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.