“MYTH: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is literal-Don’t tell me John is sad, show him crying.”
REALITY: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is figurative-Don’t tell me John is sad, show me why he’s sad.”
-Lisa Cron, Wired For Story.
One of the most difficult things for writers to do is write lean, narrative descriptions that are succinct in conveying their intended meaning to an audience. We hear the words “trust your readers” without really putting what it means into context, passages often becoming overwritten, vague, non-specific and meaningless as a result. Much of this comes from an inability to convey specific visual cues to the reader, making them more of a passive observer to a story rather than an active participant to it – but some issues can also be attributed to the overlooked facet of set up and pay off (the cause and effect relationship) of “Show, don’t tell.” Understanding the virtues of both is necessary if one wants an audience to truly engage with their writing.
In Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron makes the distinction between the literal and the figurative and how all too often writers choose to do what they believe is correct in showing an emotion as it pertains to the scene. However, what they fail to do is recognize in the realm of storytelling, everything is about set ups (cause) and pay offs (effect), including emotions. Showing someone crying over the death of another isn’t enough; we must have an understanding of what the deceased meant to the other in order for us to feel and derive meaning ourselves while watching the scene. In other words, it’s the set up that provides context for the pay off – and you know the movies that don’t do this effectively because your friend sitting in the next seat will nudge and ask you, “Why’d he do that?”
So why is this important? Plain and simple: Empathy.
As discussed in the article Empathy: your story’s best friend and matchmaker for your audience, there are seven universal basic emotions: fear, contempt, disgust, anger, sadness, happiness and surprise. Recognizing them isn’t merely enough; we must have a context to give them meaning and furthermore, we need a scale in which to measure their intended effects. That scale, or measuring stick, is relational to the set-up or as Lisa says, the figurative Why?
In one amateur script I read not too long ago, the main character’s family is killed within the first three pages. By page four, we’re shown him gasping, with tears in his eyes. What followed was more or less melodrama; none of the relationships had been adequately set up to justify our having any feelings of connection to the character’s grief. Simply put, we didn’t know (or care) about these characters or their relationships to one another to warrant our feeling much of anything for them. As a reader, we were being told how to feel rather than actively shown why.
From the author’s perspective, they were showing and not merely telling (telling as being from a reflective point, looking back where all immediacy is lost.) After all, the family members died a glorious death on the page and it was shown with visual flair…right? To him, that was the “cause” and the anguish afterward was the effect – however, that anguish, while meaningful to the character, was meaningless to the reader because ultimately, the emotion – the power of the scene – needed to come from an established relationship between the characters that engaged the audience who, in turn, invested their own emotions in them.
Contrast this with the (albeit lengthy) set-up of a young William Wallace in Braveheart, a small portion shown below.
It’s the crafting of the story here, the investment in the characters and their relationships to one another that show where William Wallace’s drive and purpose comes from later in the story. This particular scene showing the burial of Wallace’s family is also poignant because we had the scene prior showing his relationship to his father and one of the best lines of the movie, “I know you can fight. But it’s our wits that make us men.”
Almost everything we need to know is set up early here in the backstory. From the conflict with Longshanks to the love story with Murron and how those two threads tragically intertwine, we’re active participants to the events as they happen so that when she suffers her unjust fate, we feel every bit of emotion William does and understand the figurative portion: Why?
The burial of Murron essentially mirror’s that of Wallace’s father, both wordless, each family suffering the loss of a loved one. Although the clip here cuts short Murron’s father’s act of forgiveness, in each case the emotions the audience feels is clearly conveyed not only through the characters and their reactions – but also as a result of witnessing the immediacy of the set ups (cause) and pay offs (effect). This “backstory,” had it been delved out in the main narrative, would never have worked – but it does as is because it gives everything else that happens context.
