Write Stronger Scenes Through Showing, Not Talking

In every scene, characters fight each other. This fight isn’t always about anger but more about changing the mind of another character. Typically, characters use dialogue as weapons against each other but words are never enough. Sometimes it’s better to show something instead.

In “Men in Black,” Tommy Lee Jones is trying to recruit Will Smith to join him in the Men in Black organization. So Will Smith shows up at a strange interview that he doesn’t quite know understand. After taking all of these tests, Tommy Lee Jones pulls Will Smith aside and explains to him about the Men in Black organization and how it got started by showing Will Smith a booklet containing pictures.

Will Smith looks at the pictures of an alien and is unconvinced. When Will Smith sees a picture of discs being mounted on towers and learns that they’re really flying saucers, he’s even more unconvinced that Tommy Lee Jones knows what he’s talking about. Finally, Will Smith asks to be shown the exit since he’s not convinced to join the Men in Black organization.

Instead of arguing, Tommy Lee Jones simply asks Will Smith if he would like a cup of coffee. Will Smith declines so Tommy Lee Jones pushes open a door to a break room so Will Smith (and the audience) can see several aliens chatting and drinking coffee. Tommy Lee Jones casually chats with them, grabs a cup of coffee, and steps back into the hallway with Will Smith.

By showing Will Smith a bunch of moving and talking aliens right before his eyes, Tommy Lee Jones is showing proof that aliens are real, which Will Smith had rejected by looking at a booklet that Tommy Lee Jones had shown him earlier. Showing is effective because it says something without saying it. When we see it, we learn, along with another character, what that message is really all about. Showing delivers a message far stronger than any dialogue could ever do.

In “The King’s Speech,” Albert, the Duke of York, will soon become king but he stutters, which makes giving public speeches extremely painful and embarrassing for him. So Albert goes to an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel. Albert doesn’t believe Lionel can help him while Lionel tries to show him that he can help him by having read out loud.

Albert tries to read the text out loud and stutters horribly. Then Lionel records his voice on a vinyl record while putting headphones on Albert as he reads. The loud music through the headphones makes it nearly impossible for Albert to hear himself as he speaks. Then Albert recites the text as Lionel records him.

Frustrated by the loud music in the head phones, Albert finally gives up and decides that Lionel can’t help him after all. Lionel hands him the record of his recording and lets him leave.

What the above scene shows at the end is Lionel giving Albert the recording of him talking. Only until the next scene do we finally learn what Lionel actually recorded, which was Albert speaking perfectly without a stutter. Hearing himself speak without a stutter shocks Albert (and the audience) because it shows that Lionel can teach Albert to speak without a stutter.

Everything Lionel said wasn’t enough to convince Albert that he could help him. Only until he recorded Albert speaking flawlessly was Lionel able to convince Albert that Lionel could help him.

When you show something rather than say it, showing makes a powerful emotional impact because we (as the audience) learn the revelation at the same time as one of the characters. Because we share that moment together, we’re more emotionally engaged with that character through that shared revelation.

When writing your own screenplay, look for ways characters can say what they want without actually saying it. Have them show something that makes their point. This will be a far more effective way to tell a story than mere dialogue could ever do.

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