Tell, Don’t Show?

“Show don’t tell” is one of the most common bits of advice I come across when I read about writing. I’ve always thought of it as good advice, although I do find it hard to do

Recently I started to wonder if it is the way to go in a film script. Could it be better to “tell, don’t show” in a script.

In the past, when I wrote the action descriptions I tried, not always successfully, to describe what the character does and not how he feels. That is: “show, don’t tell.”

For example, this is a bit of action from my detective script.

Robert eyes widen as he looks at the image on his video camera. He looks up at the image of John Smith on the TV. As he glances at the squalor he lives in, his face breaks out in a sly grin.

I have described what he does and leave it to the reader to interpret how the character feels and what he thinks. This is what I used to think of as the right way.

Robert is surprised as he recognizes that the man on his video recording is the same person as the John Smith on TV. He is happy as realizes that he can get rich from blackmail and escape the poverty he lives in.

This would be considered bad writing, well worse writing than what I originally wrote.

Who is the audience for a script? In my article How to Write a Feature Movie Script I suggested that a script is the plan for the movie. The director and the actors will take it as a suggestion as they create the movie. You might say that a character smiles, but they may choose a different way to express the character’s emotions and thoughts.

The “show, don’t tell” style provides details that the director and actors don’t need and forces them to guess at what the character feels and thinks. The “tell, don’t show” style tells them what the character feels and thinks and allows the director and actors to choose how to “show” those emotions and thoughts in the movie.

Another audience for a script is the script readers who review scripts for producers. Since they can make the difference between a rejection and a sale, you want them to like your script. I suspect that they are more likely to be turned off by a “tell, don’t show” style of writing.

I guess the right answer would be “it depends.”

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