Show Don’t Tell – Unless You’re Christian – What!?!

I was working at Lucent Technologies during the beginning of my heart wrenching divorce. The battle to save my marriage was so intense that I dropped from one of the top ten employees, out of the hundreds holding my same title, down to the bottom of the barrel. I was laid off. Yes, I lost my job and marriage within weeks of each other.

A few weeks before I was escorted out of the office, one of my associates asked me if I was a Christian. It took me by surprise, since I hadn’t shared anything about my beliefs with him. I asked what caused his curiosity.

He told me that he watched my divorce meltdown and how I reacted to it, which was very different than what he had witnessed with others. He shared how I kept my tongue and made my decisions based on love, rather than the pain I was immersed in. He assumed that for me to be able to live in that manner required a supernatural force and he needed it confirmed.

Simply put, he had witnessed what I had shown, not said.

In writing and filmmaking we are taught: Show don’t tell. In Sunday school we are taught to tell. Jesus, however, pointed out the importance of action over words when he said, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.”

While he wasn’t telling us to not say anything, he was pointing out the importance of action behind our words. That same sentiment is a great rule in storytelling.

Ashley JuddI watched the movie The Identical this week and found that the film had two messages: The one that the writer forced into the story; and, the one that rose out of the story or the action plotline.

Because the movie showed certain decisions and actions, a theme rose from within it that was perfectly summed up in Ashley Judd’s (Louise Wade) dialog: “It’s a man’s job to learn to stand in his truth.”

The writer, however, artificially presented a different theme in Judd’s dialog: “If He is in your dreams, nothing can stand against them.” This is the same theme showing up on the Blu-Ray and DVD packaging due out on January 13, 2015, but it doesn’t reflect the true voice of the story. Clearly the shown theme was more powerful than the stated theme.

Showing is always more powerful than telling, yet in the Christian marketplace film investors continue to require filmmakers to tell certain things in their films rather than just show or demonstrate them. The odd thing is that it weakens the story, which should be of great importance to the sending of a message.

I also find it peculiar that in all of Jesus’s teachings done through story, he always showed the action to reveal the key point and he never told the point outright. So, why is it that when I watch a Christian or faith-based film that the point is always told to me in the most obvious fashion?

The most powerful films made over the past few years in America were either stories of redemption or patriotism. Both of which can only be shown, not told. Oh, and I’m not including those films that said they were redemptive stories, but really weren’t. I’m talking only about the films that were actually redemptive stories.

Like my associate at Lucent pointed out to me, the power in the message comes from the display, action or demonstration of the truth, not from the telling of it. This fact is something I hope Christian filmmakers grasp in 2015. After all, the story structure Jesus used in his parables was show don’t tell.

Copyright © 2014 by CJ Powers