Of all the pithy little axioms preached at students of screenwriting, the most oft-repeated is the command to “show, don't tell.” The phrase sounds simple enough. “Show” and “tell” are two of the most basic verbs in the English vocabulary. Yet the vaguery surrounding this three-word statement has caused endless confusion and even controversy over whether the advice is even valid. Once again, the “script gurus” have dumbed things down to the point of obfuscation.
Allow me to shed a little light on the subject. “Showing” vs. “Telling” is really just a plain-English way of articulating mimesis vs. diegesis, two of the oldest concepts in the Western philosophies of art. These terms sound old and Greek because they are old and Greek, dating back to before the time of Plato. For the sake of the reader, I will not go into the numerous tedious arguments surrounding the terms, and at the risk of reductionism I will boil things down to their basics (so I ask that anyone familiar with the topic please forgive me for any lack of exactitude). So let us begin by broadly stating, mimesis is an approach to art that “shows”; diegesis is an approach that “tells.”
Now, these terms tend to be difficult for newcomers to keep straight. So it helps to remember them in relation to similar and more common English words. Mimesis comes from the same Greek root as the words “mime” or “imitate.” As this connection suggests, mimesis refers to any artistic attempt to represent an object, image, action, event, etc, in sensory detail so that the thing represented appears in “present” in some form. This can range from a simple pictorial representation of a subject to an exact imitation which makes the subject seem real and existing within in the receiver’s midst. Dramatic actors may thus be considered the foremost practitioners of mimesis, as their craft entails the reproduction of actions, emotions, and so on with such accuracy that they appear real and immediate. As such, staged live theatre is the most mimetic of art forms (more so than cinema, for in theatre the dramatic action occurs within the immediate presence of the viewer without cinema’s spatial and temporal discontinuities). Mimesis therefore “shows”—not only visually, but potentially through all the senses—while the receiving party “observes.” Recipients are expected to take in the sensory information and form conclusions it in the same manner that they make sense of all the stimuli they encounter in daily life.
Diegesis, in its original usage, roughly translates as “to guide” and corresponds with the modern Greek word for “to narrate.” Helpful English sound-alikes include “description” or “diagram.” Diegesis always presupposes a speaker and an audience spoken to. Some individual, wherever he or she may be, is in control of the discourse and responsible for guiding the receiving party through it. Along with describing or explaining its subjects, diegesis will often include a degree of interpretation or commentary. It “tells” from a specific point of view. Rhetoric, the art of influencing opinions through speech, is therefore the most diegetic of art forms. (In the classical sense, that is. The ancient Greeks considered rhetoric to be the highest art, but modern academics now place it in a category outside the “creative” fields.) Like rhetorical speeches, diegetic storytelling relates events in a manner whereby all content is guided and therefore mediated by a narrator, with the discourse focused upon whatever the narrator considers most significant.
Comparing mimesis to diegesis, one finds that mimesis is primarily sensory while diegesis is primarily verbal. The former presents a receiver with this or that (more or less objectively); the latter tells the receiver of this or that (more or less subjectively). Diegesis often contains ready-made interpretations, while mimesis allows receivers more freedom to interpret content for themselves. There are also sharp differences in terms of the sense of distance felt between the receiver and the content or speaker. With mimesis, the content feels close, present and “real.” Meanwhile, the entity who presents the work (the artist, creator, “speaker”) seems to reside at a distance or to be entirely absent. Diegesis creates the opposite experience. The creator/narrator holds a close and present relation with the receiver while the narrated content has the quality of feeling distant in space or time. (That is, the speaker relates something that exists in a place or time different from the “here and now.”)
To provide a comparative example, let us say I want to present you with the historical tale of the assassination of Julius Caesar. In a diegetic mode, I could stand on a stage and give a lecture on the event; tell who was there and what they did, emphasizing or elaborating on certain points, engaging your interest through my use of language. Yet to tell the story is a mimetic mode, I would have to remove myself from the stage and do as William Shakespeare did; present performers intended to “be” the event’s participants and play the scene out action for action (more or less accurately) as if the event were occurring in the moment. The first “tells,” the second “shows.”
