Thursday, December 01, 2005

A History of Violence - Show, Don't Tell

In one of my previous posts I gave an example of a movie I didn't like and outlined the mistakes made in the making of the movie comparing them to writing mistake. If you want a reminder go to Festivel Movies and Sucky Writing.

Now I'm coming from the other side of the coin and want to give you an opposite example, a good one, a movie I liked. A lot.

I saw A History of Violence last week and I am recommending it whole heartedly. I couldn't stop thinking about it for a few days after I've seen it, in fact, I'm still thinking about it a week later. Viggo Mortensen (or as we better know him - Aragorn) is superb in it as are the other actors in this movie.

I'm not a movie reviewer, nor do I have aspirations to become one, hence I don't know if it was the plot, the acting, directing (Cronenberg), or cinematography that was the one thing that 'made' the movie. Probably the combination of the lot.

In any event, the movie has that understated, almost subdued quality to it. A quality that I like. While the characters display emotions, they don't necessarily have to cry, shout, wring their hair out or whatever other devices and vices directors and actors choose for the purpose of emotional display. A History of Violence is similar to In the Bedroom in that respect (if you recall that one from 2001).

Another similarity between both movies is the dialogue, or lack there of. Don't get me wrong, there is a dialogue, and pretty darn good one, but it isn't the idiotic verbal stream most Hollywood movies are 'blessed' with. Thus, instead of the characters saying things, explaining their feelings, intent, thoughts, we see and understand what they want to express by their actions, motions, facial expressions or even sometimes from the camera angle the director has chosen, what we see on the screen and how we see it.

As writers we all know the Show, Don't Tell rule. It seems that some directors / film makers have heard of the same rule and when they use it in their films, the result is--as it most often is in writing too--amazing, intelligent and touching. A movie can have that much more impact if not everything is spelled out, if the characters occasionally act out their emotions instead of explaining to us that they're standing at a cross-road and have a hard time making a decision. Most times viewers are able to figure these things out on their own. Same with writing.

Point form:
1. Show, Don't Tell - works well in both media
2. Give your audience/readers some credit, most are intelligent and don't need to be spoon fed
3. Sex scenes can be a wonderful device if they're not gratuitous (yes, after forgetting all about sex scenes (seems no one does sex scenes anymore since the new millennia started), this movie had a couple and they worked very well!)

I hope for more movies such as A History of Violence and if you haven't seen it yet, then what are you waiting for? It is one of the best movies I have seen this year, and if Viggo doesn't get the Oscar for his performance there then that would prove once and for all what the Academy Awards are worth!

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Eric Mutta said...

I've seen the trailers for that movie and wanna see it as soon as I can rob £6.40 from somewhere :-)

On point number 2 about the intelligence of the audience. I just had an idea. I think we tend to understimate our audience because we overstimate the popularity our work will garner.

Because we can't know for sure who'll view our work, we make the mistake of assuming everyone may view it then go on to use the lowest common denominator approach. In reality, only a given segment of the population will end up viewing the work because very few things have universal appeal.

The outcome is that we end up creating for the wrong audience by dumbing things down for people who probably wont even show up for our work.

PS: it's refreshing to be in this corner of the web again. Been a while :-)

redchurch said...

Totally agree Melly, although I'm not sure who wouldn't. ;)

The hard part is to be aware when you're telling more than you're showing.

For my NaNo novel I caught myself a lot describing an action rather than just having the characters take control. I think telling is connected to passive writing, and showing is active.

For the novelist, verbs are a good good way to insure that you show rather than tell.

I think some of this is coded into the rules of good writing, like putting verbs at the beginning instead of the end of a sentence.

All of these are meant to prevent the writer from slipping into a passive voice and boring the reader.

But it's easier said than done. You have to leave a little bit of The Critic on as you write. Not so much that you get stopped up with self-criticism, but just enough to be aware when you're using passive vs. active voice, and to switch immediately.

Like the NaNo contest, it's about forming good habits and the more you write in active language, and less in passive, the more it will become a habit and you will show more than you tell.

I never used to pay attention much in my high school English and literature classes, but now I wish I had because I've found myself buying and reading books on this stuff year after year, trying to hammer these rules back into my brain.

Carter said...

It's really a shame that intelligent movies don't usually make money. Like Eric said, film makers usually go for the lowest common denominator. The lower you go on that scale, the less the audience is willing to work to understand anything. I ry to keep my writing up to a certain intelligence level. Limits my audience, but the readers I do get will be able to understand some subtlety and see what's happening underneath the words.

Not to burst your bubble, BTW, but the Academy Awards are about who made the most money, slept with the right people, and has the best press agent. Bleh.

Pay me no mind. I'm just a bitter, cynical old man.

Anonymous said...

I really can't wait to see this movie! I am a big fan of the actors and especially David Cronenberg. I have been watching his movies for years now. He is a truly unique director.

Paul Darcy said...

As a fledgling screenwriter - I could almost fill a book about this subject.

Keep in mind that the movie process is "huge" and that many, many, many, many fingers get into the finished product.

That anything comes out good at all in the end is the real miracle.

And showing not telling is largely up to the director and the ususally hired screenwriters and producers imputs and rewriters and editors and cinemetographers and etc, etc, etc.

