Tell Me A Little. Show Me A Lot
A screenplay, or movie script, is more of a format than an art.
Good dialogue is individual to each character, but when it’s used as a crutch to explain the plot, the lines become blurred. That’s where an old saying in screenwriting applies: “Show, Don’t Tell.”
Al Bloom, screenwriter and owner of Script Reader Pro, stated “A good way to learn how to ‘show, don’t tell’ is to always start by thinking, What’s the purpose of this scene? What do I want to show the audience? Once you begin to approach scenes from a ‘show, don’t tell’ perspective instead of a dialogue perspective, a ton of possibilities arise for much more interesting scenes, and ultimately a much more interesting screenplay.”
Words do not always tell the best story – Margaret Dane
“Modern-day audiences are emotionally intelligent and can easily perceive clues from characters and situations,” said Margaret Dane of Wayward Women Films. “Words do not always tell the best story. Our use of the world we create is what is paramount. We reveal our stories visually and instantly.”
Rob Cowan, producer of Aquaman, San Andreas and The Conjuring films, said, “It’s a visual medium—visuals can provoke and inspire the audience much more than lines of explanation or dialogue can ever do. It also challenges the writer to really understand what he is saying and find those visual metaphors that will last forever, etched into the viewer’s mind. I can’t remember a single line of dialogue between Diane Keaton and Al Pacino in the first Godfather. But I do remember the last shot of the film—Pacino having the door closed on his wife (Keaton), symbolizing his complete transformation into the Godfather and putting aside his domestic life.”
Painting a picture is key. But how far is too far? When does illustrating vivid images cross the line into the prose territory of a novel? What the writer might see as a strength could come across as a weakness to an industry professional. Elaborate, long-winded descriptions often cause stopping and re-reading, which is a huge strike. Getting carried away is a temptation that satisfies the writer and frustrates the reader.
Painting a picture is key
“The artists who work on a film don’t read a script for ‘brilliant writing’ in the same way that they would read a novel,” said Gerald Hanks, coverage report writer for the Austin Film Festival and founder of the Story Into Screenplay blog. “They read the script to determine the best way to do their jobs. A screenwriter who can ‘write visually’ helps all of these artists focus on how to accomplish their tasks.”
“Show, don’t tell” means more than utilizing visuals over dialogue. Different writers employ different techniques, influenced by the constantly changing industry standards. The style and creative process also depend on the purpose. A spec script, one that’s not “on assignment,” may be more descriptive. If someone is writing to direct, detailed action isn’t always necessary.
“There are a few schools of thought, depending upon whether or not you strictly adhere to ‘old-school rules’ or are open to evolving screenwriting trends,” said Billie Jo Mason, Union reader and Head Writer/Producer at Image Work Communications. “In either case, your first job as a screenwriter is to succinctly describe what we are seeing—you are showing the reader the landscape, the characters and the action without extraneous internal description that can’t be filmed.”
“I remember reading that William Goldman, one of our best screenwriters, once said that he would literally try to almost direct the movie on the page,” reflected Gary Rubin, President of GRC Entertainment Consulting and Coaching. “While he was a great talent, there is definitely something to be said for less is more. A visual palette is something beautiful for a director to build on.”
Less is more
Tom Ortenberg, CEO of Briarcliff Entertainment, had a defining moment that planted the seed for a flourishing career, serving as President of Theatrical Films at both Lionsgate Entertainment and The Weinstein Company, going on to produce films like W., Spotlight and Snowden. “When I was starting out in the business, I had a boss who said, ‘It doesn’t matter who the director is, all they do is shoot what’s on the page.’ I didn’t know anything back then, but I knew he was wrong about that and I have had a heightened sense of visualization for every script I have read ever since.”
“The screenwriter’s job is to generate a silver screen experience in the reader’s mind, wherein the words of the script instantly convert into moving images, projected upon the reader’s mental screen,” said Judy Hammett of hollywoodscript.com. “Pro writers know which visual cues are clutch and which can be omitted. They also know HOW to include these details — namely how to provide just enough to keep that movie reel playing in the reader’s mind while not overdoing it.”
Elaine Roberts, Executive Producer at Chase Your Dreams Productions, said “When it comes to writing the action in a script, it’s important to state the key details such as the character, settings and circumstances of the scene in a concise way; yet, it must be able to convey a sense of what is going on at that moment. The best way I find to achieve this is by adding sensory details when describing a setting.”
People pay the most attention to what’s relevant to them; an actor studying a character’s lines, a producer determining if the film will make money, a director reviewing all the elements to decide if he wants to be involved in the project, etcetera. While that’s natural, the screenwriter’s job is to craft a portrait that’s unique to each of them. If done well, a cinematic vision sticks in their minds and they can see the entire film right there. When painting a picture on the page, the more colors your brush is dipped in the better, but with fewer strokes. Understanding that analogy goes a long way, which makes a script stand out from the majority on the market.
“Dolly shots down long, dark hallways, bending and twisting silently in the blackness until something frightening visually explodes into the scene…or you could just talk about how scary that house is,” said Michael Valente, a top 30 finalist in the Nicholl Fellowships. “My advice is simple, though not necessarily easy. Write your first draft, overwrite it if you like, then do two things: Go back to page one, look at every speech more than three lines, delete the first and last sentences. Typically, your point will still be made but more economically. Do that for the entire script, then go back to page one again.”
Hanks ends with a closing thought, “Remember, film is a visual medium. The images on the screen tell the story. The words on the page are the blueprint for those images. Without a clear blueprint, the building never gets built.”
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