Show Don’t Tell
In my recent short-form screenwriting class, a student asked about the ‘show don’t tell’ technique/rule/commandment. I think the easiest way to explain it, isn’t. Instead, let me show you.
There is a knock on the door. Louise answers, Mr. Harbinger has returned. He shoots her a 'calmer now?' look. FRANK (CONT'D) Listen, young man, My wife and I have been talking, and we decided to sign the papers. TIRES SCREECH. STOP. Rewrite. Second pass: There is a knock on the door. Louise answers, Mr. Harbinger has returned. He shoots her a 'calmer now?' look.
INT. KITCHEN - EVENING
The three are in the kitchen, a stack of papers on the table. They have come to the last page. Frank and Louise take a look around the room. Their eyes full of bittersweet endings... a big inhale. Louise holds Frank's hand as he signs the final page. Even Mr. Harbinger looks sad. Louise pulls herself together.
LOUISE That's that. Frank, I think maybe we should take a vacation.
Do you see the difference? In the first example, the writer had a character TELL us (the audience) that they had decided to sign the papers.
In the second example, the writer shows Louise and Frank at the table actually signing the papers. We, the audience, figure it out ourselves that Frank and Louise have decided to sign the papers by showing us that they’re signing the papers. It’s active. More interesting. And it keeps us waiting just a second longer to learn the outcome. Plus, and best of all, it gives the actors a chance to give us one last emotional moment as they sign their home away.
Here’s a simple way to know if you’re showing or telling — are we seeing an action or hearing about it? Can we see the scene? Or do we just hear the information?