By Bill Mesce
Of all the myths we’ve looked at in this series, none of them drives me up the wall as much as this one. Not coincidently, I find it the easiest to deconstruct. Maybe because it’s so damned arbitrary.
I wrote my first professional screenplay in 1979, and made it through the next dozen years without once hearing anything on subsequent jobs even approximating “Show, don’t tell.” But by the 1990s, I was finding a creeping change in the lexicon of screenplay development. There were a lot more references to “story/character arcs,” “beats,” “three-act structure,” and – you guessed it – “Show me; don’t tell me” (sometimes punctuated with a condescending, “There’s a reason they call them movies, Bill”).
I peg the change as starting in the 1980s with Robert McKee’s STORY seminars in 1983 (adapted into book form 14 years later as Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting), and soon after, Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting; A Step-by-Step Guide from Concept to Finished Script (1984). Field doesn’t even get out of his Introduction before defining a screenplay as “…a story told with pictures.”
By the time I started getting hit with “Show, don’t tell” as a screenwriter, I had already had enough experience under my belt to know that, as an overriding cinematic aesthetic and Messers. McKee and Field notwithstanding, the concept was more or less bullshit. The “Show, don’t tell” people may have the writing gurus on their side. I have Aristotle.
In his book Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters: Storytelling Secrets from the Greatest Mind in Western Civilization (2002), one-time Miramax story analyst Michael Tierno, inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics, rates “spectacle” – in Aristotelian terms, the physical elements of production i.e. the visuals – as the least important element of drama coming behind, in descending order of importance, plot, character, character thought, dialogue, and music. The art of visual spectacle belongs to the set designer (or, more often these days, the CGI FX department); the art of drama to the poet.
I grant you, the justification for “Show, don’t tell” as a screenwriting axiom seems obvious; movies are a visual medium. You’re forced to work with only what you can show. What shoots holes in the concept is that in the decades before people who didn’t write movies started writing books telling people how to write movies, there were any number of films that did more telling than showing (or showed characters doing more telling than doing).
Take that classic early noir, The Maltese Falcon (1941). John Huston’s screenplay is nearly scene-for-scene, line-for-line taken from the 1930 Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) novel. For the most part, the movie, like the book, is nothing more than scenes of exposition and explanation. Its characters do little more than yak and yak and yak, including about a number of key events that happened off-screen. The aesthetic of Falcon, with only a few tiny exceptions, is that of “Tell, don’t show.”
In the film’s “climax” (I use quotes because, like most of the movie, Falcon’s cathartic moment is still more gab), Falcon demonstrates the cinema’s frequent need to go interior – to get at the turmoil going on inside a character – and does so through that hoariest of dramatic devices: the revealing monologue. Humphrey Bogart’s private eye Sam Spade feels compelled to explain at length to femme fatale Bridget O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) why he’s “sending her over” to the cops for killing his partner, even though he’s in love with her and didn’t seem to care much for his colleague. But Bogie’s soliloquy is as much there to provide a window for the audience into his bruised and roiling soul as it is an explanation for desperate, uncomprehending Bridget:
“Listen. This won’t do any good. You’ll never understand me but I’ll try once and then give it up. When a man’s partner is killed, you’re supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t matter what you thought of him, he was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. Bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere…I’ve no earthly reason to think I can trust you, and if I do this and get away with it you’ll have something on me you can use whenever you want to. Since I’ve got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t put a hole in me some day. All those are on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant; I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them. And what have we got on the other side? All we’ve got is maybe you love me, and maybe I love you…maybe I do. I’ll have some rotten nights after I’ve sent you over but that’ll pass. If all I’ve said doesn’t mean anything to you, then forget it and we’ll make it just this: I won’t because all of me wants to regardless of consequences, and because you counted on that with me the same as you counted on it with all the others…”
Bogie’s speech runs a little over two minutes of screen time, barely interrupted by Mary Astor. Mind you, this follows another block of jaw-flapping where Bogie – in another supposed contemporary no-no – dishes up another two minutes of pure exposition laying out the facts behind the 95 minutes of lying, duping, and manipulating that had come before.
Stephen Whitty, film critic for The Star-Ledger, one of the major newspapers in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, offers a more recent example of telling playing better than showing:
In Jaws (1977)…(the character of shark hunter) Quint (Robert Shaw) remembers a time in World War II when his ship sank and sharks circled the stranded sailors. As visual a filmmaker as (director Steven) Spielberg is, he resists the urge to give us a flashback and show us the bloody water, the hungry fish, the screaming men. Instead, he just lets Quint tell us – and makes us fill in the horrible details. What we imagine is far more horrible than anything he could show.
