My eleventh grade English teacher always taught us to show not tell. This is an obvious concept in writing. Writers should strive to immerse their audiences in the story instead of simply stating what happens. It is something that all the greats follow closely, and it is why the tales written by authors like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and even J.K. Rowling are so captivating. When we read any piece of story-writing, fiction or nonfiction, the more the story is being shown to us rather than told, the more immersed we become.
The same concept exists in filmmaking, although not nearly as clearly. While it may seem that things on the silver screen are inherently being “shown” to us, there is a distinction between films that show and films that tell.
A few days ago, I was talking to a group of friends about TV shows that we felt others should watch, and naturally, the topic of Game of Thrones came up. Although my friends who follow Game of Thrones religiously wanted to go off and rant about the show, they insisted that they could not because they would be “spoiling” it for the rest of us who haven’t seen it.
The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. True, being aware of the plot twists in a story takes away from the experience, but it shouldn’t ruin the whole show. Real, great films should still be engaging whether the audience knows the story or not.
It shouldn’t matter whether you know the ending. What matters is how the story is told.
Take any great movie that has stood the test of time, and the pattern should be obvious. No matter how many times we watch Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, or The Shawshank Redemption, these movies will never get old. The same goes for any great book; novels like To Kill a Mockingbird continue to be enticing whether or not the reader knows what happens next.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, mediocre movies (and shows) lean too much on the plot to survive. For example, the movie Now You See Me thoroughly entertained audiences when it was released in 2013, and showed it with a healthy $352 million box office. Yet, as with other movies of its kind, the conversation around the movie died down within a year, and it was quickly forgotten. Ask anyone who went to see the picture, and most will tell you that they didn’t bother to watch it again, or it was just not as good the second time around.
It is easy to forget that the plot of a film is just one piece of the puzzle. On the surface, the story seems to be the only thing that is “happening” in a movie, but it is the framing, lighting, editing, score, cinematography, acting, and so much more that influence the experience that audiences get from the movie. And in the end, it is more about how we experience the story than the story itself.
George Miller took this concept and ran with it beautifully in his 2015 movie Mad Max: Fury Road. The first time I watched it, I was left unsatisfied with the plot, which was because there essentially was none. The whole movie was told in media res, with minimal explanations of events and character backstories.
However, my second time seeing the film (thank goodness I was dragged to see it again) yielded a very different experience. Because I already knew what the story was, I wasn’t so constantly focused on what would happen next. It was only after I stopped thinking about the plot that I could really appreciate Mad Max for what it is. While the movie depicts a seemingly ordinary story without meaning, George Miller was able to completely immerse the audience in his world through awe-inspiring cinematography and effects. If he had just told the story without showing it, there is no doubt that Mad Max: Fury Road would have been a disaster.
My favorite example of a work that shows instead of tells is the HBO show Entourage, which also happens to be my favorite TV show of all time. To me, Entourage is an example of how simple showing rather than telling can be. For those who haven’t seen it, Entourage is about a movie star and his three best friends’ life of glamour in Hollywood. Since its inception, the TV show has been slammed for being lightweight, simplistic, and uninspiring. Yet, despite the show’s plethora of critics, Entourage always seems to have a loyal and passionate following.
I’m on my fifth watch of the show right now, and it still never gets old. I know the story and its plot twists in and out, and I can recite lines word for word while watching. And although its season finales don’t surprise me as they once did, I still adore Entourage because it never fails to conjure great emotions of happiness and carefreeness. And those feelings keep me coming back time after time after time.
And that, in my opinion, is great filmmaking.