The One Big Screenwriting Rule (and Why You Keep Breaking It)

bastardos1Friend of the site Erik Bork has written a great new article on the first rule of screenwriting: Show, don’t tell. Erik writes,

At first, it might seem obvious.  Film and television are visual media.  You always want to give the audience something to watch.  It’s boring to hear characters “speak information” to each other.  It’s undramatic, and not entertaining.

But this most basic principle of dramatic writing goes beyond that — and it is an issue, at some point, in almost every script.

It’s not just that spoken dialogue is not an engaging way to transmit facts to the audience.  It also doesn’t work very well.  Readers and viewers are not able to absorb and process nearly as much information as writers tend to think, when it’s merely spoken in dialogue.  Such information tends to just “bounce off”, especially when it comes out in undramatic situations, where the audience isn’t glued to the screen, because something really compelling is going on… Readers and audiences don’t want to work hard to have to take in, process and remember facts they’re being given.  They’re there to be emotionally engaged and entertained.

So what’s a writer to do?

People telling each other facts is about the most unengaging thing one can watch on screen (along with people getting along and being happy).  What grabs and keeps the attention and engagement of readers and viewers is conflict, difficulties, and emotion.  Is there even a single moment of Inglourious Basterds (or other films you love) that isn’t focused on those three things?

Read more on this (and many other topics) at Erik’s blog, Flying Wrestler.

2 thoughts on “The One Big Screenwriting Rule (and Why You Keep Breaking It)

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  1. I agree that this is one of the trickiest aspects of screenwriting, and I’ve definitely let a few expositiony scenes slip through the net. I find it particularly challenging with thrillers frustratingly enough, because sometimes there is just information that has to come across clearly somehow or else the audience misses it and gets confused. Not that that’s an excuse for leaving the scene dull and static, but that’s definitely where I spend a lot of my re-writing and polishing time.

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