Category Archives: Showing vs telling

I’m back: Florida Writers Conference 2018

I have once again been invited back to join the faculty of the Florida Writers Conference !

This year’s conference (the 17th annual conference) will be at the Hilton Orlando/Altamonte Springs, October 18-21, 2018. The theme is “Where does our muse live?” Other speakers will include former prosecutor and crime novelist Linda Fairstein as the National Guest of Honor; Florida Writer of the Year Heather Graham, (author of 200 novels and novellas!); and Peter Meinke will be heralded as Florida’s Poet Laureate. Continue reading

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War memorials use immersive design to create visceral stories

The Entrance to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A few unexpected extra hours in Washington, D.C. recently allowed me to visit the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The experience left me with a powerful insight into how immersive physical design can create a visceral human connection to their subject.

All three memorials are incredible displays of physical art. They evoke solemn meditations about the conflicts and the sacrifices our citizens have made over the last seventy years. The World War II Memorial, in particular, was amazing in its ability to communicate the breadth of the conflict and America’s engagement. Its design makes it impossible to capture the entire memorial in one setting, surely an intentional design feature. Visitors are overwhelmed physically with a sense of scope of the conflict. Continue reading

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What sailing ships tell us about storytelling

As a kid, I was fascinated by sailboats and sailing ships. I loved reading adventure novels such as C.S. Forester‘s classic Horatio Hornblower series. I also enjoyed building models. So, one birthday (or Christmas), my parents gave me a model sailing ship. The model was never built. I could never muster the enthusiasm to spend the hours working on the rigging, sails, masts, etc. to complete it. In retrospect, my reaction may have been my first practical lesson in visual storytelling.

One of the first lessons novelists (and screenwriters) learn is that conflict drives story. Conflict forces characters to act; they are forced to resolve the conflict by making a decision. A story where characters do not have to make choices isn’t very engaging. Readers (and audiences) invest in characters based on the choices they make and how they react to these choices. The various pivot points in those decisions determine the plot.

So, how does this apply to my model sailing ship? Continue reading

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Review: Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Reminding myself that the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise was inspired by a theme-park ride is useful. As a writer of historical fiction, I find myself enjoying the movie much more. Such is the case for the fifth installment of the series Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales where fine acting and first class special effects shoulder most of the burden for creating an entertaining film. The caliber of the actors and producers, however, suggest this movie had much more potential than what was delivered on the big screen.

Multiple story lines bog down the plot in Dead Men Tell No Tales, and many viewers will find the story hard to track. New characters are introduced on top of a cast that had already expanded under the first three films. Dead Men Tell No Tales sequentially follows the third film (At World’s End), complicating matters, because the fourth film (On Stranger Tides) was a “one-off.” The story tried to capitalize on the popularity of Jack Sparrow and his crew independently of the established story line in the first three films, creating a nonlinear break in the story.

Dead Men Tell No Tales picks up with a young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites, The GiverGods of Egypt), the child of Elizabeth Swan (Kiera Knightley, Bend it Like Beckham, Pride and Prejudice) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, Curse of the Black PearlTroyLord of the Rings) on a quest to find the Trident of Poseidon, which legend holds will break all the curses of the sea including his father’s. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, Curse of the Black PearlPlatoonEdward Scissorhands) holds the key to finding the trident through his bewitched compass, which will reveal the location of its owner’s most prized object. Through a series of comedic mishaps, Henry discovers and joins forces with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, Maze RunnerWuthering Heights), who also happens to be searching for the trident to vindicate her father’s scientific calculations left to her in a diary. Corina, however, is about to be hanged as a witch because no one believes her scientific ruminations as a brilliant astronomer.

When Jack Sparrow gives up his compass for a drink in a local tavern, a crew of undead Spanish Navy sailors led by Captain Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old MenSkyfall, Before Night Falls) are released to continue their quest to rid the seas of pirates. This puts Captain Barbossa‘s (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s SpeechThe Book Thief, Life and Death of Peter Sellers) pirate fleet in jeopardy. Barbossa is captured by Salazar, and his life is saved only when he relents to find Jack Sparrow. Everyone is now on the quest to find the Trident of Poseidon—Henry Turner to release his cursed father from the Flying Dutchman, Corina Smyth to prove her scientific brilliance, Barbossa to retain his power over the seas, and Salazar install himself as lord over the seas.

