Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

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  • Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

    This is several months old, but it's so good it should be posted for those who have not yet found it.

    http://marmaladia.org/2013/08/07/pra...uck-palahniuk/

    Though it wasn't Chuck's intention, he gives a great lesson to screenwriters on what it really means to "show and not tell."

    Unlike authors, screenwriters do not have the luxury of using "thought verbs" to give information. Unless we can un-pack characters' internal mental processes into physically observable actions in such a way as Chuck explains, scenes will be bland and dull - or worse, entirely dependent on dialogue to give information.
    scribbler screenwriting blog-o-zine - Celebrating its fifth year of bloggerdom!

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  • #2
    Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

    From this point forward-at least for the next half year-you may not 
use "thought- verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands,
Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred
 others you love to use.
    Generally I agree with this, but there are exceptions.

    As Fred speaks, George realizes he's the killer.
    That's something an actor can portray and I don't have to describe the micro-expressions he'll use to do that. After George figures this out, he's going to probably take some sort of action I can write.
    wry

    The rule is the first fifteen pages should enthrall me, but truth is, I'm only giving you about 3-5 pages. ~ Hollywood Script Reader

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    • #3
      Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

      Utter b*llocks.

      Originally posted by SCRIPTMONK!!! View Post
      Unless we can un-pack characters' internal mental processes into physically observable actions...
      I believe that's what you humans call acting.

      I've cited it before but what the heck, I'll do it again. Read Zaillian's Dragon Tattoo script. It has moments where characters imagine what another character is about to say. I just opened it at a random page (p25 if you're playing at home) and saw...

      "And for all that, he's no closer to the truth" (A/D)
      "Blomkvist wonders why he ever agreed to come here..." (A/D)

      Next page...

      "It [the meal] and the mention of Wennerstrom's name clouds, at least for a moment, Blomkvist's memory of the train he missed." (A/D)

      And all we have on screen is some guys eating dinner.

      I'm sorry but this is one thing that drives me f*cking crazy. No, obviously don't write 'He recalls his days in Vietnam, before he got married to a lion-tamer called Bernard...' because you can't act that. But the examples above, along with wanting, imagining, believing etc etc CAN BE ACTED.


      *...and exhale...*
      My stuff

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      • #4
        Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

        That was a fun read.

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        • #5
          Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

          I'm on board with the other examples from Dragon Tattoo except this one:

          "It [the meal] and the mention of Wennerstrom's name clouds, at least for a moment, Blomkvist's memory of the train he missed." (A/D)
          It's a little convoluted IMO. Blomkvist forgets he's missed a train?
          Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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          • #6
            Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

            Originally posted by wrytnow View Post
            Generally I agree with this, but there are exceptions.

            As Fred speaks, George realizes he's the killer.

            That's something an actor can portray and I don't have to describe the micro-expressions he'll use to do that. After George figures this out, he's going to probably take some sort of action I can write.
            Yes, however there's no tension in describing it that way. There's got to be a better way.
            Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

              Originally posted by Jon Jay View Post
              I'm sorry but this is one thing that drives me f*cking crazy. No, obviously don't write 'He recalls his days in Vietnam, before he got married to a lion-tamer called Bernard...' because you can't act that. But the examples above, along with wanting, imagining, believing etc etc CAN BE ACTED.
              Yes, completely agree with this. Some folk are way too anal about the rigidity of presumed 'rules' about writing the internal or emotional behavior of a character, their thought process in a scene. It's crazy for a writer to restrict themselves in this way. It's not that it shouldn't be done, it's that the writer needs to know how and have the skill to execute it, and Jon Jay's example is a good one. If someone writes "Abe starts to wish intensely that he hadn't joined the discussion" it definitely breaks the so-called show-don't-tell rule, but it's an excellent cue for the actor which will influence the performance, and it creates good imagery for any reader who sees the performance in their mind while reading. When used appropriately it helps the script, so do it.
              "Friends make the worst enemies." Frank Underwood

