Telling vs. Showing

A movie tells a story visually. Where many movies fail is when they forget this basic idea and rely too much on telling rather than showing. Here’s how to recognize this problem in your own screenplay.

“The Shining” is considered a classic horror film that relies less on bloody action and more on horror, which is basically the sudden realization or something less than pleasant.

In the original release, “The Shining” had a final scene where the mother and son are in a hospital and the police tell them that they couldn’t find Jack Nicholson’s body anywhere on the hotel property. A few days after the studios released “The Shining,” Stanley Kubrick and the studios requested that all theaters send back the final reel so they could send them a replacement with this final scene cut out.

The reason for cutting out this final scene is mostly because it just has characters talking without anything new or interesting happening. Rather than any conflict between characters, it’s just a scene where two characters talk solely to give information to the audience. Any time your characters are talking for no other reason than to tell the audience something, your script is in trouble. Get rid of it.

This is the common problem with too many villains in movies. At the end when the villain has the hero trapped, the villain goes into a long lecture on what he’s doing and why. This is solely for the audience’s benefit and it’s another example of telling and not showing.

We don’t really care to hear the villain explaining everything to the hero. We just want to see action, especially near the end of the movie. In “Die Hard,” the head terrorist doesn’t explain to Bruce Willis why he did what he did because throughout the movie, we saw what he did and why. As a result, “Die Hard” doesn’t bog down with this typical and over-used “villain explains everything to the hero” scene.

Show, don’t tell. Imagine your movie with the sound turned off. Could someone figure out what the story is about? If not, then you’re relying too much on telling and not enough on showing.

Remember, movies are a visual medium. Show first and tell later. Even better, don’t tell anyone anything. Let the audience see and experience events and learn for themselves. It will engage the audience more and give them an emotional investment in a movie rather than just feeling like passive spectators.

People don’t want movies to see something exciting. People watch movies so they can feel like they’re part of the movie too. When your audience feels like part of your movie and feels that time just flew by, then you’ll know that you succeeded as a screenwriter.

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