We Need to Talk About Show Don’t Tell: Part Four

I won’t lie. There could be a part five. In all honesty there could easily be a part ten. I do so love show. If I were the evil dictator type I’d go on a rampage re-writing all books into Show, stomping across Social Media like a Troll of Unusual Size, terrorizing writers sites, sending newbies scampering back to their tear soaked diaries..

But i’m not… Not. Definitely not. Yet. Instead i’ll quietly waffle away here to myself and hope, pray maybe, that some might get it too and jump on board the Show Boat. (its very similar to the Love Boat but with none of these.. shorts not moustaches.


In this part beyond making bad jokes, I want to go as far back as I can to the origins of Show. Beyond even Hemingway to perhaps what was a seminal influence on his thinking.


The movie industry was to Hemingway’s generation what I imagine the internet is to mine. We existed in the world ‘before’, we witnessed its birth, its growing pains, and, vitally, felt the transformative effect of its development.

As Hemingway and his entire ‘lost generation’ would have witnessed, it was powerful. A new art for a new world. One of the most famous examples of what were termed ‘actuality films’ is The Arrival of a Train’, which is as scintillating as it sounds. Yet to its 19th century  audience it was so real they –  we are told by urban myth – ran screaming from the cinema, sure they were about to be flattened by the oncoming steamer.

(you are) working in the universal language that had been predicted in the Bible, which was to make all men brothers because they would understand each other. This could end wars and bring about the millennium ~ D.W. Griffiths

For men who had actually witnessed wars, too many crammed into too short a time, there now existed not just the technology but the idea that its existence had wrought, the ability to show others what they had endured; rather than parsing through the dictionary seeking out means to explain or translate they could let the images and actions speak for themselves.

Hemingway referenced a quote from Henry James, which held that words had been rendered useless by the war, both directly and many times indirectly, as he held that the words had ‘always embarrassed him’ and he found them inadequate next to the ‘concrete thing’. The enduring legacy of his work seems to be the sense of less; that only through reduction can we find truth.

One finds it is in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as it is to endures one’s thoughts. The war has used up words; they have weakened; they have deteriorated like motor car tires… we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms.. ~ Henry James

There is in that the sense that our very medium as writers is inadequate, an old art for a dying world.  While film by its very nature could not fail to be relevant – a camera a window on the world; a living embodiment of Show. Can ‘She faked it’, ever encompass this?

Can ‘he had white face paint and lipstick smeared blood red over his mouth’ horrify like this?

The greater question we might ask today, is does any effect evoked owe more to what we have seen on film than the writer’s skill? Because like Hemingway we’ve already witnessed the horrors with our own eyes. It’s a common argument that older books had to give painstaking detail to their worlds because people had no visual references to draw from and help shape their imaginations. While nowadays we have seen so many images, do we need much more than a cursory mention of sleek steel to see a spaceship in our minds eye?

The emphasis time and time again returns to the visual. Film is a visual medium. And so by many interpretations is show.

Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms ~ Alfred Hitchcock

Early film was constrained in terms of sound. Words weren’t dismissed by choice, but by necessity and as such the early pioneers were very much driven by the images they could create. In the age of FX it doesn’t seem as though anything has changed.  However, oddly, if you have studied film even as a passing interest there are many techniques, such as the montage sequence, or the flashback, where the emphasis is on the visual, yet they are regarded as the mark of a hack. While techniques such as narration are  considered acceptable and frequently crop up in arthouse and award winning works, such as the Opposite of Sex or Notes on A Scandal.

Film hasn’t rendered words obsolete anymore than art or theatre did.  More significantly, it hasn’t rendered tell obsolete.

I came across an interesting example in my screenwriting days.

A married couple are in a lift. The doors open. Another woman enters. The man takes of his hat.

What does that show us?

My instinct was he was old and this was an older generations manners at play. The answer apparently is that the marriage is stale. Which is still a reflection of his manners, only the emphasis there was that he didn’t show the same respect to his wife. For my mind, you never treat your nearest and dearest the same as strangers, so it seemed to reflect only his age and general character, rather than the state of his marriage.

In film we can craft with images. Facial expressions, body language, physical appearance, can all show. This…

couple    +   jess

can become this..

The admonition inherent in the story however didn’t cover any of the above, it was addressed only to the screenwriter, not the director or actor or editor. A screenwriter works under strict prohibitions not to stray from dialogue or action and to keep word count to a minimum, the more white space the better. He cannot depict emotional reactions, inner motivations or thoughts, and descriptions are mostly covered by slug lines, comprising of whether its an interior or exterior shot, what time of day it is and where we are eg Bathroom. Mary’s House. There seems always this hard wired notion that only words can tell.

The language of film may be newer but the clichés are being built up with the rapidity that only the formulaic format of a risk averse studio system driven by the bottom line could finance and the effect is exactly the same as it is in the written word. Tell.

Hitchcock complained that too many films were ‘simply photographs of people talking’. He isn’t wrong, although I would hold it is what is said and how its is said, not that something is said at all, that creates that strange static quality. Dialogue is often the best part and there is very good reason silent films went the way of the Dodo in less time than it takes to make a Peter Jackson movie. Take one of my favourite books and the film adapted from it, The Princess Bride, and my favourite scene

There is so much that is going on here that a lesser writer might have tried to explain, yet everything we need was in those few lines. Everything the character was, everything that drove him, his very blood flowed to its rhythm, as we literally see it reanimate his (nearly) dead body.

One of the reasons that both flashbacks and montage sequences are so derided is that they been overused as classic devices of tell. They take the viewer out of the moment, the natural flow of the story, and function like a hammer to make sure they know exactly what is going on and why.

The characters are blissfully happy, look at them laughing, their shiny shiny teeth.. curling up in front of the log fires (who has all these log fires? and can we all go round there?)

The villain is tormented by his prostitute mothers abusive clients as she lies strung out on coke..

In most cases the very things, characters that they reveal are clichés. Expectations are set up to be met in Hollywood, not subverted. Narration of course does exactly the same thing. Notes on a Scandal was a potentially great film ruined by the fact that Judi Dench wouldn’t shut up. It created, through the limited POV taken from the book,  a  very uneven effect, as we were directly privy to things the narrator hadn’t seen yet weren’t allowed to observe them without hearing her opinion on them.  The first rule in adapting any literary work into a screenplay is ‘throw the book out the window’. I don’t know who said it and google is just trying to sell me stuff, so if you haven’t heard it just trust me, everyone else has.

This is why I am cautious when it comes to comparing writing practice with film techniques and that goes double for applying show. Although I was strongly visual when it came to screenwriting, always enjoying the unique form it allowed, I never considered it to be innately show, anymore than my dialogue or script. Too many interpret show as simply a visual form of explaining and lump dialogue, purely because of its link to film, in with this. Which results in this. This is not good.

Show isn’t visuals. What gave, and gives, film its unique power is its capacity to make us feel as if we are actually there. I have always preferred Hemingway’s word, ‘the concrete’. Some put the emphasis on our senses. Given we are visual creatures, that this is the primary means most of us experience our world, they will always play a big part and it can seem as if film has an automatic head start. But they haven’t made books obsolete. Just ask JK. And any reader would tell you that often a book is far more real and intense than a film. It is simply that whatever medium you choose there is a lot more to it than spewing out the first few words that come into your head or pointing a camera at a train. Show is intimately embedded in the craft of storytelling. Which is why its far too complex to be summed up in anything less than a five part series.. Sorry.. I’ll definitely be finished at five though. Definitely…



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