Visual Scripts: Show! Don’t Tell

By Michael Schilf · May 19, 2010

Beginning screenwriters often make the mistake of letting characters talk, and talk, and talk… Talking heads might work for the playwright, but it certainly is not good screenwriting. Film is a visual medium. Show the story! Don’t just tell it. 

Action speaks louder than words – always. An excerpt from Shane Black’s screenplay Lethal Weapon illustrates: 

“Riggs straps on his .9 millimeter Beretta. Downs a shot of whiskey. Pauses, looking at a photograph on the wall. Riggs, much younger, along with a pretty and vivacious woman in a wedding gown: his wife. He stares at the photograph. His fingers twirl the whiskey glass with completely unconscious skill. Tense. Tense … twirling the glass … RICHARD DAWSON DRONES from the TV (our survey says — !). Riggs slings the shot glass. Dead center, SHATTERING the TV SCREEN.”

The scene is quite simple – Riggs inside his trailer, preparing to leave for another day on the job. But the complexities are enormous. We understand the core of his tragic past, and all without a single line of dialogue.