The Show Don’t Tell Rule is not Perfect

The shows don’t tell rule is a standard for good writing, especially in media like films. Since I’ve been on a bit of a film binge recently I’ve noticed a few things that have made the show don’t tell rule a little more complex in my mind to the point that I consider it highly overrated in certain cases.

Showing something in a film done by a brilliant director and writer will always be better than those same staff telling something in a scene. The emotions, imagination and tone cannot simply be conveyed in a way that is better than simply showing it happening. Except in some cases; there are always exceptions.

I have a long history of hating films (no longer the case) just because of the fact that I found all of them boring and difficult to become invested in. And I think I know why and I think I also know why I’ve changed my opinion.

In films we often see a large “show don’t tell” exposition sequence which sets the tone and gives information on the story that’s taking place. This is often without context and also can be pretty slow. This is where I became lost.

They say that when you enter a job interview they make up your mind on whether they want you within the first 15 minutes and spend the rest of the interview trying to reconfirm their choice. This was my issue. I wouldn’t be able to see the direction the story was going in and therefore get bored. In fact, my rule would be the first three minutes (not actually but that was my attention span) and then I’d just phase out.

So opening with the show don’t tell rule on the whole is good but it can have its draw backs if it’s difficult to see its relevance or if the audience has a short attention span and want the action to start without sitting through a slow moving exposition scene.


I should at least talk about what types of exposition I’m talking about to bring them to your attention.

It all depends on what the scenes try and expresses. They say a picture is worth a thousand words but this is just a figure of speech. A picture can say 2 words (e.g.” just red”) or it can say a million (e.g “A million” – that was a joke) and sometimes it can reach a point that the show don’t tell rule is just wasting your time because of the fact that they take so long to establish so little. I would rather be told something in a few moments than shown something in five minutes if I’m going to read into each one the same amount.

I had this problem with Ghibli films a whole lot and couldn’t understand what the appeal was. This was made exceptionally true when it turned out that 2% of every movie was just reaction shots to crazy things. The first minute of ponyo was just jellyfish swimming and whilst this is a bad example because the tone and animation was beautiful you can’t deny that the ideas or plot points conveyed to hint at the story to come weren’t expressed except for the idea that it would be to do with an ocean. Imagine this but done poorly and for longer and that’s when the problems with the show don’t tell rule start.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s