Show! Don’t Tell: Visual Storytelling in Black Swan

By Patrick Kirkland · February 15, 2011

If there’s one golden rule in this screenwriting business, it’s this: Show. Don’t tell.

Most of us try to Sorkin our way through it, giving characters six-pages worth of dialogue, full of quick, snappy jokes. But unless you’re Sorkin, all you’re left with is six pages of talking heads. Great for the stage. Boring film. Would you remember Schindler’s List as fondly if Liam Neeson walked into a bar and told Ben Kingsley, “I saw a girl in a red coat today.” Doubt it.

All of the Best Picture noms this year are fantastic films, and all use imagery in their own ways. The Social Network uses SFX to turn one rich brother into two. 127 Hours cuts off an entire arm, and Inception makes T2 look about as high tech as a Steve Martin rerun on TBS. But when I was reading scripts, thinking about how to apply this tip, the one that stood out the most- really pushed the visual envelope- was Mark Heyman’s Black Swan.

What starts off as a story about a disgruntled ballerina turns into a visual feast, where single images become major turns, one motif after another culminating in a rich feast for the eyes. Which is exactly how we’ll go through it, starting from the beginning.

1. The Ballet:

Yes, it is a film about a ballet dancer, so yes, we’re going to see dancing. But you can go the Showgirls route and let it be nothing more than pure fluff, or, like Swan, you can make it not only part of the story, but an integral voice in telling it.  Here, the dancing tells everything. And, I mean everything.

In fact, Heyman tells the entire story in the first 45 seconds. Technically, we could have walked out after the opening credits rolled and still gotten the full story. Want to know how to write a solid visual opening? Take note:  



A SPOTLIGHT slices black space.

In its beam, a DANCER in a white dress materializes, she is fair-skinned. Beautiful and pure.

She twirls on pointe, a smile on her face, light as air and carefree.

Suddenly, her face grows worried.  Sensing someone watching.

Scared, she peers into the darkness.

She moves now, looking, growing more frantic.

But she can't see anything.  She pauses, relaxes.  Convincing herself it was just her imagination…

Then, a SINISTER MAN emerges out of the darkness behind her.  She stumbles backwards, frightened.

She tries to escape, twirling away, but he pursues.

He flings his open hand towards her, casting the spell.

She wants to scream, but nothing comes out.  She looks at her body, sensing something happening to her.  Something terrifying.

She spins, panicking, clawing at her body with her hands, trying to stop it.  But it's too late.

As she turns, she morphs into the WHITE SWAN, the iconic protagonist of SWAN LAKE.


Clean, precise. No big conversations, and truthfully, any words spoken would only muck up the scene. He writes what happens. He gives detail to expression. He gives atmosphere to nameless characters. He tells the story, using only a spotlight, and a couple of bodies.


The Double:

Most writers have problems creating full, rich characters. We go to questionnaires, biographies, and writing page after page of drivel about what they were like as a child and their relationship with dad.  And while the concept of a split personality is really nothing new, Heyman came to his character from three angles, not just two. Nina, her Double, and her Double’s ego.

Anyone who’s been to Sundance knows that a character’s inner battle is about the most boring thing an audience can watch. But Heyman took the unfilmable inner battle, and personified it.  Giving us not one, but three characters to watch. And by far the most interesting is Nina’s evil Double.

Which brings us to the midpoint. It’s enough to say that at this moment, as we get into the second half of Act 2, Heyman needs to flip the script on its head.  

As a writer, how do you do that? Sometimes a conversation will do, like The Untouchables, when Eliot Ness decides to go after Capone’s accountant. (500) Days of Summer has a song and dance routine after the Narrator and Summer make love.  Black Swan? Let’s take a look.

Nina has just taken a shower when:

Page 51:

Relieved, she closes the curtain and turns… Comes face to face with her smiling twin, the DOUBLE.

It’s quick. It’s minimal. It’s Nina, smiling back at herself. We’re not sure what’s going on, but we know something’s not right.

Page 52:

She looks at herself in the mirror. Her shoulder is covered in deep, bloody SCRATCHES.

While scratches in of themselves aren’t a huge deal, here, they’re weird. Why? Because Heyman already planted the seed for us back on page 41, with another painful scene between Nina, her mother, and a pair of fingernail clippers:

ERICA pulls out NAIL CLIPPERS. She carefully cuts Nina’s nails down to the base. Each CLICK makes Nina twitch.

So when we see that there are deep, bloody scratches on Nina’s back on page 52, we wonder how they got there. Little do we know, it’s only the beginning. Her Double is just starting to have some fun:

Page 53:

Nina looks up at the mirror to see her reflection snip off the tip of her index finger.

Holy hell, she did what?

Nowhere does Portman’s character look to her mother and say the words “I think I’m going crazy.” She doesn’t confide in a friend. In fact, there’s no friend to confide in. Heyman’s kept the cast tight, and the story moves fast. All we need to know is shown by seeing Nina look into the mirror, and seeing that her reflection has it’s own personality. And it’s out to kill her. Slowly and painfully. Until then, we assume Nina’s a little weird, but we don’t know that something’s really wrong until she gets in front of the mirrors. This girl is going nuts.


