Show don't tell. The screenwriting golden rule. We hear it all the time, but what does it really mean? Show don’t tell means showing your character’s emotions and thoughts through action. It turns your script from a didactic sunday service to a shootable and visual masterpiece. So, if you're getting notes back saying show don’t tell or want to understand how to apply the rule, here are some tips to help you to go from preacher to professional screenwriter.
1. The second pass:
On your first draft don’t be scared to write exposition and describe everything your character wants, thinks, and feels through dialogue. Trying to write a perfect first draft will leave you frozen and slow down the writing process for days, months or even years. Just let things flow and write what you need to get ideas out of your head. In the second pass, edit with does this need to be said in mind. Look to see if a line of dialogue can be shown through action instead of words. It’ll reveal your character's way of doing things, making them unique and believable.
2. Strong verbs:
Verbs are your right hand man. Why? Because they’re all about ACTION. It helps the reader see what’s happening. But even when using verbs, the ones you choose still may lack a punch. Let's take a look at a functional, but bland example:
INT. BEDROOM - DAY
Brenda enters, walks past her dresser and lies in her bed. She’s exhausted after a long day of work.
INT. BEDROOM - DAY
Brenda clomps in, clotheslines the decorative pillows onto the floor and plops into bed.
Better right? The second line paints a picture of exhaustion with words like clomp and plop while the action clotheslines the decorative pillows shows that she can’t be bothered with placing them neatly somewhere else. The stronger verbs allow us to take out She’s exhausted after a long day of work, because the audience won't receive that information as text in the screenplay. It must be shown or said in dialogue. So, not only does it save white space and speed up the read, but the information is visually received.
3. Word order:
Unless you're directing your own film, camera angles are a big no no. It takes up white space and it shows inability to write professional action lines. But, if you have a shot in your head that’s perfect for a moment in your script, focusing on the way you order your words can help you suggest the shot. Let's look at an example:
Each slug line is INT. KITCHEN - NIGHT
“In an empty kitchen, Amir stands over a cutting board dicing onions.”
“A knife clatters next to a half cut onion. Amir backs away, squishing teary eyes. He trudges back to his station and resumes cutting."
Notice the difference between the first and the last line. In the first line the focus is on Amir being alone in the kitchen suggesting a wider shot, while in the last example, the focus is on Amir’s physical pain, suggesting closer shots. So, when you write a scene and would like to suggest a certain shot, think about the space, feeling or action you want to focus on and write from there.
4. Watch on mute:
The best way to learn “show don’t tell” is to read scripts, but if your favorite movie or TV show's script is unavailable, one way to see show don’t tell is to watch an episode or movie on mute. Watch the episode/movie first without volume. See if you can deduce what each character is thinking and feeling through their actions only. Write down what you think they are feeling and thinking and rewatch with the volume on and see if you were correct. Writing down how these emotions are shown will reward you with your own action bank that you can pull from and add to your own scripts which will help you create characters that are believable.
So, when you're rewriting your script with show don’t tell in mind, focus on your character's actions or reactions to visually lift your scenes off the page.
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-Written by Collin Shaw
Shannan E. Johnson, CEO