I recently wrote about the end of Primal Fear and how the point of its story isn’t the murder-mystery-thriller plot but the deconstruction of its main character. Martin Vail (Richard Gere) goes from someone who desires attention to someone who flees from attention.
What stood out to me is how the character arc of Primal Fear works almost like a storytelling exercise. Writers often hear you need to show, not tell. Even if you’re not a writer, you’ve probably heard something like “Writers should show, not tell.” But there can be a lot of confusion and differing opinions about what it actually means to “show.”
Show, don’t tell
Typically, examples of showing vs telling are pretty simple. Like it’s one thing to tell someone the ocean is beautiful. It’s another thing to show them a picture of the ocean. Or a video of the ocean. Or take them to the ocean.
Imagine a writer who says: “The ocean looked lovely that day as Mary walked down the sidewalk on her way to the store. Inside the store…”
Compare that to: “The sky had no clouds and the sun shone on the ocean. Mary walked along the sidewalk, admiring the water’s jewel-blue intensity. The boom of the waves. How the waves curled and swept continuously to the shore. Such a sight made something as mundane as a trip to the pharmacy into a rejuvenation. A reminder of scope and scale, that human woes and drama pale in comparison to nature. In the store, though, scope and scale adjusted to the constraints of the ceiling, floor, and four walls. Human drama, once again, overwhelmed her.”
The second is more evocative, creates a deeper sense of place and the character’s reaction to the place. Even then, the second example involves a lot of telling. I showed how the ocean looked lovely. But I told Mary’s reaction to the ocean rather than showing it.
Let’s try again: “The sky had no clouds and the sun shone on the ocean. Mary walked along the sidewalk. But her gaze wasn’t ahead of her at where she was going and what obstacles might be in her path. It was to the side, at the nearby beach. She stopped and leaned against the rail that divides the sidewalk from a steep slope down to the shore. With her headphones still on but the music turned off, Mary leaned on the rail and observed the water’s jewel-blue intensity, the boom of the waves, how the waves curl and sweep continuously to land, the people in the water, on the beach, splashing, relaxing, joyous. After a few minutes, she peels the headphones out of her ears, leaving them to hang around her neck by the cord. The music replaced by the commotion of everyone and everything around her. at their conversations. Continuing on, an extra bounce in her step, Mary smiled at a couple holdings hands. Waved at a hostess waiting at the stand of a restaurant’s front patio…”
There, now I showed Mary’s reaction to the ocean. And notice how much more involved it is? A descriptive statement makes the ocean appealing. Then you show Mary react to it. And then you have to show the reaction to that reaction. But also set up the change. How do you show Mary’s feeling more at peace than she was before? By detailing the ways in which she had had her guard up—headphones, ignoring people on the sidewalk—then showing her guard being down. The quick moment admiring the ocean leads to her deciding to no longer use headphones and instead be happy about the people around her.
Showing is harder than telling. And the more you show, the longer it will take. But by putting in that extra effort you often create a more fullfilling narrative experience for a reader/viewer. With that in mind, let’s talk equations.
X to Y storytelling in movies
Think about the point of Primal Fear. The whole thing is about Martin Vail’s transformation from X to Y. In this case, X = “someone who wants attention.” And Y = “someone who flees from attention.” How do you show that transformation? You can tell everyone, “Okay, the character is a lawyer who wins a big case that will make him famous, but he finds out the guy he thought was innocent is actually guilty and tricked him so now the lawyer’s too embarrassed and ashamed to enjoy the attention.”
It’s that simple to tell someone the journey from X to Y. One of my favorite examples is Jaws. “A shark hunts along the beach of a small coastal town, eats 6 people, then is killed.” But how do you show it?
For Primal Fear, the answer takes 130 minutes. You spend time establishing Vail as X, then the rest of the movie is all in service of transforming Vail to Y. This general X-to-Y structure is common in narrative art—whether intentionally used or unconsciously so—as it’s an easy way to give a story a sense of closure. It’s pretty much the backbone for any coming-of-age or loss-of-innocence movie like The Breakfast Club or Fight Club.
- X = A group of kids who don’t get along
- Y = A group of kids who do get along
- X = Someone who lacks individuality
- Y = Someone who has individuality
The main reason Primal Fear stands out to me is that it doesn’t set itself up as a X-to-Y movie.
Like, you see The Breakfast Club and how the kids in detention are so antagonistic to one another and you know almost immediately that they’re going to get along by the end. Or in Fight Club, it straight up tells and shows you Edward Norton’s character is someone who is living by society’s expectations and not by his own wishes, wants, needs, etc. So you go through the movie expecting Norton to change from that initial X to some kind of Y.
Primal Fear starts with Vail’s arrogance and questionable legal practices but that feels like characterization rather than plot. By the time we’re into the murder-mystery-thriller aspects of the movie, you’re not thinking about how this will affect Vail. Vail’s development seems like nothing more than a byproduct of figuring out whether the altar boy (also Edward Norton) really murdered the Archbishop. By the climax, Vail has seemingly redeemed himself as a lawyer (and kind of as a person). But that also feels like characterization rather than plot.
We end Primal Fear with the altar boy’s revelation that he committed the murder and tricked Vail into helping him avoid the charge. Vail, completely stunned, is left with a choice. Does he go out the front door of the courthouse to the crowd of reporters eager to crown him as a hero for saving a young man they all believe to be mentally troubled and driven to violent action by a corrupt Archbishop? Or does he run away from the acclaim and adoration by going out the backdoor, to an empty parking lot? The man we met at the beginning of Primal Fear would have walked tall and basked in the spotlight. He’s changed, though. So out the back he goes.
It’s easy to forget Primal Fear is about Vail, not about the case. Because of that, the “Y” part of the story kind of comes out of nowhere and can hit you like a ton of toasters. Because of this, I think it’s one of the best examples of what it means to “show, don’t tell” on the scale of an entire story.
If you want to know about attorney-client privilege in Primal Fear, click here.