If you’re looking for inspiration on how to say more with less, look no further than the old silent-era of filmmaking. Think about how — through imagery only! – Metropolis conveyed such wonder and dread. Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and others grabbed the audience’s attention as their stories unfolded on the silver screen. Now, of course the advent of sound was a great thing. We all love the rich voices, the witty dialogue, and the sweeping soundtracks, but there’s much to learn about storytelling from studying the silent era’s techniques.
Enter Shadow Bound. A new five-part horror web series that’s picked up the gauntlet of “show, don’t tell” by re-creating the silent era through noir-style imagery… and an occasional dialogue card for exposition (hey! The oldies did it, too). The series is created, produced and stars quite a few of Epilogue‘s award-winning cast & crew. Here’s a quick rundown on the series which has very much a Lovecraftian feel to it. So far, they’ve released episode #1 (more to come in the weeks ahead):
Welcome to the town of Veritas; an old place with a long memory. A place of shadows and hidden terrors long forgotten by the modern world of the 1930s. But as famed horror writer, Jack Pickman, soon discovers, some things in the shadows are best left forgotten. The series follows famed horror writer, Jack Pickman, as he returns to his childhood home after the mysterious death of his estranged father. Jack finds his brother institutionalized in an asylum and later discovers evidence insisting that his father’s last case was the cause of his untimely death. Jack sets out with his two childhood friends to uncover the truth of the disturbing happenings in Veritas. However, as their investigation unfolds, Jack finds himself in a desperate race to save the world from an ancient evil emerging from the shadows.
While I love dialogue (I’m not a Sorkin fan for nothing), as a writer and writing instructor, I’m often found wrestling with the “show, don’t tell” mantra. It’s not like you want to give every little detail in a character’s life as they move from scene to scene (unless you’re Jack Bauer of 24, and even then — hello! It’s not like we see him use the toilet, clip his toenails, and snore in his sleep), but that’s not really what’s meant by the repeated mantra in writing workshops and heart-breaking critiques.
In other words, don’t tell us what a character thinks or feels or how their past affects their present. Show it. And no, that doesn’t mean you have to rely on dialogue to get across their realizations, fears, hopes, or even their backstory. It’s about the visuals. It’s about connecting us directly to a character — be it in prose or script form – through the actions they take, the imagery that surrounds them, the sounds that permeate the setting, (and in the case of prose, the smells and textures of what they feel). If you need to get a piece of backstory across, think about how you can use a character’s setting — the photographs on their desk, the books on their shelves. More importantly, think about how you can get across that setting actively… By having your character interact with what’s important to the scene.
Here’s another way to look at Show, Don’t Tell: The key word in the phrase “action description” is ACTION. Don’t slow things down with info-dump descriptions. Keep your story character-driven. As a writing instructor, I often suggest watching the opening sequence for the Pixar animated film WALL-E. Within minutes you learn everything you need about the protagonist (Wall-e), how his world came to be, and more importantly, what he wants, what he fears, and how he lives his day-to-day life (that’s ‘Ordinary World” for you writing fools):
While we’re on the subject of watching… Here’s the trailer for Shadow Bound. Creator/star/make-up FX artist Nathan Shelton (that’s Arch for you Epilogue followers) is off to a fun start with more episodes to come soon:
For more info on showing versus telling, I recommend the following articles from the InterTubes:
- SCRIPT Magazine: Specs & the City: Show, Don’t Tell
- Author/Editor C.S. Lain: Show don’t Tell – But How?