Rule #5: Showing vs. Telling
By Jacob Krueger
Check out 100 Rules And How To Break Them for more tips.
Rule #5: Show Don’t Tell
That you should “show” instead of “telling” is perhaps the most sound advice any screenwriter can follow.
After all, movies are visual, and it’s almost always more interesting to see someone do something right now in the present than to hear them talk about doing something, explain about feeling something, or worst of all reminisce about having done something in the past.
In general, telling leads to boring exposition that slows down your story, undermines your visual storytelling, and turns your characters into talking heads.
Showing, on the other hand, forces you to make exciting choices for your character, leading you naturally to the compelling images that drive your character’s journey forward and help your audience to connect to your story. For all these reasons “Show Don’t Tell” is a mantra drilled into the mind of almost any student at almost any writing program in almost any genre anywhere in the world.
It’s just a good thing no one told Nora Ephron, or she could never have written When Harry Met Sally.
Here’s an Academy Award nominated script that somehow manages to break nearly every fundamental principle of screenwriting: monologues that run on for pages, characters that recount entire phases of their histories, and a multitude of scenes where characters do nothing but tell. Had Nora Ephron taken the final draft of When Harry Met Sally to the average screenwriting teacher, she probably would have gotten a kind and supportive lecture about easy ways to “fix” her script simply by using “show don’t tell.”
You can probably imagine it now:
“Why don’t we just SEE Harry’s relationship with his ex-wife, rather than hear him talk about it during a baseball game?”
Yup, there goes the famous “doing the wave” scene at Yankee Stadium.
When Harry Met Sally works BECAUSE of it’s “telling” scenes, not in spite of them.
That’s because When Harry Met Sally is a movie about storytelling. It begins with a story told by an elderly couple directly to the camera. And it ends with similar story told by the elderly Harry and Sally. The movie is about the stories people tell themselves and each other about their relationships. These stories provide the fundamental structure of the screenplay; to tell the story in any other way would undermine the very instincts that made it worth telling in the first place. Furthermore, by allowing the characters to tell their stories to each other, Ephron is able to keep her focus on the characters that matter, even as she covers large periods of time when they are apart.
We’re watching the story of Harry and Sally and Jess and Marie, not the story of Harry and his ex-wife or Sally and her ex-boyfriend. These are the hot relationships in the movie, and the only characters we care about. So, though these characters may spend half the movie “telling” their stories to each other, by allowing them to spend all their screen-time together, Ephron is actually showing us the story that matters.
When to follow the rules? And when to break them?
Make no mistake, it takes a heck of a lot of skill to write a story like When Harry Met Sally and make all that “telling” work for you. Ephron uses all sorts of advanced screenwriting techniques to keep her story moving, her drama building, and her characters growing, even as she breaks all the rules of this traditional principle of screenwriting. In most cases, if you find yourself “telling” in your script, it’s worth at least asking the question of whether or not you’d be better off “showing” the scene dramatically. And if you’re not sure, it’s probably worth at least scribbling out a scene or two to find out. But the most important thing to remember when it comes to “Show Don’t Tell” or any of the other so-called rules of screenwriting, is quite simply this:
The only rules that matter are the ones that serve your script and your intentions.
No matter how many screenwriting books you read, or how well meaning your teachers may be, when you start to listen to other people’s rules, rather than listening to your own voice as a writer, your writing is going to suffer. So learn the rules. And then forget them. Listen to your script. Listen to your characters. And listen to the mentors who guide you toward your own rules. That way, the rules you really can reveal themselves to you.