Every writer’s heard it a hundred times: Show, don’t tell.
Showing in writing is always emphasized. It’s more interesting for the reader to take a clue (Steve’s heart raced) and figure out what it means (Steve was scared) instead of being told. Sure, it may mean you and I reach slightly different conclusions, and we probably form different mental images. That’s part of why we read. By not supplying all the details, the writer leaves the reader to imagine the story and characters exactly how they want.
What “Sinister” shows us is the need for balance between showing and telling.
The movie begins by cutting back and forth between a voodoo practitioner and his intended target. The suspense of the scenes and the contrast between light and dark, noise and silence, is actually really well executed. We’re drawn into the movie from the start. I wish we knew more about why the guy’s making a voodoo doll of the girl, but it feels like we’ll find out in time.
The problem is that suddenly we’re following an older woman in her car. She’s talking on her cell phone to her boss (?), then gets stuck in a car wash, then goes home to find her brother visiting. I’m not saying the writers should have held our hands, but this is an instance where I think they could have used a little more tell.
How are these women connected? Are they connected? As a viewer, it’s easy to fall out of the suspense because we have no way of knowing how and if these stories intertwine. I’d be more worried for the woman if I knew the bad guy was killing off a family, and she’s next. Or if I knew that the woman is the bad guy’s mother, and he’s got it out for the women in his life. At least give me a hint. As it is, I’m left hanging, given too little information, and it’s hard to hold interest.
This movie is also a good example of something that bothers me in writing. So far all the characters have been “singular” in the sense that most scenes occur with only one person. [this does change later; I was blogging as I watched. Still relevant.] It would seem logical, then, that there would be an absence of dialogue, but in reality the scenes become tedious. If I were reading this story as a novel instead of watching it as a movie, it would go something like this:
(the female character with no name) makes tea. She hears a bell. She goes to look. Finds the bell. Picks it up. Closes the door behind her. Door opens again. She closes it. She reads in bed. She goes to sleep. She hears a noise.
Tiresome, right? It wouldn’t serve to have her wandering the house talking to herself, but we also don’t hear her thoughts. Without any real input from the character about what she’s thinking, we can’t ever learn about her. And if we don’t know anything about her, we don’t care about her. It’s important to give the reader clues (again) that help to establish who this woman is. To a point, telling can be used to give us a little background so we’re not forced to supply everything.
Lessons from Sinister: try to walk the line between being patronizing and being frustratingly vague. Suggest that all will become clear as the story progresses, then plot the story to tie up loose ends.