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Wednesday, 20 July 2016 02:32

Filmmaking - Show, Don’t Tell

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Filmmaking - Show, Don’t Tell

As filmmakers and writers we are told over and over again “show, don’t tell.”

But what does that mean exactly?

In writing it’s described as a technique to have the reader experience the story through actions, words, thoughts, sense and feeling…anything but exposition, summarization or description.

In film it is the space between the dialogue, where the audience is allowed to understand the story, to connect with the characters, to find themselves in these people, without being lead by exposition or hit over the head by overly descriptive and usually unnecessary conversations.

The more films I make, and certainly the more I see, the more I recognize that the ‘showing’ of a thought, a feeling or a defining moment for a character is many, many times more powerful and meaningful to the audience.

The less is actually said, the more we have the time to see.

I have just started watching the new HBO series “The Night Of” and this is a classic example of how “show, don’t tell” can work so well that words become almost completely unnecessary.
I would love to get my hands on the script… The dialogue, although quite brilliant, is so infrequent and remarkably un-missed that I found myself holding my breath in anticipation that there would be any words at all.

The show is an adaptation of a British BBC drama, ‘Criminal Intent’, which I will now hunt down to watch… Retold in New York, it’s a story of a ‘wrong place, wrong time’ murder, mystery and the gritty realities of the US criminal justice system. I highly recommend it, it’s just incredibly good, so well written and constructed and the performances are phenomenal…

But there it is, ‘show don’t tell’ personified…a story so well constructed that the words spoken are sporadic, specific, and artfully placed. Where the mood, the cinematography and the music, both soundtrack and scripted, and the eyes of the actors guide us and inform us far more than any conversation could. The audience is trusted to see this world as the filmmaker intended, but with no blatant signpost, no predictable stereotype, no obnoxious repetitive in your face verbal.

It’s absolutely brilliant..…

How can we achieve this kind of transcendence…good question.

I did have a thought just recently about this. I am writing a pilot, just beginning in fact and I am obsessing about the characters, of course. Casting them in my head a bit as I write to help me form them and their voices. While doing this I had a bit of a flash forward to an actual casting session, and I thought how great it might be to have a full on scene audition with two of the lead characters really having a deep emotional and probably pretty loud discussion about something and having the actors work on that scene together for a while, let them perform the scene and then stop them and tell them to do it all over again but this time with no dialogue at all…Filming like this has worked for me in the past, but I have not put as much thought into it as I am lately.

What is not said, what we expose to each other with our body language, our countenance and our projected mood is powerful and cannot be underestimated in storytelling. It is also a lesson in editing, both the film and the script. And perhaps even a lesson for our real lives too, where it is so easy to go too far, and to give too much away without thinking about what we say before we say it….

It doesn’t just apply to dialogue either…

When we write description for a character, instead of “John walks across the room, he is angry and tired.” how about “John slams the door behind him, rubs his face with both hands, his eyes are bloodshot.” Or instead of having one character tell another about yet another character, “Dan is always late to work” you could show Dan sleeping through his alarm, or rushing out his front door while zipping his pants with a piece of toast in his mouth and his shoes tucked under his arm, or running for his bus in a montage of three separate days…

The audience is a lot brighter than most studio films give them credit for…well, I know I am at least, and I get so tired of being given instruction, or explanations or heaven help us, updates, by characters in the film I am actually watching…

As you write more and especially as you make your films and particularly by the editing stage you will absolutely know what I am talking about…

I cannot tell you how many times I have edited out extemporaneous dialogue, and even entire scenes because of this exact thing…so when you have little to no money and are limited in probably every other way too, this is a great lesson to learn…it can save you a lot of time and money I can tell you!

But most of all it can make you a better filmmaker, a better storyteller and it will give you the room to create something more than just a set of instructions to get from one end of a film to another…it will give you the space to be artful and brilliant and truthful…which is what it’s all about in the end…

Happy space making!!


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Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros

Samantha Simmonds-Ronceros
Writer, Filmmaker, Musician. Samantha has Produced over 60 short films and Written and Directed 20. She is the co-creator of 52 Films/52 Weeks and The Cinema Tribe Collective. She has written over 400 LA Theatre reviews and is partners in Xpress Records a Music Publishing Company in the UK.  This year she will be directing her first feature film which she also wrote, developing several others and is writing a children’s book. 

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