Show, don’t tell is one of the classic adages about writing. But what does it really mean? Ross Brown explains how what the character does defines them more powerfully than what they say.
Ross Brown is the Program Director for the MFA in Writing & Contemporary Media at Antioch University, Santa Barbara. He began his writing career on NBC’s award-winning comedy The Cosby Show and went on to write, produce and create comedies for ABC, CBS and The WB. He is the author of the book Create Your Own TV Series for the Internet.
Show, don’t tell. It’s one of the classic adages about writing. And yet I find many of my students aren’t clear what it means or how to achieve it in their work. Does it mean writing more description? Am I supposed to throw in gratuitous action scenes?
No. “Showing” means several things. It means actively dramatizing character traits rather than merely writing them in the description of the character or flatly stating the character trait in dialogue. It means using strong, active verbs in your descriptions. It means externalizing the internal, finding a way to give the audience a window into what your characters are thinking and feeling through their actions and the decisions they make, rather than having the character just come out and say what they are thinking – which is boring and anti-dramatic. Let’s take each of these one at a time and look at them in more detail.
Dramatizing character traits.
You can craft artfully worded character descriptions filled with sly humor and provocative language all you want, but you can never escape this fundamental truth: the audience will never get a copy of your script to read. The only way a film can communicate character is through what the characters say, what they do, and what others say about them or do in response to them. And in most cases, what the character does defines them more powerfully than what they say.
Let’s start with an example of action revealing character. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes (Francis Mc Dormand) is furious that the local police have shown little interest in finding the man who raped and killed her daughter. So she purchases space on three gigantic billboards calling out the local police for their indifference. That is action that reveals character. It says Mildred will not back down; that she will not be silenced. She speaks truth to power, and damn the consequences.
Writer/director Martin McDonagh knows this action vividly reveals the heart of his character and his drama, so he puts it front and center. Mildred could have done other things – taken out ads in the newspaper, marched up and down Main Street with a placard, or gone into the police department to deliver a big speech about how they haven’t heard the last of her. But none of those actions would be as dynamic and memorable (and visual) as the billboards.
Another example: If I mentioned the movie When Harry Met Sally, ninety percent of you would immediately think of the same scene from the movie – the one where Sally fakes an orgasm in the deli. Nora Ephron, the film’s screenwriter, is rightfully considered a master of dialogue. And this scene, like much of the movie, is filled with razor-sharp lines. But none of them is as memorable as Meg Ryan performing that over-the-top, male fantasy of a female orgasm. Action speaks louder than words – that’s a big part of what show don’t tell means.
Strong, active verbs in your scene descriptions.
Verbs are the screenwriter’s best friend. Why? Because they are the action words. They’re the ones that help the reader of a script translate words to visuals and SEE an imaginary movie on the invisible silver screen in their head.
Here’s an example of a perfectly functional – but bland – stage direction:
INT. JOE’S APARTMENT – NIGHT
Joe enters, crosses to the couch and takes a seat. He is exhausted after a long shift at work.
Now let’s replace the weak verbs with strong, active ones:
INT. JOE’S APARTMENT – NIGHT
Joe trudges in, drops his keys on the floor, collapses on the couch.
Better, right? Trudges paints a more vivid picture than enters and crosses. Same for collapses rather than takes a seat. And drops his keys on the floor says he’s too tired to care or make an effort. All of which make He is exhausted after a long shift at work unnecessary as we already get that from the stronger verbs.
Externalizing the internal.
This is the heart of show, don’t tell – finding ways to reveal the internal thoughts and feelings of your characters via action. Let’s examine the final scene of The Big Sick (written by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani) as an excellent example of show, don’t tell. SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to reveal the ending of the film. But hey, it’s a rom-com, so you already know the ending – they get past the big roadblock in their relationship and end up together. The fun (and the writing challenge) is in how they come together.
In The Big Sick the big roadblock to the relationship is cultural – Kumail is Pakastani, his family expects him to submit to an arranged marriage to a Pakastani girl. He has hidden this from Emily and hidden his love for her from his family. When Emily discovers the truth, she feels betrayed and the relationship teeters on the brink. Kumail apologizes but to no avail. It looks like the relationship is toast, and Kumail moves from Chicago to New York to pursue his stand-up career.
At a purely functional level, what needs to happen next in the story is for Emily to realize that even though she feels betrayed, she and Kumail are in love and truly meant for each other. She must go to New York and tell him this so they can live happily ever after. The writing problem is that a big wordy speech where Emily says all these thoughts is clumsy and boring – and bad writing. So how can you possibly say all these things through action and subtext rather than on the nose dialogue?
Gordon and Nanjiani deliver an ingenuous solution to the problem. Emily shows up in NYC and interrupts Kumail’s stand-up act with an enthusiastic “Woo-hoo!” – just as she did when they first met in a Chicago comedy club. She insists she isn’t heckling, just complimenting him. Here’s the rest of the scene:
Well see that's a common misconception.
Heckling doesn't have to be negative.
So if I was like, oh my god, you're
amazing in bed! That would be a heckle?
Yeah, and now you're getting more laughs
than me, and I don't like that. Do you
want to come up, do my job? Are you from
out of town, m'am?
Ooh, Windy City. And what brings you to
I’m here to see someone.
And have you seen him? Or her, I mean
I don’t know what your deal is.
Yeah, I've seen him.
They smile at each other.
That, my friends, is show, don’t tell.
We know she forgives him. She came to New York and found him.
We know she loves him. She remembers the moment they met as fondly as he does.
We know they will live happily ever after. Yeah, I’ve seen him and all it implies says that.
Emily doesn’t tell him she loves him. She shows him that. The scene dramatizes that, and does so elegantly. No, it’s not an “action” scene in the shoot-em-up sense. But the action Emily takes – going to New York and seeking out Kumail – speaks louder than any big speech could.
Show, don’t tell. Or to put it another way (in well-deserved caps):
DRAMATIZE, DON’T EXPLAIN
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