Meet the Reader: “Wait, Wait—Don’t Tell Me”

               INT. SUPERMARKET --- DAY

               A man named JOE SMITH (45, but looks 22), a former CIA agent
               who now works as a substitute teacher, stands at the end of a
               long checkout line. Although he appears calm on the surface,
               underneath he is boiling with rage because he has just
               realized that the man at the head of the line, although
               disguised as a telephone repairman, is actually LUCAS DRAGO,
               the notorious criminal mastermind that cost Joe his job by
               kidnapping the President's bijon frise and framing Joe for
               the crime. Remembering how painful it was to be betrayed by
               the man that had been his best friend since kindergarten, Joe
               begins plotting his revenge…

What’s wrong with this scene? If you answered, “The writer is telling us a lot of stuff that will never appear on screen,” you’re right. One of the biggest mistakes that rookie screenwriters make is that they include a lot of important information in the description passages of the script, but then fail to dramatize that information in a way that will communicate it to the audience. If the scene above was ever shot, all we would see on screen is a calm young man standing in a line.

Remember, screenwriting is a dramatic medium, not a literary one. In novels and short stories, you can pen a backstory or describe what a character is thinking or feeling and it will have the same impact on the reader as an action scene does. But on film, only the things that physically play out on screen or that a character says aloud will register with the audience. Unless you plan to pass out copies of the script to everyone that comes to see the movie, then everything else will be lost. If you want to make a point in a movie, then you must dramatize it – present it on screen using a combination of images, action, and dialogue. If we can’t see it or hear it, then simply telling it to us is a complete waste of time.

As a handy reference guide, here is a list of things you should never tell us in a screenplay:

  • Anything concerning a character’s interior life – what the character is thinking or feeling; what he/she knows, realizes, or comes to understand. To express ideas or emotions, invent appropriate behavior that expresses those feelings or thought processes or give the character someone to talk to so that he/she can verbalize their ideas and/or emotions (hey, that’s what the sidekick was invented for).
  • Don’t tell us what a character is not. Don’t tell us that a character looks one age but is actually another (if a character looks 25, then I’m going to assume he/she is 25, not 30 or 42 or 58) – especially if it’s not a key part of the plot (if it is, then make a point of it as soon as we meet the character (“How old is Bob?” “He’s forty-two.” “Really? He doesn’t look a day over twenty-five.” “He works out and eats lots of yogurt.”) Don’t tell us what a character is usually like if it is different than how they appear, especially if it’s the first time we’re meeting them (“Meet Daphne – normally calm and collected, today she is frazzled and frantic.” If your character is meant to be generally placid, then introduce them handling a chaotic situation with grace and ease. If your character is meant to be harried, then show him/her freaking out over something miniscule. Because no matter what the script says, it’s how I first see them that is going to determine how I consider them for the rest of the piece). Likewise, don’t tell us what a character used to be like if it’s different from how he/she is now (“Mario used to be happy-go-lucky, but since the loss of his wife has become depressed and morose”) – if I see someone that looks mopey, I’m going to assume he/she has always been mopey. If that change in personality is a plot point (“He hasn’t been the same since his wife died”) then you have to express that in some concrete way (through dialogue, a flashback, etc.) so that this is clear to us.
  • Don’t tell us what the relationship between two characters is (“George and Gracie stand side by side in an elevator. They are deeply in love and have been for five years.”) All we’re going to see is a man and a woman standing in a box. If you want us to know they love each other, show them holding hands or kissing or acting out their favorite Aerosmith song.
  • Don’t tell us that there has been a major time shift from one scene to another (“It is five years later”) — indicate such changes with a supered title, a montage of the years passing, or by describing a significant change in a character’s appearance.

Ultimately, it all comes down to one of the grand old rules of screenwriting: whenever possible – show, don’t tell.

7 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: “Wait, Wait—Don’t Tell Me”

  1. Barry J. Moskowitz

    Hi Ray, Your tips are spot-on! Motion picture is an aural medium which ‘hits’ our senses of seeing and hearing directly. – \A picture is worth a thousand-words.\ A CLOSE-UP shot can ‘show’ and imply all that a novelist narrates in many pages of description. The audience sees the moving pictures and hears the integrated sounds: all which elicits their emotional responses and implies ideas to them, along with those things directly stated. So – as you, Ray, have very succinctly advised – we screenplay writers should remember to dramatize rather than directly narrate and delineate like a novelist. We should also remember that the director and cinematographer will determine the shooting schemes – close-ups, lap dissolves, fades, inter-cuts, etc. So, taking your advice, we should simply, for example, indicate FLASHBACK and leave the rest to the director, cinematographer and myriad of other collaborators to determine how the FLASHBACK is effected and the communication it brings. We writers create the stories, but others ‘tell’ them – hopefully, with the essential vision we had in our screenplays. Regards, Barry

  2. Marguerite Fair

    Great information.
    I certainly learned the hard way. After having seen the movie Trains, Planes and Automobiles with Steve Martin–I fell in love with sceenplay writing.

    Sad to say, my first script, The Candy Caper, received the same comentary from everyone—“Too wordy”.

    The more white on the page, the better the story will be. Each word should be necessary, not turned into never-ending monologues and descriptions!
    Marguerite Fair, Writer

  3. Bronwyn

    I too am a self taught, self critical first time writer who greatly values any advice. Your little tip has made me re read my script and realise the error of my ways. Big thanks

  4. Jon

    Very true. But when I first imagine a character, I often find it invaluable to write a thumbnail sketch into the script in order to know how that person will speak. As an example :-

    “Captain Black is talking to tall athletic 30 year old LIEUTENANT MARY QUEBEC. Mary is a very violent person. She knows this and keeps her violence severely controlled behind the stony gaze of her slate gray eyes.”

    But I always remove it afterward.

  5. Jon

    Very true. But when I first imagine a character,emaly I find it invaluable to write a thumbnail sketch into the script in order to know how that person will speak. As an example :-

    “Captain Black is talking to tall athletic 30 year old LIEUTENANT MARY QUEBEC. Mary is a very violent person. She knows this and keeps her violence severely controlled behind the stony gaze of her slate gray eyes.”

    But I always remove it afterward.

  6. Helenea

    Thanks Ray! Always good to be reminded to stay on task, too many hours with a keyboard can make one rattle on… she writes like a 52 year old, yet she is really 78….

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