One of the latest flops at the box office is “King Arthur.” If you watch the movie, you’ll notice one huge problem: you never get to emotionally experience what the main characters are going through.
One general rule of writing is to show, not tell. In fiction such as short stories and novels, that rule means don’t tell us what a character feels, show us. For example, if a character feels sad, don’t just say, “Mike felt sad.” Sometimes this is fine, but it’s far less effective than painting a visual image with words such as stating, “Mike stared at the floor, tears welling in his eyes as he forced himself to take deep breaths. ‘I’m a horrible person,’ he thought to himself.”
By simply stating information like “Mike felt sad,” the reader feels like an outsider looking in. By describing what the character is doing and feeling and thinking, novelists can put the reader into the shoes of the character so they actively engage in the experience and feel the character’s emotion themselves.
In movies, this “show, don’t tell” rule translates into not just showing us action, but letting us feel the experience of the characters. In “King Arthur,” the hero goes to an island to prove his worth by surviving alone. Rather than letting us see the hero looking confused on the island as various animals threaten him, the movie simply shows snippets of the hero fighting various creatures. There’s no tension, no suspense, no watching the hero battle his way out of danger. Instead, the movie just shows the hero fighting various animals and that’s it. The end result is that we see the hero overcoming multiple obstacles, but we never get to experience the thrill of seeing how the hero overcomes these dangers.
Imagine how exciting “Star Wars” would have been if we had just seen the Death Star blowing up after Luke fires his torpedoes into the exhaust vent. Just seeing that action alone isn’t as exciting as seeing Luke flying down the trench, watching his escorts get shot up as Darth Vader picks them off one by one, and then being alone in the trench with just seconds to spare before the Death Star will blow up the rebel base. Then Luke turns off his targeting computer and the rebel base asks what’s wrong. This creates more suspense and then Luke hears Obi-wan’s voice urging him to use the Force. Finally, Luke fires his torpedoes and blows up the Death Star.
Isn’t that far more exciting than just seeing a clip of Luke firing his torpedoes and blowing up the Death Star?
That’s the huge problem with “King Arthur.” Instead of letting us watch and relate to the main characters struggling to overcome problems, we just see the highlights of the action with no sense of who these people are, how they got there, or why they’re behaving in certain ways at all. Imagine just watching the highlights of a baseball game but never knowing who the two teams are. You likely wouldn’t care, and that’s the major flaw with “King Arthur.” By simply showing us the exciting parts of a scene without explaining what’s going on or letting us see the hero grow and overcome problems, “King Arthur” is nothing more than a series of clips showing action but completely empty of meaning and emotion.
Another scene in “King Arthur” shows how King Arthur grew up as a kid, always getting beat up. This rapid-fire clip of different scenes is far less effective than a single scene in “The Karate Kid” where we see the hero get beat up. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero wants a girl, gets attacked by the villain, stands up to defend himself, and then gets beaten by the villain. This is far more compelling than just watching a series of rapid-fire clips of the hero getting beaten up by the villain.
The lesson is that one scene can often be superior to a rapid-fire series of scenes that repeat the same idea. In “Die Hard,” what’s more exciting? Watching the hero being stalked by terrorists and slowly taking them out? Or would you rather see a series of action scenes that show nothing but the hero shooting, punching, and blowing up terrorists without showing you how he met and outwitted those terrorists in the first place?
The “show don’t tell” rule in screenwriting means that it’s not enough to show something exciting happening, and it won’t help to show multiple scenes of something exciting happening if it simply repeats the same type of action. In screenwriting, scenes are far more engaging if they clearly tell a story. The hero has a problem, the hero tries to solve the problem, the hero runs into problems, and the hero finds a way to overcome that problem in a unique way.
That’s showing in screenwriting. Telling is simply watching the hero doing something exciting but repeating this same type of action over and over again until you realize you’re not only seeing the same thing (and thus the story isn’t moving forward), but that you’re also not learning anything about the hero and how he overcomes problems.
Show, don’t tell. One exciting scene is far more valuable than five nearly identical scenes that only show action but never let us understand what’s going on. We don’t just want to see action in a movie. We want to understand it as well, and that’s something pure action can never do on its own.
Watch “King Arthur” and then watch a great movie like “Rocky” or “Casablanca” and ask yourself how you could ruin a great movie by stripping out the emotion and just focusing on the visually exciting scenes instead. If you only see the visually exciting scenes of a great movie, you’ll drain that movie of its emotional appeal, and that’s the huge problem in “King Arthur.”