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              • #8
                Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

                I think some of you are misunderstanding the reason I posted this (and by some, I so far mean all). Taken literally, this has little use to a screenwriter, because he is talking about writing prose, which is a completely different beast. But taken analogously, it is a perfect explanation of one of the major and most difficult duties of good screenwriting. Newbies on boards like these are always asking "What does 'show not tell' really mean?" This is a perfect analogy. Don't just TELL the audience information through unimaginative yackity-yack-yack (i.e. blunt or expositional dialogue, voiceover, title cards, whatever). SHOW it to them through action and behavior that allows the audience to come to the proper conclusion.
                scribbler screenwriting blog-o-zine - Celebrating its fifth year of bloggerdom!

                Download a copy of Screenwriting Down to the Atoms : The Absolute Essentials Edition completely FREE!

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                • #9
                  Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

                  Okay.

                  But here's my point. When banging the 'show not tell' drum, the worst thing you can do is combine that with a message about not using impressionistic language describing a character's thoughts, feelings, hunches, inferences. Because then you end up with writers thinking they have to describe only what can be very literally shown on screen.

                  Take the example I cited. To add context: Blomkvist is a journalist who's reluctantly gone to a country estate in the middle of nowhere to hear about a writing gig. However this is a ruse; the employer wants him to investigate a missing person. As bait, the employer suggests that the reward for his work is a dossier on a rival - Wennerstrom.

                  At the start of the scene Blomkvist is annoyed; by the end he's interested in the gig. And because he likes his creature comforts, the prospect of a good meal helps make up his mind.

                  A newbie - slave to the 'show not tell' mantra - may write something like:

                  Blomkvist looks at his train ticket. Then his watch. He starts to fidget. He gets up to leave. But then he sniffs as a roast duck is placed on the table. He rubs his stomach, drool forming from his mouth.

                  And then Daniel Craig reads that and says 'I'm not Marcel f*cking Marceau, shove those pages up your arse.'

                  Whereas if you write the line the way Zaillian writes it - or a variation thereof - an actor will think, right - by this stage in the scene my interest's been pricked by the mystery and I'm happy with another glass of wine and a plate of roast duck. Great, I CAN ACT THAT.
                  My stuff

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                  • #10
                    Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

                    Originally posted by SCRIPTMONK!!! View Post
                    Unlike authors, screenwriters do not have the luxury of using "thought verbs" to give information.
                    Nope. Nada. Nein. No.

                    Absolutely not.

                    Terribad advice.

                    Please assign to the "myth" category asap, cheers.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

                      Originally posted by SCRIPTMONK!!! View Post
                      This is several months old, but it's so good it should be posted for those who have not yet found it.

                      http://marmaladia.org/2013/08/07/pra...uck-palahniuk/

                      Though it wasn't Chuck's intention, he gives a great lesson to screenwriters on what it really means to "show and not tell."

                      Unlike authors, screenwriters do not have the luxury of using "thought verbs" to give information. Unless we can un-pack characters' internal mental processes into physically observable actions in such a way as Chuck explains, scenes will be bland and dull - or worse, entirely dependent on dialogue to give information.
                      Thanks for posting

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

                        I think it's a great exercise for any writer, novelist or screenwriter, absolutely. It's good to learn that important skill of having a character's words and actions tell the story, not just the narrator's.

                        Beyond that, every writer must develop their own voice and style, and not everybody is going to choose that particular route (especially with prose). I'm reading a first novel at the moment that got quite a bit of press, and I'm surprised (and okay, a bit bored) to see how passive the voice is. Characters are always reflecting on what happened yesterday or the day before, rather than the author choosing to SHOW the situation. Lots of "he had said, she had thought, they had argued" etc. and analyzing their own thoughts and attitudes and those of their lovers to death. Very non contemporary style, more like 19th century, Henry James and the likes. But whatever, it's her choice. In this particular instance I don't think it's necessarily the most effective, but the novel as a form does have that possibility to delve deep into a character's mind, and there's nothing wrong with that.

