This article contains spoilers for various Star Wars shows, including Star Wars: The Bad Batch.
Anyone who’s ever written (or, in my case, tried to write) has probably heard the advice to “show, don’t tell.” Like most good guidance, it sounds simple, but it’s incredibly difficult.
“Show, don’t tell” invites the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. And that means a lot more work for the writer upfront.
It means that instead of simply stating that a room felt cozy, the author has to go to the trouble of describing soft light, warm breezes blowing clean curtains, and a cup of tea on the bedstand.
When done properly, the person reading the story or essay figures out what the author is trying to say without being spoonfed the meaning, it makes for a more involved reader and a more accomplished writer.
And a more tired writer. It’s much harder work to create these details rather than just typing, “The room was cozy.”
Filmmakers face the same challenge. How to tell a story or deepen a character’s background without an exposition dump? Chances are that your favorite movie invited you to deduce major character traits and reactions without lazily slapping together dialogue that sends the same message.
The original Star Wars, A New Hope, succeeded in part because the characters were easily figured out, and yet more complex layers churned within. The characters’ actions not only drove the plot but also helped to develop a relationship with the audience.
For example, which provides more information about Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope: The fact that he answered Princess Leia’s call for help, the way he took Luke under his wing, and his self-sacrifice… or Luke’s pronouncement that he was “a great man”?
Kenobi’s multidimensional backstory was in no way developed at this point, but the audience still gathered the information that he’d experienced battles of all kinds– a person who was kindhearted but lethal when necessary.
The best moments of the always-expanding franchise have seized on this ability. Here a few examples of stellar show don’t tell from the wide Star Wars family:
Luke and Leia make eye contact at Jabba’s palace
This takes place before the audience is told that Luke and Leia are twins, but after Han Solo has clearly won out at what is, in hindsight, the most uncomfortable love triangle in the history of cinema.
Luke has changed immensely from when we last saw him comforting Leia at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. This is the man he has been becoming since his first breaths on Tatooine: He is controlled, strong, and emotionally mature.
We don’t know exactly how much chronological time has passed from the end of Empire to the beginning of Jedi, but it was long enough for him to internalize and perfect what Obi-Wan and Yoda taught him.
He communicates this largely without speaking; his interactions with Jabba’s guards and Bib Fortuna are confident and efficient. He sets the physical pace as he walked into the throne room. Contrast this with Leia’s obvious fear and sputtering when she is captured after freeing Han Solo.
No doubt, Luke was furious that his sister was made to serve as a dancing girl for Jabba, but he doesn’t so much as let on that they even know each other. Instead, he is focused on the task at hand, well aware that the only way he and his friends are getting out of this is to proceed by tactics instead of emotion.
While Luke trades words with everyone’s favorite alien crime lord, he briefly makes direct eye contact with his sister. Neither of them say anything.
The novelization of Return of the Jedi states that Luke could sense Leia’s pain while she sat in chains. But in this instant, he’s reassuring her, and she’s communicating confidence in him.
It’s a small but powerful pause just before a major action sequence. Those who catch it, even if they haven’t seen the other two films, are informed that a strong bond of trust and concern exists between the two.
Captain Rex examines his helmet
It’s wasn’t just good to see Rex show up on Star Wars: The Bad Batch, it was great to see him in a reflective few seconds.
As his former colleagues underwent a medical procedure to remove their inhibitor chips, Rex waited outside, gazing down at his battered helmet from the Clone Wars. It contained not only hash marks from various missions, but also his Mandalorian-inspired markings.
Rex could have spoken his thoughts aloud about all those he’d lost and his feelings about the war— to much less effect. Instead, the quiet shot of him contemplating a former marker of his identity served the purpose much better.
Obi-Wan’s face anytime he was anywhere near Jar Jar
I’m often assessing what draws me to one character over another, and I was so dazzled by young Obi-Wan in 1999’s The Phantom Menace that it quite blinded me to the film’s many flaws. One of those flaws is so obvious and widespread that I probably don’t have to mention it.
Jar Jar. It was Jar Jar. Jar Jar was the flaw. Jar Jar was the biggest mistake in the history of not just cinema, but all made things. You knew it. I knew it. Obi-Wan Kenobi knew it.
The only person who didn’t know it was George Lucas, who decided with zero input from anyone anywhere near Star Wars to not only raise Darth Maul from the dead but that what the world needed in those simpler days was more Jar Jar Binks via Clone Wars. A lot more. Entire multi-episodes plot arcs. And a girlfriend.
Obi-Wan’s description of Jar Jar as “another pathetic life form” is considered textual proof that he “has much to learn of the living Force.” But no. He’s just right. About everything. He is us. Every time he looks deeply pained whenever Jar Jar is on the scene, either in feature format or rendered even more digitally horrendous in the animated Clone Wars.
Mando prepares Grogu for his first day of Jedi school
This wouldn’t have been unusual in Season 1, when Mando was silent for scenes at a time, but as his connection with Grogu grew, he began voicing his thoughts far more often.
However, as he straightened his former bounty in his little coat, Mando kept silent. He instead concentrated on the simple tasks of “Dad”ing, ensuring that The Child was warm and well-equipped.
Mando watches as Baby Yoda sleeps in a tiny hammock that appears to have started life as a cargo sack. Din has managed to care for Grogu with the few creature comforts he has in his possession. He doesn’t have much, but what is his becomes his son’s.
Ensuring he would remain warm on his trip to who-know-where with Ahsoka was the final act of care that Din Djarin could offer his son.
This scene was not only heartbreaking, it hearkened back to Din’s behavior when we first met him. He is drawing back into himself.
