How to Write a Screenplay: Show. Don’t Tell.

When you sit down to write your screenplay one thing you must always keep in mind is that movies are a visual medium. There’s a reason movies are also often called pictures afterall. The only information your audience knows is what you put onscreen. If it’s not up there in HD it doesn’t happen. Compare that to a book or novel where every single thought and detail is written out for the reader. In a book you can tell somebody exactly how cold it is outside. The sensations that come from a lover’s hand brushing up against a cheek. What angry thoughts are going through a character’s mind when they find out they’ve been fired from a job. Or what color dress is that woman wearing to dinner?




Well, actually it’s a most exquisite shade of Indigo Blue which she had bought from an up and coming fashion designer’s boutique across the street from her work.

Last Friday.

On her lunch break.

Only after she had tried on 5 other dresses.

And a matching pair of shoes.

In a movie you could never get away with ANY of that. In a movie only have 120 minutes to tell your story which means you simply don’t have the space to write in those intricate details unless they advance your story. But if your script ends up being bland and generic nobody will read it. It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around at first. Writing a screenplay is different than any other form of writing out there.

So what are you supposed to do?

Show. Don’t Tell.

Remember show and tell projects back in the first grade? As a kid you were supposed to bring in something from home that you liked, usually your favorite toy, and stand in front of the class and show it off as you talked about it. It’s an easy homework assignment teachers use to get their kids to practice speaking in front of an audience. Remember how every now and then you’d have a kid who would stand in front of the class and go on and on about something simple like a football? He’d start from the very beginning, going back to how excited he was to open it up on Christmas Day. Then he’d talk about how often he plays flag football, the touchdown he scored last Saturday, how fast he can run, and the one time he broke his finger while playing, but he still dreams of playing in the NFL one day. This kid has gone WAAAY over his 5 minute allotment because he keeps going off on tangents but the teacher doesn’t want to stop him, he’s on a roll. I’m sure he’ll grow up and write an incredible book one day with all his stories.

Don’t be that kid.

But sometimes you’ll have a kid stand in front of the class who’s too scared to say anything at all. Instead of talking forever he instead chooses to just show you how awesome his favorite Transformer is by displaying how he can change it from a spaceship into a robot. He’ll press a button to shoot the missiles from the gun, almost hitting the girl in the front row, and press another button which makes the darn thing actually talk and light up. It’s a pretty cool toy but in 30 seconds he’s already done and back in his seat. But all the other boys are asking if he can pass it around so they can play with it and see see how cool it is for themselves.




Be that kid. Show. Don’t tell.

Another way to approach screenwriting is to think of your script as a blueprint for the movie it will one day be. Like a blueprint, it only needs to provide the most basic framework of what the finished product will look like. For example, a house blueprint would need to show how high the walls of a house are supposed to be doesn’t care about the color. It’s an unneeded detail that will be figured out later once the house is built.

Your script need to be written in the same way. Give just enough information so the reader will know what’s going on without bogging them down in too many details. It’s not as easy as it seems because if you don’t provide enough essential information the reader will become lost and misunderstand the point entirely. Is this a house we were supposed to build? A shed? Or an office?

 

Unfilmables

An easy way to identify an amateur screenwriter is a script filled with unfilmables. What’s an unfilmable? Extra information that cannot be shown, or filmed, onscreen. These almost always appear in the action and description.

Some examples.

The alarm clock turns to seven am and rings. James is not a morning person and hates waking up early as he drags himself out of bed.

 

Stuffed, James leaves a tip at his table before leaving the Chinese buffet. If he sees another roll of sushi again it will be too soon.

As you can see, the way it is written, there is no way to show onscreen how much James hates his morning showers, or how full he is from sushi. The audience cannot crawl into James’s head to see his inner thoughts so these details will never be known. Hence, they are unfilmable. That’s not to say these emotions or thoughts of James are unimportant, they may end up becoming hugely important as the story develops. But this isn’t the way to write them into your script. As a screenwriter you can still convey these ideas into your story. You just have to remember the golden rule of screenwriting when you do.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Never is this old adage more true than in a screenplay. Movies are full of action. From having your characters meet for a cup of coffee, to catching the city bus, to rolling around in bed, they are always doing things. Not only do these actions move your movie forward but they can help express character. Two birds with one stone. The trick is to find ways to build character into the action.

If we were to go back and rewrite our examples from above we can still show what was originally intended if we show instead of tell.

The alarm clock turns to seven am and rings. James pulls his pillow over his head. The cord dangles behind the alarm clock as it sails across the room.

Obviously James is not a morning person. Through his actions we learn not only does he have a hard time getting up in the morning, but he has a short temper too. Throwing your alarm clock in the morning is a bit extreme after all but it does wonders in revealing James’s character. Now think of how the audience would view him if we took this scene one step further and put an empty six pack at his bedside? Or what if there was an open biology textbook instead? What about both?

James leaves a tip at his table. He almost hurls as he walks past a waiter restocking the buffet with fresh sushi on his way out.

