A common “rule” in screenwriting that most of us have heard, usually when starting out is, “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s an attempt to steer us away from lengthy exposition scenes or having characters tell us, moment by moment what is going on. We are writing “moving pictures” so let’s stick to that and leave lengthy dialogue to the politicians.
However, as a “tool” it can be very useful and remind us to think carefully about the scenes, sequences and how our stories are structured. There are times when it is absolutely right that we show something visually, rather than have a character describe it. But, of course, like any other screenwriting rule, it is not always going to be the most appropriate way to write your scene. For every good example, there will be a bad example and for each of those good examples, I am sure you will be able to find another great example of a character “telling” the audience.
One of the examples explored in the Shorescripts link below is Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis in Jaws (1975). The speech is a long one, but a powerful one. The intensity and emotion of the experience is all there on screen as Robert Shaw recounts the events of the sinking and being hunted by sharks. It is a clear example of someone “telling” the audience and it works superbly. Would it have been better to “show” the audience? How would you do that? I’m not sure… a flashback? Possibly, but a flashback can be damaging to a film; a jarring interruption that takes you out of the flow of the scene. “Telling” worked in this case.
But “showing” can also work. You just have to get it right, just as with any screenwriting tool. Know when and how best to use it for the story you are telling at the time.
The reason I got to thinking about this was seeing the end of episode 1 of the new Westworld series.
Some spoilers coming up if you haven’t seen Episode 1 yet!
Towards the end of the episode there is a mass recall of “hosts” (the androids that populate the games in Westworld) because of a glitch relating to a recent update. Evan Rachel Wood’s Delores is one of those hosts and she is questioned by park staff to check her programming. During this process, Delores is asked whether she would “ever hurt a living thing.” In true Azimovian style, the hosts in Westworld are programmed not to hurt any of the guests and Delores answers unequivocally in the affirmative that, no, she would never hurt a living thing.
As the show ends, she walks out onto the veranda of her home, as she has every morning for however long she has been in her current role, past the host playing her father (newly changed from her previous glitching father), to look out over the prairie and absentmindedly swats a fly on her neck.
How good was that?
Simple, subtle but brimming with power and coolly setting up the coming storm that we all know is coming.
Don’t get led blindly down the “Show, Don’t Tell” alley just because you think that is what you have to do. As with all our screenwriting tools, be aware of it, learn how to use it and chose your moments – and blow your audience’s mind.
- Film is visual: Show, don’t tell – Scriptlab
- Shorescripts – Screenwriting Myth #5
- The Screenwriter’s Toolbox: Show Don’t Tell – Scriptchix
- 3 Reasons why “Show, Don’t Tell It” is bad writing advice – Bang2Write
The Transit of Mercury didn’t pan out quite as I had hoped on Monday, with pretty much the entire World’s quota of fluffy grey clouds hovering over my house for most of the day. So, with some spare time, we chose to watch Ex Machina instead; another disc that has been sitting, waiting for a long time.
It was certainly worth the wait.
Ex Machina is a mesmerising exploration of the consequences of advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and, to my non-scientific mind, felt like a glimpse into a possible future where the smartest person in the room is also the artificial one. As Dr Malcolm might suggest, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.
The story follows Caleb, the lucky employee of Nathan, a technological genius who has chosen Caleb to apply the Turing Test to his lifelike AI Android Ava. Rather, a slightly twisted take on the Turing Test where the tester knows they are sat opposite a computer but are testing their capacity to believe that what they know is a collection of nuts and bolts could actually be human.
And that’s all I will say about the plot as it is a fantastic film, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Sci-Fi. I am sure that those with more knowledge of this area would be able to find holes in it, much like they did with the Garland-penned Sunshine, but that is not why I choose to watch movies – I want to be transported to a world that is believeable, not necessarily realistic. Although I think Ex Machina does both extremely well.
However, what really struck me with Ex Machina was the characters. The three main characters are very different. Caleb comes across as a fairly strait-laced IT geek, very much in contrast to Nathan’s heavy-drinking, aggressive Alpha-Male. In between is Ava; inquisitive and almost child-like. Each character is different, but they are so well written, you find yourself empathising with them all. There is no clear “good or bad guy” in this movie, each of the characters have their own agendas and each could be considered a Protagonist and Antagonist in their own right.
