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Article – Show, Don’t Tell


Posted May 29, 2015 by

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Show, Don’t Tell

On top of writing about movies, I’m trying to write books. Recently I was given some brutally honest advice (which I won’t detail because it still burns) but in a nutshell I was told I tell too much instead of showing. It’s something I’m wrangling with right now since how do you show instead of tell when a book is essentially depiction? That’s a problem for another day.

Anyway! This conundrum was fresh in my head when I saw Mad Max: Fury Road. Among what I found amazing was its deep lore that is only hinted at visually. We’re shown that the Immortan Joe and his anaemic, tumorous War Boys are dependent on medical apparatus and blood donations. It’s left to us to figure out that all these maladies must stem from nuclear fallout. We’re told of the Citadel’s counter-parts, Gastown and the Bullet Farm and that’s it. Imperator Furiosa hails from a female tribe called the Vuvalini, now nomadic and a fraction of its former strength. There are no long-winded expositions for any of these plot-lines. It makes the fiction thicker and faster, like you’re given only a moment to peer inside a speeding train before it zooms off into the distance.

This has worked for all the Mad Max movies, all the good ones anyway. Beyond Thunderdome is easily the weakest of them. Maybe it’s because of the clash of tones (Peter Pan plus gun-toting gimps), maybe it’s because it has the most exposition in the franchise. I’ll let y’all figure it out.

The first two movies fare better. In Mad Max we’re not told why the world is in such a sorry state, even pre-nuclear apocalypse. We simply have the Toecutter and his band of biker bastards and the Main Force Patrol duking it out on the highway.

The Road Warrior is even more stripped back and enigmatic. No back story for the quirky Gyro Captain or the Feral Kid or those defending the compound or for Humungus and his marauders. It’s all left to our imagination, save for a few humanizing details. In Humungus’ gun case we briefly see a faded black and white photo of a man and women. Humungus’ parents? Up to you. We’re not even told that The Road Warrior is supposed to take place 5 years, and Beyond Thunderdome 20 years after Mad Max. Like the time period of a Coen Brother’s movie, it was always left unsaid.

Compare this with the recent slew of comic book movies we’ve had. The video logs left behind by Dr. Connors in The Amazing Spider Man are implausible. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Zola’s posthumous speech to the Cap not only stalls him but the movie too. In Guardians of the Galaxy (a movie I frickin’ love) you’re painfully reminded it exists within the mind-binding Marvel Universe when The Collector starts yarning over the Infinity Stones.

Coming off of comic book movies (and I can’t believe I’m gonna do this) let’s take a look at Christopher Nolan. I’m not gonna talk about Batman because what Nolan did for the movie franchise was a little bit like what Jesus did for Lazarus. No, I’m looking at Interstellar.

I saw Interstellar three times. Some people have religion, I prefer black holes and bookcases. But recently I read an article talking about a very clumsy exposition scene, the “love” talk from Brand. After reading it, and bearing in mind the whole “show, don’t tell” thing, I re-examined Interstellar.

I still worship the movie but the talk can be dizzying. Inception suffers similarly. While blown away by it first time I admit it took two viewings to fully wrap my head around it.

Obviously it’s difficult to portray a complicated concept without exposition (and both the Nolan In’s are complicated). But look to Stanley Kubrick, a major influence on Nolan. Look to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The opening chapter on the dawn of man contains not a single discernible word, having to rely on imagery and sound alone to tell a story. From that, we have cinema’s most famous jump-cut. For the “star-gate” scene, Dr. Bowman (just like the baffled audience) is inexplicably propelled through neon cosmos and alien landscapes, only to end up aging rapidly in a neo-classical bedroom. Wait! Now he’s a giant foetus floating in space. And on this, Kubrick tells you precisely dick. 2001 has its own Wikipedia page dedicated solely to interpretation. Interstellar doesn’t (but I still love it. All hail Nolan).

Perhaps my favourite movie, Children of Men, is a shining example of showing over telling. The details of the plot aside, the plot itself is submerged in a dystopian world, the signs of which are everywhere for you to see. Passing small talk on now-decimated cities, newspaper clippings that reveal new information on every viewing. When we do get exposition, the flow survives. Hearing about Theo’s late child is all the more arresting because of how it’s told, with Theo eavesdropping on Jasper and company, the camera staying fixed on his face in a single take. Had the camera been in the thick of Jasper’s conversation, with clearer audio and reaction shots included, the scene would have been lesser.

“A picture is worth a thousand words”. The quote’s around for a reason. There are great examples of film-making out there ready to inspire directors and writers to come. Got a story needing told? Can you tell it without words? If not, can you tell it with words in a different way? From a different point of view? Experiment! Shake shit up!

Now, to practice what I’ve been preaching, I’ve an alternate-history/war/sci-fi/horror/drama story to re-write.


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Michael Keyes
Silences Band
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