Sunday, March 01, 2009

Show, don't tell

I've been thinking about script elements.

Everybody, who calls themselves a screenwriter, knows about sub-text. You don't have the characters say what they mean you have them say something else that either implies what they mean, or by context, means something other than the obvious. And so on.

You show character by a character's actions and words - you don't have your character say "I'm angry!" You have him slam the door behind him.

Reading the Wordplay site I came across their concept of script momentum and the off-screen action. In brief this means that the forward momentum of the script is actually created by what's going on off-screen. Character A comes on screen and says to Character B "Your father sends his love" and suddenly you know that A has spoken to B's father - with everything that might imply by context.

Theme is another thing that helps to provide cohesion in a script. Especially if each of your characters express some form of the theme. But you never express the theme openly (unless you're exceptionally talented) - because that would be crass and awkward, and people would laugh.

Another item discussed on Wordplay is Dramatic Irony - in fact it's given a higher importance than just about anything else. Like when you realise that a character has become the thing they hate - that's dramatic irony. (And so are a lot of other things, read the article.)

And there's "Show, don't tell". The rule that exists to annoy, because it is both true and false. (Though it is certainly more true than false.)

So, I've been thinking. There is one thing that all of these separate items have in common and that is "audience involvement".

Sub-text: The audience translates the real meaning.

Character emotion: The audience recognises the real emotion.

Script momentum: The audience fills in the scenes they now know must have happened (in some cases they have to keep re-imagining them - key example: "The Usual Suspects")

Theme: The audience picks it up through the action - it may not be what you intend.

Dramatic irony: The audience sees it, the characters will usually not, certainly not the ones expressing the irony.

Show don't tell: The audience is the one that makes the decisions about what they are seeing, you merely guide them through the action.

When a screenplay has these elements it is considered to be "good" and "true" - it's successful, when they're missing the screenplay is less.

Just imagine a screenplay where all these elements are missing: All the dialogue is on the nose, the characters say what they're feeling, everything happens explicitly on screen, there is no theme (or worse, every character tells you what the theme is), there is no dramatic irony, everything is told and not shown. (Like the ITV series "Demons" - sorry, couldn't resist.)

Each of these elements involves the audience as an active participant, required to think, to imagine, to add their own creativity to the mix. And I think that's an important fundamental - a script, to be good, involves the audience, it doesn't treat them as spectators.

What do you think? Have I missed any other element that requires audience involvement?

What's on the turntable? Nuffink


David Bishop said...

How about scenes of indirection? You know, where the audience hears something but can't see it - yet still understands what's going on. Indeed, their imagination may fill in the blanks much more vividly than anything you could have shown them as screenwriter. Horror films get a lot of mileage out of this. For example, in Se7en you didn't need to see what was in the box - you could imagine it for yourself.

Alternatively the audience sees characters talking but doesn't hear the words spoken, yet still understands. This gets used a lot when one character has to tell another bad news that the audience already knows. There's no need to repeat the info out loud. By turning the repetition into a scene of indirection, you focus the audience on the reaction of the person getting the bad news. [The West Wing did this a lot.]

I'd say these are both examples of show, don't tell that encourage audience involvement.

Adaddinsane said...

Yeah, good ones. Especially like the first one.