Commitment to Showing

Telling vs. Showing

It’s been said that “everyone has a story to tell”. Which may be true, but it isn’t conducive to our goals at Thousand Year Films; in particular; the connotations surrounding the word tell.

Telling a story is coming from the author. The reason being, that the author knows the scenes, he knows the characters, and they are simply telling the story through their own imagination.

Showing a story comes from the characters and the writers story is being told through the characters eyes, ears and nose.

While telling is much more efficient, showing is more vivid than telling.  When a story is being told, the audience does not contribute to the experience.  Some writers prefer to explain to their audiences what’s going on. For them, it’s more important that the readers have every fact placed before them. Conversely, writers who write in a more showing manner may not always give away all the information to their readers/viewers; thus, they simply offer clues to help the viewer draw his or her own conclusion.

In creating believable characters that breathtakingly come to life on the screen, Thousand Year Films strongly believes in the importance of showing, rather than telling. Our characters are not there for the writer to explain things to the viewers, and further neither should the writers explain the characters to the viewers.


The Problem with Explanation

An explanation is a set of statements constructed to describe a set of facts which clarifies the causes, context, and consequences of those facts. Within a story, this isn’t just related to the physical happenings, also the emotional, psychological, and spiritual moments the character’s experience.

An explanation is subjected to interpretation and the power of an explanation is completely reliant on the persuasive abilities of the one explaining.

Thousand Year Films actively encourages its artists to avoid explanation whenever possible.  It may be more efficient, but it almost always convolutes; and rarely contributes to a good performance.  Even for those who are not the actor, avoid explanation anyway, because it may diminish the creative sensibilities with those who do have to interact the actors.  It can ripple through production; and ultimately it will settle on screen.  

Explanation in the Script

Explanation can occur in many different forms, times and places.  Explanation can happen when the collaborative artists are creating and developing the characters, but it can and does appear in the screenplay itself.

Explanations can happen through 'expository dialogue' or through 'emotional instructions' in the parentheticals.

  • Expository Dialogue is when dialogue is used to tell the audience things about the story or the characters in an unnatural way.  Expository dialogue is the sloppiest form of screenwriting around, because it forces characters to utter words and phrases they would otherwise never say.  This type of dialogue is used solely to advance the plot.  Expository sequences are cringe worthy.  It's when actors all but turn towards the audience and explain what's going on, usually filling in back story.  Sometimes it's done as narration, sometimes there is a character that is not in the know, and they're planted to act as a surrogate or proxy for the audience, someone for the actors to speak to.  In almost all cases, it feels false.  Dialogue should add to the narrative by allowing the characters to speak for themselves, and not simply be narrative surrounded by quotation marks.

At Thousand Year Films, it is our goal to avoid expository dialogue at all costs.  It is a sign of sloppy writing.  It usually means the writer couldn't figure a more interesting way to present information, either by showing the information (film is, after all, a visual medium), or by providing some way to weave exposition into the story and the character to make it fit.  It rings false and undermines our intention to create realistic, believable characters that are rich in subtext and life.

  • Emotional Instructions are the footnotes that a writer adds in to explain how a particular line should be said (eg. "I'm so done with this!!" (she says angrily)) or rhythmic cues (eg. "You know..." (he pauses for a moment) "...I think I'm in love with you.") 

These notes are generally found in every single screenplay, to some extent.  However, the first thing the director and actors do once they start working on the script, is scratch all that stuff out because it puts them in a result oriented frame of mind.   In many cases, the actors will even write out all their lines removing all punctuation (like commas and periods which are also in and of themselves tiny little explanations on the structures of the lines) and learn just the words.

If all this stuff is removed, why do writers include it in the first place?

It is because it makes it easier to read.  In a traditional studio, Producers read through hundreds of scripts, and they need to get the 'gist' of it in a very short amount of time.  When they are searching for a script to option, they don't have the time to do a full script analysis on each and every screenplay that comes through.

Where Thousand Year Films Differs

It is important to note a difference in how Thousand Year Films operates in this case, in comparison to major studios.  We aren't optioning scripts the same way that other studios do as our screenplays are almost always written internally.  Therefore, we have decided to bypass the 'emotional instructions' altogether due to the hindering nature they implement on the development process.  We intend to avoid the pitfalls of explanations right from the start.

This does increase the challenge, in that it can be more difficult to fully comprehend everything on your first few reads of the screenplay.  Asking the writer to explain the work is not the answer; it requires all the artists and crew to do their homework.  Dig deep, follow the clues (based on what the characters do and say), and discover the lifeblood of the characters and narrative for themselves.  This is a challenge we embrace.  Putting in the 'emotional instructions' lulls the creators into complacency with the work; if you're immediately given a surface level understanding, it can be difficult to move past it to the depths we need to tread.

Note: The writer sometimes does have some of that stuff in during the early stages of writing, but it should always be removed by the first issue.  Also, normal punctuation (commas, periods etc.) will remain for ease of reading; it is up to the actors to remove all of that on their own.

The Iceberg Theory

"If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.  The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above the water.  A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."  - Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway believed the true meaning of a piece of writing should not be evident from the surface story because the crux of the story lies below the surface.  The hard facts float above the water, while the supporting structure, complete with symbolism and subtext, operates out-of-sight.