Food for Thought: Show, Don’t Tell

Hey folks and welcome to yet another tasty bite of some Food for Thought! Tonight, we’ll be talking about a Thing that is kind of close to my heart as an avid reader and a pretty voracious media consumer — it’s a Thing that I also feel makes or breaks a lot of media out there.  It’s a pretty basic narrative technique, and maybe something that all you creatives out there might have felt and experienced in your own struggle to create a compelling story. You might have heard it before, and it is a bit of a cliche, even deemed as “bad” advice (especially for young writers), however, I feel it does hold some weight in making something that really gets to the core of a good story:

Ahh the Story Coaster, laying out the basic structure for most narratives -- a bit of "show not tell" definitely livens up the things

Ahh the Story Coaster, laying out the basic structure for most narratives — a bit of “show don’t tell” definitely livens up the things

Show, don’t tell.

Okay so. “Show don’t tell” is a technique employed in a narrative–whether for literature, movies, video games, etc.–that conveys important story details through action, words, or thoughts without the author’s explicit exposition. There’s a big difference between say, a scene where the main character who fears failure hesitates before taking on a challenge with some omnipotent narrative voice saying “Because he feared failure he hesitated”.

The point is to not muddle the audience with extraneous, or perhaps even alienating exposition, but rather to immerse the audience into the story itself. There’s that perfect “Aha!” moment when someone notices something is going down through a well-used cue rather than being explicitly told how to feel about a particular scene. And that’s the beauty of this technique, being able to convey a certain significant emotion without the explanatory voice guiding the audience the whole way.

So now that I’ve explained this technique, let’s take a moment to ask ourselves: Okay cool but why should we care? Isn’t exposition and all that other information kind of actually necessary?

Which is true! Sometimes you can’t get around the need for backstory-backtracking, for that omnipotent voice to lay down much-needed information that cannot be articulated well through a glance or a well-placed comment. Personally, I think that the Avatar: The Last Airbender had the perfect exposition intro, and for a long series it was much needed, actually. Following in its footsteps (sort of), The Legend of Korra also relies on exposition to keep us up to date with the not-so-good story.

And if you “show” too much you just might lose the drama of it all, and that ultimate sensory connection you want to try to develop–provided that is your goal.

Case in point: One of the best films that made good use of “show, don’t tell” to create a moving feature has to be Dreamwork’s How to Train Your Dragon. It’s a much beloved film with a sequel heading out way, but a definite nod to its success is in its solid narrative structure that made use of exposition with well-timed moments of showing rather than telling to prove its point.

And to help us along with this example, please refer to the splash-image-diagram about plot-structure, it really will help.

The cutest dragon - I can't

The cutest dragon – I can’t

In just the first few minutes of the movie do we see how well the writers behind this film organized, and timed their scenes. We do start off with a bit of a lengthy prologue and exposition, marking down the rules of the land and the basic conflict: vikings versus dragons in a scramble for food, always hated each other, etc. etc. And with lengthy exposition finished now we introduce our characters–the unlikely hero, Hiccup, who stands in direct opposition to all that information we processed just seconds before. So we’ve got our contrast, now what do we do with it?

We play on it, throughout the film. The other characters may not always name what makes Hiccup so different and so un-viking that he is despised (at first), but that exposition has built up the foundation to the following scenes that show us his struggles and his strengths. And it’s in this combination of adding some necessary info, but otherwise relying on those visual cues that made this such an endearing movie and — in my humble opinion — a fan favorite.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the movie’s skill in conveying “trust” and a growing bond without having to fall on narration or constant explanation? Definitely this one right here, with body language masterfully saying more than an omnipotent voice-over ever could:

Of course, this is all balanced out by the film’s own mix of exposition and show-don’t-tell scenes, very much aware that one cannot only rely on dramatic sensory moments to tell a story, but that the balance between the two creates compelling movements. Of course it’s forever boring if there’s nothing but exposition– but at the same time there is something discordant if there’s only scenes, without much explanation.

Anyroad it’s definitely something to think about while watching a Thing — or maybe even while reading (Although there’s many arguments against it, hehe). Annnnd that’s all for this week’s Food for Thought, tune in next time when we talk about things that may or may not help you write a better English essay!

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Fenrir

A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

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Fenrir

A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

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