Congratulations, it’s a brand new year! 2013 brings every writer another chance to reflect, refresh, and refocus on where we are with our craft. Taking stock and deciding what out next steps should be. With that in mind, I thought it would be fitting to take this week’s column back to the core of storytelling. That one simple truth that ultimately filters everything else you learn through it.
“Show, don’t tell.”
Screenwriters hear this maxim so frequently, from every possible source, that its importance can eventually be dulled. It becomes ubiquitous to the point of no longer carrying any impact when you hear it. So let’s take a moment to reflect on this advice, and what it really means.
First and foremost, it’s a reminder that, even though you’re writing your story out, film is a visual medium. Use that to your advantage, and make your scenes as visual as possible. Think about what would be interesting to you as a member of an audience – here’s a quick example. Would you rather watch a character walk into a room and proclaim “Man, do I have a headache”, or have that same character walk into a room, wince as the door closes a little too loudly, and grab the bridge of their nose between thumb and forefinger, massaging it gently with their eyes closed (if you answered the former, feel free to skip the rest of this column)? It’s that simple.
Show. Don’t tell.
I think getting this down is the most important thing you can learn as a screenwriter, but I’ll share a little secret with you. Personally, I don’t worry about this when I’m writing my first draft. Even if you aren’t a believer in a “vomit draft”, the goal of your first draft is still simply to get the basic story out and on paper; to birth it into the physical world. It’s the rewriting where “show, don’t tell” truly becomes important. At least one of your rewrites (that means, realistically, three or four) should focus on going through your script scene by scene, line by line, and asking yourself – “could I find a way to SHOW what is being said?”
Of course, as with anything, you can over reach. If you really worked at it, you could take out all of the dialogue and suddenly find yourself pitching a silent movie. That’s obviously not the goal. Sometimes dialogue will work better, so take each line in your script on a case-by-case situation. If the dialogue is description or exposition, chances are you can find a way to show this information in a visual way.
I don’t think there’s a modern example of this axiom that’s more effective or emotionally impactful than Pixar’s Up, so get your tissues ready, and let’s take a look at…
Show Don’t Tell and ‘Up’
The story of a Carl, a crabby old man who rediscovers the wonders of adventure, friendship, and life in general, Up captivated audiences from the very first shot. What follows is a completely visual exposition dump. We learn about Carl’s life with Ellie, how they put the hopes and dreams of youth aside, and, ultimately, how Carl finds himself in the dark and lonely spot he’s in as the film begins. Here it is:
A SERIES OF SHOTS
The jar slowly fills as Carl and Ellie toss in spare change.
Their car blows a tire.
The two stand by the jar, reluctant. Carl BREAKS the jar.
Carl in the hospital with a broken leg.
A storm rages. A tree falls, crushing the roof.
INT. CARL AND ELLIE'S HOUSE, FRONT HALL - MORNING
Carl struggles to tie his tie. Ellie helps. They walk out
the front door arm-in-arm.
INT. CARL AND ELLIE'S HOUSE, FRONT HALL - 3 YEARS LATER
Ellie struggles to tie Carl's tie as they rush out the door.
A SERIES OF SHOTS as Ellie straightens Carl's ties. Stylish
1950's ties. Wide 60's ties. Paisley 70's ties.
INT. CARL AND ELLIE'S HOUSE, FRONT HALL - 30 YEARS LATER
Older Carl and Ellie smile at themselves in the hall mirror.
EXT. ZOO - DAY
Carl in his 60's. They still work happily side-by-side at
the zoo. Carl's cart lifts off the ground. He casually
leans an elbow on it.
INT. CARL AND ELLIE'S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM - NIGHT
Carl and Ellie dance in the evening candlelight. The
PARADISE FALLS JAR sits off to the side, now dusty and
INT. CARL AND ELLIE'S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM WINDOW - AFTERNOON
Carl cleans the inside of the window. Ellie cleans the
INT. CARL'S HOUSE, LIVING ROOM - AFTERNOON
Carl vacuums the Adventure Shrine on the mantle. Carl smiles
at a photo of Ellie as a child, wearing her flight helmet and
goggles. He looks up at the mural of their house at Paradise
Falls. His smile fades.
Behind him, Ellie sweeps the floor. Their dream has gone
Carl has an idea.
EXT. TRAVEL AGENCY - DAY
Carl buys two tickets to South America.
EXT. RURAL HILLSIDE - AFTERNOON
Carl hurries excitedly up picnic hill. He hides the airline
tickets in his basket.
Behind him, Ellie falters and falls. She tries to get up but
falls again. Something is wrong.
He runs to her.
INT. HOSPITAL ROOM - DAY
Ellie lies in a hospital bed. She looks through her
A BLUE BALLOON floats in to the room.
Carl stands at the door. He smiles and walks to her bedside.
Ellie pushes her Adventure Book toward him. She weakly pats
his cheek and adjusts his tie.
He kisses her on the forehead.
INT. CHURCH - AFTERNOON
Carl sits alone, next to a huge bouquet of balloons.
EXT. CARL AND ELLIE'S HOUSE - DUSK
Carl walks into the house, holding a single blue balloon.
FADE TO BLACK.
It’s a beautiful sequence, and all the more powerful for showing us Carl’s journey. I can guarantee you that a beginning writer would have given us all of this information as dialogue – Carl telling another character why he is the way that he is.
Don’t be this writer.
Take advantage of the New Year to take a step back and exhale. Really think about “show, don’t tell”, and realize it is so much more than another piece of clichéd advice. In reality, it’s everything you’re trying to be. Everything you’re hoping to accomplish with all of the hours you put into your writing. It really is that important.
So pop a few aspirin, get rid of that hangover, sit down, and get writing!
- Argo‘s Effective Use of Creative License
- Specs & The City: Unreliable Narrators and (500) Days of Summer
- The First 10 Pages of a Screenplay
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