Quint’s quite lengthy monologue – which doesn’t exist in the source novel and runs close to four unbroken minutes– not only explains his Ahab-like obsession with shark-killing, but gives his ball-busting hardass character a tragic, even sympathetic underpinning the action of the movie cannot provide.
And thanks to Shaw’s underplayed melancholy, and Spielberg’s willingness to let the speech roll out in long takes sans such contemporary post-MTV gimmicks like moving cameras and quick cuts, there’s no visual that can equal the haunting quality of the actor delivering lines like:
“Y know the thing about a shark? He’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’…until he bites you and those black eyes roll over white…”
“If you think of films often cited as ‘perfect’ movies,” says Stephen Whitty, “whether it’s old Hollywood films like Casablanca (1942) or more modern classics like Chinatown (1974) – it’s not just the pictures you remember. It’s the characters’ voices.”
There are entire film genres which are dependent on telling: stage adaptations, mysteries with reams of exposition (“The killer is here in this room!”), courtroom dramas (“You can’t handle the truth!”). When I hear “Show, don’t tell” in connection with screenwriting, one of the first titles my mind goes to is 12 Angry Men (1957), Reginald Rose’s big screen adaptation of his live TV drama. 12 Angry Men not only depends on telling, it’s about telling, with the dozen titular jurors grappling with iffy testimony about off-screen, never-seen events as they stumble toward what they think might be the truth of a murder case. The only thing we’re shown are people arguing about what they’ve been told.
Across genres, for one reason or another, various filmmakers – sometimes even those considered the most visual of directors – have drawn on devices dating back 2500 years to the days of Hellenic theater because there are limitations to showing; showing can’t always get us inside a character, or inside a character’s story.
These “telling” devices include self-revelatory soliloquies (like the Maltese Falcon and Jaws examples above) and any variety of voiceover approaches often operating as another form of soliloquy and/or cinema’s version of a Greek chorus. Says Stephen Whitty, “The device encourages us to see the events through these (characters’) eyes, to take their point of view…Words seduce us in ways images never could.” Martin Sheen’s hushed, first person voiceover in Apocalypse Now (1979) gives Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic a narrative cohesion and tonal underpinning the story on the screen doesn’t always have (“It’s a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut ’em in half with a machine gun and give ’em a Band-Aid”); in Raising Arizona (1987), Nicolas Cage’s low-key narration keeps the movie’s screwball express train montage sequences from flying apart, and also provides a certain soulfulness to the rapid fire comedy (“Sometimes it’s a hard world for little things,” juxtaposed with the Biker of the Apocalypse blowing up a desert hare); in Little Big Man (1970) and Barry Lyndon (1975), voiceover narrations are even more true to the nature of an ancient chorus, offering both editorial commentary and a bit of historical context along with a peek into characters’ interior workings (from Barry Lyndon’s omniscient narrator: “No lad who has liberty for the first time, and twenty guineas in his pocket, is very sad, and Barry rode towards Dublin thinking not so much of the kind mother left alone, and of the home behind him, but of tomorrow, and all the wonders it would bring”). The comic Westerns Cat Ballou (1965) and Waterhole #3 (1967) have a literal chorus; troubadours (an on-screen Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole in Ballou; an off-screen Roger Miller in Waterhole) who sing narrative bridges, flashes of character insight, and even a bit of frontier philosophizing (from Miller: “The code of the West is to do unto others…before they do it unto you”).
Like the other myths we’ve looked at in this series, there’s a time and place for “Show, Don’t Tell” and where it works the way its proselytizers say it should. One of my all-time favorite detective flicks is Bullitt (1968), with Peter Yates directing a script by Alan R. Trustman and Harry Kleiner based on Robert L. Pike’s novel, Mute Witness. Even though the best-remembered scene in the movie is its classic car chase through the streets of San Francisco, the scene I always look forward to seeing is where a pair of detectives detectives played by Steve McQueen and Don Gordon are going through two steamer trunks; the luggage of a strangled woman with ties to a murdered government witness. According to Marshall Terrill’s Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel, Yates stocked the trunks with clues without telling the actors what they’d find. In one of the best examples of “Show, Don’t Tell,” the audience watches the actors/cops sift through the clues and piece together the truth behind part of their case.
The short of it is, there’s room in the screenwriter’s toolbox for both.
I offer up, in summation, writer/director Ron Shelton’s refutation of a younger generation of filmmakers’ blind allegiance to “Show, don’t tell.” “(The) old canard that action defines character is only partly true,” Shelton argued in an interview. “Hamlet wasn’t doing a whole lot when he said, ‘To be or not to be.’”