While this may work well for a post-analysis of the film or story, there is still merit in re-examinging what Cron refers to as the “myth” as it pertains to storytelling – how it’s all conveyed on the page. While it’s important to show the effects of sadness (e.g. “crying”), where many writers struggle is writing in a way that conveys, with clarity, the emotions of a character dramatically. Instead, they’ll often resort to a line such as “George wipes his face, dismayed.” The word “dismayed” ends up being our cheat sheet to the reader as to how the character feels internally, but in reality, it should be self-explanatory via the action taken (George wipes his face), depending on the context (set up).
In other words, the level of clarity the reader obtains from a character’s emotion is pursuant to the quality of the action as written on the page.
By explaining “what” the feeling is, we inadvertently take the reader out of the story – robbing them of experiencing it which, in turn, allows them to be an active participant as they continually ask themselves “what does this mean?” rather than having it told to them. This is why experiencing the story through its characters and their emotions makes for a more engaging read – and when done properly, as we’re about to see, a level of clarity and empathy can be obtained within the reader.
With seven universal emotions, many of them used repeatedly throughout the course of a screenplay, the challenge becomes how can they be conveyed without saying the same thing over and over? The short answer is twofold: 1) don’t write the emotion and 2) it depends on your character. Emotions, while universal, stem from the inside. They’re internal and it’s not “visual” to state the emotion itself – not to mention in doing so, we’re not defining the meaning of the emotion in terms of to what degree. What defines characters are their actions. In turn, it’s these actions – and how they’re written – that cue the reader into the mindset of the character.
How many times have you read something along the lines of “Mikes enters the room” or “Mike walks into the room”? That’s not only telling, it’s shortchanging your character an opportunity to define himself. Does the context (what the scene is about/the cause) result in Mike stumbling into the room? Could he bolt? Dance? Creep? Sneak? All of these can be useful in giving the scene more context, or we could give the reader a visually negative impression of Mike himself by layering the action with Anthropomorphism by saying “he slithers into the room.”
Likewise, a woman waiting for the test results from her doctor isn’t going to just “sit in the doctor’s office a nervous wreck.” A nervous wreck is how she feels inside so the question is, as a writer, how do you go about conveying that emotion outwardly? Again, it depends on the character. She could sit slumped with her arm pinned to her chest, oblivious to a child smiling at her. She could be in total denial and carry on like she’s at the hairdressers instead. Or she could repeatedly unlock and lock the clasp on her purse.
Anger is particularly popular emotion in screenplays, but depending on the character it can be conveyed in a number of outward expressions/actions. Sarcasm and passive-aggressiveness are two ways anger manifests itself in dialogue, but some characters may very well do nothing but smile while others repeatedly cut people off while talking.
In A Few Good Men, we get a taste of a number of actions fueled by Col. Nathan R. Jessep’s anger, contempt, confidence, disgust, disbelief, frustration, rage, pride, among many other emotions that play out like a sliding scale until we get an explosion:
They key here is to identify the prevailing emotion(s) in a scene and find ways to dramatize their outward manifestation. In A Few Good Men, those emotions come rapid-fire because they’re volleyed back and forth as a result of Lieutenant J.G. Daniel Kaffe’s questioning – each one spurning a new emotional beat in the conversation that becomes a game of hot potato, one character upping the other in intensity. But it’s those beats that ultimately provide us with that measuring stick, from contempt all the way through to the explosive admission, giving the scene its power (and meaning.)
Understanding these two virtues of “Show, don’t tell” will go a long way to ensuring your audience develops empathy and an understanding why your characters are the way the are, act the way they do, say the things they say, etc. Knowing this, a good challenge to partake in rewriting is to go through a script and identify scenes that are emotionally charged, looking for words that tell the reader what’s going on and replace them with specific actions that help define your character. Do this and your reader will become more engaged, putting the pieces together for themselves much like we do in real life via non-verbal forms of communication.
If you find yourself getting stuck – keep in mind, write the reaction to the emotion showing its manifestation externally, not the emotion itself. A good resource for any writer is Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. This is an invaluable tool that takes those seven universal emotions and breaks them down into a number of commonly used terms associated with each, providing examples in terms of mental responses, internal sensations and physical signals.