Show, don’t tell—the mantra of every screenwriting teacher. Film is a visual medium in which behavior reveals character. Novelists and memoirists have the luxury of exploring the internal lives of our characters. This can often be misunderstood, however, as “telling, not showing.” The novice can sometimes become so absorbed in the internal lives of his characters that the story collapses into burdensome exposition. The writer doles out more and more backstory in a desperate attempt to “catch up” the reader, so that the actual story can begin. An aspect of the craft lies in disguising or dramatizing exposition to keep the reader turning the page.
But showing is not relegated to film writing. Storytelling, regardless of the medium, is dependent upon showing and not telling.
Let’s examine the difference.
Showing is objective. It allows us to draw our own conclusions. Do we trust everything we hear? Hell no! Why should we trust some dude we’ve never met just because he filled a couple hundred pages with words?
Telling suggests opinion. Readers don’t care about opinions. They are not interested in psychologizing, intellectualizing, philosophizing, or conjecture. Readers are care about what is happening. Story is the series of beats that leads to our hero’s transformation. This is an infinitely broad canvas on which to paint, but it is a canvas, meaning that it does have borders, that there is a context for that story. And when the context breaks, it turns into something else: essay, manifesto, diatribe, or worse, therapy.
Showing is visceral, immediate. It pulls us into the experience. On the other hand, telling is playing God, dictating what one ought to think and feel about a given situation. It carries the stink of agenda, of the writer having his thumb on the scale. Telling is boring. It lacks energy and immediacy, and engenders distrust in the reader. As I write this, it occurs to me that I am telling you my opinion. This concerns me. How the hell does this guy know what he’s talking about?
Which brings me to my final point.
There are no rules. It either works or it doesn’t work. You are accountable to no one. You may write a story that is entirely in the mind, a completely non-narrative book or screenplay that defies all known laws of structure, and nobody will stop you. But after you step back from it a little bit and the dust settles, you may discover that you have shown us something new.
Learn more about marrying the wildness of your imagination to the rigor of structure in The 90-Day Screenplay workshops.