Sunday, October 17, 2010

Show, Don't Tell

What does this really mean?

Consider that we're writing for a visual medium, and answer this: would you rather have one character tell another character about an accident that just happened, or would you like to see that accident unfold on the screen? You can substitute accident for another event, and you still have the same idea. Do you want to be told how two lovers met, or do you want to see it happen?

In my Introductory Scriptwriting course at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, each student is required to pen a dialogueless short screenplay of one to three pages. There's no better exercise than to write an all-visual script. It's also a strenuous task.

For playwrights, the challenge tends to be how to describe what's happening in the scene. For novelists and even short story writers, the difficult task is often how to reduce the amount of description while writing on the page what will occur on the screen once the script is filmed.

If you want to try this, you might attempt to write a scene between two people who each want the same thing, but only one person can have it. Want more specifics? Fine: Two seven year olds. Twins. One brand new bike. What will each do to get the bike?

Here's another exercise: try to take a scene from a favorite story and write it without dialogue. I'm picturing the fence-painting scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. How can Tom get the other kids to paint the fence for him without using any dialogue?

Finally, stop and notice next time there's a scene in a film where no dialogue is exchanged, yet the story is clearly advanced. Or did the lack of dialogue not work? If not, why do you suppose that is?

Until next time, write on!


  1. It is very hard for me to create a story and the atmosphere for the story. I get tangled up on what my story needs to get across that I would forget the little things in the story that make they difference and make my audience be apart of the story. These are good tips to follow by.

  2. I love dialogue and watching characters develop but sometimes I feel that I would rather watch an event unfold instead of being told what happened. There are certain scenes and events that call for dialogue but I believe the visual aspect can do the story equal justice.

    I also really enjoyed your play on the words "write on." It was clever.

  3. This topic couldn’t have been more relevant to me at this time. For my Families Communications class, I had to write a short story that allows the reader to "spend some time" with the writer's family. My rough draft was deemed too "essay-like", and my teacher and peer editor stressed that I need to "show, dont tell". I am having a hard time “showing” what it’s like to be a part of my family through one event. Any suggestions…?

  4. I enjoyed this post because of what we have been doing in your screen writing class. I found it very difficult at first to cut out dialogue completely. It's much more challenging to get a message across effectively without direct explanation. I liked that you also included the exercise that we did in class

  5. I enjoyed this post due to the fact that I am a big fan of visualizing something than being told about it. As hard as it may be to write something without dialogue, it is much greater feeling when you do it. You don't have to rely on the conversation that may be awkward or forced. When trying to write a non-dialogue script for your class I first found it to be quite difficult as I have been used to filling the void with dialogue. However after attempting it, I found it to be easier and when I finished felt more satisfied with the final outcome then I did with my dialogue script.

  6. I found this post to be very informative. I like concise dialogueless script's because I love to watch a dialogueless scene in a film. It can convey deep character thought, or hilarious awkward moments. A great screenwriter can convey a so much with just the character's physical actions. When the script is put in action, every viewer watching is able to understand the character's mind process without a single word. That alone is an amazing feat.

  7. I enjoy writing dialogueless, I like the idea of using thick description rather than dialogue to get the story across. This tip makes me want to edit my dialogueless script to add more details into it.

  8. This tip is very helpful for me for my dialoguless script! I really enjoy this style of writing and trying to imagine how the scene would play out in a movie or real life. I will definitely be applying these tips to the final draft of my dialogueless script.

  9. I imagine this applies especially when writing a script for radio, everything you do must paint a visual image for the listener.