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Show, Don’t Tell

March 30, 2015

Screenwriters hear it all the time. I probably write in the margins at least a couple dozen times in my client’s scripts. So what does that mean, exactly? Film and television are visual mediums. Only things that can be seen or heard should be written in a spec script. This is why it is often difficult for a novelist to write screenplays. Novels have lots of flowery prose that will paint gloriously vivid pictures in the reader’s mind’s eye. This does not translate well into screenwriting. In a script you must show us what your character is thinking. The audience needs to see or hear it

Often times you’ll notice a character’s thoughts in the action lines of a shooting scripts. Shooting scripts are mostly what you’ll find online. But in spec scripts, they shouldn’t be there. We can’t see thoughts, and unless it’s a voice over, we can’t hear them either. If you have a character and you feel that his/her thoughts must be included to make the scene make sense, consider using voice-over like the TV show Dexter used. I wouldn’t recommend this for an amateur screenwriter, only because there is a tendency to over use the voice-over and it can become confusing for the reader if the character is speaking while his thoughts are also being heard. Another option might be to use flashbacks. This is another technique that should be used with caution for the same reasons: overuse and confusion. Even still another option could be to give your character a muse, perhaps a friend or a pet with which your character can use to voice his innermost, deepest thoughts to.

Other mistakes I see in scripts that fall into the ‘show, don’t tell’ category are when writers refer to a character’s relationships. Example: “SHEILA (28), gorgeous platinum blonde, ex-girlfriend of Johnny and mother to Sarah.” What does it look like to be someone’s ex-girlfriend? What does it look like to be someone’s mother? How will the audience watching the film/TV show see these connections? The answer is, “They won’t. They can’t.” It’s not something that can be translated visually. You can explain it dialogue, but you can’t show that relationship, unless you use flashbacks or voice-overs. See the above paragraph on my thoughts on using those techniques.

Emotions. Try to avoid writing things like, “She is embarrassed to be standing in front of the crowd in just her underwear.” Yes, we can visually tell when someone is embarrassed, but if you want your reader to see your character’s embarrassment, describe it. Show the reader what that looks like. Although we can often tell what emotion a person is feeling just by looking at them, it gives your script much more energy and entertainment value when you describe it. Instead, make the line more compelling with something like, “Her cheeks grow flush and she stoops awkwardly as she unsuccessfully attempts cover her feminine figure. She crosses her arms and fans out her fingers to cover as much exposed flesh as she can.” This gives a much more detailed visual and makes your action lines much more compelling. See my previous post on how to write more compelling action lines.

So what can you take away from this article? When writing a spec script, write only what can be seen or heard. Show the reader/audience exactly what they are seeing. Don’t be afraid to use vivid, eloquent, and colorful prose. Just make sure to keep it concise. Be as descriptive as possible in as few words as possible. Don’t tell me what your character is thinking, don’t tell me what your character is feeling, don’t tell me your character’s relationships… SHOW ME! Until next week, happy writing.

  1. schillingklaus permalink

    No, I will not, under no circumstances, succumb to your show-don’tell doctrine. Info-dumping is my one and only way to go, and nothing will stop me thereon. There are subtitles, voiceover narration, and Greek choirs; thence telling is always poossible.


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