If we want to show James has filled his belly beyond capacity with raw fish, then we must give him a chance to express his discomfort. Almost losing his lunch on the way let’s everybody know he’s about to pop and see how he feels.

Too Much Description

Often new screenwriters tend to get carried away in their own imaginations. You can’t blame us. It’s our job to think of compelling charterers doing amazing things and we want to describe how awesome they are in the utmost detail so everybody can see what we see. But this is a trap because too much description can make your screenplay hard to read. Those little details add up and they increase your page count while making your script overly bloated. They also swell your action lines past the preferred 5 line maximum and create giant walls of black text on page that will turn off a lot of readers from ever giving your story a chance.

So keep your descriptions to the bare minimum. Ask yourself, do we really need to know the color of the coat your main character is wearing? Or the details of that ornate chandelier in the dining hall? If it isn’t important to your story then cut it out. Chances are if your script ever goes into production then the people in charge of wardrobe will do whatever they damn well please when it comes to costumes. The clothes your character  wears in the script won’t matter. At the same time you could go into great detail about the dining hall by describing every marble bust, stained glass window and glittering piece of silverware present. Or you could just describe the whole place as “luxurious” and convey the same mental image to the reader. I’m sure they can get a good picture of what the place should look like with just that single word and they, and your script, will thank you in the end.

I can’t stress this enough. So many new screenwriters go way overboard when it comes to setting description. At times it seems they wo’t be happy until the’ve listed every book on that “dusty old bookshelf crammed into corner under a flickering light that creates a mini strobe effect” that will never be interacted with or mentioned again. “It’s to set the mood they say.” No. You don’t set the mood with props. You set the mood through your story, characters, and dialogue, Nothing else will do.

Remember that the words you use have a powerful impact when it comes to your descriptions so make sure you use the right ones. After all, why write a bunch of lines to describe something when often a single word can do the work for you? When you can, avoid simple bland words and find more descriptive ones instead.

For example, say you have a chase scene in your love story. The main character is going back for their long lost lover whose boarded a train beginning to pull away from the station. You could simply write “Theodore runs through the crowd as Emily’s train begins to pull away.” Or you could ditch the running and say that “Theodore chases through the crowd.” It makes his pursuit sound more urgent. He’s catching something he could lose now. Or to make the pursuit sound more athletic say he “hurdles“. Or dartsrushesscampersjogszipsbounds, or tears instead. All these alternatives bring different visualizations to Theodore’s action.

All done with the change of a single word.

Because of this, a thesaurus is mandatory while writing. There’s really no excuse to use non descriptive language when there are plenty of online thesauri like thesaurus.com online for you to use. So bookmark one, keep it handy, and use it. Your scenes can only get better by doing so.

Too Much Action

Another major offender when it comes to too much telling are long winded action scenes.. By their very nature action scenes have a lot going on at once. Cars dodge incoming traffic, punches get thrown and blocked, grenades explode, and deft defying leap are made. Because so much is going on it’s perfectly understandable to see why they tend to get  overwritten. But remember that what may look great on screen is a slog to read through on the page. Imagine a gun fight in a script where every aimed shot, reload, and piece of cover taken was written out on the page. What should be a small and exciting piece of action instead becomes a manual of step by step instructions. I’ve read examples like this in scripts  and trust me, they’re no fun to get through.

A better way is to show what the scene looks like. Highlight one or two standout actionable moments, and then move on. For a gunfight you could just write that “a flurry of bullets whiz by” to show the battle is intense or write that the main character “fires and reloads with abandon” to show he is actively involved and not hiding for his life. If you give enough breadcrumbs the reader will find their way through your action. Slimming down your action will lower your page count, and make the script a faster more entertaining read.

There is however, one exception to writing sparse action sequences.

And that’s to make them count.

When I wrote my very first action scenes I fell into the trap of wanting to detail every single cock of the hammer and trigger pull within them. They were a pain to write and even more painful to read. Luckily I caught this mistake before subjecting anybody else to suffer through it and fixed it. I realized that if I made the action a part of the story it would carry more meaning and actually have a purpose instead of being adrenaline filler. For example, in my script I had someone’s thumb get broken in a fistfight early on (torn off really) because the missing thumb became an identifier for the character later in the third act. He just didn’t get hurt because it’s a fight and that’s what happens when you brawl. I made his pain matter. It added to my story and so was worth writing out.

The other reason you’d want to make your action more detailed is to build character. Your audience will learn WAY more about your characters by watching them in action than by sitting through pages of dialogue. Using the gunfight example again, let’s say your main character is totally inept when it comes to getting drawn into a firefight. (Most of us thankfully are) In that case you’d want to describe a fumbled reload or shot that goes well astray of the intended target. You may want to write about a second shot that goes even father off target than the first just to hammer the incompetency home. Doing so gives the action a ton of meaning because it’s no longer action. You’re a sly writer and have disguised it as character development.

They’ll never know. And that’s the key behind good screenwriting. To lead and entice with grace instead of pushing and pulling with force.

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