Don’t Tell a Story; Create a Mystery For Us to Solve

Here’s the most common mistake novices make in writing a screenplay. They try to tell a story.

While you might think telling a story is the whole purpose of a screenplay, it’s not. The purpose of a screenplay is to draw in an audience and let them figure out for themselves what’s going on.

When you tell a story, it’s tempting to throw a bunch of characters in a scene and have them talk about what they want in dialogue. However, remember dialogue (hearing) is one of the worst ways to provide information to the audience. If someone told you they wanted to lose weight, you might wonder if they’re serious or not. However, if you could watch that person wake up early every morning, stumble out of bed, and jog in the early morning, that visual action tells you for sure that that person wants to lose weight.

That’s the difference between telling and showing. Telling doesn’t let us experience the character’s desires. Showing lets us see and judge for ourselves.

When a screenwriter is trying to tell a story, they risk tossing characters in a scene that could be loaded with action, but it means nothing other than watching a bunch of people doing something. Action by itself can be engaging, but it’s far more important to make that action mean something emotionally by creating conflict that changes us emotionally

For example, there’s a scene in “Raya and the Last Dragon” where the hero, Raya, meets a baby who has teamed up with three monkeys to con people. This baby and the three monkeys can do incredible acrobatic moves to get away from Raya after they steal something from her. However, all this acrobatic action means nothing emotionally because we never know why this baby is stealing from others and why this baby is alone. As a result, this baby is nothing more than a one-dimensional character.

On the other hand there’s a scene in “Soul” where the hero must face his mother who has been urging him to stop pursuing music as a big and take a secure job as a music teacher in a school. Rather than fight, the hero finally admits to his mother that if he died today, he would feel like his life has been a failure. That makes his mother realize that she had been urging him to get a safe job without realizing how much music meant to him. That’s when the mother changes and the hero realizes how much his mother really did care for him all these years when he thought she was just trying to push him into a safe job he didn’t want.

Every scene should change the hero emotionally. You can’t tell the audience that a character has changed (although you can try and it will fall flat every time). Instead, you can only show us the character changing emotionally. To do that, we need a scene that doesn’t tell us this outcome but poses a mystery as we wonder what the outcome will be.

Scenes are most interesting when the audience has to figure out what’s going on and to do that, every scene needs to create a mystery. The mystery can be as simple as figuring out what’s going on or wondering what’s going to happen. But we need a definite outcome to look forward to and wonder if the hero will achieve that outcome or not.

Telling a story simply moves the plot along with no mystery. Showing lets us experience action and emotions along with the character.

So when writing scenes, focus on creating a mystery that tells the story indirectly. You don’t want to tell the story, you want to hint and show the story indirectly and let the audience figure out what’s happening so they stay emotionally and actively engaged.

When an audience is emotionally engaged in every scene, they’ll be emotionally engaged throughout the screenplay as well.

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