Tell Don’t Show – a surprising writing lesson from Shakespeare and Star Wars
Most authors have heard the standard “show don’t tell” rule for writing, which essentially means that writers should have their story unfold through actions and descriptive detail rather than explicitly telling the reader what is going on. This tenet of writing is so important that it’s often referred to as the Golden Rule, yet there are also times where it’s okay to break it.
That’s why this week, Ginger is providing some examples of telling rather than showing from a couple of very recognizable, but also very disparate, sources: William Shakespeare and George Lucas.
For years, writers have been advised to “show, don’t tell.” But can we learn a contradictory lesson in exposition from two truly surprising sources? Namely the acclaimed plays of William Shakespeare, and the not-so-acclaimed prequels to the Star Wars saga?
In 2005, actors Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor clashed lightsabers for what they thought might be the final time, in the conclusion of the Star Wars prequel trilogy Revenge of the Sith.
Although the prequel movies have had a renaissance in recent years – as demonstrated by the two actors reuniting for the Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi – the prequel trilogy has never been acclaimed as the greatest written, acted, or even produced series of movies.
Yet, the serviceable dialogue of George Lucas has some hidden subtly to it which really helps bring the action to the screen; and some of that seems to be modeled after the storytelling of a much more respected playwright, William Shakespeare.
The best example of this I can think of is in one of the opening scenes of Revenge of the Sith. In it, Jedi Masters Annikin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are in an elevator, rushing to the spire of the enemy flagship so they can rescue the Supreme Chancellor from the clutches of evil Count Dooku.
We watch them stand side-by-side for a few moments; arms by their sides. Then, the elevator suddenly stops.
“Did you press the stop button?” Obi-Wan demands.
“No,” Anniken responds. “Did you?”
It’s one of the more awkward exchanges in a movie not short on awkward exchanges, and the main reason for this line being awkward is that Anniken and Obi-Wan have been standing side-by-side for the entire elevator ride – so if one of them had pressed the STOP button, the other would have seen it.
But those two lines of dialogue aren’t for the benefit of Obi-Wan or Annikin. They were written for the audience.
With two lines of dialogue, George Lucas established that 1) the elevator had stopped and 2) neither Annikin or Obi-Wan had expected it to. It sets up the entire next sequence of events and tells us viewers something that they couldn’t have shown us onscreen.
As awkward as that dialogue was, it was important to set the scene – and it’s a storytelling technique borrowed from another author who often found himself forced to tell his audience things that he couldn’t show them – namely, the greatest playwright of all time, William Shakespeare.
The Globe Theater
Today, the name Shakespeare is legendary. Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, his 39 plays and 157 poems have earned him the title of “the greatest writer in the English language” and his works have been translated into every language on Earth and performed countless times in every country around the world.
Yet at the peak of his career in the late 1500s and early 1600s, Shakespeare was regarded as an entertainer more than anything else. In many ways, he was the George Lucas of his day, and his writing was forced to employ the same pragmatic dialogue that Lucas would later rely on for his Star Wars trilogy.
Chief among these tricks is the subtle art of “tell, don’t show” – and that’s because Shakespeare didn’t have the resources of Industrial Light and Magic to bring his narrative vision to life.
Shakespeare’s plays were performed on makeshift stages by a small troupe of actors, and the bare backdrop of venues like The Globe Theater would have to stand in for locations like the battlefield of Agincourt, or Prospero’s mysterious island. An audience would have no idea where the play they were about to witness took place until the narrator appeared on stage and told them.
“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…” is one opening, from Romeo and Juliet. With that line, the narrator asks the audience to imagine the actors standing in the warm sunshine of Italy, rather than beneath the overcast clouds of London.
Henry V starts in a similar way, with the narrator beseeching the audience to overlook the “unworthy scaffold” of the stage, questioning whether it can “hold the vasty fields of France” or “cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”
He needs the audience to use their imagination to set the stage, and so he tells them what he’s unable to show them; in complete contradiction to a rule of writing perhaps as venerable as Shakespeare himself.
But since it’s Shakespeare breaking this rule, perhaps you can too. Or, at least, that’s what George Lucas figured.
Using Dialogue to Set The Scene
As writers, we’re not faced with the same obstacles as Shakespeare or George Lucas. We don’t need Industrial Light and Magic to bring our space battles to life, and we’re not limited to the “wooden O” of the Globe Theater.
However, Shakespeare advised us that “brevity is the soul of wit” and often we want to set a scene without having to write reams of description. One way in which we can do this is by employing the “tell, don’t show” trick and painting the scene through lines of dialogue.
Instead of opening a scene by describing two characters in a swimming pool, for example, you could open with a line of dialogue: “The pool’s not normally this cold, is it?”
Or two characters in a car, with one asking: “How much further is it to Salisbury? I feel like we’ve been driving for hours.”
With a few words of “tell, don’t show” you can set a scene for a reader much more effectively than you could do through description alone, and it’s normally a much more engaging start for a story.
Writing was developed for communication, after all – and dialogue like this can communicate a lot in just a few words. It’s a very powerful tool in the hands of the right craftsman, and that’s what writing ultimately is: a craft.
So, when you’re next opening a scene, or struggling to paint a narrative picture that description falls short on, try out the “tell, not show” method. It’s surprisingly effective, even if it is counterintuitive – and while other authors might not like the idea of breaking one of the oldest rules of writing, if it was good enough for Shakespeare and Goerge Lucas, perhaps it’ll also be good enough for you.