Anyone who has worked with storytelling in some shape or form has probably heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell” a million times. It’s such a simple concept, and yet it is one of the hardest to pull off effectively. In our everyday lives we generally tend to not go into too much detail when describing something and this easily carries into our work. It’s easy to say, “The building was huge,” but it’s far more effectively worded as “The building looked as though it was built to house the mythical Titans.” I firmly believe that the best way to learn and understand a concept is to analyze those who do it better. That being said, we’re going to look at two examples: the opening intro to Pixar’s Ruin. It’s advisable to watch Ruin and at the very least the linked intro to Up as I’m going to be talking about both in a fair amount of detail and it’s best if you know the materiel I’m referencing. If you haven’t seen Up I highly recommend going out and watching the film all the way through. It’s an amazing film and there’s no reason not to go see it. In fact, go watch it right now, the article will be here when you get back. I promise.
If there’s a group of people on this planet that have mastered the art of storytelling, it’s John Lasseter and the crew at Pixar, and I firmly believe that opening to Up represents the pinnacle of their storytelling abilities. In the first 10 minutes of the film we learn everything we need to need to know about about Carl and Ellie’s relationship without a single word of dialogue being spoken. In a matter of minutes we see Carl and Ellie go from a young couple in love, to a couple devastated by an inability to start a family, to them overcoming their grief and moving on with their lives, and the pain Carl goes through as Ellie passes away. We know from the opening montage that despite the gruff exterior Carl displays in beginning, he is a loyal and caring man to those who are closest to him. We understand why he went to such extreme lengths to journey to Paradise Falls and what reaching his destination really means to him, and we understand the full emotional gravitas of his decision to sacrifice his journey in favor of saving Russel at the end of the film.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum is Ruin, which unlike Up isn’t trying to tell an emotional story, so that makes its job a little easier. Like the intro to Up, there isn’t a single word spoken throughout the entire course of short, but we learn everything we need to about the world the story is set in. From the opening establishing shots we see Ruin is set in a future where nature has begun to reclaim what was built by humans and has been at it for a t least a few decades. We’re then given a brief taste of how far humanity had progressed before its downfall with the introduction of the main character. We see him capable of creating a link with certain types of technology and controlling said technology with a mere thought. We’re shown brief hints of the possible downfall of man through quick flashes of a warning about a quarantine. Without a single word being uttered, we know everything we would need to know about this world.
Now, these are just two examples of the “Show, Don’t Tell” principle, and for every good example there are just as many, if not more, bad ones. I will be the first to admit that it far easier to apply this principle in a visual medium, such as animation and film, than it is in literature, but the principle still applies none-the-less. By showing your audience what you’re trying to say you help create a richer and deeper experience that will stay with with them long after they’ve finished watching, reading, or playing.