Tell, Don’t Show: Nine Exceptions When You Should Break Screenwriting Rules

tl;dr Understand diegesis and mimesis.

Diegesis (“narration”) and mimesis (“imitation”) have been contrasted since Plato’s and Aristotle’s times. Diegesis is the telling of a story by a narrator. Mimesis tells a story by means of action that is enacted.

“Show, don’t tell” is a bad rule because it tells screenwriters to use images, and not to use words. But images can be used diegetically. Words can be used mimetically. And sound is one of the best ways to tell a story yet gets left out of the rule.

The opening of The Road Warrior is a sequence of stock clips, including an atomic bomb blast, telling us that the story is set in a post-apocalyptic world. This prologue feels lame, especially in comparison to the mimetic, action-filled story that follows.

Modern poetry is mimetic. Words conjure juxtaposed images.

A corollary to the “show, don’t tell” rule is to let the audiences make connections:

Good storytelling never gives you four, it gives you two plus two … Don’t give the audience the answer; give the audience the pieces and compel them to conclude the answer. Audiences have an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment. They are rewarded with a sense of thrill and delight when they find the answers themselves. — Bob Peterson, co-writer of Finding Nemo

Jokes are often mimetic, juxtaposing disconnected ideas and letting you make a new, unexpected connection.

I want to get an abortion, but my boyfriend and I are having trouble conceiving. — Sarah Silverman

In its first decades television was limited to shooting in studios, with limited editing capabilities, and was considered substandard because it was diagetic:

explaining everything immediately, offering no ambiguities, and using dialogue that simplifies and mitigates against the idiosyncratic ways in which people in different worlds actually communicate. — David Simon, creator of The Wire.

Let’s list what David Simon says makes bad storytelling:

  • Explain everything immediately, vs. letting audience figure it out.
  • Nothing is ambiguous; good characters are neither completely good nor completely bad.
  • Bad dialog is simplified; good dialog is idiosyncratic and shows that different people live in different worlds.

Here’s the first page of my screenplay Young Adolf:

Does the audience want to see a confrontation between soldiers and a farmer, and the soldiers shooting the farmer’s dog? Of course not. Does the audience want to see Adolf’s reaction to this horror? Of course.

Adolf’s reaction is held until the next scene.

Adolf saves the cat on page two.

The next day, Adolf and Willi cut hay for Anna.

Does the audience want to see a cow getting hit by a scythe and falling over? No one wants to see that. Does the audience want to see Adolf’s reaction to knocking a cow over? Of course!

In Latin American telenovelas events are followed by each characters’ reaction to the event. Great plan, if you have 7500 pages for 155 episodes, and the audience is making dinner while the television is on. But if you have 90–120 pages, and your screenplay focuses on a single character, skip the events and show your character’s reactions.

Adolf and Willi eventually figure out how to cut the hay. Anna invites them into her home for supper. As Adolf tells her children a folktale in front of the fire…

Anna flirts with Willi. Later the children are asleep in their room and Adolf is asleep in the barn.

You can’t see anything, and Willi doesn’t tell us what Anna knows how to do. The dialogue is innocuous. Do we need to show or tell? Of course not. Let the audience put it together in their imaginations.

The next day Adolf leaves while Willi stays with Anna on the farm. As Adolf walks back to Munich he hears gunshots and then encounters stormtroopers who’ve just shot three Reds—off camera, of course. Again, better left to the viewer’s imagination.

A month later the Communists are gone from Munich.

What does this scene show? Two soldiers reading a notice? Or two soldiers reacting to the notice!

Adolf applies for the job and is interviewed by Captain Ernst Röhm, who will become his helper through the movie. Again, it’s just two men talking—about Adolf’s service as a dispatch runner in World War I; about representing his company in the soldiers’ councils (soviets); that he and his men were moderate socialists, not communists; and finally he makes a short speech about saving Germany from destruction by the western Allies. Does any of this need to be shown? No, what matters is how Adolf frames these experiences.