To turn this information into advice on proper screenwriting, our path must briefly pass through literature. Literature is an entirely verbal medium. Though it relates sensory information for readers to imagine with their mind’s eye, all this information must be given through written words. This, along with the constant presence of a narrator (whether this presence be overt or merely implied), requires literary discourse to lean toward diegesis rather than mimesis. Yet literature also allows a certain range of freedom between these two poles. A work may employ a highly diegetic approach, with the voice of an outside narrator constantly intervening into story action to supply his or her own judgments or opinions. (Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy presents one of the most extreme examples. Less radically, Charles Dickens frequently adheres to this style.) Alternatively, narration can be limited to a style that comes close to mimesis, verbally relating only what might be seen, heard, or smelled by an unattached party observing the “scene.” (Ernest Hemingway used this approach.)
Cinema, in contrast, is not a verbal medium. It communicates with near exclusivity through image and sound. The audience sees and hears events as they occur, with the implication that the events are “real.” Cinematic discourse must therefore lean much closer to mimesis than diegesis.* Cinema “shows” and expects the viewer to do much of the cognitive work necessary to piece information together. Cinema cannot explicitly dictate the viewer’s mental experience the way literature can; it can only lead a viewer’s mind in certain directions through indirect means. The command “show, don’t tell” is therefore an injunction to craft narratives in ways that play to the cinema’s strengths while avoiding its weaknesses. Communication ought to occur primarily through images and actions while avoiding an over-reliance on words.
Yet herein lies the rub for screenwriters. Though screenwriters create narratives intended to be composed of images and sound, they must momentarily capture these narratives in written words on a printed page. Screenwriters must therefore perform a literary function in service of a non-literary medium. Walking this tightrope between the mimetic and the temporarily diegetic thus becomes one of the greatest challenges of screencraft and quite often the trap into which many newcomers fall.
The command “show, don’t tell” is particularly relevant to two common amateur stumbling blocks. The first occurs in the area of a script’s passages of action or description—that is, the words on the page which no one other than a select few will ever actually read. “Show, don’t tell” reminds screenwriters that they are not literary authors. A writer may enjoy penning long flowery descriptions, complete with intriguing background information and cheeky asides, but all these words are essentially useless as they will never be translated onto the screen to become part of the final product. Here is another axiom in the world of screencraft: “If it is not on the screen, it doesn’t exist.” Unless the information is sensory information which a director, performers, or crew can directly express in image, action or sound, it will never reach the audience and wind up dead on the page. Screenwriters must strive for a mimetic, not a diegetic discourse, which “presents” everything essential for a viewer’s narrative comprehension in audio or visual form. If writers absolutely must imitate a literary style, they should be Hemingway and not Dickens.
The second area where developing screenwriters are prone to telling rather than showing occurs within moments where the script must provide important background information. Now the easiest way to give this information is to simply “tell” it to the audience. Voiceover narration or long expository speeches are the most common offenders here. While these methods do provide the necessary information, their flatly diegetic mode tends to bore the audience as it fails to play to the cinema’s ideal form of discourse or provide viewers with the desired audio-visual stimulation. In other words, a lot of “telling” has been put into a medium that thrives on “showing.” As a result, such passages fail to promote mentally-active viewership by engaging the audience’s sensory interests. They instead turn viewers into passive, involved listeners, making the experience feel dull and anti-dramatic.
These are of course not the only areas where “show, don’t tell” is immediately relevant. However, I hope this article has cleared up some confusion. By referring to the opposition between mimesis and diegesis, “show, don’t tell” intends to remind storytellers what the cinema is as a medium, where its strengths lie, and what its narratives should or should not do. Cinematic stories function differently than stories in mediums such as literature, and thus must be executed in the most appropriate discursive mode.
* Note: I must warn that some caution must be used regarding the word “diegetic” in a cinematic context, as film critics and production professionals often use the same word for a completely different purpose with a completely different definition. In this latter usage, “diegetic” refers to anything which exists within the story world. The best example comes in the form of music. If a scene features a song playing on a radio—a song all the characters can hear—this is “diegetic music,” since it exists within the story world. In contrast, a musical score added to the film’s soundtrack is considered “non-diegetic” or “extra-diegetic” music since it exists outside of the story world and can only be heard by the audience. It is important to not confuses the two uses. This article uses the term diegestic only in its classical sense, that is its opposition to the mimetic.