How to apply “show, don’t tell” in screenplays

I have a fairly large collection of “pitching sessions from hell” stories, but there was one that stands out because I blew it—afterward.

This was early in my career, and actually the pitching session itself went great. The executive loved the idea and commissioned a script for a TV movie.

I wrote the treatment, which included quite a few vivid character descriptions.

He loved the treatment.

I wrote the first draft.

He didn’t love the first draft.

He said, “In your pitch and in the treatment, your characters really came to life. I don’t see these people in the script. They’re not really coming off the page.”

He was right. I’d focused so much on having my characters hit their plot marks that I’d forgotten all the great plans I had for them as characters.

Fortunately he didn’t fire me and I had the chance to put things right in the next draft. I found ways to bring back the nuances that had made the characters interesting in the first place. The plot worked better, too, because you understood more about why people were doing what they were doing.

Now I find two things useful to think about from the start:

1: How does the character reveal who he or she is?

2: What does the character try to conceal about himself or herself, and how does that come out anyway?

Maybe that second one requires a little explanation. Usually people try to hide what they consider their bad or weak side. A guy tells people he’s over his ex and it was the best thing for both of them that they split. How do we show that he’s not really over her? Maybe he parks outside place for a few minutes every night (how this is presented will tell us whether it’s wistful or menacing).

Another example: A woman makes a point of giving a homeless person money when she’s with her friends, but when she’s by herself she walks past him without a look.

When you work these things out, your script will be richer—and your buyer happier.

- – -

Jurgen Wolff is a veteran screenwriter. You’ll find his screenwriting tips here every week and also on his website, www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com. Also get his book, “Your Writing Coach,” published by Nicholas Brealey.