Monday, August 08, 2011

Telling vs. Showing : Movie Style

by C.L. Phillips

When I first started writing one of the most difficult concepts to internalize was the difference between telling and showing.  I have a large gallon jar sitting in my office filled to the brim with the nickels I tossed into the jar each time someone said, "Show me.  Don't tell me."

If you know anyone struggling with this concept, I have a simple solution.  Rent two movies, the Golden Compass and The Last Airbender.  Or if you prefer the Chronicles of Narnia and The Last Airbender.  All three movies are from the fantasy genre which makes it a little easier for a mystery or romantic mystery writer to suspend disbelief and becoming engrossed in the story.

Watch either the Golden Compass or Chronicles of Narnia first.  Then watch The Last Airbender.

After doing this, the difference between telling and showing will become crystal clear in your mind.  The Last Airbender is the telling movie, while the Golden Compass and the Chronicles of Narnia not only show the story, they pull you into the action.  You'll find yourself emotionally involved with the main characters in a way that you never considered with The Last Airbender.

The Last Airbender uses flashbacks and voice-overs to provide clues to the action that take the movie-goer out of the story.  Contrast with the Golden Compass or the Chronicles of Narnia, where the action is immediate, fast-paced and propelling the characters to greater and deeper conflict as the story progresses.  Without any commentary or play-by-play.

When did you first internalize this difference?  What has it meant to your writing?  When you need to provide an example of the difference between telling and showing, how do you explain it?


Joyce said...

I've never seen any of these movies, but I know exactly what you're saying.

When I explain show vs. tell to someone I usually pick a specific example. For instance, instead of saying "she was angry" use something like "She slammed her fist on the table."

Ramona said...

I have this personal policy about not putting down other writers in print. Luckily, this policy doesn't apply to filmmakers. :)

I think you've just explained the career of M. Night Shyamalan. His early movies--The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, even Signs--were films that showed. They were good movies, that told good stories.

His latter films fell into telling, and what they tried to tell...well, have you seen The Happening?

Jenna said...

Huh. I never actually thought much about it. I guess I must be doing it right, because I haven't heard that I'm not. If someone asks, I think I do what Joyce does: "She was angry" vs. "She slammed her fist on the table."

And if I watched movies, I'd definitely check those out. I've *read* The Chronicles of Narnia and the Golden Compass, though, and if I remember correctly, there's rather a lot of telling in Narnia. I guess no one told old C.S. that he should show instead of tell.

Patg said...

And though showing, not telling is one of those rules all writers feel they should adhear to, some showing goes on to bore the tears out of you. Sometimes, you just need to tell something. SF and the bits of science needed is an example.

Ricky Bush said...

Good example. I'm guilty of the "telling" syndrome, or so it's been pointed out to me more than once. Sometimes it's an easy fix. Sometimes it's not and I have to scrap parts of a story that I didn't want to scrap.