How 'Mindhunter' Breaks the Cardinal Rule of Storytelling

David Fincher plays by his own rules.

Fan Jonathangroff Mindhunter

David Fincher plays by his own rules.

Every writer knows the age-old axiom: “Show, don’t tell.” This storytelling approach boasts many adamant believers, from Anton Chekhov to Ernest Hemingway. David Fincher is not one of them.

In his series Mindhunter — the much-awaited second season of which is due out early next year — Fincher thumbs his nose at storytelling convention. Though the show is rich with gruesome violence, Fincher never flat out shows it to us. Instead, he uses dialogue to create detailed outlines of the grotesque murders that propel the show — and it’s up to us to fill them in.

In the video essay “Mindhunter: A Game Called Dialogue,” ScreenPrism walks us through how David Fincher manages to make a compelling and disturbing show about murder without ever showing one. In the series of interviews that forms the show’s foundation, simple conversations rope us in by concealing emotionally complex, loaded interactions. Fincher calls the discussions between FBI Agent Holden Ford and the serial killers he interviews  “power struggles” and “elaborate games of chess.” And rightly so — each interview is infused with subtle cues (both verbal and non-verbal) that bring bottomless depth begging to be explored.

Just by analyzing the conversations between Ford and serial killer Ed Kemper, played by the brilliant Cameron Britton, it becomes clear that the surface of what is said conceals much more sinister, complicated intentions. The two men frequently interrupt each other, strategically start and stop, carefully reveal and withhold information — all in a measured game of shifting dominance. The non-verbal cues that run parallel to their verbal interaction are equally telling, as gestures, facial tics, and changes in postures reveal the seething rage or gnawing insecurities that fester within both Ford and Kemper.

Throughout the show, Fincher tells instead of shows. As Kemper explicitly describes the grotesque crimes that landed him in prison, the withholding of visual imagery not only dials up the suspense, but it also forces us to conjure up acts of heinous violence ourselves. Left to the devices of our own imaginations, we’re roped further into the story and made complicit. That’s sure a lot more compelling than a simple gratuitous flash of gore. Fincher knows active, conflicted spectatorship is far more satisfying than a bout of brief, disgusted fascination.

For an even more detailed analysis of how Fincher uses dialogue to reveal the true nature of characters — and of ourselves — check out the video essay below.

Writer, college student, television connoisseur.