Frequency – A Show Don’t Tell Masterclass

Make no mistake – Frequency is not a perfect show. It’s not the best show airing right now. But it might be the best new show of the season. The actors are not going to win awards, although they’re solid enough, and for the most part I think the writers take the show more seriously than anyone else ever will.

But it does one thing right, and that’s – you guessed it – show don’t tell.

The basic premise of Frequency is that detective Julie Sullivan, a modern day NYPD detective, lost her father Frank Sullivan, also an NYPD detective, at an early age. Then an old HAM radio is struck by lightning, allowing it to communicate with itself 20 years in the past. More to the point, allowing Julie to speak with her father shortly before he dies. The two quickly set out to use cross-time communication to save Frank’s life and fight for justice!

The wonkiness of the plot was enough to intrigue me into watching the pilot. The ability of the pilot to pack information into a single episode convinced me to stay, at least for this season. Frequency manages incredible information density through show don’t tell in three specific areas. First, in establishing the show’s split time periods. Second, in establishing that the linked timeframes are synchronous (and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second). Third, in showing causality and chaos there. And it does all of this without an exposition dump or unwieldy “sciency” character. Not that such characters are always bad, but putting one in this story probably wouldn’t have served the plot very well.

Let’s start with the way the show frames itself. The story has two timeframes, 2016 and 1996, both of which are established before they cross paths. The modern era is established by just showing us things that we take for granted – modern cars, smartphones and current music. The past is a little trickier, but still pretty easy to do. We see Frank watching the 1996 World Series as he’s first introduced and, a little while later, we see former President Clinton on TV at some kind of official function where the announcer introduces him as the leader of the free world – implying that he is, in fact, the president at the time. Add in little things like CRT TVs and out of date cars and it’s pretty easy to make a rough estimate of the time period. Of course, there’s also Julie herself, who we see as a young girl in this era, and who’s birthdays – eighth and twenty-eighth – are mentioned as touchstones to hammer down the exact timing shortly before the first father and daughter cross-time talk.

The second thing established is how events in 1996 and 2016 are synchronous, and until Frank does something new in his era Julie won’t see the results of it in hers. We see this in two separate incidents. The first is probably the most ingenious. When Julie and Frank first speak Frank is so weirded out he sets his cigar down and misses the ashtray. It burns a hole through the wooden top of the HAM radio – a hole Julie sees appearing in her time in real time. The hole has not always been there, as it would be in some time travel stories, it appears before Julie’s eyes as she’s watching and she asks about it, prompting Frank to pick the cigar up and put it back in the ashtray then brush the coals off the top of the radio. The hole stops growing in Julie’s time period. In much the same way, Julie labors under the impression her father is dead until the moment that history changes and her father’s life is saved.

Finally, the show demonstrates causality and the “butterfly effect” not by having someone explain it to Julie but by having her live it. After saving her father’s life she hurries to keep a date with her fiance and his parents only to find that he doesn’t have any idea who she is. Then she discovers that her mother is dead – the result of her going to the hospital to visit Frank there after he survives the shooting that should have killed him. In the process she becomes the target of a serial killer rather than the victim he had originally selected. Again, this is a sequence we see happen and it drives home that this is the consequence of what Julie and Frank did far more than just hearing about it.

With all this basic, world building exposition happening along side of the character building dialog the first episode of Frequency does an amazing job of establishing the world, it’s rules and the people who we’re going to watch play by them in the confines of the forty three minutes most network TV shows have to work with. It’s worth watching for the pure craftsmanship even if you don’t like time travel or police procedurals. What’s more, most of what the show does would only work on the screen, meaning the writers were giving careful consideration to how best they could use their medium, which many writers neglect. All together this makes the pilot alone worth watching, even if you choose to pass on the rest of the series. Don’t deprive yourself.

Show Don’t Tell: A Nuanced Discussion

I was discussing a film with a friend recently and we had a disagreement over how good it was. I felt the climax of the movie was poorly supported and came off weak. He disagreed, pointing out things that were in the film but that I felt didn’t support the climax very well, because I was told them by the movie, rather than shown. Since “show don’t tell” is such a foundational rule of writing I figured that was the end of the matter. But he asked me a question that made me think: “So does that mean every story needs to be told the same?”

