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“Show, Don’t Tell”: How To Stop Relying On Dialogue In A Screenplay

And Push The Story Forward Through Characters’ Actions Instead Of Words

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October 11, 2018 11 comments
show don't tell writing examples

“Show, Don’t Tell”: How To Turn a Talky Script Into a Visual One

When it comes to advice on how to write great script dialogue, the old chestnut “show, don’t tell” is one of the most oft-repeated out there. However, it can be deceptively hard to put it into practice.

In this post, you’ll learn how to finally master the “show, not tell” method. Here’s what we’ll be covering:

    • What “show, don’t tell” really means
    • “Show, not tell” examples from spec and pro screenplays
    • How to perform a “show, don’t tell” audit on your own script

    So let’s dive on in.

    What Does “Show, Don’t Tell” Actually Mean?

    show don't tell writing examples

    In its simplest form, “show, don’t tell” means letting your characters reveal their thoughts and emotions through images and actions rather than words.

    • The “tell” is the line of dialogue or a conversation. The writer tells the audience what the characters are thinking or feeling by what they say
    • The “show” is the visual image or action that replaces it. The writer shows the audience what the characters are thinking or feeling by what they do

    Aspiring screenwriters often spend hours honing pages and pages of dialogue, when in fact the whole conversation could be replaced by a single visual image. This is showing, not telling.

    Here are some “show, don’t tell” examples:

    • Taking a character’s line of dialogue (tell) and replacing it with a look (show)
    • Taking a monologue (tell) and replacing it with an action (show)
    • Taking a whole conversation (tell) and replacing it with a visual scene (show)

    Okay, But What’s So Great About The “Show, Not Tell” Method?

    show don't tell writing examples

    The natural inclination among many new and aspiring screenwriters is to let their characters talk and talk as much as they want. This stems from the fact that when you watch a movie it can seem like this is all it is: characters talking.

    However, letting characters indulge in conversations that don’t need to be had results in a happy-go-lucky, conflict-free style of dialogue known as “shooting the breeze.” Precious screenplay real estate is wasted as characters sit around having pleasant conversations about things that don’t really matter.

    Not only does this almost always result in dialogue-heavy scripts, but also in conversations that feel wooden and “on-the-nose.” This is because attempting to move the narrative forward primarily through dialogue feels forced.

    Characters end up talking a lot about how they feel, revealing information through Q&A sessions and explaining plot developments, which feels unrealistic because it’s not how people interact in real life.

    This is where “show, don’t tell” comes in. Once you master this method, it will be that much easier to see where to cut unnecessary dialogue and replace with visual images and actions.

    And this is usually a good thing, as film is, as you know, a visual medium in which the primary way we learn about characters is through what they do rather than what they say. It’s a character’s actions that clue us in on who they are and what they want, not their words.

    Examples Of Telling Not Showing From Spec Screenplays

    show don't tell writing examples

    Now let’s take a look at two examples from specs in which the writer has chosen to relay information through dialogue instead of visually.

    Each example is followed by some “show, not tell” ideas on how the writer could have approached the scene by replacing dialogue with action.

    Example #1: The Interview

    show don't tell writing examples

    How this scene could apply the “show, not tell” method

    In this scene, the writer is relying on dialogue to get across the fact that Claire didn’t get the job. A better, more cinematic approach, would be to actually show Claire at the interview and failing miserably.

    If her refusal to dress up for interviews is an issue, maybe we could see her waiting to be called in, surrounded by more dressed-up women. Maybe there could be something about the job that calls for a more extravagant dress code, but Claire’s sitting there wearing the most boring clothes imaginable.

    Then we could CUT TO Claire arriving home and walking straight past Tammy to her bedroom. But we’d understand why because we’ve seen why. Or maybe we see Claire in the interview and one look from the boss as she sits down says it all.

    Then CUT TO a different visual “reaction scene”—i.e. showing us Claire’s reaction to not getting the job. An obvious example could have her leave the building and scream on the busy sidewalk, making people stop and stare.

    Any of these “show, don’t tell” ideas would greatly improve the scene because they’d be visually showing Claire actively trying to get a job and failing. They’d show an active protagonist rather than a passive one. And they’d show us her reaction, rather than telling us how she’s feeling.

    show don't tell writing examples

    Example #2: The Breakup

    show don't tell writing examples

    show don't tell writing examples

    How this scene could apply the “show, not tell” method

    This scene is another great example of characters talking about things that have already happened in the past rather than showing them actually doing them in the present (or perhaps in Flashback.)

