DIALOGUE vs. ACTION: Tell Don’t Show

Writing and storytelling are filled with rules and maxims that are presented as unbreakable commandments – but which should occasionally be challenged and violated for the sake of a greater emotional experience for your readers and audiences.

One such maxim that has been preached in Hollywood since the advent of sound is, “Show, Don’t Tell!” In other words, action is better than dialogue at moving a story forward.

I’ve repeated this rule myself many times. Having a character say, “I just had a life or death fight with a giant demon!” is a lot less effective than actually letting the audience see the demon and the battle.

The same holds true for speakers and attorneys and fiction writers. Revealing what characters do is a lot more involving than simply telling us what they say.

But a powerful storytelling device that breaks this rule is the monologue. 

If you are writing a screenplay, consider allowing a character to actually tell a story, while the camera remains focused solely on that speaker. No flashback or corresponding action sequence – we’re simply listening to the character reveal something from his or her past.

This device is an especially effective method for revealing what I refer to as a character’s WOUND. A wound is a painful experience from the past – an event or situation that the character has not yet fully resolved (no matter how strongly they believe or claim they have).

Your hero’s wound will relate directly to the arc for that character, because those unhealed sources of pain create subconscious fears that still plague the hero. Confronting those fears will be the only way in the story your hero can transform and achieve his or her goals and desires. (See my article “Revealing Your Hero’s Wound” or watch or listen to The Hero’s Two Journeys, for a more detailed discussion of wounds, fears and character arcs.)

My favorite example of a beautifully written monologue is in LA CONFIDENTIAL. (Please see the clip that accompanies this article.) Bud White (Russell Crowe) lies in bed with Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), and she asks him about the scar on his shoulder.

Bud then tells her the story of how as a child he tried to stop his father from hitting his mother. His father retaliated by tying Bud to a radiator and forcing him to watch his father beat his mother to death with a tire iron. The father then left the boy there alone with his mother’s dead body. “Three days before a truant officer found us,” Bud tells Lynn. “They never found the old man.”

Had screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson followed the “show don’t tell” rule, we would have seen a flashback of this horrifically gruesome event. But look how much more powerful it is just to hear Bud White allow himself to be vulnerable enough to open up about this wound. Leaving the action to our own imaginations makes it painful and tragic, rather than just violent and distasteful.

By employing a monologue, the writers are also able to show Lynn Bracken’s reaction to the story, and convey much more clearly why these two people belong together. The trust they both exhibit, and the way we see her connect with Bud at the deeper level of his essence, gives the love story far more substance and emotion than mere sexual attraction possibly could.

The monologue device is used equally powerfully in GRAVITY, when we hear Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) reveal how her very young daughter died, and how she has dealt with her grief ever since. Her wound, and our empathy toward Ryan, are felt far more deeply than if screenwriters Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón had flashed back to the event, or revealed it on screen in a prologue.

Look also at Sean’s (Robin Williams) monologue about missing the Red Sox game to be with his wife in GOOD WILL HUNTING, or Medic Wade’s (Giovanni Ribisi) story in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN about pretending to be asleep when his mother came into his room to check on him, or even Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in THE GODFATHER telling Kay (Diane Keaton) about his father making a bandleader, “… an offer he couldn’t refuse.” There’s also another terrific monologue in LA CONFIDENTIAL, as Exley (Guy Pearce) tells the story of when his father was killed, and how that killer also went free.

All these examples all use the power of hearing a story to heighten the emotional involvement of the audience.

If you are a fiction writer, or if you are a speaker or marketer incorporating stories into your presentations, you can employ a variation on this principle. Within your stories, create a sequence where you have a character simply tell about an event they experienced. Your readers and audiences are now not simply picturing what happened, you’re giving them the experience of “hearing” it told, and allowing them to envision the person telling the story, and the reactions of whoever hears it. (Note to public speakers: I’m not talking here about you delivering a monologue; I’m suggesting telling a story in which one of your characters tells a story.)

As powerful as monologues are, use them only once or twice in a script or novel or speech. Then return to showing instead of telling. But used judiciously, that one monologue will give greater depth to your story and your characters, and will give your readers and audiences a more lasting and fulfilling emotional experience.