The Swan:

The first time you see it, you think the projectionist fell asleep – a few bumps on the skin here and there, a little prickly grain running across Portman’s skin. In fact, it’s not until the final moments of Act Three that you realize the Black Swan has been peeking from behind the curtains throughout the entire film.

Of course, the final transformation is stunning. The feathers erupting out of her skin, completely encompassing Nina as she finally achieves her main objective.

Page 100:

Their cue arrives, and she bursts onto STAGE as the Black Swan. She opens her eyes. They’ve turned into red and black swan eyes.

Alone she looks at her arms, sees black points pushing through again. Some fully emerge as BLACK FEATHERS.

It really is amazing, even simply reading it. But it’s the foreshadowing that’s so cool.  The little pieces that Heyman has left us throughout the script. In fact, Heyman begins pushing the Swan on us as far back as the first act, when we meet Nina’s nemesis, Lily.  From page 12:

LILY starts stripping off her layers, revealing her lithe body. On her back, TWO DARK WINGS.

We have to wonder at that moment if Lily’s the Swan. We know she’s significant. We know immediately by simply giving her that tattoo, she’s the one Nina has to beat. The moment is quick. It’s emotional. It’s clear. By simply giving her that tattoo, we know Lily is the ultimate roadblock on Nina’s journey.


4. The Sex Scene:

While the scene’s intent has already been talked about on TSL (Black Swan: It’s More Than Just a Sex Scene), we haven’t broken down the scene’s visual journey.

Yes, it’s an intense affair. It’s our Hero and our Nemesis, in a situation that defines the word intimate. But Nina here has already started to go off the edge, and this one scene is where Heyman’s visual motifs pull together, one after the other, for one incredible Climax.

Post drinks, post pills, and post cab ride, Heyman cements the moment between Nina and Lily on page 74 with a kiss, onto the bed, and then:

There’s subtle movement underneath the skin. Little pin-pricks push up the flesh, trailing behind her hand.

We’ve seen this before. This particular imagery is not new, but now we understand what causes it. Here, we have intimacy AND anger. Nina never wanted to go out. She never wanted to be friends. Now she’s making love to this girl, letting her touch her as no one ever has, including herself.

Then Lily gets back on top of Nina. The dark wing tattoos on her shoulders undulate and spread out.

Nina, at this moment is becoming a woman in this raunchy sexcapade, but before we can get wrapped up in this little fact, Heyman visually reminds us that this is no lover. This is no friend. This is not just sex. This is Nina being seduced by her darkness. And just as we’re processing that, Heyman takes it home:

Lily starts to go down on Nina. Nervous, Nina whimpers. Glances down and sees the DOUBLE.

And here it is. This is the moment that the entire film has wrapped itself upon. The reflection is real. The Double – Nina’s darkest driving force – is no longer trapped behind mirrors and glass. It’s real. It’s here. It’s seducing her. And Nina’s choice will carry us through the remainder of the story:

She tries to pull away… She takes a breath and succumbs.

Now Nina has succumbed to her dark side, to the whims of her reflections, and there enters the Swan:

Bumps shoot up all over her skin as her breath quickens.

They’re back. They’re forceful. They take over her body.  

She closes her eyes, allows the sensation to invade her body and CLIMAXES.

There’s no going back now. Heyman releases us for a moment in the script. Lets us breathe a little:

She breathes her way back to earth. She rolls over towards Lily…

And then beats us over the head.

…but Lily is gone. Instead, her DOUBLE hovers over her.

She SMASHES a pillow over Nina’s face.

Heyman knew the best way to turn the story into the final act was not with a conversation, or thinking, or a long dramatic pause. The scene turns with raw imagery. As we move into the 3rd Act, it’s obvious here that Heyman is having a ball with imagery that he’s already prepared. He not only uses them, he gives them a personality: the Double that takes her time before smashing Nina’s face with a pillow, the bumps that force their way over Nina’s body as she’s about to climax. They take her over, envelop her body, so it’s not a stretch at all to believe that she actually protrudes feathers during her performance. After this scene, we’ve been waiting for them. We want them to come. And when we do, we’re thankful that they’ve been realized.

Could this have been done differently? Of course. But for consideration, Heyman could have summed up the entire experience with one line of dialogue:

Nina: Hey Lily, I had a strange fantasy about you last night.

Frankly, it’s just not as fun. And as writers, what do we do this for, if not for the pure giddiness that we get from writing a really cool scene? There’s just no way to deny that Heyman’s sex scene was a Really. Cool. Scene.

So how did he do this? It’s both extremely simple, and probably the one thing that separates good writers from mediocre ones. Whereas a lot of us will write with purely with characters goals in mind, what Heyman did is write with the camera in mind.

McKee says it well. A film is not real life, it is an interpretation of real life taken to the fullest extent. We’re not writing biographies here. We’re writing movies. Films. Film. If you’re not writing for the image, you’re not writing a screenplay.

Show it. Do. Not. Tell. And give your audience one hell of a view.