    We meet Eric’s ex, Jill, and learn he’s still bitter about being dumped by her. A much more interesting version of this, however, using the “show, not tell” method, would actually show him getting dumped.

    Admittedly, the “boy gets dumped” scene isn’t overly original in itself, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t are a million different ways you can make it original. Seeing Eric get dumped by Jill would automatically make the audience care for him in a way they’d find harder just by hearing about it.

    They actually would see it, and therefore feel it. Likewise, if the writer actually showed Eric avoiding Jill’s calls and sending his roommate to answer the door, they’d get a much better idea of his flaw because it’d be represented visually, rather than just hearing about it.

    Again, there are multiple comedic, dramatic and pathetic situations the writer could get Eric into simply by deciding to show him indulging in his flaw, rather than have him and his ex-girlfriend talk about it.

    “Show, Don’t Tell” Examples From Pro Screenplays

    show don't tell writing examples

    Now let’s take a look at two “show, not tell” examples from professional scripts in which the writer relays information through visual images rather than film dialogue.

    This time each example is followed by some of the ways a novice writer might have approached the scene by relying on dialogue over action, to give you an idea of what not to do.

    Example #3: La La Land

    show don't tell writing examples

    Why the “show, don’t tell” method works

    If Damien Chazelle had written this scene from La La Land while forgetting to “show, not tell,” he’d have placed Sebastian somewhere random, engaged in a conflict-free conversation with a friend.

    Sebastian would talk about how he’s living in a crappy apartment in the Valley, and maybe that he gets a little lonely sometimes. And his friend might ask how his piano playing’s going and suggest he find himself a girlfriend.

    Instead, Chazelle gets all of this information across visually by placing us with Sebastian in his one-bed apartment. When we see him struggle with the faulty lock, eat an old Chinese takeout and play a near-perfect Thelonious Monk solo, etc. this all tells us 100x more about Sebastian than if we’d heard about it all during a conversation.

    show don't tell writing examples

    Example #4: The Girl on the Train

    show don't tell writing examples

    show don't tell writing examples

    show don't tell writing examples

    Why the “show, don’t tell” method works

    If Erin Wilson had approached this scene from The Girl On the Train through telling rather than showing, it would likely show Rachel talking to a friend somewhere, like in a coffee shop or in her apartment.

    We would hear Rachel talk about the cute baby she met on the train, and how the mom moved away when she realized she was drunk. Then the friend would advise Rachel to do something about her drinking, like go to an AA meeting, and so on.

    Instead, Wilson employs the “show, don’t tell” method by visually reinforcing one of Rachel’s flaws (that she’s an alcoholic) by making her drunk in a public and potentially awkward situation—on a train. She is the “girl on a train” after all.

    At the same time, by showing Rachel interact with the baby, we get a much better idea of how she yearns to be a mother, and would probably make a good one too. This is far more effective than if she’d just said “I’d like to be a mom someday,” or been told by a friend “You know, you’d make a great mother.”

    How To Perform a “Show, Don’t Tell” Audit On Your Script

    show don't tell writing examples

    A good way to learn how to “show, don’t tell” is to always start by thinking, What’s the purpose of this scene? What do I want to show the audience?

    In the case of Example #1, it’s to reveal that Claire didn’t get the job. So then you could think, What’s the most interesting and visual way to show she didn’t get it?

    Having her come home and talk about it with her roommate is probably the least interesting way of achieving this. So brainstorm and think in terms of visual scenes that will reveal information in an interesting way.

    In Example #2, the writer wants to reveal to the audience the fact Eric and Jill used to date and he’s still sore about it. Therefore a little brainstorming on all the different ways we could see Eric get dumped would be certain to bring up some much more interesting alternatives to hearing about it in a conversation.

    Go through every conversation in the script and do the following:

    • Ask yourself what you’re trying to reveal to the audience. See where this information could be revealed by characters doing things rather than talking about them
    • Look out for instances of carefree “shooting the breeze” conversations. In most cases, if characters are talking and there isn’t much pressure being put on any of them—they’re not being made to feel uncomfortable in any way and nothing much is at stake—then it generally means the dialogue can be cut in favor of a visual

    Once you begin to approach scenes from a “show, don’t tell” perspective instead of a dialogue perspective, a ton of possibilities arise for much more interesting scenes, and ultimately a much more interesting screenplay.

    How To “Show, Not Tell”: Conclusion

    show don't tell writing examples

    This isn’t to say that you’ll want to apply the “show, don’t tell” rule to every single scene.

