Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Show Don't Tell Don't Show

SHOW DON'T TELL, GODDAMMIT. Apparently. That's the standard advice, and to be fair, it's a fairly good rule to live by. However, when you go to the cinema or turn on any TV comedy/drama, there's plenty of moments where it's very much a case of TELL DON'T SHOW. In some cases, it's bad exposition, in others, it's perfectly fine. But why is that?

Bad exposition is the script giving us information before we've had a chance to work out what's going on for ourselves. It spoon feeds us story and cuts off our engagement, sometimes only in a minor way but enough to momentarily throw us off our stride.

'Tell Don't Show' is perfectly fine when we're fully aware of the story's dramatic context. If characters start saying exactly what they're thinking or feeling, we're usually invested in what they want to say, and how they want to say it. This is where even the most blatant piece of exposition contains a subtext of everything that's happened up until this point. For example, someone blurting out 'You're my wife. I love you' could be heart wrenching and emotive rather than dull and bland. Take this classic example from EastEnders (direct link, go to 1:21 in embed below), written by TV legend Tony Jordan.

'Show Don't Tell' is generally the preferable way to go but sometimes you just want to hear a good old barney between characters, and have them flinging all sorts or on-the-nose barbs at each other. If you try to be too clever with 'show don't tell', you risk confusing the reader/audience.

Here's a scene I wrote for EastEnders in 2009, where Archie Mitchell gets his cancer diagnosis confirmed. I didn't use any dialogue, and am very proud of the scene (and the way the EastEnders' team embraced the idea), but on the night, I noticed on Twitter that some of the key audience were still confused ("does Archie have cancer or not?"). You can't win.


5 comments:

Liz Holliday said...

Hi Danny - slightly off the point, but in the EE clip, did you write the sound of the Newton's cradle merging into the sound of the clock into the script? Or was that a later decision?

Liz

Danny Stack said...

Hi Liz - yes, I wrote the ticking of the Cradle merging with the ticking of Peggy's clock...

Anonymous said...

Soaps are full of talk. Boring, predictable, you always know what is going to happen. I watched one a long time ago. Never interested me. Nothing like that happens.

Lina Talbot said...

Hi Danny

How old is this dictum, and is it stifling dialogue in UK TV drama? Yes I hate the predictable protagonists' "having words" in a soap-style drama, but there's too much silence and long camera shots of expressions of despair or disgruntledness (whatever the noun is...!)

Compare "Broadchurch" or "In The Flesh" with "Spiral" or "The Walking Dead" even - which has the most vivid characters, best consolidated in our minds from their off-plot remarks and interactions? On the other hand, I saw "Kill List" recently: it's a particular joy in establishing the home life of the killer characters and their friends, and lauded for it.

Danny Stack said...

Not sure how old the dictum is Lina (thanks for the comment!), but I suspect it's been around a while. Perhaps Hemingway became noted for it, and it grew in public's conscience from there. We get more sophisticated as audience & writers, so we become more aware of technique, so certain styles and tastes are always going to be subjective...