Monday, March 22, 2010

Storyteller's Rulebook #1: Tell Stories, Show Character


All writers have it drilled into them from day one: “Show, Don’t Tell”. But it's easy to misapply this rule. There’s nothing worse than the film that begins with the slow pan across the hero’s shelf, showing us a photo of them in their hometown, then their med school diploma, then their stethoscope, etc… See, they’re showing, not telling! But they’ve gotten it all wrong.

In movies, as in life, it’s fine to tell your story, but you have to show character. Tell us he’s a doctor. Have him just say “I’m a doctor.” That’s fine. You can also tell us what he's doing there. “I was called in to save the president!” It's much simpler to just tell us the backstory rather than try to show it. But you have to show that he’s a jerk, or a nice guy, or a nice guy that's secretly a jerk, or a jerk that’s secretly a nice guy. That's what people mean when they say “show, don't tell.”

This is very much like real life . If someone tells me, “I’m a doctor,” I’ll probably believe him. If that doctor then tells me “I’m well-known and well-liked and very honorable,” I get suspicious. I don't want them to tell me that. I’m not going to believe them anyway. The only way I’ll believe that is if they show me. It’s the same way with writing. Audiences don’t mind being told what’s going on, but they’re not going to let you just tell them which characters to like or dislike.

In Dr. No, the title character tells us that he’s a doctor, and we believe him, even though we never see his stethoscope and never see him write any prescriptions. But he doesn’t tell us that he’s evil. (Of course, before we meet him, a number of characters tell us that he’s evil, but even then we can’t necessarily believe them. In another James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, the person who we’re told will be the villain turns out to actually be a nice guy.) When we meet Dr. No, he shows us his character. Yup, he’s evil, all right.

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