Saturday, 7 May 2011


Show don’t tell, show don’t tell, show don’t tell.

Every time I write, I work hard to do the former and not the latter; it’s more satisfying for the reader to work out the clues that lead them to discover that X has an unresolved past with Y, than it is for someone to say it (Mike Myers made ‘telling’ rather than showing a character in itself, which is why some parts of my first drafts were a ‘bit too Basil Exposition’- but hey, it’s a first draft – better to see Basil than a blank page).  It's harder work, but important work; when I read or hear dialogue which tells rather than shows, at best it takes me out of the story; at worst, I start rewriting in my head while the story's still progressing (bad habit, but at least I don’t say what I’m rewriting anymore- usually).

It wasn’t always this way – exposition prologues have been around for as long as people have stood in front of crowds and told stories, told to the audience before a single player has crossed the stage.  As audiences became more savvy and sophisticated, they fell out of fashion, leaving us to discover what happens at the same time as the characters, or perhaps a little ahead if the writer leaves us a trail to follow.  Which is why I’m so impressed with The Shadow Line on BBC2

Hugo Blick’s script brilliantly shows rather than tells – the story of a drug baron’s murder simultaneously investigated by the police, and the criminal fraternity around him.  The characters are complex and engaging,  and imagery is superb (the juxtapositon between Detective Jonah Gabriel’s brand new, high-spec Audi and smuggler Joseph Bede’s older, scruffier model of the same car says buckets about how both sides feel they have to portray themselves without saying a word).

So far, so great – but the thing that impressed me the most is the opening sequence where two uniformed officers discover the victim.  The story could have competently started with the news of the murder reported in a phone call to smuggler Joseph Bede, and the arrival of Detective Gabriel at the crime scene; but Blick has brilliantly fused the ancient tradition of prologue with noir filmaking, and a multi-layered storyline – and I know it’s good because I wished I’d thought of it.

Can’t wait until the next episode.  If I’ve enthused enough to make you want to see the first part, get it on BBC iPlayer while you can:

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