Avoid the Number One Mistake of Novice Screenwriters

If you learn nothing else from this blog, avoid the number one mistake screenwriters make all the time. Don’t tell a story.

It’s that simple. This may sound counter-intuitive but it’s not. When screenwriters focus on telling a story, they often dump information on the audience in the belief that the audience needs to know this information to understand the story.

Here are two problems with information dumps. First, they’re boring. If reading a dictionary for fun is your idea of entertainment, then information dumps will be great. For the rest of us who find straight facts boring and largely irrelevant, information dumps will have that same effect on you.

Rather than tell a compelling story, an information dump overwhelms the reader with background details. When the screenwriter focuses on providing information to the reader, he/she has characters who don’t act naturally and who speak unrealistically such as, “Say, Bob. You’ve been my friend for five years ever since we met in college where we both studied accounting. Can you pass the salt?”

When screenwriters try to “tell” a story, they’re often tempted to provide as much information as possible to the reader, not realizing that this information is presented in such a dry and irrelevant way that the reader will forget about those details five seconds after they read them.

Information dumps are boring. Having two characters meet in a restaurant and tell each other information they wouldn’t say naturally sounds awkward and yanks us out from believing in the story. Nobody wants to hear information. Everybody wants to hear a story.

A story is NOT information. A story is often the slow revelation of tiny bits of information that forces the reader/audience to infer what’s going on. That keeps the audience active in learning information about your story rather than passive in having that same information dumped in their laps all at once.

When you infer a story, you’re leaking interesting details a bit at a time though dialogue and action. Review the previous information dump about passing salt. Now imagine a rewritten version like this:


Two well-dressed men in their 30s sit in a booth. This is BOB and JOE.

JOE: Pass the salt.

BOB: Is that all you have to say? Pass the salt?

JOE: The answer is no.

BOB: Don’t tell me you want to work as an accountant, counting other people’s money, for the rest of your life.

Notice that instead of dumping information on the reader, this version slowly reveals information but withholds their meaning. Because we get incomplete information, this version is far more compelling than just an information dump. Are these two men planning something illegal? Why did one man mention accounting and how does this relate to the reason why they’re meeting?

Information dumps often rely heavily on dialogue with little or no action whatsoever. Telling compelling stories often relies on dialogue that hides the meaning of each character’s motive. In the above example, Bob is trying to convince Joe of something but Joe is trying to dismiss this idea. We don’t quite know what this idea might be, but we’re definitely more curious to learn more.

Instead of”telling” a story by dumping information at the reader, describe an interesting scene instead. To create an interesting scene, start with an intriguing attention-grabber that makes us want to know more.

Second, define the conflict. What does each character in a scene want? Don’t dump all the details on us right away. Make us work to infer this information, which will keep us active participants.

Once we know what the conflict is, the third part is seeing who will get their way and how. Will Bob convince Joe to listen to his plan or will Joe turn Bob down completely? You don’t want to dump information on the reader. You want to tease the reader with the LACK of information. This creates suspense.

So the next time you write a screenplay, focus less on telling your story and focus more on describing an interesting interaction. It’s a subtle distinction but a crucial one. Any time you catch yourself trying to give information to the audience, you’re probably “telling” a story and not describing an interesting interaction.

Remember, nobody wants information. Everyone wants a story and a story grabs people with an initial intriguing idea, lays out the conflict so we know what the battle is all about, and then finally tells us who wins and how they did it. Then it’s on to the next scene.

Dissect a favorite scene from your favorite movie and see if the scene dumps information on the audience or if it withholds information from the audience. If your favorite movie is a good one, chances are good the scene will tease out information slowly, and that’s the critical feature to writing a great screenplay. 

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