I was watching the first episode of season 2 of Penny Dreadful last night (It’s on Sky Atlantic. If you're not a subscriber, sorry) . I so loved the writing, And I was very surprised to discover the writer was John Logan, who’d also penned the last Bond film (Skyfall) and other big feature films like The Aviator (starring Leonardo DiCaprio), Hugo (that one about the clockwork man) and the animated feature Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp).'
So why does Penny Dreadful work and not Rango? (At least for me; I’m sure you have your own opinion.) They may cite different genres but essentially it’s the same kind of thing:
a delectable montage of some of your favourite classic stories all rolled into one enticing adventure. But each episode of Penny Dreadful leaves me yearning for more, while Rango left me cold after the first ten minutes.
The first horrible trap is: INTELLECTUAL CONCEIT.
Let me give you an example. I had this friend at college who most people hated because he always wore black and told stories about playing chess with his philosophy friends in Budapest. However it wasn’t his clothing or his stories that everyone hated. We were all wearing a lot of black back then, and most people know how to play chess, and a lot of us would love to go to Budapest. No, the stories were actually okay. It was the WAY he told them that alienated people, like he knew something more than the rest of us. There was a conceit to his story-telling that people quickly tired of. His story-telling alienated people.
Penny Dreadful is certainly clever, but at no time does the writing feel conceited. John Logan never implies that he knows more than the audience about the history of gothic horror. He just brings the audience along for the ride.
The other trap of the "Show Don’t Tell" principle is:
SHOWING FOR THE SAKE OF SHOWING IT.
Non-fiction writers do this a lot, and sadly I've done it myself occasionally - cramming our books full of interesting bits of research because it’s an interesting bit of research, even if that research is not directly relevant to the story. In fiction, it can be a sign of not being ruthless in the editing process, leaving scenes in because the writer loves them even if they don’t contribute that much, or not exploring alternatives that might be more effective simply because the writer loves that bit of dialogue or that moody moment.
So if the "Show, Don’t Tell" principle doesn't always work, what does work? Why do I relish watching Penny Dreadful but not Hugo? Why can I enjoy hours of Breaking Bad while Fortitude unfortunately leaves me cold?
However, like millions of film-goers, I'm gripped by this melodrama about a soldier who becomes a slave and then a gladiator. And the key to its success is that we the audience are drawn into this lead character’s life and when he becomes a Gladiator, we share his secret – he is in fact so much more than he seems – and we revel in that secret being revealed. First to his gladiator opponents, when he breaks all the rules and gets them all working together as an army. Then to the audience in the Coliseum when they appreciate how a slave has become a general before their eyes. And then to his arch enemy the Emperor, whose popularity is destroyed by this successful Gladiator.
In fact, the reveal in Gladiator is far too fast and over too quickly, making the third act drag. It’s actually poorly structured, but that one moment is enough to create a lasting impression on the audience, who have spent the first half of the film sharing the character’s secret and anticipating a wonderful reveal as he turns the tables on his enemies.
So when I watch Penny Dreadful, sharing the monstrous secrets of all these characters I am gradually coming to care about, I realise that the anticipation is killing me. I scream in frustration at the end of each episode, desperate for that next big reveal, that dramatic emotional climax that I hope will satisfy my hunger for a good story.
Of course, you might not feel the same about Penny Dreadful. That’s just my example to illustrate my point. I’m sure there’s some other show out there that you can’t get enough of. If you are someone who wants to tell stories then that “can’t get enough of it” feeling is something worth investigating.
What is it about the writing of your favourite film or TV series, or maybe your favourite books, that keeps you coming back for more?
Do you find yourself Sharing the story?
I can promise you the secret to the successful story is much more than the “Show, Don’t Tell” principle. Hugo is for me a 'Show, Don’t Tell' scenario, all very clever and all ‘on show’ but nothing draws me in. Can you think of other examples, where you appreciate the story on display, but it never really gets inside your head?
Because audiences don’t want to be Told a great story, nor do we want to be Shown a great story.
The key to a great story is Share it with us.