Show Don't Tell
There’s a number of times that I’ve referred to the phrase “show don’t tell” here on Film Scriptwriting. You’ve probably heard it before too. It sounds simple on paper but it can difficult for a beginner scriptwriter to master. However once you know the basics and give it some practice it soon becomes natural. Your writing will improve immensely just by getting to grips with the “show don’t tell” principle.
Lets cover the difference between telling and showing. Telling is using base description such as “Jon walks into the room. He is a fat man.”. Showing is using suggestive description which allows the reader of your screenplay to form their own mental image. For example: “Jon waddles into the office. His belly jiggles with every strenuous step.”.
Both examples get the fact across the Jon is a fat man, but the showing example gives the character a lot more flavor. It allows the reader to come up with a much more vivid picture of the character and how he moves. This makes the screenplay interact for the reader, getting them to use their imagination. This is a form of hypnotic writing.
Dialogue plays an important part in the “show don’t tell” principle. Rather than write an introductory piece for a character you can illustrate a lot of that information in the way they talk. You don’t need to tell the producer reading your script that a character is militaristic in the running of his family if she talks to her family like this:
There are of course exceptions to this rule. Sometimes telling is better than showing. If there’s a fact that’s trivial to your story then it’s perfectly acceptable to tell it without dwelling. If the scene is set outside and you feel it will heighten the mood to have it be raining then that’s something you should tell. If you try to show everything your script will look “padded” with unnecessary description.
It is also easier just to tell in the first draft of your script. This allows you to get the story down, without constantly having to stop and think how to show a fact. You should aim just to let your first draft flow as much as possible. You can go always back and re-write your first draft to add the description need to make it show rather than tell.
Telling is also the best way to go when you write the outline or synopsis of your story. Since these are meant to be brief guides to your screenplay they don’t require a lot of description, just the bare bones version of events.
As you master this principle you’ll notice that showing uses a lot more words than telling. If you write a first draft that’s 120 pages then you can add anywhere between 5 and 20 pages in the re-write. This is good because it forces you to cut the fat from scenes and get rid of any dialogue or even full scenes you now deem unnecessary to telling the story. The pace of your screenplay with often greatly improve as a result of this.
Don’t tell me you’re a scriptwriter, show me.