    The movie, The Way, Way Back, for example, opens on a great dialogue-only scene between the teenage protagonist, Duncan, and his mean-spirited step-father, Trent. Pulp Fiction opens on a long conversation between inept gangsters, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. The Social Network opens on an even longer conversation as Mark Zuckerberg gets dumped by his girlfriend, Erica.

    In other words, it’s perfectly fine to drive a scene through dialogue but, as in the above “show, not tell” examples, it should be a stylistic choice. The dialogue in these examples is not only first class, but it’s also kept to a minimum during the rest of the film.

    • We don’t go on to hear how Duncan lost his inhibitions that summer. We see it visually represented by moments like him breakdancing at the waterpark
    • We don’t hear how crazy Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are. We see it for ourselves when they hold up the diner
    • We don’t hear how Zuckerberg still wants to be friends with Erica. We see his desperation as he constantly refreshes his Facebook friend request to her

    show don't tell writing examplesIn other words, think of the advice to “show, don’t tell” as a best practice, but one that can be reversed occasionally when you really want to show off your dialogue writing chops.

    We discuss the importance of both driving a scene with dialogue and of the “show, don’t tell” method in our book “Master Screenplay Dialogue: The Ultimate Practical Guide On How To Write Dialogue Like The Pros.”

    “Show, don’t tell” might be an important technique to master but, as we say in the book, learning how to write dialogue between two characters that jumps off the page is just as important.

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    We hope you got a lot out of our take on how to “show, don’t tell.” How do you approach scenes when you want to “show, not tell”? Do you have any other techniques you use to stop relying on dialogue in a scene? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

    More posts on how to write good dialogue…

    show don't tell writing examplesHOW TO WRITE SCRIPT DIALOGUE: The Ultimate Screenplay Dialogue Audit To Ensure Your Characters Are Never “Just Talking”

     

    show don't tell writing examplesHOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE BETWEEN TWO CHARACTERS: THE ULTIMATE THEORY HACK

     
     

    show don't tell writing examplesHOW TO WRITE COMEDY SCRIPTS WITH LOL DIALOGUE

     
     
     

    show don't tell writing examplesHOW TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY FOR A MOVIE: A PRACTICAL STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE

     
     

    show don't tell writing examplesTHE SIMPLE TRICK TO MAKE YOUR DIALOGUE SOUND LIKE REAL MOVIE DIALOGUE

     
     

    show don't tell writing examplesHOW TO WRITE A PHONE CONVERSATION IN A SCREENPLAY

     
     
     

    show don't tell writing examplesGET THE BOOK “Master Screenplay Dialogue: The Ultimate Practical Guide On How To Write Dialogue Like The Pros”

     
     
     

    11 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.

    4. Daniel Davison says:

      I finally understood what show don’t tell actually means when it comes to screenwriting. Thanks for these great examples.

    5. Jesse says:

      A really good script to see the show don’t tell method is a QUIET PLACE. This screenplay brings the show don’t tell approach to the next level.

    6. Austin says:

      One of my favorite examples of “show don’t tell” is the movie Drive. The writer basically stripped any unneeded dialogue and the result is amazing in my opinion. Good acting had a lot to do with it as well tho.

    7. Flora2 says:

      Actually I think that in Example #1 the dialogue option is better than the “cinematic” show examples. Why? In short, because the dialogue reveals more than the showing scenes. If you just show that the protagonist fails the interview, doesn’t fit among the other applicants, leaves the buiding in a gloomy mood or she screams in frustration (is it a comedy?) – then you got some info only about the protagonist. But if you choose the dialogue, you will also learn something about 1./ the protagonist and her roommate’s relations (honest? cynical? confrontational?); 2./ her roommate’s personality (many clues) 3./the protagonist’s personality according to her statement about how she despises sexism and prefers professionalism (at least that’s what she says – she can lie, of course).
      Generally, I think, when “show, don’t tell” topics are discussed, usually it’s not mentioned or emphasized that the “tell” function of dialogues can be deceiving: what the characters tell us could be lies (or simply not true; or self-deception). Personally I think that if the dialogue lies /deceives the audience and the other characters, then the dialogue is more a “show” than a “tell” because the spoken words can mean the exact opposite. This makes dialogues much more interesting and “show”-functional.
      But of course, if you had articles about this already, I apologize for bringing it up – this is the first article I found from you, so I might have missed many of your other contents.

      1. Script Reader Pro says:

        Good point – having Tammy talk to her friends in example #1 may reveal their characters too. The problem is many writers rely on this kind of dialogue (and don’t reveal character’s personalities either) rather than showing the protagonist in action. The main character is constantly talking and not doing.

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