The advice “show, don’t tell” is certainly one of the most overused pieces of writing instruction. But it’s overused for a very good reason: It’s a core principle of great storytelling.
When a character’s simple action reveals more about him than five paragraphs of expository prose, you’ve rewarded your reader with something wonderful.
I’ve been enjoying the new HBO series Westworld. It’s well written, beautifully acted and very intriguing. In this week’s episode, the writers pull off a masterful bit of “show, don’t tell” that I wanted to point out, in hopes it will spark some ideas for your own writing.
Westworld takes place in a theme park in which human visitors get to relive the old west, thanks to hundreds of human-like robots. In this week’s episode, we’re introduced to two human visitors as they arrive at the park: William and Logan.
We get the idea pretty early that Logan is cocky, arrogant and most likely looking for trouble. But we aren’t so sure about William. He’s quiet and perhaps a bit intimidated by the experience. But how he’ll act once ensconced in Westworld is a mystery.
Until the writers pull of a spectacular “show, don’t tell” moment.
We follow William as he selects his wardrobe for his adventure. Some boots, a vest, a jacket. And then he comes to his final selection.
On one wall, a rack of black hats. On the other, a rack of white hats.
The camera closes in on William’s face as he ponders his decision.
The next shot is of William and Logan striding down Westworld’s dusty main street. Logan is wearing a black hat, William is wearing his newly chosen white hat.
And with that, we’ve learned volumes about these men and their intentions. One is there to be an outlaw, the other a hero.
And not a word of dialogue was needed. That’s showing, not telling.