In the post I wrote this morning I began to explain about my experiences with and views on the idea of “Show, don’t tell.” Then it was time to go to sleep, for me, or I’d probably have continued writing. I certainly continued thinking about the subject, as I drifted off to sleep. Here’s a bit more on the subject.
I watch a lot of TV (mostly DVDs and online streaming; almost never broadcast), but most of the time I’m doing it, it isn’t the only thing I’m doing. For example, right now I’m watching Doctor Who: The Ark while writing a post for my online journal. Other times I also play games (on my iPhone & iPad), browse the web, et cetera. In fact, I have found that for most programming, if I try to simply sit still and watch, I get antsy.
I would estimate that, for probably 90%-95% of the shows or movies I watch, I only need to actually be looking at the screen perhaps 5%-10% of the time. Thinking about how I watch my TV, and about my preferences re: going to the movies, I think I’ve determined that -for me- generally, story comes to me via my ears and spectacle via my eyes. Most of the time, what’s going on on-screen isn’t really important to see, certainly not enough to hold my full attention; I don’t need to see it to know what’s going on. This corresponds roughly to my experiences with show/tell in the written word; a little bit of showing, when appropriate, is reasonable, but I need to be told what’s happening to really understand. Otherwise, like when a film (almost never a TV show) insists on actually making good use of the visual aspect of the medium for key storytelling, I find I’m either fully engaged and watch without doing anything else or I’m frustrated that I’m unable to follow the story… depending on the skill of the filmmaker.
I wonder how I’d do with, say, an audiobook with illustrations… or probably an audio drama, rather than an audiobook, with sound effects and voice acting, rather than so much description of action… Perhaps I’ll produce one, someday. Telling the story with words and showing what’s necessary to be shown with images.
Thinking about it, I suppose I do something similar with comics/graphic-novels as I do with TV/film; I get most of what I get out of them from the words, and probably only absorb 5%-10% of the details of the images on the pages. (Most of the time; some few comics actually use their images well for storytelling; most images in most comics seem to me to be a waste of ink and effort.) Which is like saying only about one panel per page or two has anything in it necessary to understanding the story… Showing me what a character looks like, or a setting, for the first time, and then every time that character/setting appears from then on, why would I need to see them? Most of the time, I don’t. Same as TV/film, same as books, you only need to show me a little, and then tell me the rest.
Or, if you’re going to show, show, show, you’d better do a damn good job of it. It better be like well-crafted poetry. What you’re showing had better communicate clearly, effectively, and explicitly. It had better be showing which has a purpose, not showing for its own sake or -worse- showing simply to avoid telling.
Alright, that’s all I’ve got for now. Sorry it wasn’t better-thought-out.
Update: (6/24/2011, 3:13AM-4:09AM)
As I write this update, I’m watching an independent film, the trailers prior to which on the DVD gave me an idea about another way to express my trouble with show v. tell. My example has to do with the difference between a trailer for a film in English and a trailer for a film where the primary language is not English. Now, this is not universal, but there is a certain subset of trailers for non-English-language films which are largely free of language; they are largely silent, or have only music. They are all show, no tell, because … I suppose because someone’s worried subtitles will scare potential viewers off, or … maybe they didn’t have subtitles ready? (That would be hard to swallow, considering the other titles required for a trailer but not included in the film.) Anyway, they attempt to sell you the film exclusively through showing. Showing characters, settings, actions, the things which happen in between the words, and the viewer, the potential audience, is left to infer the story. Completely.
On the other side is the trailer for an English-language film which, because it can include dialogue without the bother of making anyone read, is able to both show a few visually gripping scenes and to tell me what the story is. At the extreme end of this, the total opposite of the wordless foreign trailer, is the trailer which includes not just dialog, but also titles, and enough scenes and words between them to give you the entire film’s story from beginning to end (no surprises left, if you were watching closely!) in the space of two minutes. The only things such a trailer leaves for you to infer are the scenes in between the glimpses and explanations given in the trailer, but this sort of trailer has spelled out for you what those scenes will contain. It has told you what to expect.
With the former sort of trailer, I may not know after watching it whether I have any interest in the film, because I probably don’t know what the film is about. With the latter sort of trailer, especially the extreme form of it, I may not have any interest in watching the film, but if so it’ll be because I already know everything there is to know about it… or if I do want to watch it, I won’t be confused or disappointed when I do, because it’ll be what I was told it would be. The “Show, don’t tell” sort of trailer leaves too much up to chance. Often a 100-word (or less) description of the film is of more value to me, especially with regard to marketing the film to me, since at least then I know for sure what it is I’m considering seeing, and can make an informed decision; I’ll almost never choose to pay to see a film when I don’t think I know what it is.
To a certain extent, I’m sure there are people out there who, if they read these last two posts, would condemn me for, say, “wanting everything spelled out for me.” I’ve often read this complaint, from self-proclaimed film buffs, that American films leave nothing up to the imagination and that the reason Americans don’t appreciate European filmmaking is that it doesn’t spell everything out and hand it to them on a silver platter. The implication being that Americans are too stupid to understand anything but the most obvious. I’m not a stupid person, but I’ll admit that there are some things which are very obvious to the average person that I can’t seem to grasp. I’ve written about such things at length in the past. Apparently, these sort of things, where I’m expected to draw my own conclusions about what happened, where I’m not expected to take everything at face value, and where I’m not told in any clear way what’s going on, what characters are thinking and feeling, et cetera… is one such area I have trouble with. I just don’t get it, most of the time.
The terrible (to me) thriller I’m reading right now seems to be doing an admirable job balancing show with tell, by the way. With all this writing about it, I’ve been paying a close eye today. The author shows what’s going on, then confirms it (backs up what you were meant to infer) by also telling what’s going on. There are patches where it’s more tell than show, and others where I get lost in the showing and can’t tell what’s going on, but most of it seems well-balanced. Also working in its favor is that, 100 pages in (probably 40k-50k words, these pages are so word-dense) and it hasn’t even finished setting things up enough to make any stakes clear, so at least it isn’t hip-deep in ridiculous stakes out of proportion with the characters’ capabilities, less than 20% of the way in. There’s basically no real peril, yet (there was one chapter, early on, where a character was in peril, but I haven’t seen him since) – unfortunately, this is largely because the book is totally disjointed and most of the dozen disconnected story lines are still miles from getting up to speed. Oh, and so far most everyone who could have been said to be in peril wasn’t one of the main characters but was put in peril by the main characters, usually “off-screen,” as it were. So, that’s something. It isn’t entirely clear to me why this book was on the dystopian fiction list, yet. Oh, well.