Showing vs. Telling

Sometimes the beginning of a movie needs to give the audience information about the story before the story even begins. “Star Wars” did this in a visually appealing way with text that slowly scrolled away. While simply stating background information can work, it’s not the most exciting way to learn anything about any story.

“Maleficent” stumbles over this problem by telling us the early history of Maleficent and then showing us the characters basically living out the story we just heard about. Just telling us information is boring. We really need to experience what information we need.

Whenever possible, avoid telling and focus on showing. Movies are emotional experiences so the more you let your audience feel as if they’re going through the same adventures like the characters on the screen, the more vivid and appealing your story will be. What would you rather see? X-Wing fighters getting shot down as the Death Star gets closer to blowing up the rebel base? Or would you rather see scrolling text tell us that just as Death Star got near the rebel base, Luke blew it up? Obviously showing is far more effective than telling.

In “Edge of Tomorrow,” the beginning of the story needs to set up the situation. Rather than just tell us that aliens have invaded and taken over Europe, we get to experience this information through a quick series of news reports. First we see grainy images of a strange asteroid crashing to Earth. Then we see other news stories about humans fighting the aliens but losing. We see a news map showing how the aliens have slowly conquered France while threatening England and Russia. Because the quick montage of news reports gradually tell us what happened, we learn crucial information while still feeling like we’re actually living through that experience. That’s a far more effective way to give us information while making us relive the events rather than simply state that information in scrolling text (“Star Wars”) or listening to a narrator tell us what’s going on “Maleficent”).

The reason why showing is more effective than telling is because showing engages us emotionally while telling does not. Show us, don’t tell us. What would you rather experience? Someone telling you about sex, or actually feeling the emotion of having sex? The answer to that question alone should tell you all you need to know about showing vs. telling in your screenplay.

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