There’s an old adage in screenwriting — show, don’t tell.
If there’s a key character trait, event, or setting that the audience needs to know about, provide that information visually.
- Humans are visual — we learn things more quickly and readily by seeing.
- Showing is quicker than telling — after all, a picture says a thousand words right? Screen time is precious. The quicker you can convey the necessary information, the better.
Show, don’t tell is an important rule for the screenwriter to follow. Each of the following scenarios, presents different challenges:
Usually the show, don’t tell rule means that you should eliminate clunky, artificial, “on the nose” dialogue that tells us what a character is feeling in a direct way. Instead, try to write action that shows us.
In ABC’s Flash Forward last night, Mark (Joseph Feinnes), and his wife Olivia (Sonya Walger), each say to each other: “I trust you.” However, when Olivia exits moments later, Mark throws something across the room. He doesn’t trust her. And by allowing his his actions to speak louder than his words, the scene feel more authentic.
It was a prime example of show, don’t tell and is one of the seven ways to ensure your scenes are lean and mean that I’ve previously covered.
If you’re describing something on screen, that ensures you’re showing and not telling, right? Well, not necessarily.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of describing something, without telling us how that translates to what we see on screen. An example of BAD writing:
Marlene exits the elevator overwhelmed with thoughts of her heated conversation that morning with Chad.
That may work in a novel, but what the heck am I seeing on screen? Does she wonder around like a zombie? Does she clench her fists? Do tears well up in her eyes? As much as possible try to write description that allows us to divine a character’s emotions from what we see.
(Note: Be careful not to get too detailed with your actions. Capture the moment succinctly, and in a way that doesn’t lock the actor and director in a box of specificity. More on this another time…)
Similarly, when describing settings, don’t skimp on the description. An example of BAD or limited writing:
Van Helsing approaches a spooky castle.
Spooky, on its own, doesn’t tell us too much. What makes it spooky? Do ghosts of dead monkeys soar overhead? Does blood drip down the stone walls? Does a hollow-faced girl with a missing arm and red eyes glare at him from the tower? Make sure to paint the appropriate word pictures (and again, don’t get lost describing every little detail).
While using extensive flashbacks in your script is frowned upon (they tend to slow down the pacing and momentum of your story) it’s a much better option than burdening your script with pages and pages of dialogue to accomplish the same thing.
However, if you’re considering a flashback scene, first ask yourself a few questions:
- Is it necessary?
If I have a character who’s a 50 year old drug addict and the story deals with his recovery and redemption, do I really need to show the audience the scene where he smokes his first joint? If the scene isn’t offering new information, or surprising revelations, then it should probably be scrapped.
- Is it going to take less time to tell?
Don’t create an elaborate flashback just for some tiny piece of information you need to get across. A clever single line of dialogue can do the same thing. Of course, it depends on the story you’re trying to tell, but having a line like: “My father was some kind of war hero” — is probably more efficient than showing a multi-million dollar sequence where the protagonist’s father storms the beaches of Normandy and destroys three Nazi bunkers.
- Is it going to break the fictive spell of my movie?
Since we live in linear time, a flashback has the potential to remove a viewer’s suspension of disbelief.
- Is it going to make my movie feel disjointed?
Jumping around in time can be jarring to an audience. Care must be taken to orient the audience as quickly as possible following a flashback. You don’t want the viewer (or more importantly, the script reader) to feel like your story is hard to follow.
- Is it funny?
Sometimes it’s all about the laugh. Some of the best scenes in Austin Powers III — Goldmember, were the flashback scenes with the young Austin Powers and Dr. Evil. If there’s a hysterical gag that requires a flashback and fits within the construct of your storytelling objective — go for it!
What About Voiceovers Chump?
Voiceover narration, by definition, is telling, not showing, and is usually considered the hallmark of lazy writing. However, voiceover narration has been handled to great effect in many movies and is therefore a topic of discussion for another time, along with other instances where it’s okay to break the rule…