In writing, there’s a saying “Show, don’t tell.” In movies, you also want to follow this guideline to get the audience actively involved.
Go to any sporting event and you’re sure to find someone screaming their head off, caught up in the emotion of the game. Whether you like the team that this person is screaming for or not, you have to admit that he (or she) is actively involved in the game’s outcome. Anyone that emotionally involved is going to stay riveted to the action until it’s finally over.
That’s the grip you want your story to hold over the audience. So how do you create it?
The best technique is to let the audience discover facts for themselves. The worst technique is to tell the audience these same facts.
Watch a bad movie and chances are good the characters will state facts throughout the story such as the classic end where the villain explains to the hero why he’s doing so many bad deeds. You rarely want characters to explain their own motives. Instead, you want the audience to deduce why characters are behaving the way they do.
In “The Blind Side,” there’s a scene between Michael Oher and Sandra Bullock where Sandra Bullock is cleaning a room out for Michael and Michael says, “I’ve never had one of my own before.” Sandra Bullock responds, “One of your own rooms?” And then Michael says, “No, a bed.”
That statement coupled with Sandra Bullock’s reaction and our own realization gives us both the motivation of Michael Oher and Sandra Bullock in one quick instant. Because we’ve discovered this fact through our own experience, witnessing this event, we have both the facts we need and the emotional commitment to this fact.
Now compare this scene if it were rewritten poorly where Sandra Bullock is making up a room for Michael and Michael just says, “I’ve never had a bed of my own.” Not quite as powerful or memorable, is it? That’s because we’re simply being told something, and if you remember sitting in school, being lectured to means daydreaming, ignoring anything being said, and being emotionally distant.
When crafting scenes in your screenplay, play a game with the audience. Don’t just tell them what you want them to know, but tease them with the information and make them work at learning it. The more they can feel as if they’re learning these facts on their own by showing, not telling, the more they’ll remember the facts and the more emotional commitment they’ll have to your story.
Show, don’t tell, and let the audience learn for themselves to get emotionally involved just like those screaming fans at sporting events. Nobody needs to tell them the score or the action since they can see it for themselves, but imagine how muted their actions would be if someone just read them a play by play of the events. Not as emotional and not as actively involved, and that’s what you don’t want in telling your own story.