“You have trouble with show, don’t tell.”
If one more agent told me that at the conference, I would tear my hair out. Or their hair out. Either way, I’d make the conference unforgettable. What prevented me from taking this drastic action was the recommendation of the book Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (and Really Getting It) by Janice Hardy.
Once I had studied the book, I though I was finally grasping the concept through the idea of deep point of view (POV). At around the same time, I watched a movie I hadn’t seen in years, Inferno from 1953. As I watched this country noir about a wife and her boyfriend leaving her injured husband to die in the desert, I realized that is the perfect film example of deep POV.
Deep POV is the writing technique in which everything the character thinks and senses is in the present moment. If your POV character is fleeing for her life, she can’t ruminate on the injustices her sister has committed against her over the last twenty years. She only. thinks of how to escape or turn and attack her pursuer. Deep POV gives a writers a structure that makes info dumps, such as backstories, very difficult. In every piece of fiction, somethings just need to be told to the reader, but the writer has to slip these in a natural or logical way using deep POV so as not to destroy the illusion that the reader is perceiving the literary world through the mind of the POV character.
In Inferno, there are two story threads: scenes with the wife and boyfriend trying to lead authorities astray as they look for the husband and scenes with the husband trying to survive in the Californian desert with a broken leg. Robert Ryan, the actor who plays the husband, is alone in all his scenes. So he does a voice-over to let the audience know what he’s thinking. All his thoughts pertain directly to the situation he’s in. The director didn’t add flashbacks to show how the marriage went on the rocks, which I think would ruin the suspense of the film. When the husband’s thoughts do wander, it makes perfect sense for the scenes, such as when he’s dying of thirst and he remembers how water is more plentiful during the springtime in the desert.
Another aspect of show, don’t tell is not stating the emotions characters experience, but creating gestures, facial expressions, and dialogue to convey their emotions. In Inferno, Robert Ryan’s actions and expressions perfectly match his thoughts and feelings. When he tells himself a joke, his half-smile conveys the humor but also how dumb he thinks it is. When he sits by a campfire, considering what to do with his wife and her boyfriend if he escapes, his face is grim and determined. When he thinks the boyfriend has returned to make sure he’s dead, he freezes as the awful realization of who is looking for him sinks in. Then he frantically puts out a signal fire he started and flings himself under a stunted tree. All these actions show his terror.
Robert Ryan is such a masterful actor that he makes all his scenes alone compelling, and even though his character isn’t likable at the start of the movie, he makes you sympathize with the horrible situation he’s in. If you like adventure or crime movies, you should go out of your way to find Inferno.
What other movies have you seen where you feel you’ve really climbed into the mind of a character?