Why is Hollywood Ditching Its Rule of "Show, Don't Tell"?

Why is Hollywood Ditching Its Rule of "Show, Don't Tell"?

At one point in Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 movie Elvis, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) turns to Elvis (Austin Butler) and pointedly tells him, “We are the same, you and I. We are two odd, lonely children, reaching for eternity.”

In The Menu,  starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes, after a tense and mysterious first hour, Fiennes’ enigmatic Chef Slowik informs his restaurant patrons exactly where his nefarious plan for their evening’s meal will end … with their collective demise.  

In She Said, the new film about two New York Times reporters helping bring down movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, an editor (Patricia Clarkson) sits down at her computer and starts typing by saying, “His testimony just came in. I’m pulling quotes!”

Three different films. Three different examples of dialogue being so on the nose, it could be an abscess pimple. Why is any screenwriter, especially those of tony productions like these, writing such no-no’s?

It used to be a cardinal rule in Hollywood screenwriting that you “show, not tell.” And yet lately, more and more films and TV shows are eschewing that advice and cavalierly telling us everything we’re seeing or supposed to be feeling. In Elvis, Colonel Parker isn’t just the narrator of the film, but he’s practically its Cliff Notes, going on and on throughout the film, telling us exactly what we should take away from every incident in Elvis’ life.

In She Said, screenwriter Rebecca Lenckiewicz and director Maria Shrader cram so much story into a mere two hours and eight minutes that they must have felt the need to spell everything out so we can keep up. But would reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) really tell each other exactly what they’re doing, thinking or feeling throughout their investigation, all the time?

Shouldn’t most such things be written in between the lines of dialogue? Or in the action? It’s practically like the film comes with footnotes in the margins. Oh, wait. That’s right … Amazon Prime already does that during the movies it’s streaming online.

This disturbing new trend of blatantly explaining what’s going on in a movie or show has become a noticeable issue. Sure, it’s always been a part of procedurals where a hero detective must explain the evidence that he or she is gathering to those around them, but now it seems to be a feature of all kinds of genres. In her murder mysteries, Agatha Christie was able to turn such clear-cut explanations into a cheeky art form. In Christie film adaptations like Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile in the 1970s, such whodunnit attributes weren’t just wickedly entertaining tutorials, but they told us a lot about how Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot thought.

That form of information via dialogue was taken to the extreme in procedurals like CSI and its many spin-offs. Obviously, most television viewers were never going to fathom the forensics they were witnessing, so the writers of those shows made sure the police work was shown and narrated in tandem. (“Now, I’m checking his stomach contents for what his last meal might tell us.”) Everything the camera shows in CSI is usually accompanied by see-and-say dialogue. But now, this CSI-zation of screenwriting has become so prevalent, it’s almost like screenwriters aren’t channeling William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade but rather Screenwriting for Dummies.

Writers need to choose words carefully, no matter they’re writing, but their verbiage should resist being on the nose, giving away the goose, or too locked in tandem with the action. Family sitcoms shouldn’t spell out the lessons learned at the end of the show. Dramas really should try to resist narration. And it would behoove cable news pundits to stave off telling us exactly what everything means in the seconds after a news story has broken. Let the audience do some thinking without being spoon-fed everything like an infant.

Have we gotten to the point where we need our hands held so continually?  

I’d suggest that the bigger culprit at play in this dumbing down of writing isn’t due to audiences becoming less savvy or shrewd, but rather, they’re simply becoming far too distracted.

According to Devrix Tutorials, the average attention span of the typical American in 2022 is a mere eight seconds. In 2000, it was 12 seconds. So, it stands to reason that in a world where more and more commercials are only 15 seconds long, interstitials on YouTube can be cut off by the viewer at five seconds, and the average length of a TikTok video is 21 seconds, people are going to be suffering from a short-attention span.

Is it any wonder then that screenwriters are assuming audiences need to get it and get it fast? They’re probably spelling everything out because they fear audience’s interest is waning. And if one isn’t onboard, then they can all too easily swipe right, scroll down, or change the channel.

One could argue though that if someone can watch a 30-minute or 60-minute television program, or commit to binging eight hours of a show in one sitting, they should be able to give a screenwriter their undivided attention. But perhaps too many fear that they audience could tune out at any time, especially if a writer is asking them to work a little harder and read between the lines.

The Menu is, by and large, an exceedingly clever and dark film written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy, but they and director Mark Mylod simply overdo the final hour. There are too many explanations, too many confessions, and too much blatant moralizing. It’s a message, no doubt, but the message would choke a horse, it’s so obvious.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked a lot of the works I criticized here, but they could be better and not edge up to insulting our intelligence with too much talk.

Screenwriting is, and always will be, a  delicate and tricky art form. It’s a visual medium that must use words, music, even POV shots with discretion and caution. It’s simply too easy to underline everything if you aren’t confident in what you’re showing. But telling us what to think and feel so blatantly is a trend I hope wanes soon.

After all, most of us in the audience get that Jaws is a movie about the restoration of Chief Brody’s mojo without it having to be spoken.

We understand that the hostility between the leads in The Notebook is because they are so in love with each other, they tend towards the obsessive.

And in The White Lotus we can see that despite the gorgeous, high-class hotel surroundings, most of the guests are low-class awful.

Audiences, critics, writers … we know better. We just have to resist the temptations of too many TikTok’s and the gazillion distractions in the world around us. And if you read this article to the very end, my friend, you have already proven that you can.

*Feature Image: The Menu by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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