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Do Not Write What’s Not on Screen |

Do Not Write What’s Not on Screen

Okay, we all know, “Show, don’t tell!” I will never forget my sophomore English teacher hitting that point home with a sledgehammer every class. As a screenwriter, I hear, “Exposition is bad.” Now I have a better understanding of what this really means.

With screenwriting, it’s fairly simple, actually, but hard to do well and in few words. If you’re writing someone who is cruel at heart, give them something dark and edgy in the description but when we meet that character the first time, they should do something abnormally cruel. Or, for example, don’t just write, “It’s raining.” Have your character be pelted with rain and write it into the scene. You know where I’m going with this.

A bunch of scripts in this last pass had blocks of text on page that wouldn’t be filmed. If it’s not actually filmed, or in dialogue, then the audience will never get that info and it doesn’t belong in your script. If you have info you need to communicate, make sure it is either in the dialogue or the behavior of the characters.

A couple of examples of this kind of text:

George’s bedroom is a mess. The bedroom of an executive working 16 hour days and with no time to clean. The bedroom of a man without love.

There are many reasons why someone’s bedroom might be messy. If we see a messy bedroom on screen, that’s all we get. We will not understand from this choice that he’s overworked and loveless – or that his housekeeper just quit, or that he’s simply just messy, or that he just got home from vacation. I would argue that this whole sequence of man-bedroom isn’t that important and a more dramatic choice, instead of filming laundry, would be to show him overworked with his colleagues and not even able to get home.

Think carefully about your choices. You only have a limited number of words – choose which ones best represent your story to heighten dramatic stakes. Laundry isn’t it.

The house is dark, despite the holiday cheer. Christmas lights haven’t hung here in years.

Now, the notion that there is a Christmas house that’s dark offers up some interesting questions – did someone die, are they struggling, etc. However, that needs to be established and paid off. If this is how you introduce a house without any establishing contrast, then all we see is a normal, dark house. We wouldn’t get any notion of Christmas, nor of the fact that this one house is dark.

You must include the “holiday cheer” as a benchmark so we know this house has none. You might choose to open on a neighborhood public place where Christmastime decoration and festivity is over the top. The protagonist is there, plays into the festivities, but yet then returns home to his dark house where there is no cheer. That is more interesting and keeps me wanting to read, whereas the phrasing above just makes me annoyed.

I do make two pretty broad exceptions to the “show, don’t tell” rule: character introductions and reaction shots.

Character Introductions
In your 4 action lines of character introduction, it is preferred to give the reader a glimpse of insight into who that person is at their core, some broader personality trait than simply age and that they’re wearing khakis (clothing, please!). I am perfectly happy in a character intro for one to use better quality prose writing to capture something essential to that character’s spirit, who they are as a human being, even if it can’t be shot in that moment. Better is an intro anecdote where you can do both – both film the metaphor and write it on the page. But, I’ll give you some license in your 4-5 lines to paint a vivid picture for me of who your protagonist is – especially because I’ll be spending at least a forty minutes of my time with that individual.

Character Reaction Shots
I use this in my writing when it’s justified and I appreciate this technique when it is used appropriately in other people’s writing: the thought reaction. Sometimes in a reaction shot, the character responds with a thought, such as “What the hell?” or “Motherfucker.” If an actor is playing the reaction, these types of thoughts – although unspoken – give us a pretty clear indication of what that actor’s expression might be. And, the actor’s expression can be shot. So, although it’s bending the rules a little, I don’t mind these types of thoughts, as long as it encapsulates a clear reaction of the actor.

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