. I wanted it to have art, a visual side of things to help bolster the storytelling. With just a book, I had nothing else to rely on but words. Now, words alone can be a very powerful thing. But I also wanted the ability to use illustrations to help tell this specific story. And if you choose a visual medium, remember to use those visuals to the best of their ability. Don’t do them a disservice.

A good example of the Show, don’t Tell rule in use is when you compare the two Willy Wonka (or Charlie) and the Chocolate Factory movies—the one with Gene Wilder, and the one with Johnny Depp. In the older one, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka tells the visitors of his factory the story about how he came across the Oompa-loompas, he tells them how he brought them back with him to help work his factory, he tells them how it all went down. In the more recent movie, (not to speak on all the stylistic changes here,) Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka still tells the same story to the other characters, but the director and the writers opted for a flashback scene instead. They show Willy Wonka in the Oompa-loompa jungle, talking with the elder, handling coco beans, and all that. The audience thereby gets to see this themselves. In my opinion, this makes for a better scene for a movie audience specifically.

Now, I am a writer myself, and I have experience writing books. With books, you mainly just have words to rely on, as stated earlier. In my book Summer, Broken, there are illustrations present. But the story is a complete work with just the words alone; the illustrations are an added bonus to help show key points in the story, and to drive home the points of the words. Within Summer, Broken there exists a very hard and rigid example of sticking to the Show, don’t Tell rule. One member of Kenny’s improvised baseball team is a character named Ralph. Ralph is unique in a few ways: he has no last name, he never has any dialogue, and all his behavior is very animal-like. In fact, all the other characters talk to him like they would a dog. Although it is never stated explicitly that Ralph is a dog in the narration, anyone could arrive at the conclusion that he, in fact, is a dog, based on all the evidence that is shown to the audience (including in some of the illustrations). It is a different way of portraying an informational fact, that in this case I think is a rather humorous choice.

Just like any other rule, however, there are exceptions to Show, don’t Tell. The following point is actually what inspired this whole post. And it is this: the idea of the one scene in Silence of the Lambs where from the movie derives its title “Silence of the Lambs” to begin with. In this scene, the main character tells her story about living on her uncle’s farm around the time when the sheep he was raising were being slaughtered, and how this drove her to run away and never look back. There is no visual flashback here, just character monologue. Now, what you actually watch in the scene itself is the emotion behind the story, because of the delivery of the lines and the expression of Jodie Foster is what they are choosing to Show us allows us to play out the scene she is describing in our imaginations, similar to how books work. In my opinion, I don’t think this scene would have worked nearly as well with a flashback, no matter how it was filmed. Even if it had had a few quick still-frame shots of her on the farm, that would have served to divert the focus away from what was actually going on in the scene. And what was the focus? The fact that she was telling a story. She was bearing a very traumatic experience to this convicted murderer, Hannibal Lector. It was more about the interaction happening between the two characters and the intimacy that telling a personal story can bring with it, more than the content of the told story itself.

Another example of this is the Scene in the first season of Breaking Bad when Mr. White has the drug dealer Domingo imprisoned but does not want to kill him. He would rather rationalize way to let him free instead, so he gets him to open up about his past as a way to humanize him more. This scene wherein Domingo tells about his childhood and all the time he spent in his dad’s furniture store is very reminiscent of the Silence of the Lambs scene, and is once again focused more on the character interaction. It wants the audience to feel for Domingo the same thing that Mr. White is.

So the rule is, again, Show, don’t Tell. Even in the cases where it seems that Tell, don’t Show is the way to go, think of it more as a matter of focus. What do you want your focus to be on in any given scene? The two scenes mentioned prior, although not using flashbacks, are most certainly showing something.

When you yourself are writing, do not be lazy; think through all of your writing and directing choices to help tell the best story that you can.

Be sure to check out Ralph on Kenny’s baseball team in Summer, Broken. [CLICK HERE]

Witness how visuals and storytelling come together in the webcomic Adventurer’s Guild. [CLICK HERE]

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