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                        • #13
                          Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

                          Originally posted by Jon Jay View Post

                          But here's my point. When banging the 'show not tell' drum, the worst thing you can do is combine that with a message about not using impressionistic language describing a character's thoughts, feelings, hunches, inferences. Because then you end up with writers thinking they have to describe only what can be very literally shown on screen.
                          You would have a point if I were actually talking about writing description. But I am not. It is an ANALOGY on the dramatic methods best used to communicate story and character information to the viewing AUDIENCE (not the reader, but the movie's eventual audience). It has nothing to do with what words the screenwriter uses on the page to describe anything (the exact words used in the script's description are irrelevant to the audience anyway. They will never read them!).

                          To explain: In practically any given scene, the storyteller must find a way to communicate to the audience the characters' wants, needs, thoughts, feelings, etc, at the particular moment. If the audience does not receive this information, they may not get much out of the scene, or even understand it. Now, the storyteller could take the cheap and lazy route and have the characters open their mouths and blurt out "I'm worried about X." or "I can't wait for X to come!" (TELLING information to the audience). But this is often neither good nor dramatic writing. This is the cinematic equivalent of what Chuck criticizes in literature.
                          To avoid such hackneyed artificiality, the screenwriter should instead SHOW this information to the audience by "unpacking" the internal state into plausible and relevant actions or behaviors. The audience sees and understands - they become active viewers, involved in the storytelling process, since they must gather the evidence, consider what it means, and then form the proper conclusion - rather than passively swallowing information spoon-fed to them like babies. It is the difference between a scene that is blunt and clumsy and one which is deft and dramatic.
                          Last edited by SCRIPTMONK!!!; 02-09-2014, 03:39 PM.
                          scribbler screenwriting blog-o-zine - Celebrating its fifth year of bloggerdom!

                          Download a copy of Screenwriting Down to the Atoms : The Absolute Essentials Edition completely FREE!

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                          • #14
                            Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

                            Originally posted by SundownInRetreat View Post
                            Nope. Nada. Nein. No.

                            Absolutely not.

                            Terribad advice.

                            Please assign to the "myth" category asap, cheers.
                            Really? So you are saying audiences can read an actor's mind without so much as a gesture or facial expression to serve as physical evidence? Interesting. I think you just defined the term "Unfilmmable."

                            The fundamental difference between storytelling in cinema and storytelling in literature is that cinema can only communicate to the audience through what it can show on the screen or deliver through the soundtrack. Sure, you can write in a scene "Tom thinks about it" - but unless the actor manages to SHOW that he is thinking in some physical way, this will be dead noninformation the audience never receives. Cinematic storytellers do not have the luxury of "thought verbs" (once again, mind the quotes. I'm using this term non-literally), because unlike literature we cannot take time out from the narrative to go into a character's head to explore his thoughts and memories (unless we find a way to physically show this process on the screen). We are limited to what we can see and hear in the here and now. If it is not on the screen, it doesn't exist.
                            scribbler screenwriting blog-o-zine - Celebrating its fifth year of bloggerdom!

                            Download a copy of Screenwriting Down to the Atoms : The Absolute Essentials Edition completely FREE!

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                            • #15
                              Re: Advice from Chuck Palahniuk - show, don't tell

                              Originally posted by SCRIPTMONK!!! View Post
                              Cinematic storytellers do not have the luxury of "thought verbs"
                              If I understand you correctly, you're suggesting that the use of the following sort of thing:

                              Originally posted by SCRIPTMONK!!! View Post

                              "I'm worried about X."

                              "I can't wait for X to come!"

                              "Tom thinks about it"
                              is:

                              Originally posted by SCRIPTMONK!!! View Post

                              cheap and lazy

                              neither good nor dramatic writing

                              hackneyed artificiality
                              I beg to differ.

                              We see it in great scripts all the time.
                              Story Structure 1
                              Story Structure 2
                              Story Structure 3

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