Show. Don’t tell

A feast for the eyes. In a good way.

One of the most important rules of screenwriting, yet lots of writers have trouble putting it into effect.

The organizer of my first writing group always suggested writing each scene so the audience would have an idea what was going on if the sound went out.  Not easy to pull off, but it is possible.

I got my first taste of silent films in high school. We watched Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION and Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL, which remains one of my all-time favorites.  It was on the other day on Turner Classic Movies. We caught the second half. V loved it.

*Side story – Earlier this year, I posted on TriggerStreet looking for help with my original logline for LUCY, describing it as combining THE GENERAL and THE SEARCHERS. Somebody commented that they’d never heard of either. I want to say I was shocked, but reminded myself not everybody has my kind of appreciation for older films.

It’s oh-so-gratifying to listen to V laugh her head off while we watch these. I like Chaplin, but Keaton is an underappreciated genius.  Last summer, we finally got around to catching some of Harold Lloyd’s work, including SAFETY LAST (the one with the clock face, which was okay), THE FRESHMAN and THE KID BROTHER, which is a masterpiece.

What’s great about silent films is that apart from the dialogue cards, everything else is told visually, so it’s easy to follow along.  The actors, with only their bodies and facial expressions, convey what’s happening.  The Silent Era was especially effective for newly-arrived immigrants who spoke no English. They understood what was going on.

When I write a scene, I try to make it as visual as possible so it’s more than just somebody talking.  This goes beyond describing what we see in a physical sense, but how a character acts or is reacting.  I’m also working on punching up this kind of writing so it doesn’t read or sound boring.

Some writers make the mistake of describing something that can’t be seen, such as what a character is thinking.  I’ve also heard this labeled as “How do we know?”  You may describe somebody as reflecting on their past, but if we’re watching the film, all we see is a person sitting there, doing nothing.  HOW DO WE KNOW they’re reflecting?

Get the idea?

2 thoughts on “Show. Don’t tell

  1. Ah, Mr. Truitt’s Great Films class. I took it twice. People in CA are stunned when I tell them about that class (and our spring musical), since Prop 13 has done a lot of harm to education budgets since it was passed in the 70s.

    I remember watching The General and Birth of a Nation in Truitt’s class.

    Is Safety Last the one referenced at the beginning of Back to the Future, when we see the clock with Lloyd dangling off its front? I’ve watched BTTF with my daughter, and I keep meaning to see that Lloyd film with her, so I can show her the connection.

    Side note: A while back, we watched a Mystery Science Theater that had an extended reference to the ending of 2001, so after it was done, I pulled out 2001 and showed her and my son the hotel room sequence; they didn’t know what to think. I know, we should watch the whole thing from the start, but I wasn’t sure if she was ready for that at the age of 9. And the 4yo would be bouncing off the walls.

    • I don’t think V could handle 2001. While she may be watching, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s paying attention. If I say “hmm..” or “a-ha!” during a film, her first response is usually “What? What is it?” or “Why’d he do that?” I’ve come to expect and accept this.

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