We then see Adolf and another propaganda officer getting a beating from soldiers whose political position they tried to change. Captain Röhm rescues them.

Do we want to see Adolf not getting support from the officers? I don’t know how to show that. This dialogue is a direct quote from historical sources. The idiosyncratic phrasing invites us into his world (which includes dancing bears).

After a six-week course in German history and politics, Adolf is doing better as a propaganda officer. Captain Röhm sends Adolf on an undercover mission to Berlin with the poet and playwright Dietrich Eckart, an older man who will become Adolf’s mentor.

Do we show the Kapp putsch overthrowing the government in Berlin? We can’t, Adolf is 600 miles away in Munich. From the dialogue we learn that Eckart mentored Kapp. The Kapp putsch will fail in the next scene, leaving Eckart without a protégé. The audience can piece together who’s going to be Eckart’s new protégé.

Can we show Captain Röhm commanding 224,000 men? No, he commands them secretly, through a network of supporters.

Do we need to see 1,000 machine guns and 150,000 rifles? The guns are hidden in barns and cellars across Bavaria. It would take hours to show them all.

The audience pieces together that Captain Röhm is leading a double life, organizing a private army aiming to overthrow the government while he’s an army officer. And the audience can piece together a little about the Versailles Treaty and Germans’ feelings about it.

Skipping ahead, Adolf walks at night with his mentor Dietrich Eckart.

This scene is almost entirely Adolf and Eckart talking, revealing Adolf’s inner feelings. Could I show this instead? No, Adolf’s feelings contrast with what we see. This creates drama.

“Subversion of expectations” is another screenwriting rule. When the audience thinks they know what’s going on in a scene, throw in the something to show that the opposite is happening. This could be a verbal reveal of a character’s true feelings.

Later Adolf visits his niece Geli, a teenager in love with her friend Emma.

Do we need to see Geli and Emma raising pigs humanely? No. We want to see Adolf’s (clueless) reaction to his niece’s lesbian relationship.

A running joke is that Adolf spends his spare time sketching architectural drawings for redesigning Linz, his home town. His plans get grander and grander over time. Do ever need to see his sketches? No, letting him talk about his grandiose ideas brings us into his inner world.

The Harvard-educated German-American Ernst Hanfstaengl spent 14 years trying to persuade Hitler to be reasonable, until Hitler ordered Hanfstaengl to be thrown out of an airplane over enemy territory. (Hanfstaengl talked to pilot into landing, and then escaped to Switzerland.)

Do we need to see Adolf’s crony raping a sixteen-year-old girl? Of course not. Should we see her father, an industrialist, angrily ending his financial support of the Nazis? No. Do we want to see Adolf’s reaction? Of course! Adolf has no reaction to the rape—he doesn’t care—but instead reacts to the loss of funding for the party.

Should we show Adolf’s inept behavior with women? If this were a telenovella, yes. But Helene Hanfstaengl’s reaction is more important, and then the different reaction of her husband, which puts Adolf’s behavior into context and defuses the tense situation.

In novels it’s easy for readers to identify with characters because their inner feelings are revealed to us, but in movies it’s harder to identify with characters. This may be why A-list actors, who play the same character in many movies, are more popular than other actors such as a Vincent D’Onofrio who plays different characters in different movies. Audiences can better identify with actors they’re familiar with.

This next scene is near the end of the screenplay. Adolf is with his niece Geli and his mentor Dietrich Eckart.

This scene shows three people talking and eating sandwiches. They don’t tell you what they’re seeing. Eckart never says what the rubber truncheon hit. Adolf never says what Emil did to the child. The sounds of the melee last thirty seconds. But do you have a clear picture in your head what they’re seeing?

(And what is the word for presenting O.C. sound to the audience? Images are shown, narrative is told, sounds are what?)

Let’s look at one more scene.

Adolf’s niece Geli is living with him. She comes home to find Adolf’s mentor Dietrich Eckart on the couch.

