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  • Writer's pictureM.H. Barton

How to Show, Not Tell

Greetings, intrepid readers! M. H. Barton here with another blog on the art and craft of storytelling. Today, I wanted to explore something in writing that most authors, especially myself, struggle with: showing instead of telling. It can be difficult, as we authors can always get into a groove and start writing a long, boring infodump instead of introducing the same information organically. But how do we do that effectively? To answer that question, I’m going to take a detailed look at the 2019 Marvel film, Captain Marvel, which is a movie I believe did too much telling and not enough showing. I’ll be going over almost all major plot details, so spoiler alert if you haven’t seen this one yet. Anyway, not much introduction needed for this topic, so let’s get into it!

For starters, Captain Marvel was a film I was insanely hyped for back in 2019. Infinity War had just ended on a cliffhanger but gave the promise of Carol Danvers, AKA Captain Marvel, coming to save the day. Of course, we first had to meet the character in a solo film telling her origin story. During pre-production, I remained optimistic due to the excellent ensemble cast and the fact that Brie Larson was the spitting image of Carol Danvers from the comics. Once the movie came out, however, I felt somewhat underwhelmed. It was a good movie, yes, but it hadn’t felt nearly as satisfying as other Marvel origin stories, such as Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The supporting cast was very strong, particularly Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, and Jude Law. I liked many of the new elements, such as the expansion of the Kree and the introduction of their enemies, the Skrulls. And, as usual, the comedic elements were spot-on. Goose the Cat (actually an alien creature known as a Flerken) is one of the best cute sidekicks in the MCU. So why was it underwhelming?

At first, I thought the reason was Brie Larson as Carol Danvers. I found her portrayal of the character wooden and boring, causing me to question if she was the right actress for the job. But as I watched the movie once or twice more, I realized that the actress wasn’t the problem. The problem was the writing and direction. The overall trajectory of the story highlights a number of questionable decisions made by the creative team. These decisions begin to show the story’s weaknesses.

First, the creative team decided to keep secret the fact that Carol Danvers, known for about half of the movie as Vers, is not a Kree. Instead, she is a human imbued with superhuman abilities due to alien technology and an infusion of Kree blood. This alone presents a problem because these facts alone are part of the core character of Carol Danvers from the comic books. Anyone who knows anything about her knows that she is a human who gained superpowers through an explosion of alien tech. This is the equivalent of making a film about Batman while keeping a secret until the climax that Batman is actually Bruce Wayne. Anyone who knows anything about Batman knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne. Other characters may not know, but the audience knows from the start.

The other questionable decision was the creative choice to begin the story in an outer space setting before transitioning to Earth for most of the film. This introduces the character of Carol Danvers (Vers) to us in a setting that doesn’t show us who she really is. Think about some of the other Marvel films. Tony Stark is a genius inventor and engineer who obsesses over control. Steve Rogers is a wimpy kid who so desperately wants to be a soldier. Peter Quill, for all his space shenanigans, is ultimately that kid from Earth who just wants a family and to listen to all of his mom’s favorite songs. From the start, we know who these characters truly are, allowing the audience to root for them as they change and grow. But with Carol, her character has amnesia. We can tell that this space setting seems to be who she isn’t, but it doesn’t tell us anything about who she is. Thus, we’re left wondering and guessing, making it harder for us to root for her throughout the story.

In my mind, the story would have been better served to begin on Earth, briefly showing Carol’s life before the accident that empowered her and wiped her memory. This would ruin the “surprise” of her actually being a human but would allow the audience to see Carol Danvers for who she truly is before the adventure begins. We could see her sarcastic jokester side as she interacts with Maria Rambeau and Dr. Lawson. We could see her temper as she has to deal with the male pilots in the Air Force, itself a unique challenge alongside the natural stress of being a pilot. We could see her incredible determination and skill as a pilot in the action sequence leading up to the accident. And just as Dr. Lawson, really a Kree named Mar-Vell, is killed by Yon-Rogg and Carol destroys her ship, the scene cuts to black, shifting to where the film actually began. Though Carol now has amnesia and is working for the man who killed her friend and colleague, we know who she really is and can begin rooting for her to figure it out and return to her old self. We want to see Captain Marvel’s powers mixed with Carol’s sarcastic personality and incredible flying skills. That’s what we’re waiting for, and it would finally be rewarded at the climax of the story.