You may dislike Nathan because of the way he treats Caleb and Ava, but that doesn’t mean you can’t identify or empathise with his situation, his genius or what he is trying to achieve. And, I suspect, we will all be able to identify with the relationship that develops between Caleb and Ava and the reasons for that relationship. It is this empathy that helps draw us into the story and the twists and turns that come our way by the end of the film, and it helps us understand and rationalise the choices each character makes on that journey. It also makes us question those choices after the credits roll.
In a recent post I talked about the importance of dialogue and how that is not the be all and end all of a good script. Ex Machina is almost the polar opposite of Mad Max in that it is much more dialogue heavy. And it is great dialogue, the exchanges between Caleb and Nathan are tech-heavy, philosophical discussions and work in superb contrast to the more innocent, awkward and sometimes flirty conversations between Caleb and Ava. There is no doubting that there is great dialogue.
But I don’t remember much of it.
What I do remember are the characters, their motivations, actions and emotions, and that is what drives this film and reinforces, to me, the importance of great characters and how they will elevate your story beyond mere words on a page.
Ex Machina is a stunning piece of film-making and I would recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it, who likes good sci-fi, to give it a go. Actually, even if you don’t like sci-fi, give it a go anyway, you might just be surprised.
If you have see Ex Machina, why not let me know what you thought of it below… in a non-spoilery kind of way!
Starting out, learning about screenwriting, you will find yourself encountering all sorts of guidance and rules that tell you THE best way to write a script or stress the importance of any of the many elements of scriptwriting.
Dialogue is something that I started off believing was THE most important components of a great script. While it definitely IS one important aspect of writing, is it right to think it is any more important than the other components such as Story, Character and/or Concept?
Everyone remembers and loves great dialogue and quotes from their favourite films. But do we remember those lines more because it is a favourite watched many times or because of the impact of the dialogue? Or maybe it is because the characters themselves are so memorable?
No-one forgets a great character.
Or a fantastic concept.
I got to thinking about this at the weekend after watching Mad Max: Fury Road with my Father-in-Law. It had been sitting waiting for ages on the Blu Ray player so we broke open the seal and popped it in after lunch on Sunday.
Two hours of great concept and great characters.
But not a lot of dialogue.
I think the majority of Max’s dialogue plays out in the first five minutes of the film. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure there is any really “memorable” dialogue in the film; it is definitely a more visual film. Although, perhaps, I will have to watch it again to double check 🙂
The characters are well written and realised on screen. Max and Furiosa exchange very few words, but the way they are portrayed and react to each other, and their situations, explains a lot more in a much more efficient way than simply flooding the audience with unnecessary dialogue.
Visually we are shown Imortan Joe’s world, the kind of guy he is, through scenes showing his control of water, crops and women and his reaction to Furiosa’s escape. The flip side of this shows us Furiosa’s character, her determination to get away and to protect her cargo. Max joins the fight with almost no dialogue, showing that, although he may be mad, Max still has human decency at his heart.
By their actions, we are drawn into those characters and empathise with them – all with the minimum of dialogue. Something silent films did for years.
Personally, I think this works better with actions, as opposed to just words.
If you get it wrong with dialogue, and/or use too much, then you risk losing your audience and the flow of the film, slowing it down… something Fury Road cannot be accused of.
Of course there are lots of other films out there that support the argument that dialogue is not the be all and end all of writing – in the same way there are hundreds that are reliant on heavy dialogue. From The Artist to The Social Network, dialogue has a place to play in every film, just in different ways. If you know your concept and your characters inside out, then the dialogue should be easier to find when you need it.
But don’t get bogged down if dialogue doesn’t come naturally to you (it will, eventually, it’s like anything you’re not good at – practice, practice practice) it’s just part of the process.
I struggle with dialogue myself, really struggle with it, so am working during my edits to develop my skills at writing and rewriting dialogue to reflect my characters as well as cutting it down to help the flow of the story.
So is dialogue THE most important aspects of screenwriting?
No, I don’t think so.
But it is ONE of many important components of screenwriting.
Screenwriting requires mastery of lots of elements, not just skill in one. Develop them all. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and a great concept may be ruined if executed with terrible dialogue and great dialogue might not be enough to save a script that contains weak characters.
So get writing and get practicing. Find yours and your characters’ voices and use their dialogue to bring your characters and concept to life and write the best damn story you can!
How do you use dialogue?
What tools do you use to develop dialogue?
Feel to comment below and share your thought on dialogue.