“Show. Don’t tell.”
These three words will likely be mentioned on the very first day of any given film class in any given film school worth their weight in Bergman. I figured it was high time I tackled this rather simple but important notion in the Free Film School here in the ivy-covered halls of CraveOnline. Show, my gentle students. Don’t tell.
If you’re already at a film school somewhere in the world (Hello USC! Hello NYU!), then you’ve likely already had this phrase hammered into your head hundreds of times. Every single professor you have – be they editors, critics, directors, photographers, or even caterers – will stress this point. Indeed, I have had peers and colleagues in the film world complain about how the incessant insistence on the Show-Don’t-Tell concept can, after only a short while, feel like aesthetic indoctrination. It’s just like when a professor or a critic keeps yammering on about “the narrative,” or over-uses the word “storytelling.” It can get tiresome quickly. That said, I think the Show-Don’t-Tell concept is an important one to consider. Although it should not necessarily be considered holy doctrine.
What do I mean by “Show, Don’t Tell?” This may tie into an early Free Film School lesson about the rule of thirds. Well, the phrase is merely a cute little aphoristic shorthand to remind you that films are, when all is said and done, mostly visual. Sure, the dialogue is important, and indeed a good speech can electrify a film in a way that visuals cannot, but the camera is what makes a film a film. The camera is an eye that sees anything it’s pointed at. We are recording a visual record of moving images. Hence, when it comes time to tell your story or convey your mood, you should be able to do such a thing without any dialogue.
What are some examples? I’m glad you asked. Consider the concept of backstory. When we watch a narrative feature film, we’re typically watching a fictional character whom we only meet once the drama of the film begins. Unless this is a long biographical picture, we’ll not be introduced to our hero until shortly before the action of the movie begins. That hero will, then, have their own backstory, their own established character, and, in many cases, their own past experiences. How does a screenwriter convey the information in said backstory? Well, the easy way out would be to write a speech or a conversation wherein the hero’s past is explained out loud, and spelled out for the audience. This kind of explanatory dialogue is typically called “exposition.” It’s a way to give background information plainly, through dialogue.
The Show-Don’t-Tell rule, however, would encourage you, as a filmmaker, to skirt away from such easy (and often clunky) ways of giving background information. Since film is mostly visual, it would perhaps behoove you to show the backstory. Have a visual prologue wherein we see the trauma that so hounds our hero. Or a montage of how boring his life is before he meets that magical teddy bear (or whatever will happen in your film to get the story going). Indeed, this “showing” of exposition can be used in powerful ways. They don’t have to be dry introductions. Consider a flashback scene that comes late in the film, to finally reveal the intentions of the heroine after already following her for two-thirds of a movie. Information can be withheld until a more dramatic moment in a film. If you watched Vertigo after the Free Film School lesson from four weeks ago, you will be familiar with a plot twist that occurs late in that film. We are given new information through the visuals, and from a familiar looking actress. I won’t say what the twist is here, in case you haven’t seen it yet.
A single visual shot can communicate so much about a character. Consider a fun genre flick from last year called Attack the Block. In it, a young street punk leads his JD buddies in a battle against killer space aliens who have invaded his poverty-stricken projects. The film’s hero is a smarter-than-average kid for a street punk, and comes across as a 21-year-old solider more than a street punk. Late in the film, we see a brief shot of his bedroom for the first time. It’s not until then that we really realize how old he is, and how his steely-eyed maturity can be considered all the more miraculous. The filmmakers could have thrown in a speech or some expository dialogue to reveal all this, but it would have felt strained or forced when compared to the simple punch of the boy’s bedroom.
This is not to say that exposition and dialogue can’t have their power. If you’ve read any of Shakespeare’s history plays, you may find that many of the battles and skirmishes between vast armies tend to take place offstage, often replacing them with an onstage pageboy to describe the bloodiness. And while these reports of offstage action and mayhem can be stirring (especially when constructed with Shakespeare’s masterful language), they are typically intended to allow an actor to show off and, perhaps, to save money on visual effects. When you make a film, you can actually take a camera out to a battlefield, hired hundreds of extras, and actually shoot a battle scene. Which is more dramatic? The speech or the battle itself? Well, that can be debated. But the rules of film would often elect the visuals over the dialogue. Indeed, when Kenneth Branagh made his Henry V in 1989, he staged most of the action outdoors, and actually showed the misty Battle of Agincourt in its muddy glory.
