Show Me, Don't Tell Me!

Show Me, Don't Tell Me!

When writing a screenplay you have to remember that film is a visual medium, not a written one. Here's how to SHOW not TELL

When you are writing your screenplay you have to remember that your real audience is the one that will see your film, not the one that will read it so you need to focus on them. Of course you still want it to be engaging and clear to your reading audience (investors, heads of departments, director, etc.), but your goal is to create a visual medium.

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CAMERA DIRECTION/EDITING - Many screenwriters like to add camera direction and editing to their scripts, but unless you are writing it only for yourself as the Director, you should not do this! Camera direction should be decided by the Director and Cinematographer, Editing should be done by the Editor and Director. Do not add "Cut to.." or "Fade to black", unless it is crucial to your story (smash cut for instance) leave it out and really consider if it is crucial or if the Editor will figure it out on their own! Essentially you're stepping on their toes if you add that to your script. You also have no idea what the final location will look like so you don't know how the environment will work for your idea of the shot. Camera direction is also incredibly distracting to your actors and any investors reading your script as they are trying to see the story for how it will look and feel. There are clever ways to include camera direction without specifically stating "Camera pans across..." or "Close up on...". Instead you can lead the audience's gaze (and your director!) through description.

For example -

  1. Camera pans across a dark child's bedroom and CLOSE UP on a photo on the desk.
  2. A dimly lit child's bedroom, sparsely decorated with few personal belongings. On a rickety desk sits a well worn photograph in a cracked frame.

Version 1 just tells the basics of a camera movement while Version 2 tells us not just what we are seeing, but why it's important and what we should get out of it. Despite the second version not saying what to do with the camera, you can still clearly picture how the camera movement would match the first version. SHOW us what we see and why, don't just tell us how the camera moves! 

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RELATIONSHIPS - Character relationships are also a big issue in scripts. A lot of writers struggle to demonstrate relationships and they end up feel really awkward in both written and visual contexts. Many writers simply inform the audience in the script that characters are related, however, when this is translated to visual we don't get that information and end up having to guess. Another way writers try to do this, that doesn't really work, is by having characters greet each other with their relationship. Watch through movies and television shows to see how often a character will great another by saying "Brother" to establish the relationship for the viewer. This comes across as awkward and only for the sake of an unseen audience. Show us relationships in a way that is visual! Think about playful or tense interactions that establish the relationship the characters have.

For example -

Saoirse saunters into the room, but stops suddenly when she sees Camilla. She smiles broadly and crouches down, sneaking up behind her. She launches and tackles her to the ground, Camilla screams, but sees that it's Saoirse. She slaps her playfully and laughs. Camilla - "Mom told you not to do that anymore!"

When you write a greeting this way we can see a lot about the sisters relationship and the inclusion of a "Mom", whether seen or not, establishes that they are related rather than just friends or dating.

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FEELINGS - The most important piece of information to SHOW rather than TELL is action and feelings. Action is the skeleton of a story, but as the writer you need to only tell us what is most important, the rest should be left up to your Actors and Director. As the writer you do not know what the final location will look like so it's best to leave blocking and business up to the Director and Actors, you won't know if the room does have a window for them to look out of or if there will be a table and chairs, etc. So only write action that specifically moves the story forward or is important for foreshadowing. This is also how you can tell the Art Department what is most important about your set, focus more on mood and how the surroundings make the audience and characters feel rather than what specifically is there.

For example -

  1. Shiori walks to the window and stares out. She turns and walks to the table and sits in a chair.
  2. Shiori races into the room and runs straight to the window, she stares out frantically. Nothing. She collapses in a chair and breathes a deep breath.

In the first version we don't understand why she does this or why the surroundings are important. In the second version we are SHOWN that the window is crucial to the scene, she needs to look out of it because there may or may not be something there, we also don't need the table and leave it open so that the chair could be a couch or some other seating location, even the floor! Only include what is important and cut any action that isn't directly related to the plot, trust your Actors and Director to fill the space!

Emotions work the same way. Actors work with Directors to do character studies, in depth understandings of who their character is and why they do what they do and feel how they feel. As the writer you also need to have an idea of these things for your characters, but you need to leave them enough open to interpretation that the actors can make the character their own. The best way to write in emotion is to keep a thesaurus handy when you write, do they "walk" somewhere or do they "saunter", "galumph", or "storm". Show us how they feel rather than directly telling us!

For example -

  1. Priya walks angrily into the room. She looks at Ali and is mad, then sad.
  2. Priya storms into the room, a torrent of emotion. She glares at Ali for a moment, but her face shifts to a pained expression.

The second version doesn't tell us how Priya feels, but SHOWS us through her actions and the way she moves. This gives the actor a lot of room to decide how to achieve this while knowing what the goal is.

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Multi-Award Winning Writer/Director l Princess of the Macabre (Future Queen) l Powerful Storyteller