Keeping all this straight in difficult, and Dead Men Tell No Tales is prone to dialogue that fills in details and background for the audience (a classic case of Show Don’t Tell) with predictable results—slowing down the action. This is a problem because the Pirates of the Caribbean films are built on action sequences that include protracted sword fights, running duels among pirate ships and their pursuers, and chases through towns and jungles. Dead Men Tell No Tales has those scenes—one in particularly has Jack Sparrow dodging a ghost’s attempt to skewer him with a pike as he jumps from cannon to cannon between Bardem’s ship and the resurrected Black Pearl.

Juggling so many characters and story lines creates challenges for directors in a format as structured as film, where the the entire story must take place in a 2-3 hour window. Few characters really have a chance evolve. Henry Turner stays the same brash, precocious young man throughout the movie, although he falls in love with Corina. Salazar stays the same revenge and hate-filled pirate hunter. Corina becomes slightly less headstrong. While Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan make an appearance, but their time on the screen is not long enough to have a meaningful impact on the plot except to set up a sixth film.  (Hint: stay seated through the final credits.)  The lone exception is Barbossa whose hardcore piratical worldview sets up a personal dilemma that forces him to make a tragic but noble choice—and let’s Geoffrey Rush show his experienced acting chops.

Thus, the plot fails to bring much fresh to the story. The characters come off as flat despite excellent acting by the entire cast. (Even the brief part played by and credited to Paul McCartney—perhaps the only time a beetle is welcome on a wooden ship—was well done and, for me, worth the movie theater ticket price.) Dead Men Tell No Tales’ special effects, particularly those applied to the renderings of Salazar and his crew and the final battle for the trident, are also state of the art, so don’t be surprised to see a few technical Oscar nods to this movie next year.

Nevertheless, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is an entertaining film that stays well within the framework and spirit of the first three films in the franchise.

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Jason Bourne and visual storytelling

Jason-Bourne-movie-posterI once read in a book on writing screenplays that movies are 80% visual, and this is one reason why movies are so successful at connecting with audiences. Humans are visual animals, and they interpret their surroundings based on sight. All the senses are important, but when it comes to identifying or assessing threats, or devising strategies, we rely on our eyes more than any other sense.

I was reminded of this while watching the most recent Jason Bourne film based on the Robert Ludlum character and novels. The film is a direct sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum, and it’s aptly titled because the story in this movie is really about Jason Bourne trying to uncover his true identity. The entire cast–Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, relative newcomer Alicia Vikander and others–does a great job save for Julia Stiles playing Nicky Parsons (whose performance I thought was rather wooden). The plot is fast paced with two extended car chases, which should be enough to keep teenagers in age and heart more than engaged. In other words, Jason Bourne is an example of a big-ticket action film that’s also well produced on a big budget.

But that’s not what really impressed me.

Rather, the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film seemed like a masterful example of visual storytelling. We must have been five or ten minutes into the film before any meaningful dialogue was spoken by the main characters. Yet the entire story was essentially set up with visual cues and action.

The opening scenes have Nicky Parsons (Stiles) hacking into the CIA’s database to download files on the covert assassin programs run by the agency’s director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). All she says, in effect, is the password to get into the warehouse were a platoon of hackers is working in a wikileaks manner to uncover dark secrets held by government. We immediately know she is active in trying to identify and expose the covert CIA assassin programs–Blackbriar, Treadstone–when she discovers a new program Iron Hand which is the surveillance programs of all surveillance programs. She also uncovers files that identifies Bourne’s father as a key player in setting up the initial Treadstone program. All this is done through Nicky’s actions–her expressions as she discovers different components, her fingers as she works the keyboard, the computer monitor as files and file folders appears–as movie goers look over her shoulder as she hacks away. She clicks on folders, opens and scans files, downloads them, and then escapes after the CIA identifies the hack and shuts the operation down. Thus, we, as onlookers, put the pieces together. We discover that the CIA is active in its covert program, the agency is more ruthless than ever, Nicky is hot on the trail and scared, and she still is doing a lot of legwork for Bourne. She cares.

In another highly effective exercise in visual storytelling, driven in part because Jason Bourne is a man over very few words, the director (Paul Greengrass) establishes that Bourne is alive and well, but living under the radar. Visual scenes with very little dialogue other than crowds yelling words depict Bourne in underground, presumably illegal, fights in Greece. That’s how Bourne now earns his living–cash in a cash society so nothing can be traced. No words are spoken by Bourne, but we know he is living a gritty, exhausting, meticulously low profile existence. And he’s tough and fit.

These are just a few of the sequences that depict a talented director and filmmaker practicing the art of “Show don’t telll.” For those interesting in film as visual storytelling, and thinking outside the box for ways to “show don’t tell” in narrative fiction writing, studying the first 15 minutes of Jason Bourne is well worth the effort.

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