Tag Archives: show don’t tell

Jackie Brown: Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece

JackieBrown

Quentin Tarantino’s Subtle Masterpiece

We’ve all seen Quentin Tarantino’s movies and the episodes of television he has guest-directed (I’m partial to his epic episode of ER), and there are so many things we love or maybe hate about them. I have my favorites and my not-so favorites like everyone else. Yet, his almost unique approach to storytelling makes him one of the examples I use when I discuss movies that are even better than their screenplays read. Does he tend to have too-long periods of conversation? Sure. Is there a lot of gratuitous violence? Yes. But it hasn’t always been that way. Along the way, he mastered subtle story-telling.

My favorite of Tarantino’s movies is Jackie Brown. The movie is based on crime fiction master Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. With a stellar cast including Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert Forster, Chris Tucker, Bridget Fonda, and Robert De Niro, this film is not a hyper-violent revenge saga (Kill Bill) or a riff on alternate history (Inglorious Basterds), this is a very subtle character study and as such it is a masterpiece.

Jackie Brown (Grier) is a middle-aged flight attendant who smuggles money from Mexico into the United States for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Jackson). When she’s caught by Federal agents, they propose a deal for her to help them arrest Ordell in exchange for her freedom. Ordell bails out Jackie with the intention of eliminating her, but Jackie is thinking ahead and plots a way to steal $500,000 from Ordell with the help of her bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster). Things seldom are so simple.

From the beginning of the movie, the characters are so subtly handled that it almost makes you wonder if you’re watching a Tarantino film. We immediately like and empathize with Jackie in a dead-end job because we see her hurrying through the airport and putting on a smile all the while. When she’s caught, we can see she was stuck in the middle of a bad situation because it helped financially. Ordell (a masterful performance by Jackson) is creepy, distrustful, and loathsome from the moment we meet him – and he gets worse throughout the film. But these audience reactions are genuine and not ham-fisted by any means. Just by watching the movie and letting the character’s depth play out visually, you pick these things up. Tarantino mastered “show, don’t tell” and he doesn’t need product placement, direct conversation, or tedious imagery to get the point across.

The heart of the movie is the relationship between Jackie and Max. We see two middle-aged people in dead-end jobs that they do not enjoy being drawn together. How Tarantino handles their relationship is simply beautiful. The gradual development of their unspoken feelings for each other reaches a crescendo when Max puts his life on the line for her. I won’t spoil the ending, but the first time I watched it I remember wishing like hell it had been different only to realize that it was perfectly crafted for the characters because of who they were and what we as the audience had learned about them throughout the film.

And one more example. Robert De Niro’s character is such a departure for the actor that you’re almost dumbfounded he’s playing that role. To me, this is brilliant casting because you’re waiting for De Niro to be De Niro, you know? And when it happens, it’s brutal and perfect. I’ll leave it at that and not spoil much more. Brilliant casting.

One final thought. I always write with music playing and I pay very close attention to movie soundtracks for what works and what does not. Music is important to mood and when done well it’s a subtle attention grabber. The soundtrack for this movie is simply amazing. Every song fits its scene perfectly.

Tarantino’s strength in bringing memorable characters to life with the subtle aspects of their personalities, likes, dislikes, and they way there simply “are” is something all of us should strive for in our writing. Beating the reader over the head with what you want them to know takes away from the level of care they should develop for your characters. Be subtle. Be brilliant.

The Art of Implication or Show Don’t Tell is for Losers

I’m a fervent believer in the old adage Show Don’t Tell. We’ve all heard it. We all hate it. We all know it’s essential for good fiction — the writer’s Golden Rule. It reminds us that simply telling a story isn’t enough. We have to bring the story alive through choice details that make the simple statement redundant and useless.

So, why do I say that it’s for losers?

Because, lately, I’ve come to realize that the adage doesn’t do the work. I’ve been reading a lot of works in progress by unpublished writers, and I repeatedly come across the same issue. It’s an issue, I myself, have to deal with. It’s not that we’re bad writers. It’s not that we don’t know the adage and put it to good use. The issue is that we don’t use it as widely or was deeply as we should.

First, lets look at the adage itself. Show Don’t Tell only mentions one of the senses. While our mentors might mean to use all the senses, it’s not evident in the statement — and as we all know, words are powerful things. They work on us even at a subconscious level, and the amount of times new writers forget about the other four (or five depending on the story you’re telling) backs me up. As many of us have heard before, genre fiction is immersive. Our readers don’t just read the worlds we create. They live in them. If we were writing scripts, showing the world might be enough. But novel and short story writers must use every sense to make their worlds real. Readers must smell the newly turned earth of the farmer’s field, taste the smoke of the soldier’s recently exploded bunker, feel the slick sweat of the rebel about to be put to the question.

Second, the adage doesn’t encompass the most important aspect of putting across a powerful story — emotion. You can’t show emotion with any power anymore than you can tell it. For example, showing a facial expression is about as informative as just saying that someone’s happy. And depending on how it’s carried off, saying that someone’s happy is easier to understand. But you can imply emotion. When we describe the smell of our farmer’s new turned earth, we imply the satisfaction of the fruits of a plowed field. When we describe the feel of our rebel’s slick sweat as he awaits his torture, we feel his terror, his discomfort. Emotion, my friends, is the universal language. A reader may not understand a character’s political or religious views. They may not understand how a character’s background may motivate their actions, but they will understand a character’s emotions. Emotions are the true connective tissue between a character and a reader.

For this reason, I’ve come to think that the adage should actually read Imply Don’t Tell. I mean, that is what we’re talking about when we Show, right?

Which brings us to my third reason that Show Don’t Tell is inadequate. Show Don’t Tell is primarily a tool for narrative. We use it for description. We use it for action. But when was the last time someone told you to Show Don’t Tell a piece of dialogue? Doesn’t really work, does it? And when was the last time you realized, or were told by a reader, that your dialogue is flat, repetitive, overwrought, over-simplistic, or just plain unbelievable? That’s happened to all of us. Great dialogue implies subtext, motive, tension without saying it allowed. Great dialogue implies physical and/or emotional danger. When one character asks a question, the person answering doesn’t give a direct answer. They answer a little to the side, in a round about way. And even when they do answer directly, they do so with loaded words that imply more than they’re saying.

So, I put to you all, when you’re writing or revising and you come across a telling statement, don’t wonder how you can show it. Wonder how you can imply it. For, when you think about it, implication is what we’re best at. We can’t in reality, make other people see what we see, feel what we feel, no matter how good a wordsmith we are. If that’s what you want to do, go become a movie director. Writers can only imply with these paltry things we call words and hope the reader get’s somewhere close to the point. By implication, we leave a few cracks for the reader to fill in the gaps, and that is half the fun of reading.