The answer is no. But there are things that work well and things that don’t and long experience has given writers a pretty clear idea of what is what. When a writer says “show don’t tell” what they really mean is “showing produces a stronger reaction than telling.”

People who read this blog know that I feel the purpose of fiction is to provoke some kind of reaction – usually an emotional one – through their writing. So the best tool in the box is usually showing, because it will give you a stronger reaction than telling. But, like most generalizations, show don’t tell has a lot of nuance to it.

Let’s break this down by looking at the way this idea is applied in the first season of the CW’s show The Flash, particularly in the first season (and a few episodes of Arrow). The showrunners behind The Flash have done a great job with using show and telling to emphasize the important bits of their story. Let’s look the ways this principle plays out. Be warned – there’s going to be spoilers.

The show begins with a flashback to Barry’s youth where we see the night Barry’s mother died. This is the defining moment in Barry’s life and the most important plot point in the first season of the TV show. The climax of the season hinges on the impact this moment had on his life and character. It’s only natural that we see it, so that our impression of the moment is as powerful as possible.

The night Barry’s mother was murdered comes up in the series several times between the beginning and ending of the series’ first season, each time when the emotional impact of the event on Barry’s life will play a pivotal part on the way the episode unfolds. These flashbacks serve to put the incident back in our minds in a powerful way and make us ready to understand the new nuances of Barry and The Flash which the episode’s challenges will tease out, or to keep us in the zone as the mystery of Sarah Allen’s murder is pushed forward. Since the incident is important the show shows us to keep it fresh in our minds.

However, there are two times when Sarah Allen’s murder is brought up without a flashback but the memory is still important to what is happening. Not on The Flash, but on the CW’s other superhero show, Arrow. You see, Barry Allen was introduced on Arrow, and Oliver Queen, Arrow’s protagonist, was initially suspicious of him. Barry explaining his backstory and his reasons for being in Starling, his quest to find impossible things in the hopes he could one day explain his mother’s murder, are part of how Barry earns Oliver’s trust.

A season later, when Barry is a full fledged superhero and he pays Oliver another visit, the two men clash over methods. The still unresolved death of Barry’s mother is brought up again to show that Barry’s no stranger to the hardships of life. In both cases, the showrunners chose to tell, rather than show.

Why? Because these moments were about the conflict between the characters over things in the present, not about how the past shaped them. Yes, Barry’s past was relevant to the choices he was making and he had to explain himself, but the emphasis wasn’t on the events that shaped him. It was on the situation he was in and how people would relate to it. A strong reference to the past would have overshadowed the situation in the present, as the two were not directly connected.

There’s another time The Flash’s showrunners chose to tell rather than show – in the first season Joe West had suspicions about Harrison Wells and the Reverse Flash. They meet for drinks and exchange barbs. At the end Wells gives Joe a name to look up. Later they meet again and Joe tells Wells what he learned – that Harrison Wells’ fiance died in a car accident. Again, there’s no flashback to the death because the point of the moment isn’t to show us how the Reverse Flash took over the life of Harrison Wells or to elicit some kind of understanding of the Reverse Flash.

Rather, the point is to build the mystery around the character and keep us guessing as to his exact motivations and methods. A mystery is hard to maintain when the facts are being presented in the strongest way and the motivations of a character are put full front, so the showrunners chose to tell rather than show, to keep the strength of the presentation from undoing the desired effect.

In the end there are many reasons you may decide to tell, rather than show. But they will almost always boil down to one – you tell instead of showing when showing would create a reaction contrary to the one you desire. A good story is a tightly woven web and it doesn’t have enough space to give everything full voice. The impact of some threads of the story may need to be reduced in order to allow the climax of the story to shine. In those cases by all means tell and don’t show. But make no mistake, the rule to show rather than tell exists for a reason. When you show your story makes the strongest impact. A story that focuses on telling, not showing can work, if mystery is a major theme for example, but that kind of story is going to be fairly unique in its structure and content, not suited to the majority of topics.

Not every story has to be the same in the way it’s told. But if you’re trying to tell a normal story with an emotional climax, with no gimmicks to support the notion of telling rather than showing, then stick with showing. Or be prepared to be regarded as an underwhelming story.