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How To Apply The Ancient Screenwriting Advice Of “Show Not Tell”

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
July 14, 2010 6 comments
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The old chestnut “show don’t tell” is one of the most repeated pieces of screenwriting advice found in books, classes and seminars, and yet many aspiring scriptwriters still fail to put it into practice.

Film, as we all know, is an image driven medium, and yet it is surprising how many scripts we receive that fail to take this fully into account.

This results in a reliance on dialogue and is one of the worst things that can happen to a script. Pages and pages of characters talking about things rather than actually doing them.

In the long run, a screenwriter spends hours honing that great speech, when in fact it could be completely cut out and replaced with a single line of action.

So, for this post we thought our screenwriting advice should focus on a few examples of commonly written poor scenes by aspiring screenwriters, followed by examples of the same scenes applying “show don’t tell.”

The Best Tips For Writing A Screenplay Scene You’ll Find

Show Don’t Tell Example #1

Instead of having a character say, “Mike never gets up until at least midday.”

Write a previous scene showing Mike falling out of bed in the middle of the day.

Then we already know this information so it doesn’t have to be repeated by another character.

Show Don’t Tell Example #2

Instead of writing, “Clare stares at Jim. She’s so angry she could burst.”

Write, “Clare kicks Jim hard on the shin and walks away.”

This action alone says a million times more about Clare’s character as well as the fact that she’s angry.

Show Not Tell

Show Don’t Tell Example #3

Instead of writing, “Tom walks confidently into the hotel, a mischievous smile on his face.”

Write, “Tom breezes into the hotel, snatching a drink from the tray of a waiter as he passes.”

Overall, it’s all about coming up with detailed images that convey a character’s mood, emotion and personality through action rather than dialogue or bland description.

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We hope you got a lot out of these tips for writing a screenplay regarding dialogue. Think about the dialogue in your script and how a line could instead be turned into a small scene, and think about your description and how it can be enhanced by using vivid imagery. This is probably one of the best pieces of screenwriting advice you’ll ever here and is the key to show don’t tell screenwriting.

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6 Comments
  1. Nina Dyson says:

    Good advice. I’d like to know more about show don’t tell.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We have a book on dialogue that goes into this in detail in case you haven’t seen it: https://www.scriptreaderpro.com/screenplay-dialogue-book/

  2. Sophia says:

    Having too much dialogue and not showing characters actions is something I really struggle with so thank you so much for this. 🙂

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Sophia!

  3. Tsietsi Maledi says:

    Hi,how do I create a dialogue that shows action of character

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Hi Tsietsi, I’m not 100% sure what you mean. Dialogue reveals story, character, emotion etc. but actions show actions.

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