Telling vs. Showing

In the world of fiction, writers are always urged to “show,” not “tell.” Showing lets the reader experience action through the thoughts and feelings of a character. Telling simply has the narrator explain what’s going on, completely empty of any emotion. This is how to “tell” a story:

Bob knew the area well. He once lived in this neighborhood and played on the same street. His old house was just around the corner.

This is how to “show” this same scene:

Bob shivered. The gravel road crunched under his feet as his eyes focused on the yellow house on the corner. Home, he thought. Or at least what’s left of it.

Notice that “showing” reveals both the action in the scene and the emotion of the character. Movies are no different. Every scene must not only show you what’s happening but also reveal emotion. In fiction, it’s easy to describe a character’s thoughts and feelings. In a screenplay, you can only do this by showing what a character does and let the audience infer the character’s emotions. To do this in every scene, you must define a goal for the character, the expected result, and the current state of the character’s emotion.

If a character doesn’t have a goal in a scene, then that scene is pointless. In bad movies, scenes exist solely to show action or to give information about the story. In “King Arthur” or the latest “Transformers” movie, you can find plenty of scenes that exist only to give exposition about the story. Because the scene has no other purpose than to tell the audience something important about the story, those scenes are boring no matter how much action it might show.

Besides a goal, a scene also needs the character to have some type of expectation. More importantly, the audience must know those expectations. That’s because every scene is interesting only when those expectations are shattered.┬áIn “Legally Blonde,” there’s an early scene where the hero meets her boyfriend for dinner. Her expectation is that her boyfriend will propose. Instead, he dumps her.

Shattering expectations makes a scene interesting because it makes us want to constantly know what happens next. If a scene just tells us information, there’s no compelling reason to see what happens next.

Finally, every scene must reveal emotion and to show emotion in a screenplay, the character’s have to react to what’s going on around them. Then we as the audience can infer what the character must be feeling because we’re feeling it too. Smart directors emphasize the emotion of a scene through angles and music. In “Kill Bill, volume 1,” the hero is at her wedding and the villain has showed up unexpectedly. They slowly walk towards each other like gunslingers, even though the hero and villain aren’t fighting – yet. The tension in the scene reveals the emotion of the characters. Although they appear cordial, their actions show otherwise.

This contradiction makes the scene come alive because what we see isn’t what’s really happening. The scene looks like a cordial meeting between friends, but their body language reveals they’re wary of each other. Then we find out why.

Watch any scene form “King Arthur” or “Transformers: the Last Knight” to see plenty of bad scenes where the character has no goal in a scene, no expectation, and/or no emotion. The characters just look like cardboard figures running around with no purpose or point.

Make a scene with:

  • A goal for the character
  • An expectation for the character
  • An emotion for the character

Do this and your scenes will “show,” not “tell” your story as a movie.

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