Think like a Screenwriter Show Don’t Tell

Think like a Screenwriter Show Don't Tell

Show don't's the golden rule of screenwriting. After all, movies are visual journeys with action moving the story along. Think of your favorite films, the ones that keep you glued to the edge of your seat. Now compare them with thesnoozers, movies full oftalking heads with little or no action.

Amp up your writing with less descriptive narrative and more action. Building a plot based on action over summarization, creates anticipation about your characters and their story. When you reveal personality traits through action instead of fanciful adjectives it engages the reader, allowing his or her imagination to fill in the details. Hook the reader by backing away from lengthy exposition and replacing it with action.

It’s human nature to fit people we meet and characters we read about into pre-conceived stereotypes. Real or fictional, we can all bring someone to mind who resembles each one of the characters in a book. We are familiar with the villain, the hero, the damsel in distress, the bad boy, the nerd, the workaholic, the clingy wife, the addict, the Saint, etc. As a writer you don’t need to build each character from the ground up.

Keep the reader turning pages and wanting more by offering a few descriptive details about each character and then telling your story through action. As your plot unfolds, the reader should develop a deeper interest in the trials and tribulations of your characters. Ultimately, the reader should feel a slight sense of loss when closing the book on their new found acquaintances one last time.

Another rule of screenwriting, do not give the audience the same information more than once. In a novel, the reader doesn't need to read the same thing twice. Use words and pages wisely. When it comes to crafting an engaging story, less is more.

For example, if we state at the beginning of our novel our main character, Dan earned a college degree in accounting, pursued a career in accounting, and is so bored by each new day he's not really living, we don't need to put it in writing a second time. As an effective writer, it’s your job to show Dan's struggle in turning his boring life into something exciting through his actions.

Perhaps Dan makes the first rash decisions of his life, buying a motorcycle on impulse, hitting the open road for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and falling in with the wrong crowd. Maybe bland Dan unwittingly gets involved in a drug deal, witnesses a murder, and is sucked into life on the run with his new gang of friends.

Sure these guys are bad for Dan, but hey, at least he’s having fun...his adrenaline's pumping. He feels alive, living in the moment, living on the edge. And since it's our story, we wield the power to enable characters like Dan to explain their way out of messy situations when the cops finally catch up with them.

Using Dan as our example, let's compare expository narration and character description to action-based narration and character description.

Expository Character Description and Narration

Dan is meek. Dan is mild. If Dan was not human, he'd be a mouse. Dan chooses a college degree and career in accounting because he’s great at math and bad at people. Besides his mathematical skills, Dan is an expert thinker. He debates every single choice, mulling it over in his mind before forcing a move which causes him problems when it comes to decision-making.

When faced with a choice, especially too many choices, Dan freezes. Even when it comes to simple, everyday matters like which laundry soap to buy. Who thought it was smart to give consumers so many variations of every product they make, Dan worries, fearing it does not bode well for his future?

Take Crest, for example, Dan thinks as he counts over a dozen types of whitening toothpaste in his favorite brand alone. Tartar protection, baking soda and peroxide, cinnamon expressions, Arctic fresh, scope outlast, scope dual blast, complete extra, complete plus deep clean, complete plus herbal mint expressions, pro-health extra, advanced extra, brilliance, brilliance 2-step, radiant, luxe glamorous, luxe diamond-strong...the list goes on and on. Looking at all the different kinds of Crest on the shelf makes Dan feel like his head will implode.

Dan is nervous when he shops now. It’s too easy to grab a new-fangled version of one of his old standbys. He’s too frugal to waste a penny, experimenting with something new. After all, he might not like it. Good thing he files away every receipt. He’s had to return inadvertently purchased items more than once. Dan takes extra care, paying better attention in the store.

Products from his childhood which haven’t changed since he became an adult, make Dan feel safe. He sticks with original Crest toothpaste and fantasizes about keeping the rest of the world around him from changing, too.

Ironically, Dan's first major life mistake happened after he'd thought about doing it for a full four years, every day of his college existence. He'd gone over it in his mind a million times, even rehearsing it in front of the mirror. The trouble is he thought about it so long and so hard it blinded him to the facts.

His fatal error was in failing to notice Jill did not feel the same way about him as he felt about her. After he finally worked up his nerve, he was shocked to discover Jill's answer to marrying him was that, it would be like a slow death of the most painful and tedious kind.

After that, Dan felt crushed, like the very act of living had sucked all of the life out of him. Not that his life was much to speak of before Jill rejected him.

At forty, Dan is so bored out of his mind by his entire life when the alarm goes off every morning, he drags himself from the bed like his arms and legs are made of lead. Dan dreams of making a move, doing something brash. Dan wishes he was daring like his co-worker Jim, brave really. Brave enough to walk out the door of his office and buy a motorcycle like Jim’s, right this instant. Dan glances at the motorcycle catalog Jim left on his desk earlier today, thinking what it might be like to own one.

Character Description and Narration Through Action

Jim exits Dan's office, leaving the motorcycle catalog behind on his desk on top of all the spreadsheets and half-finished tax forms. Dan picks it up, leafing through it and wondering if there was one major event in his life which triggered the downward spiral into his dismal existence as a lonely, forty-year-old C.P.A.

He sets the catalog down, fishing around in the pocket of his rumpled, ill-fitting suit. He pulls out the diamond ring, staring at it. Knowing it all started right before he graduated from college with his accounting degree. The day he lost his first love, his only love, he sighs, thinking back...

Dan holds the small, black velvet box behind him, awkwardly getting down on one knee. He opens the box, presenting it to Jill, realizing too late he's kneeled in a puddle. Students hurrying to and from their classes, bump into him but he persists, his nerve finally up, his decision made after four painstaking years. "I love you, Jill. Please marry me when we graduate," he says with his glasses sliding down his nose, slick with perspiration over his bold move. He brushes his bangs, glued to his forehead with sweat, off his face with the back of his sleeve.

Jill laughs, before saying, "Poor, Dan, don't you realize marrying you would be like a slow death of the most painful and tedious..." One of the other students, a hulk of a guy, one of the linebackers on the college football team, Dan thinks right before the guy clips him on his run for his next lecture. Dan goes sprawling, face first in the mud. The ring flies upward. Time seems suspended as he watches it turn over and over, the sun glinting off the diamond until it plunks into the murky puddle beside him with a tiny splash.

After this, Dan feels crushed, like the very act of living has sucked all the life out of him. Not that his life was much to speak of before Jill rejected him.

The phone on his desk rings, jolting him back to the present. Instead of politely answering it, Dan throws the diamond ring out his open twelfth-story window. He rushes from his office, taking the elevator down, and running from his building. He races across the street into the motorcycle dealership, buying the biggest, shiniest, most powerful Harley Davidson on the sales floor before he has time to think.

All he knows is he is finished with himself, done with being Dan. When he thinks back on this day, he'll celebrate it as the sudden death of the old Dan.

I hope you can tell the difference between the two excerpts and see that the action-based example grabs you more as a reader.