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SHOW, DON’T TELL 101

SHOW, DON’T TELL 101

It’s a mantra that deserves a spot on the wall of any screenwriter’s bathroom:

SHOW, DON’T TELL.

But for the new screenwriter, what does this statement really mean?

As a screenwriter, what you need to understand is that you’re telling stories through pictures. Moving pictures. And it’s a unique kind of storytelling that novels, poems, theatre and really long blog posts or Facebook posts can’t emulate.

In a novel or short story, a reader knows if an old picture reminds the main character of an old flame when the author lays it out verbally.

Johnny takes the old picture of him and Lea on the bridge. As he looks at it, he remembers their long walks by the beach, their exquisite dinners by the bay and waking up in each other’s arms every morning. The rush of memories of a treasured love now lost manifest as tears that fall from Johnny’s eyes.

That’s a pretty good way of telling the reader how the character feels as he looks at the picture.

But it’s different in a movie. How do you tell the same story above through the screen, through pictures? You show the character alone in bed as he picks up the picture. You show the picture. Then you show his face as his eyes well up with tears. That’s it! The audience understands what’s going on with only those!

That’s the difference between filmic storytelling and another storytelling medium like the
novel. The latter TELLS you what’s going through a character’s head aside from what’s going on in a scene. A story told through moving pictures SHOWS them to you through visual cues.

However, there can be instances when the writing of a script still favors TELLING rather than SHOWING. A script can tell through two things: scene descriptions and dialogue.

TELLING THROUGH SCENE DESCRIPTIONS

Let’s say that a character comes home and is angry. How should you write that?
Consider the following description line:

Reggie enters the house. He’s extremely angry at what had transpired back at school. If only the bully were here right now, he’d love nothing more than to take a swing at him.
His anger is so overwhelming that his mother notices.

This is how you TELL. As a reader, I know that he’s angry. Very angry. Cool. But what happens when you pass this script to the production team and the actors? How’s the production team going to shoot this? How is the actor playing Reggie going to express that he’s angry?

Now let’s try to SHOW that Reggie is angry:

Reggie marches inside the house and SLAMS the door shut. He’s breathing fast and heavy and paces back and forth, both his hands tightly clenched in fists. He suddenly hurls his bag across the room. He grabs hold of the nearest thing he can find – a vase – and chucks it across the room too, breaking it in pieces.

Every action Reggie does and every detail noted in the description line speaks volumes. You don’t have to say that he’s really angry. All you have to do is show these things – slam the door shut, pace back and forth, have his hands clenched, throw stuff across the room – and the reader knows what’s going on. Once translated onto film, the audience also gets it: Reggie’s pissed!

TELLING THROUGH DIALOGUE

Another way to tell rather than show is through a character’s lines. It’s a common mistake among new writers to have a character say exactly what’s on that character’s mind. This is known as on-the-nose dialogue. (You can find out more about it on our article about common screenwriting mistakes to be avoided here.)

There’s two ways to avoid this kind of dialogue. One is by hiding the intention, thoughts or emotions of the speaking character through dialogue that is rich in subtext. The other is by converting intention, thoughts or emotions into action.

Example, let’s say a daughter is letting her mother know that her husband died in a car crash.

ELLE (tearful)

Mom, it’s Henry. Dad crashed his car on the freeway this morning. He’s gone, mom.

LISA (sobbing)

No! That’s not true! How can it be!? Tell me that’s not true! Dad is alive! He can’t die!

Obviously, Lisa, the mother, is in denial of her husband’s untimely death. She expresses this verbally here. Now I don’t know about you, but the dialogue seems unnatural especially if she says it IMMEDIATELY AFTER getting the bad news.

Let’s apply the show, don’t tell mantra to this exchange. It can look like this:

ELLE (tearful)

Mom, it’s Henry. Dad crashed his car on the freeway this morning. He’s gone, mom.

Lisa’s jaw drops, absolutely speechless. She grabs her chest as if her heart just sunk. Her eyes start to well up. So does Elle’s.

Lisa gravitates towards Elle’s arms. She embraces her daughter tight embraces as her tears begin to fall and she begins to sob.

Not a line of dialogue from Lisa here. It’s just her showing her pain as the tragic news sinks in before finding whatever bit of comfort she can in Elle’s arms. Already you know how Lisa feels here.

Show, don’t tell.

Remember that film and TV is a visual medium. Your writing has to reflect this. Thoughts and emotions cannot be seen and most of the time cannot be expressed in their unfiltered form without sounding too scripted. Always think of ways to visualize these. A sad mother WEEPS. An exhausted athlete may COLLAPSE. A wife who discovers that her husband is having an affair may DROP the plate she’s washing on the floor, breaking it. And a scared kid may TREMBLE at the sound of the killer’s footsteps. That is how you tell a story visually. That is how you show.

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