But by the time Mando actually does let Grogu go, he’s ready to do so. The false alarm he experienced with Ahsoka forced him to confront the depths of his feelings for his foster son.
All accomplished with a tiny jacket and a single dad with a job to do.
Poe Dameron’s reaction to Kylo Ren’s command of the Dark Side of the Force
The opening scenes of The Force Awakens lay a damper on fans expecting to see a couple of hours of Luke, Leia, and Han slinging lightsabers and bringing down empires just like old times.
That, to put it mildly, was not the case. Luke’s gone, Leia has Karen Walker hair, and Han is a sad single dad who lost his beloved classic car.
However, the other main character in every Star Wars film, the Force, shows up almost immediately. Wielded by new Sith Kylo Ren, the Force allows him to block Poe’s blaster shot. Not only do Kylo’s reflexes allow him to lock up Poe, but the laser blast also hangs there, sizzling, in midair.
Oscar Issac’s priceless reaction to this neat trick was as stormtroopers drag him past what he just fired is what truly sells this scene despite all its fancy special effects; his face reads wonder and fear even as he spits out bravado patter for this kid in the mask. Dameron was an expert fighter pilot who has built quite the flying career, but nothing, especially the lingering propaganda of the Empire, had prepared him for this.
Poe will soon meet the Dark Side of the Force again, and in a much more painful form, and later in the same film, Rey and Finn confirm that the Jedi were thought of as “myth.”. This foreshadowing of Issac’s, which passes in the blink of an eye, is a highlight of Episode 7.
Omega sees her reflection in the cloning tubes
We here at Monsters & Critics just spent some time with Bad Batch’s Omega and her encounter with Kaminoans In a Jar. Like other effective show-don’t-tell Star Wars examples, there’s not a lot of “action” in this action.
Instead, Omega simply looks deeply into her own eyes, one hand fearfully reaching out for the huge glass structure that was probably a cloning science fair fail. She’s asking questions. How is she like this creature? How is she unlike it? Will she meet its fate?
Later in Epidosde 9, Omega shared her fears with Hunter, sharing that she is terrified to return to Kamino and doesn’t “want to be an experiment in a tube.”
Although Hunter likely has no idea of the depth of the gooey wake-up call Omega just received, the audience does.
Luke’s exhale after firing the Death Star chain reaction shot
For a movie that runs largely on explosions, we learn a lot about Luke and Obi-Wan in A New hope during the weighty conversations they hold about the Force.
All through the film, Luke is excitable and rash, reacting with bravado and even anger right up through the Rebel briefing on Yavin. However, this changes once he, at last, takes Obi Wan’s advice to “let go.”
There in the trench of the Death Star, Luke Skywalker learned more than the lightsaber trainer could ever teach him. The brief echoes of the Force he may have experienced until that point, including during his short time on the Millenium Falcon, are now focused.
He has learned how to learn about the Force.
So in the immediate aftermath of saving millions of lives, Luke’s reaction wasn’t to scream, fist-pump, or even smile.
He simply exhaled. It was quiet in that cockpit.
There is a raucous celebration to follow with the rest of the Rebels, but Luke grew up in the seconds between he heard Obi-Wan as a Force ghost and when he pressed the trigger. A simple sigh acts as the informant that he understands this as much as the audience does.
Vader finds Ahsoka’s lightsaber
Standing alone in the snow, Darth Vader finds the lightsaber of his former Padawan, Ahsoka Tano. She and Captain Rex staged their deaths.
Vader pauses before igniting the blade. That he even reached for it shows that Anakin is in there somewhere.
We do not hear the voice of James Earl Jones in this moment, because the glowing symbol of the Jedi, which symbolizes Ahsoka’s life, is doing all the talking.
The physical fruits of Saw Gererra’s labors
This is a broken man, one who has followed a broken trail of violence. Saw’s paranoid form in Rogue One represents the practice of waging war without pity, the willingness to become one’s worst enemy in order to defeat him. His vengeance for his sister and homeland drove him to terrorist tactics.
He is a complex character, one the audience wants to root for—aren’t the Rebels the good guys? Is the right motivation enough to justify deploying any means at hand?
Saw’s rough tones, jerky movements, and beaten body reveal that this form of warfare has taken a toll. He may have landed effective blows from time to time, but in so doing, he traded his inner peace.
Kallus sits alone in Rebels
It can be tougher to achieve “show don’t tell” in animation, a medium in which setting, facial expressions, and spatial relationships are all digital. Once the animation wizardry is stripped away, all the director has to work with is the script and the actor’s voice.
And in the right hands, sometimes even that isn’t necessary.
The emotional high point of Rebels was one of resounding silence at the end of “The Honorable Ones.” After Alexandr Kallus and Zeb come to an uneasy truce to help one another survive, Kallus stays behind and takes his chances on the frozen tundra of Bahryn rather than entrust himself to the crew of the ship he’s hunted for over a year.
Practically because of Kallus’ actions, Zeb is one of the last of his species. Yet, the Lasat doesn’t give him up to his crewmates, and the viewer watches their joyous reunion from Kallus’ removed perspective.
In contrast, when Kallus returns to his cold cell and equally cold fellow Imperials, they barely register his presence, let alone express concern for his well-being. To them, he is as much an interchangeable part as a gear or socket on a trash compactor.
But the episode doesn’t tell us any of this. Instead, the camera lingers on Kallus, alone in his room except for the remnant of meteorite that Zeb shared with him as a source of warmth.
Kallus didn’t have to drag that meteor shard with him off the frozen moon. He also didn’t have to speak his thoughts. This hardened Imperial was well on his way to becoming a member of the Rebellion.