By Robert Malone
“Show, don’t tell.” It is perhaps the foremost rule of storytelling, in part because it’s kind of what a story is. A story is an illustration, a portrayal of some point or idea that might be lessened or lost in a simple declarative statement. It’s the difference between the sentence, “Good men can turn bad,” and five seasons of a straight-laced high school chemistry teacher evolving into a murderous drug kingpin.
Generally the rule is applied in smaller contexts. In Breaking Bad’s pilot episode, no one tells us that life has been unfair to Walter White, and no one has to. When he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer after not having smoked a day in his life, we feel it in our bones. And no one tells us that he feels emasculated, but we cringe at the emasculation he suffers when he’s forced on his hands and knees to wash one of his disrespectful students’ cars. We don’t have to be told that he’s a complete stranger to violence when the show begins—his dainty handling of Hank’s unloaded handgun tells us more than words ever could. And we don’t have to be told that his life lacks passion, because that’s illustrated with outright excruciation when he receives as a birthday present from his wife one of the most pathetic hand jobs this side of a Louis CK bit. Through all this, the audience feels Walt’s frustration so reflexively that their sympathy for him is sustained even when he begins to act more and more questionably, and it makes the contrast with who he eventually becomes all the more stark and meaningful.
When we talk about rules of storytelling, we’re not talking about sacred dictates that must never be disobeyed. A rule is not handed down by some authority on high, but instead must justify itself in order to survive. And this one does. There is simply a stronger effect in showing something rather than stating its existence. It’s why abstinence-only sex educators don’t just tell teenagers that sex is risky—they show them nauseating photographic evidence of leprous open sores. Showing produces an innate, visceral effect that telling doesn’t. When we’re told something, we know it. When we’re shown something, we feel it. And as much as we like to think ourselves rational animals, no coldly stated fact embeds itself in our minds the way a really graphic account does. It’s why we’re more afraid of Great White sharks and terrorists than we are of heart disease. It’s why a photograph of a single mutilated bloody corpse causes more distress and outrage than the phrase “100,000 civilian casualties.”
As with any rule, there are occasions for exception, and part of being a good storyteller is knowing when to go against convention. Economy of story matters, and “He’s out of town” can often do the same work as showing some minor character packing bags and driving past a city limits sign. Or something might be better left to the imagination—we’re all grateful that David Fincher told us more than showed us what happened to the “Lust” victim in Seven (and probably nothing could be more horrifying than what we all imagined). Or perhaps it is better in some scenario to have a cop in a standoff say out loud “This place is surrounded,” rather than actually show a SWAT team crouching in the bushes with guns drawn. Perhaps it creates an added tension by our wondering whether or not he’s bluffing. But then that evidences the rule still further: a bald statement can be doubted in a way that an action or an image can’t. Seeing it with your own eyes makes it real.
Even the slightest instance of showing can trump a whole lot of telling. That nostalgic, bittersweet smile that comes onto old Ben Kenobi’s face for a brief moment in A New Hope when he reminisces about Luke’s father does more to make that friendship seem real than six hours of prequels. Because while we hear Anakin and Obi-Wan talk about how they’ve had plenty of offscreen adventures that cemented their camaraderie, all we are ever really shown is their bickering and badmouthing each other to anyone who will listen. What we see doesn’t feel like anything resembling friendship. And while we’re told that Anakin was another good man who tragically succumbed to evil, we never really feel any sort of truth in that, because what we’re shown is a guy who’s already slaughtering defenseless women and children at the halfway point of the first film after his voice has dropped. Does his turn to evil really feel like a gut-wrenching betrayal, or more of a slight progression on the spectrum of violent fascism he was on from the start?
But consider another apparent exception, this one coming again from Breaking Bad: Mike’s famous “Half Measure” speech from the show’s third season.
On the surface this might seem like blatant disregard for the “show, don’t tell” rule. We aren’t shown anything Mike is talking about. There is no flashback to the incident, in fact no imagery whatsoever except for two men sitting in a silent darkened room, hardly even moving. If this rule is so fundamental to good storytelling, then how is it that one of the best and most effective scenes in a series chock full of them is one that flouts the rule so brazenly?
Two reasons. One is Jonathan Banks. This kind of thing just doesn’t work with a mediocre actor. It takes talent to pull off the blend of frustrated desperation and jaded stoicism that makes this kind of scene so fascinating, and Jonathan Banks as Mike is just crazy good at it.
The second reason is more complex. It helps to remember that this rule we’re discussing applies not just to visual media like television, but to all storytelling. A good novel “shows” you things rather than tell you them, not by literally showing you images printed on the page, but by illustrating them as vividly as possible with language. We aren’t told that a character is angry—we’re presented with a scene in which that character begins throwing wild punches in a fit of rage. A storyteller uses words, images, dialogue, any disposable means to build the most compelling illustration of whatever we the audience are meant to know and feel. Taken in this larger sense, Mike’s speech, while it breaks the rule on one level, on a deeper level reveals a vigorous adherence to the rule on the part of the show’s writers.
The story Mike tells is utterly irrelevant to the plot of the show. We haven’t met the characters he’s talking about and we never will. No event he’s talking about will have any direct influence on anything that happens. That’s not why he’s telling it. He’s telling it to illustrate something to Walt. Mike doesn’t just say, “Half measures aren’t good enough.” Would anyone remember that scene? No, he goes out of his way to show Walt why half measures aren’t good enough, in a way that causes us to feel the urgency of the choices Walt will be forced to make at the finale of the episode. On this particular point, the writers are willing to dedicate four and a half minutes of screen time to a digressive but fully realized side story merely to illustrate their point in a way that will stick. And it works, because rather than take the half measure of simply telling you what they want you to know, they go all the way, and you feel it.
Because to be shown something is more dramatic, compelling and effective than simply being told. I could tell you this, but you might remain skeptical. To really make my point, I have to go to all this trouble to show.
Robert Malone is a writer and musician from Cambria, California. His work includes novels, screenplays, short stories and non-fiction. You can find his writing and occasional no-budget short films at robertjmalone.wordpress.com.