KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 3: Spring 2015
Craft Essay: 998 words

Tell, Don’t Show: Part One

by Bill Mesce, Jr.

As an undergraduate long ago, I hit a block in a manuscript and went to Dave Wesner, graduate assistant in my Creativity Class. He was sharp and more accessible than my professor.

When I described my problem, Dave’s head reared back: “What do you mean you can’t do it?”

“You’re not supposed to.”

“What’s that mean: ‘not supposed to’? Why not? Says who?”

“It’s, like, a rule.”

“Rule? There are no rules, Bill. There’s only one rule: Whatever Works.”

Now, whenever I hear something that amounts to a writing rule—whether tacit, implied, suggested, or proclaimed—I remember Dave Wesner: “There are no rules!

Maybe because of my own long, combative experience with one “rule” in particular, I’m especially agitated by “Show, don’t tell.”

What constitutes showing and what constitutes telling depends on who’s bromiding and who’s rebutting. Usually, this means preferring the concrete over the abstract; what can be seen rather than contemplated; descriptive prose and physical action that defines character and/or drives the plot, rather than prose that is lyrical, introspective, and reflective.

When applied to strong writers (and that’s the caveat: strong writers writing strongly), the line between showing and telling is always in play, and may even disappear as they merge into a single, powerful instrument. In the end, the distinction between the two, depending on the author’s dexterity, may be meaningless. As one strong writer once told me, “You can do long as you do it beautifully.”


I wrote my first professional screenplay in 1979, and never once during the next dozen years heard anything on subsequent jobs even approximating “Show, don’t tell.” I peg the change as beginning in 1983 with Robert McKee’s now-famous STORY seminars (adapted in 1997 as a book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting), and Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting; A Step-by-Step Guide from Concept to Finished Script (1984). Those two bibles of the trade inspired countless how-to-write-a-successful-movie tomes, most of them claiming there’s a formula or template that, if followed, produces an effective screenplay. By inserting Tab A into Slot A, you wind up with movies as good as The Godfather or Chinatown.

By the time I heard “Show, don’t tell” as a screenwriter, I was experienced enough to know that it was more or less bullshit as a cinematic aesthetic. The “SDT” people may have writing gurus like McKee and Field on their side, but 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—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; the art of drama to the poet.

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. However, during the decades before people who didn’t write movies started writing books telling people how to write movies, films such as that early classic noir, The Maltese Falcon, did more telling than showing.

John Huston’s 1941 screenplay is nearly scene-for-scene, line-for-line taken from the 1930 Dashiell Hammett novel. Movie and book are little more than scenes of exposition and explanation, whose characters do little more than talk, telling us about people telling each other about key events that happened off-screen. The primary aesthetic is this: “Tell, don’t show.”

The film’s “climax” (like most of Falcon, its cathartic moment is still more talk) demonstrates cinema’s frequent need to go interior—to access turmoil within characters—and does so through that hoariest of dramatic devices: the revealing monologue. Private eye Sam Spade explains to femme fatale Bridget O’Shaughnessy why he’s “sending her over” to the cops for killing his partner, even though he’s in love with her and cared little for his colleague. But his soliloquy, which consumes nearly two minutes of screen time, provides as much a window for the audience into his bruised and roiling soul as an explanation for desperate, uncomprehending Bridget.

“Tell, don’t show” also brings to mind 12 Angry Men (1957), Reginald Rose’s big-screen adaptation of his live TV drama—which not only depends on telling, it’s about telling, with the dozen titular jurors grappling with iffy testimony about off-screen events as they stumble toward what might be the truth of a murder case. The only thing shown? People arguing about what they’ve been told.

Because there are limitations to showing, various filmmakers—even those considered the most visual of directors—have drawn on devices dating back 2500 years to the days of Hellenic theater (e.g., the Greek chorus). Showing can’t always get us inside a character, or inside a character’s story.

Even a cinematic maestro like Alfred Hitchcock found himself needing to find some way into a character’s interior in a scene in his classic Vertigo (1958). Kim Novak wears an outfit which makes her look exactly like the woman that private eye James Stewart was in love with and who died in a previous case gone wrong. Stewart forcefully takes Novak in his arms and crushes his lips to hers. But the visual message is incomplete, at least according to Steven Spielberg’s regular composer, John Williams.

In a TCM (Turner Classic Movies) special on movie music, Williams used the clip as an example of movie music telling us something that’s not on-screen. Without Bernard Hermann’s swelling, swirling score, says Williams, not much is happening in the scene. But the music reflects (i.e., tells of) the emotions churning away inside Stewart.

If “Show, don’t tell” is hardly ironclad for a visual medium, what weight should it carry for prose? After all, whether you show or tell in prose, the bottom-line fact is this: it’s still words on a page.

Tell, Don’t Show: Part Two

Bill Mesce, Jr.
Issue 3, Spring 2015

is an adjunct instructor at several colleges and universities in his native New Jersey, and is also a student in the Creative Writing MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He is working on a history of Home Box Office for McFarland Publishing; and his collection of essays, Idols, Icons, and Illusions: The Movies We Love—and Love to Hate—and the People Who Made Them, will be published by Stephen F. Austin University Press this spring.

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