What Does “Show, Don’t Tell” Really Mean? 

By May 26, 2021Blogs

Right up there with “write what you know” and “writing is rewriting” is “show, don’t tell.”

It’s one of the most well-known and oft-quoted writing adages. For good reason, too. 

Show, don’t tell is especially important for screenwriters, whose work is first completed on the page but ultimately intended to be seen on a screen. 

But what does “show, don’t tell” really mean anyway? 

Put simply, “show, don’t tell” means that you should show your audience information, emotion, and subtext instead of telling it to them through exposition.

Easier said than done, though. 

Expository Dialogue

It’s happened to everyone. You’ve been utterly engrossed in whatever you’re watching when one of the characters says something so blatantly expository, so obviously scripted, that it immediately ruins the magic. 

You know the lines I’m talking about. Think about the scene in Inception where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains how to build dreams to Ariadne (Elliot Page) — that’s a verbal exposition dump if I’ve ever seen one.

The problem with expository dialogue like this is that instead of showing the sentiment or information in a scene, a character is stating it to the audience to move the story along faster. It’s the storytelling equivalent of mansplaining. 

Show Through Action

Most of the time, “show, don’t tell” applies to action. Film is a visual medium, after all; it’s all about what is on the screen. 

Screenplays are made up of two main elements — action paragraphs and dialogue. So utilize those action paragraphs. Instead of having a character explain something for the audience’s sake, show it through action.  

Audiences would much rather deduce that a character hates her boss by seeing her spit in his coffee. We’d prefer to learn how The Matrix works not by watching Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) explain the details to Neo (Keanu Reeves), but by kicking his buns in a digital dojo.

In any story, the writer has an infinite amount of information to convey to the audience — backstories, personalities, life situations, and details relevant to the plot. And a lot of that information can be revealed through small visual details instead of dialogue or action. 

Think about Juno MacGuff, played by Elliot Page — did we learn that she was quirky and badass and witty through other characters saying, “Wow Juno! You’re so quirky and badass and witty!” No. We learn this through dialogue and action, sure, but perhaps the coolest method director Jason Reitman used was the set design of Juno’s room. Take one look at those walls, knick-knacks, and that hamburger phone, you’ll quickly have that character pegged.

Think of what someone could decipher about your personality and life experience just by looking around your apartment. There’s immense power in little details, especially when it comes to “show, don’t tell.” 

Put it into Practice

Wondering how to test your screenplay for “show, don’t tell?” 

Well, don’t even worry about “show, don’t tell” in your first draft. We all write those icky expository lines when we’re just trying to get the story out and onto the page. It’s a screenwriting necessity. 

But when you hit the revising stage, do two passes through your script with “show, don’t tell” in mind. 

First look at each line of dialogue and ask yourself: “Does this state the obvious? Am I communicating something that would be better presented in another way?” Then go through each scene to see if your characters convey the emotion, information, and subtext of your story through their actions. 

Your script — and your audiences — will thank you.