That’s all well and good, but this is only the beginning of the film’s mistakes of telling instead of showing. For example, we see Carol’s interactions with her boss, Yon-Rogg, throughout the first act of the film. No less than three or four times, Yon-Rogg tells her to control her emotions and not make rash decisions. Carol responds to this by… controlling her emotions and not making rash decisions. Both Yon-Rogg and Carol constantly tell us that she is emotional and reckless, but we never see it. The closest we come is Carol accidentally blasting Yon-Rogg in their sparring match, but it’s promptly forgotten by the end of the next scene. Other than this, nothing. Carol could have charged in to rescue a soldier during the mission on Torfa, but she doesn’t. Even with Carol’s amnesia, the creative team missed several great opportunities to show this instinctual side of her personality.

The sin of telling instead of showing reaches a fever pitch during what is meant to be the film’s emotional midpoint. Carol has reunited with her old Air Force friend, Maria, who helps fill in the gaps in her memory from her own experiences and with the missing black box from Carol’s crash years ago. Maria states:

“You are Carol Danvers. You were the woman on that black box risking her life to do the right thing. My best friend. Who supported me as a mother and a pilot when no one else did. You were smart, and funny, and a huge pain in the ass. And you were the most powerful person I knew, way before you could shoot fire through your fists.”

It’s meant to be a passionate and empowering speech, the moment where Vers finally reverts to being Carol Danvers. But for all its good intentions, this speech falls flat because, you guessed it, we never see Carol doing any of the things Maria says. We never see her and Maria interacting as best friends for any meaningful length of time. We never see her smarts, her wit, and her tendency to be a pain in the ass. We are told she’s always been powerful, but we aren’t shown. The best we get are short intermittent flashbacks of Carol’s life. A verbally abusive father, getting hit by a pitch in baseball, and her basic training in the Air Force are all shown, but only for brief moments. I get the point that these represent Carol slowly recovering snippets of her memory, but we don’t get any emotional fulfillment from them as short and lacking in context as they are.

This is the other thing Captain Marvel messes up on. While flashbacks and powerful monologues are good tools in storytelling, they must be sprinkled into the story at the proper moment. Captain Marvel uses them like a pair of crutches. Infodumps left and right, flashback bits to try and hint at Carol’s origins, but none of it works. None of it coalesces into a story about a person in the here and now. If Carol is a hero and is growing more heroic, we want to watch her progress. We want to see her get reckless, make mistakes, pick herself back up, and finally succeed, and we want to see these things done by the present Carol, not her past self. With each little moment where she acts a bit more like her old self, the audience becomes more invested and cheers even harder for her to wake up and reject Yon-Rogg.

That brings us to one of the biggest things I’ve realized that has helped me in showing instead of telling. When it comes to all our characters, but especially protagonists, there is the character they were, the character they are, and the character they grow into. Each can show parts of their personality, but in the end, the best growth must be shown in the character that is, not that was or will be. Show their personalities. Show them doing the things, making mistakes, picking themselves back up, and finally finding a way to succeed. Flashbacks and monologues can be helpful tools, but in the end, we must follow the words of Yoda. Try not. Do. Only by doing can we fully show who our characters are and who they can become.

That’s going to do it for this short blog entry. I hope my observations and musings will be helpful to you in your own writing efforts. Showing is a more difficult endeavor than telling, but the rewards for your characters and stories are well worth it. Of course, I’d love to know what you think. What helps you with this technique? Any films, shows, or books you use to help you? Feel free to let me know in the comments or reach out directly, especially if you have any ideas or requests for future entries. I’ve got an active running list of ideas, but I’m always open to more. I’d appreciate it if you’d leave a like and share this post on social media. And to stay up to date on future blog posts, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter on my website. Until the next story!

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