As a screenwriter, the key is to get a good, no a GREAT idea in script form with subtle yet compelling moving-the-plot(s)-forward dialogue and scenes. After that, if you are good enough and lucky enough to make a sale, it will be largely out of your control. And the odds of a sold script even seeing the screen (any size) is very very low.

I'm gonna stop now. Very complicated subject, and my head is starting to hurt.

Pat Kirby said...

"History of Violence" will probably be a "renter" because we don't see movies in the theater unless they are big effect movies that are suited to the medium. (Limited budget on our part.) I love Viggo, so it will be a definite renter.

What amazes me about many movies is how little regard for storytelling and character seems to go into the editing process. Case in point, "Kingdom of Heaven." First, it was like the "Orlando Bloom Show." The film makers (Ridley Scott who made "Gladiator" a movie I like) seemed utterly unaware that a hero is defined by his friends and the antagonist.

There were no strong secondary characters. Some interesting characters are introduced early and promptly killed off. Bloom's character has a pointless night of sex with the lone female in the story. There are so many glaring problems with the movie, it would own blog to list them.

The question is, doesn't anyone actually edit the darned movie? And how is it that Ridley Scott can turn out one movie with good characterization and then another that is total sh__?


Melly said...

Hey Eric,
On that point number 2, perhaps we actually overestimate our own intelligence??? Just a thought ;)
And thanks, I missed it too :)

Hi Eric (redchurch),
Ahhh... English and literature classes weren't my favourite either. Don't get me wrong, I loved the books we read, but not the way it was analyzed. I, back then a teenager, felt that this was contrived and that we should just enjoy a work of art for what it is. I still feel that way but am willing to concede that there may be rules that can help an artist perform better (as if that doesn't sound contrived too... :)

Melly said...

Carter, I so missed your comments :) But no, don't crush me and tell me all these awful false rumours about the Academy Awards, I don't think I can handle it...

Fred, then you will like this one for sure.
Most of the people in the movie theatre remained in their seats until the end of the credits!

Melly said...

Paul, thanks for that input, and please, don't hurt yourself ;)
I can imagine the movie process is quite big and I know how difficult it is to break into the biz. May I ask why would you choose that instead of regular writing then?

Pat, I usually do the same (with regards to big effect movies), but this was an exception and I'm glad it was. If you can manage, I'd still recommend the big screen for this movie rather than a rental.
About Kingdom of Heaven, I watched the first five minutes and then continued doing something else, I believe I preferred house work over that sorry thing.
And you're right, how can Gladiator be so good yet Kingdom be so crap.
And I'll tell you what, you, and only you, have special permission to use the word sh__ in here. How's that???

ME Strauss said...

Hi Melly,
Great post and great to have you back! I was caught by what Red Church said. It's hard when I'm writing to be aware that I'm not showing, but just telling. Not when I'm storytelling like on my blog, but in my novel when my characters should be carrying the story. Those passive verba can crawl in there so easily.

I think we learn to talk around things and that gets in the way.

As far as lowest common denominator stuff goes, I fear we're stuck with it. It made network TV what it is today. There's money in and as they say. Mondy makes the world go round.

dog1net said...

“Show, Don’t Tell” is good advice applicable not just to media but to writing as well. The secret of writing effective description that creates vivid images for the reader is learning to be attentive to sensory detail. Enjoyed your perspective on this.

Paul Darcy said...

Melly: Is Joss Wheadon a writer?

I try all types of writing (and screenwriting is "real" writing never believe otherwise) but gravitate towards the screenplay. I've written one full novel, three partials, 50 plus short stories, science articles and now (the last couple years) scripts.

Try writing everything, you just never know what you will really love to write until you try writing it. So far, I'm having the most fun with scripts. Who knew?

Melly said...

Thanks Liz, it sure is good to be back.
Ahhh, yes, passive verbs can creep up on you without you even noticing them, until it's too late and all hell broke loose. Okay, maybe I took it too far ;)

Thanks Scot. I agree 100%. It is important for writers and for artists I think to be attentive to details. It's our bread and butter I think.

Melly said...

Paul, please allow me to apologize first. I didn't mean "real", I guess I meant traditional, but even that wouldn't be correct as plays have been written since at least ancient Greece. Bad choice of words on my part.

I wouldn't even know how to begin writing a script. Maybe you can give us a crash course for script writing in your blog???

Paul Darcy said...

Melly: My error. You actually wrote "regular" not real. Hangs head in shame.

What I was meaning myself was, anybody who writes - Christmas cards, fortune cookies, scripts, novels, short stories, badly...

Is a writer. And what a great idea about the script tips as a post. I will give it some thought and come up with something. Those from here who ever wanted to write a script could get a bit of a peek from my blog.

Thanks Melly.

melly said...

Paul, please let me know when you begin and I'll gladly direct interested people over to you :)
(And come learn myself as well of course)

Anonymous said...

I think History of Violence is a boring movie.

20 years down the road, when cleaning my garage and I come across a movie like History of Violence, and most likely I will throw it out.

But I will keep most of Tarantino's and most of Hitchcock and most of Coppola and yes most of Matrix.

But History of Violence is slow and that is not what people from 20 to 40 years old are looking for.

Boring Boring

יובל said...

I'm actually looking for the script of this movie, for study purposes - as I am trying to write a script with a premise somewhat related to that of 'History'. But couldn't find it anywhere...