Drive - show don't tell technique

Example of the Show don’t tell technique – Drive


It’s easy to be confused about what the show don’t tell technique is or how it works but, surprisingly enough, it’s even easier to put it into practice.
Many make it sound like a complicated and difficult because it implies cutting out the dialogue and only “showing” the action. But that’s not what it is.

The show don’t tell technique simply consists in giving the audience the informations they need in order to understand what’s happening in the story by avoiding description. This doesn’t mean that the dialogue needs to be cut out. The characters can speak with each other but their dialogue shouldn’t focus on describing their own actions.

In order to use the show don’t tell technique it’s imperative that the writer starts the scene by knowing exactly what informations he is going to give the audience.

Why? Because most of the time a scene that entirely uses this technique exist for the sole purpose of delivering those informations.

To give you a practical example, let’s look at a scene from the 2011 movie Drive by director Nicolas Winding Refn based on a novel written by James Sallis.


Everything starts with a man talking on the phone and looking out of a window. From what he’s saying we understand that he’s making a deal with someone. We don’t know what they’re talking about, only that the man guarantees his presence for 5 minutes and then he’ll leave.

We don’t know the relationships of the two people on the phone, by the tone of the man speaking we can assume that this is a business deal since his tone is not friendly nor humorous. He is just giving instructions in a cold and detached way.

The room is mostly covered in darkness but there are two things that we can spot immediately: the TV showing a basketball game and a map with handwritten notes. The fact that the room is so dark also implies that those two things are important, otherwise we would have seen an apartment full of any kind of clatter or stylish decoration

At the garage, we see the man and the owner of the place walking past a long line of flashy sportive cars and stop in front of the last one. By the comment “the most popular car in the state of California. No one will be looking at you” we can deduce that the driver’s intent is to be invisible in the eyes of other drivers, and soon we’ll find out why.

In the streets, he stops by a facility heavily protected with barbed wire on top of the tall solid bars of an iron gate. Two men wearing ski masks see him and start breaking into the building. Now we know for sure that the activity that involves our protagonist is not legal and that the 5 minutes he was talking about before are the time he is willing to wait for the robbers to come outside.

This is not something we’re told, but something we (the audience) understand on our own. Sometimes the show don’t tell technique simply consists in resisting the temptation to write unnecessary dialogue to clarify the scene.

Maybe someone else while writing this screenplay would have made the robbers approach the car and say something like “We’ll be out in less than 5 minutes” or “Remember the plan: we break in and you wait 5 minutes for us”. But the director wisely decided to not make it redundant and simply let the audience get to the conclusion.

Now the driver sets up two radios: one tuned to the police channel and one tuned to a sport channel. The use for the first one is obvious, he needs to know in advance the movement of the police’s vehicles in the streets. The sports channel seems like an odd choice, but the use for it will be explained later.

As the robbers come out and the car starts moving we understand that the driver is not new to this kind of job. He’s calm and focused, he knows how to avoid the police without making them suspicious and he knows the streets of the city.

The scene ends with him leaving the car and the robbers in a stadium’s parking lot, changing his jacket and using a baseball hat to blend in and mask his face.

Now the use for the sports radio is clear: when the game finishes a lot of fans will be leaving the chaotic stadium, which will become a perfect hiding spot for the blend common car. The change of outfit will allow him to pass past the police officers without being suspected and hide his face at the same time.

So what do we know about our protagonist after this scene? These four things:

1- he’s a professional driver
2- he knows the city
3- he has had previous experience with criminal jobs
4- he is confident in his methods, enough to pass by police cars multiple times knowing that he won’t be discovered

And the story in general?

1- it’s set in Los Angeles (you can understand it by the landscape or by the the cap of the winning team which reads “LA”
2- it involves the criminal world and has a protagonist an expert driver
3- the protagonist’s life is in constant danger since he can be caught by the police at any moment during a robbery.

Again, those things are not told to the audience, but something they understand if they’re paying attention. And this is exactly the reason why the show don’t tell technique is so useful.

A spectator needs to pay attention and be focused in order to understand the scene, he feels part of it because like a detective he has to put together clues to see what’s going on.