The Screenwriter’s Toolbox: Show, Don’t Tell

Show, don’t tell.

This is a reoccurring part of any discussion regarding screenwriting. Well, at least a discussion concerning the more concrete building blocks of a screenplay’s structure. But what the hell does this statement actually mean?

Here’s the first thing you need to know: you don’t have to keep Show Don’t Tell at the back of your head for your first attempt at writing a movie. It helps you, in the long run, if you can, but it’s not a prerequisite to write your first screenplay. Once you’ve mastered the more basic formatting tools, and know how a script should appear on the page, you can pound out your story to your hearts delight and feel the triumph of putting the last punctuation mark on the final page. Now raise your fist to the ceiling with glee. You deserve it!

Here’s the second thing you need to know: your first draft will – without fail – be horrible. Sincerely bad. And I mean bad in a “You will look back at it in five years and hide your head in your hands and make snorting noises of derision” kind of way. No sweat. No, really, throw on another layer of deodorant and buckle down because this is where things get seriously fun.

Since thirdly: you’ve laid the foundation and put up the walls and hopefully the roof. So what’s left? The interiors, of course! The floors, the wall paper, the fixtures, the furniture and every last tiny little detail that will make your structure feel inviting, like a place a stranger would come into and go Hey, I think I’ll stick around for a while. This is what the second, the third, the fourth and so on drafts are for. See, if you only lay the foundation and put up some walls you miss out on making your creation into a home. And it must feel homey. Why? Because even if you can imagine what it will look like when fully decorated, the majority of people walking through the door into an empty shell of a house will not share that ability. In fact, they will most probably leave quickly. And, chances are, they will do so unimpressed.

Okay, ending this simile before it grows into an actual mini-essay on the pitfalls of interior decorating, I would like it to underline the importance of patience.

Because fourthly: It is pivotal that you allow yourself time to explore your story, to screw-up, to take wrong turns, to change your mind. The editing process is lined with nuggets of gold, but if you rush, or – God forbid – think that you don’t need to look for them because your script is donedonedone, then you’ll miss them. And your script will be all the poorer for it. And, believe it or not, this ties directly in with the statement that opened this post.

Show, don’t tell.

To show, and not tell, as a screenwriter, you must have patience. You cannot rush through your writing the way you might in that first glowing burst of inspiration that hopefully accompanies writing your first draft. Show Don’t Tell may come naturally to you, in which case I lift my hat and tip my head and mentally high five you. Or you may have to work at it. Fiercely. In which case I also lift my hat and tip my head and mentally high five you. Because if you’re working at it, it means that you’re being patient, and if you’ve reached the point of being patient with your writing that, to me, signals that you’re taking it seriously, which is all kinds of awesome.

So how, precisely, do you show and not tell?

I’m sure you know, but to be perfectly clear: a scene free of dialogue is showing the audience your story – its plot, character interaction, setting et al. while five pages of nothing but exposition heavy dialogue is telling the audience what would be much more interesting if shown.

However, quite possibly, the third option is preferable: neither show nor tell. You might be burdening your script with pages of unnecessary information. Perhaps you’ll serve the characters and plot by moving the information around, scratching the pages that are superfluous, but keeping what you find important in them by adding the information to a different scene altogether.

So, here’s some food for thought when you’re striving to Show and Not Tell:

  1. Too much dialogue? Scratch all dialogue (yes, all of it, you know you secretly want to) and look at your scene without it. Does the scene still work? What does it say about the characters, the character relationships, the plot and/or the world the story takes place in?
  2. Right perspective? Is the information you want to convey through your scene (regarding characters, relationships, plot, world) presented to the audience in the most effective way? Perhaps it shouldn’t come from the hero, but be more interesting if given by the villain?
  3. It’s all about the little details. No question-mark on this one because it really is all about the little details. The essence of the “show” is you, as a writer, making the right choices for the big and small revelations occurring throughout your script. Revelations dealing with – say it with me: characters, relationships, plot and world. And learning this skill takes practice. And practice takes patience.
  4. Read any scripts lately? The most failsafe way of learning how to show and not tell is to read scripts. Read and read and read. Find your favorites and read them ten times. Dissect them. Take note (seriously) of how they use show and how they use tell. The visual language versus the dialogue. See how the masters of the craft implement these tools and learn from them. They are the best teachers any budding screenwriter could ever ask for. And you can find them for free at!

Remember: be kind to yourself, never berate, belittle or despair. You’re amazing and you can do this! Find people you trust to give you good, solid, supportive, honest feedback. Be patient, always.

And keep an eye peeled for those inspiring nuggets of gold!

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