There’s More to Showing Than What You See

There’s a standard rule in writing where you must show the audience rather than tell them. In screenwriting, telling occurs when a character says something in dialogue like, “Bob, I know you’ve been laid off for five years and have been divorced for two years, but we’ve been high school friends and I’m telling you to stop drinking so much and start living.”

Novices often burden characters with clumsy exposition in dialogue, which sounds fake and blunts the screenplay’s impact by simply being boring.

A far better solution is to show characters in action. However, the mistake with showing is simply showing someone doing something. In the above example, instead of the character clumsily reciting position in dialogue, we might see a montage of a character getting laid off, getting divorced, hanging out in high school, and drinking at night.

All of this shows what the character has done, but it lacks a crucial ingredient: emotion. When we see people doing something, it means nothing if we don’t know why they’re doing something.

Watch any montage and it only makes sense when you’ve already emotionally invested in that character’s fate. Even then, movies rarely offer more than one montage simply because a montage is all show but no emotion.

What you want when you show a character is to include emotion as well to get us cheering or jeering against a character. Blake Snyder mentioned this in his “Save the Cat” book where we need to empathize with the hero through a “save the cat” moment, which can occur when the hero does something admirable such as helping others.

Notice that montages rarely evoke any kind of emotion. We’re simply watching characters without feeling their emotions. To feel their emotions, we have to see them struggle towards a goal.

The biggest mistake in many screenplays is that they’re empty of emotion. That’s because they resort to simply showing a scene rather than let us get emotionally involved in the outcome of that scene.

Imagine watching two people fighting in a boxing ring. We don’t know who those people are so just watching them fight is boring. Add in the emotional element and now we suddenly care. One way to add an emotional element is to give a character a goal and a reason for achieving that goal.

In the opening scene in “Rocky,” we see two boxers fighting and we don’t care about either one. Notice that the scene doesn’t just end there but goes a bit further showing one boxer head butting (cheating) against Rocky. Because this head butt is such a blatant foul, we now are emotionally invested in cheering for Rocky. His goal is to win the fight but now we understand his motivation.

Strip away motivation and a goal and we just see a stranger doing something. Add a goal and an emotion and that same action suddenly takes on greater significance and meaning.

Therefore you can’t just show characters in your screenplay doing something. You have to give us a reason to care ad to do that, you have to help us understand that character’s goal and their emotional motivation. Now we’ll care about a scene.

Rather than show short scenes, think about fewer, but longer scenes that let us delve into a character’s goal and motivation. Showing is never enough. Showing action plus motivation is what we really want to see.

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