Show, Don't Tell

Read this tip to make your life smarter, better, faster and wiser. LifeTips is the place to go when you need to know about Screenwriting Basics and other Screenplay topics.

Show, Don't Tell

Movies are visual. Their stories unfold through moving pictures—pictures that show action—with the help of dialogue. This is why scripts are always written in the simple present, as if the film were rolling before our eyes. A novelist has the luxury of entering a character's head and reading his thoughts. A screenwriter doesn't. The old adage "show, don't tell" is never more applicable than in screenwriting. You simply can't write anything that can't be shown on the screen or heard in dialogue.
The mark of a good writer is the ability to draw the reader into the fictional world. For screenwriters, this means finding dramatic and visually interesting ways of externalizing everything which is internal, be it conflict, thoughts, or feelings.
In daily life, we read situations all the time. If we notice a couple at a restaurant eating in strained silence, we look for details. Tight lips, lack of eye contact, wedding rings. We watch for emotional cues and listen for tone of voice so we'll know how to interpret a comment. We make decisions and assumptions based on our interpretations.
Part of the fun of reading a story is having the chance to exercise our innate ability to assess situations and reach conclusions just as we do in real life. It makes us feel we are living the experience rather than standing on the outside looking in.
Guide your reader skillfully toward the conclusions you'd like him to reach. Mona is upset is telling. Mona throws the dishes across the room is showing. Robert is a neat freak is telling. Robert folds the end of the toilet paper into a perfect triangle and rolls it on the holder until it is perfectly aligned is showing.
As entertainment lawyer Judith Merians put it, "A story is what happens, not what one says happens. A young woman smacks down a package of condoms at the checkout stand in the supermarket. She pays without embarrassment, pockets the package, and then calls her husband on her cell phone to tell him she's working that night. This shows us everything we need to know about who she is—bold, independent, self-defining, and unfaithful—in a brief and dramatically-satisfying scene."

Keep brainstorming to find unique ways of showing. Avoid cliché by never settling for the first idea that comes to you. Show rather than tell, and your writing will sparkle.



10/4/2011 2:00:46 AM
Dolly said:

These are great examples.I want more!

10/27/2011 3:36:07 AM
DMarie said:

I know and do the show don't tell well. But this reminder is gold dust. It's nice to have a little prompt now and then.


URL: (optional)


Not finding the advice and tips you need on this Screenplay Tip Site? Request a Tip Now!

Guru Spotlight
Alexis Niki
Buy My Book