We don’t want to see Geli and Emil having bad sex. We don’t want to see Dietrich Eckart libeling the founder of the Waldorf Schools. We want to see reactions, such as Adolf’s anger at Emil, or non-reactions, such as that Eckart has never known or cared what a clitoris is. Skip the events and show the reactions.

Young Adolf unpicks the myth-building at the heart of far-right populism. While Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump have different personalities—Hitler lived an ascetic lifestyle, with no interest in luxuries—1920s Germany has similarities to the 2020s, and the two leaders have said similar lines. In Hitler’s time, for example, Jews from eastern Europe were flooding into German cities, and in his speeches he accused Jews of taking jobs from Germans and claimed that many were criminals and rapists.

I counted seventeen places in my screenplay where Adolf’s words echo contemporary far-right memes. Yet every coverage reader commented that no producer would touch a script about Adolf Hitler in the current political climate. No reader made the connection between the 1920s of the screenplay and the current political landscape.

Then I started the movie with three paragraphs on a black screen:

After the 2008 Great Recession the wealthiest 1% profited as the 99% suffered. Conservatives were discredited, enabling a populist movement to take control of the right. By 2020 the political landscape in many countries was polarized between the left and the right, with nightly fighting in the streets of some cities. In 2021 an attempt to overthrow the government occupied the U.S. Capitol for a few hours but failed due to poor planning and organization.

In 1914 northern German conservative elites started World War One. When the war was lost in 1918 the conservatives were discredited, enabling a populist Völk movement to take control of the right. By 1920 German politics was polarized between the left and the right, with nightly fighting in the streets of cities across Germany. In 1923 an attempt to overthrow the government occupied a Munich beerhall for a few hours but failed due to poor planning and organization.

Will the 2020s repeat the 1920s?

The next coverage reader suggested that I should “insert more relevant themes that audiences can apply to their own lives and political
environments.” Face palm! But I’d succeeded in getting a reader to make the connection. I then enhanced the opening screen with animation, making these big blocks of text easier for audiences to read. Coverage readers then consistently commented that producers would be interested in Young Adolf because it’s highly relevant to today’s political climate.

Readers weren’t connecting Hitler’s words with Trump’s words. If I’d shown a stormtrooper marching in the Beerhall Putsch wearing a fur hat with Viking horns, his face painted red and white with black swastikas on his cheeks, readers would make the connection to the Capital riots. In my screenplay, Hitler often speaks of “making Germany great again.” Coverage readers made no connection to current memes. If I’d had the Nazis wear red baseball caps saying “Make Germany Great Again,” readers would have gotten the connection. But you can’t make visual connections forward in time.

Twenty-first century white supremacists wave Nazi and Confederate flags, making the visual connection back in time. But in a movie set in the 1920s, waving Nazi or Confederate flags doesn’t make a connection to present-day white supremacists.

We enjoy reading histories because we see connections between the past and present. Connecting past and present in movies is harder because the past is too visually different from the present.

The problem with images is that visuals distance the viewer from the characters and their world. Novels make us feel connected to the characters because the authors reveal their characters’ thoughts and feelings, without seeing their world.

Howard’s End, by E.M. Forster, is one of my favorite novels. The 1992 Merchant Ivory movie, which won three Academy Awards, faithfully follows the book. The movie is beautiful, with scene after scene showing 1900 England at its best. But the movie feels like I’m looking in on a distant world. In contrast, the novel feels like the characters are no different from me and the people I know.

Howard’s End (1992)

Logline: In a political landscape mirroring the 2020s, this historical comedy set in 1920s Germany follows Adolf Hitler as he transforms from a mild-mannered, opera-obsessed homeless man with Asperger’s, whose greatest desire is to be recognized as a genius despite his ineptitude at nearly everything, into the anti-Semitic, conspiracy-theory-obsessed leader of the street-brawling National Socialists.

Download Young Adolf from the Black List or this link:

I make technology for speech clinics to treat stuttering and other disorders. I like backpacking with my dog, running competitively, and Russian jokes.

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