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By David Young · January 19, 2022
You’ve been told to show, not tell. As writers, screenplays sometimes cause a struggle in that capacity for even the best of us — somewhere, we default to using exposition inside our action lines. Somewhere, we tell the readers what a character’s thinking or feeling, rather than making it clear through visuals.
These are examples of bad visual storytelling. But, there’s also the good: clear, stark imagery is a must in these cases, and there’s also the inherent goal of making certain unspoken things clear to the audience.
When you take visual storytelling at its best, you’re left with something that’s both explicit and implicit in its meanings, rather than just one or the other. And at its worst…. Well, let’s just talk about it, shall we?
Some big “no-no”s in the world of writing have to do with the way writers convey character thoughts and feelings. In many cases, it’s about using something like a “curt grin and an eye roll” instead of a line that says, “Server #1 feels mistreated by the Patron.” That’s not to say that writing should direct every breath of a character — it just means that when there’s something to communicate the emotion here rather than plainly saying “they feel” a certain way.
Why is that bad?
Imagine saying “I feel you’re doing a great job” to a coworker that you yell at all the time. Are they going to believe you? When you’re talking to your audience, it’s even harder; they don’t want to hear, “I feel mad, sad, or whatever.” They want to see it on screen. Plus, if you’re writing a screenplay, you’re writing for a visual audience — so writing “she feels happy” isn’t going to help them one bit.
Another way to ruin visual storytelling is by offering exposition that’s too up-front. By that, I mean, it’s telling the reader something in the way a novel might — written in an assumptive voice that caters only to readers, not viewers. Here’s an example of what that looks like in an otherwise powerful scene in the movie Inglourious Basterds:
Here, Quentin Tarantino writes about Shoshanna’s background, as well as how she feels. We don’t see visual indicators that Shoshanna is disconcerted. While this film still makes an impact, its writing in this portion should have been more visual. This is something that especially is seen in scripts by some big names in film and TV.
Why do they get to write like that? Because they’re the big names in film and TV. Especially when a writer is writing to direct something themselves, there’s less impetus to write everything visually. That said, it’s best to keep in practice; as much as we like his films, only Tarantino should write like Tarantino.
It’s important to know what to shoot for. Not every screenwriter does the job the same way, though. While some have a conversational tone or even jokes in the action lines, some stick only to the most concrete description of the actions that take place. Stark visuals (pun intended) are a crucial part of the Game of Thrones pilot, and even the cold open for the hit series, as shown below, has an element of foreboding without doing anything more than describing what’s happening on-screen:
Did you see it? You could picture the Other right in front of your eyes, couldn’t you? That’s visual storytelling. It also helps to note the factors that add to the fear we’re meant to feel here: Ser Waymar’s voice cracking, for example. That happens on-screen. We’re not being told that he’s frightened. We see that as a fact, given the way his voice cracks — and as his hands tremble right afterward. That’s the power of giving visuals rather than just asserting a state of mind.
The same thing can be done with someone’s voice in the mix. And when that’s done right, it may seem like an odd way to write things, but it really can make or break the script. One powerful moment in Rebecca Sonnenshine’s Season 2 finale of The Boys — with minor spoilers — shows readers exactly what you can do to really grab a reader’s attention and still be incredibly visual:
There’s a clear tone, and what’s more, there’s an unspoken indication to the viewers that can be deciphered quite easily: Homelander has cracked, y’all. The unconventional thing is the conversational (and often crude) way that Sonnenshine’s delivery makes the intention of the visuals clear. There’s an element of direction here for Homelander: he has to feel like a disturbed individual here. There’s a poetic description, too, but that just continues to feed this brief but impactful image.
You may also consider that Tarantino’s way of doing things is often unconventional — and it’s true. But when you write, you focus on the story, on showing the reader and more importantly, the viewer, what’s happening. If you do that, you’ll notice the difference right away, as you veer closer to presenting things with images and reactive language, rather than exposition and what your character’s thinking.
There’s no one way to write your screenplay. Chances are, you’ve already got a steady rhythm of your own. If you don’t, though, reevaluate what might be causing that. Are you writing exposition into your action lines so the viewers can’t benefit? Are you providing commentary on character thoughts and feelings, rather than putting those on display? Or, if you’re needing a way to grip your readers from start to finish, try to see if your actions, your visuals, are memorable or not. Are we looking at a deranged “superhero” muttering in space? Are we seeing a gaunt, pale being that instills fear in the people that find it?
Whatever you do with your writing, remember: show, don’t tell. Let your audience live in the image you create. If nothing else, you’ll be honing your skills until your visuals leap off the page. Of course, if they start leaping off the page, then you’ve got bigger problems.
David Wayne Young is an independent film producer and screenwriter with years of experience in story analysis, even providing coverage for multiple international screenwriting competitions. David’s obsessions include weird fiction and cosmic horror, and he’s formally trained in the art of tasting and preparing gourmet coffee in various worldly traditions, from Turkish coffee to hand-tamped espresso — all enjoyed while writing, of course.