When making a film – both when shooting it and when writing it – consider how film began: with no sound at all. It’s a sad fact that, these days, silent films are typically only viewed by cinephiles and film students like us. Much can be learned from their rudimentary language. Many silent films used captions and intertitles to set up poetic exposition, but the bulk of the films would have been shown. Telling was not an option. The story had to be expressed visually. You had to be able to tell who someone was by their look, where they stood in the frame in relation to the hero, and what kind of relationship they had. Yes, often you must bank on clichés and archetypes to achieve this, but, with enough cinematic finesse, you can code the archetypes in subtle ways. Who is the “hero” of the piece? Who is the love interest? How would you show – without any dialogue – that these two are in love? What if they have a rocky relationship? What’s a visual way to show this? Who is the “villain?” What sort of relationship do they have with the hero? Are they more powerful? Are they jealous? How would you convey power with just visuals? Think of the first shot of Star Wars. The rebel ship is tiny. The Empire ship is enormous and fills the screen as it pursues its tiny outmatched little prey. Sure, we were just given an expository crawl, but we already know exactly how powerful the Empire is just by that single visual.
Some more examples on how to convey character and relationships with just visuals: In the recent French film My Mother, there is an early scene wherein a young man, about 21, is taking a bath. His mother (played by the incomparable Isabelle Huppert) enters the bathroom and sits down on the toilet. No dialogue. No exchange. But we get the sense, through this one small action, that something vital has vanished between this man and his mother. There has been a breakdown of privacy.
Heck, consider Henry V again. One of the opening scenes of that film features Kenneth Branagh entering his royal chamber. We see a pair of enormous oak door swinging open, and the shadowy silhouette of the king, wearing his regal robes, entering. The visual is grand and stunning. We get a sense of how large and important the king is. And then – get this – after marching down the hallway, Branagh sits in the throne in a simple and decidedly un-regal fashion. He looks young and even a bit vulnerable after such a grandiose intro. The film pulled a switcheroo on us with a simple visual juxtaposition. A grand entrance followed by a young boy lounging in a throne. So much information is given to us, and not a single choice line of Shakespearean dialogue was needed.
Or, if you want something from Star Wars, consider the 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back. In it Darth Vader (body of David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones) is busy chasing our heroes, hoping to catch Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) for as-yet-unrevealed reasons. Darth Vader wears a scary mask, and can choke people with telekinesis. He is monstrous and evil. Yes, about halfway through the film, there is a scene wherein an underling of Darth Vader’s interrupts him in his “office.” For a brief moment, we see the back of Darth Vader’s head, while he’s not wearing his helmet. We see a mass of scar tissue and no hair. This visual only takes a second, but it reveals a lot about the Vader character. Not only is he sometimes vulnerable and naked, but his evil seems to have corrupted his very flesh. This moment does little to move the story forward, but it communicates volumes.
And finally, watch any silent movie. Any one. It can be an epic like Intolerance, or a funny Harold Lloyd short. What do you learn in each shot? How is this story being told? It’s being told through images and mood and characters. It’s not being told like a book.
(Of course the examples are infinite. These were just a few that occurred to me while writing. Surely you can think of a few yourself.)
I do want to stress here that dialogue is vastly important too, and that good dialogue can, in many cases, trump the need for visual storytelling. There are plenty of films that are more about intellectual discussion than they are about mood and visuals. Consider something like 1976’s Network, one of the great American movies. This is a film that is essentially one long speech after another. Network is a film more about the way people communicate than about their subtle inter-character conflicts. As such, the dialogue is key, and the visuals only have to convey that. The same could be said of any writer/director who is known more for their screenplays than their directing panache. Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, David Mamet, and Neil LaBute are all good examples of filmmakers whose dialogue is awesome, even if their visuals aren’t necessarily groundbreaking.
So that’s what film professors mean when they say “Show, don’t tell.” I would argue that a story is just a story, and can be told through any medium. Storytelling is just the skeleton. To make the story into a film – into something markedly cinematic – it’s ultimately going to be the mood, the tone, and those subtle visual character elements that will make it an aesthetic entity of its own.
Don’t just tell me a story. Show me a story. Show me hundreds of small stories within the story. Show me who everyone is, how they relate, where they live, and the world in which they live, with just visuals. It can be done.
Homework for the Week:
Again, watch a silent movie. Try Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs, if you need a recommendation. Pay attention to the way the visual cues are used. How are you getting information about the characters? Try describing the film’s action out loud to yourself. You might find yourself projecting drama onto the character. Next, watch any more recent movie – anything, really – with the sound turned off. How much of the film’s story are you getting? Do the same thing: describe the film, in words, to yourself. How much information is visual, and how much is expositional? Which is a better way of communicating? Which do you prefer?