Show, Don’t Tell

One of the more common writing rules is “Show, don’t tell.” That means let the audience experience  the emotions of a scene rather than just tell them about that scene. In novels, this occurs when the text simply tells you, “Jane was unhappy because as a little kid, her father forgot to come to her birthday party.”

Instead of telling us that Jane is unhappy, showing lets us experience the scene from Jane’s point of view. A scene might describe Jane’s excitement for her party and her secret that she wants to share with her dad when he arrives at her party. Then as the party goes on and the father fails to show, Jane can get increasingly anxious and fearful, snapping at people who suggest her father might not show up after all. Finally, just as the party is winding down, Jane sees her father staggering drunk down the street and collapsing in the bushes, never making it to her party. Then Jane quietly puts away the secret that she was going to share with her dad and resolves never to trust him again.

That’s showing. In movies, showing means letting us see something rather than just tell us about it. In “The Finest Hours,” a tanker splits in half and the hero goes out in a small boat to rescue it. One of the biggest barriers to the hero’s goal of reaching the tanker is crossing a part of the water where the waves are particularly rough. In the movie, one character is upset at the hero for failing to cross the part of the water in an earlier scene, allowing someone he loved to die.

What makes this scene less than exciting is that we’re simply told that the waves are dangerous. We never get to see how dangerous they are. As a result, we don’t really know (or care) about the waves since we’re seeing them for the first time and even though they look intimidating, we still don’t know how dangerous they might be to a small boat.

Now compare this to an old Sylvester Stallone movie called “Cliffhanger.” In the opening scene, the hero tries to save a woman who falls to her death. Since we see this woman die before our eyes and watch her struggle to hold on while being terrified of the hero’s attempted rescue, we can see how dangerous the mountains really can be. We already know that falling can kill you, but seeing someone plummet to her death in front of our eyes is far more impactful than another character telling us this.

What’s more memorable? Having someone tell you they saw a drunk driver crash into a house and kill himself, or seeing a drunk driver careen off the road, smash through some garbage cans, knocking over a mailbox, and ramming the front door of a house before the entire car busts into flames? Just being told a drunk driver killed himself by crashing into a house is boring. Seeing the entire event is far more exciting, and that’s what makes us fully understand the world of the movie.

Show, don’t tell. It’s good advice for novelists and screenwriters alike. Let us experience the emotion of the past. Don’t tell us. “The Finest Hours” is a far weaker movie because all the threats are simply told to us without us experiencing it for ourselves.

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