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.

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

How To Use Foreshadowing In Your Screenplay

Scissors can be used to foreshadow your screenplay

Scissors can be used to foreshadow your screenplay Image via Wikipedia

A screenwriter sent me an email saying she understands the need for foreshadowing but wasn’t sure how to do it. Of course the specific content depends on the story but here are some general ways you can adapt:

1. A visual clue. A very obvious one is letting us glimpse a gun in a drawer when your protagonist is looking for a pair of scissors. We know that gun will be used at some point.

2. An innocent verbal clue. This could be something that we don’t even notice standing out in any way, but later it pays off. For instance, someone might mention that he used to enjoy hunting, and that makes sense later when we see that he’s a great shot.

3. A verbal cue that stands out. By this I mean something that is out of the ordinary and you do notice it. For instance, if somebody is asked casually which school they went to and they answer, “I don’t see why that’s important,” it signals that at some point in the story we’ll find out a reason why they’re touchy about that subject.

4. A musical cue. This often is the province of the director and the person who composes the sound track. In a thriller, for example, a particular piece of music may tip us off that something awful is about to happen.

To avoid having any one element of foreshadowing be too obvious, often the writer will throw in some red herrings–some things that could be foreshadowing but in fact don’t pay off or pay off in a different way than we expect.

The person who has the gun in the drawer may become an immediate suspect in our minds, but later maybe we see him use it to light his cigarette and we realize it’s not a real gun (of course he may have a real one somewhere else….). That kind of misdirection keeps the audience guessing.

The goal is to make your foreshadowing subtle enough that it’s only in hindsight that the visual or verbal cue takes on significance.

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Jurgen Wolff offers a new screenwriting tip here every Tuesday; also see his site, and his book, “Your Writing Coach.”


What Screenwriters Can Learn From Documentary Filmmakers

Recently I taught a workshop to a group of documentary filmmakers, and I was reflecting on how much easier we screenwriters have it. The docu-makers may have a general story idea in mind, but often in the course of filming it turns out that reality doesn’t cooperate.

Sometimes one of the people they’re filming dies or decides to stop cooperating. Sometimes they’re following a process with an unknown ending–for instance, the life of a contender in the Olympics. If she wins gold , they have a great story. If she gets silver or bronze, it’s still a good story. If she comes in fourth, there’s the drama of such a near miss. But if she comes in sixth, or has to pull out because of an injury, the story line isn’t so clear.

Sometimes documentary makers end up with hundreds of hours of footage without a clear story spine. That’s when they have to dig deep and sometimes they find a story that’s much more interesting than the one they hoped to get. In the case of the Olympic athlete, for instance, it might be her relationship with her father, who is also her coach. Or it might be the aftermath–what does an athlete do when it’s clear she’s peaked?

I think what we can learn from documentary makers is to pause before we launch into the obvious story and dig deeper to see if there’s a more interesting, perhaps more subtle, one lurking underneath.

Jurgen Wolff offers a new screenwriting tip here every Tuesday; also see his site, and his book, “Your Writing Coach.”

Tennessee Williams’ advice to screenwriters

OK, I’m fibbing, it was actually Tennessee Williams’ advice to playwrights, but it applies just as much to screenwriters:

“What shouldn’t you do if you’re a playwright? Don’t bore the audience! I mean, even if you have to resort to totally arbitrary killing onstage, or pointless gunfire, at least it’ll catch their attention and keep them awake. Just keep the thing going anyway you can.”

Of course you don’t really want totally arbitrary events in your script, but if you need to capture their attention, put it in and then in the next draft work your way backward in the story so it has some motivation or at least is foreshadowed and work your way forward in the story to make sure it has a consequence.

(Jurgen Wolff offers a new screenwriting tip here every Tuesday; also see his site, and his book, “Your Writing Coach.”)


Screenwriting: Why Kim Cattrall got mad at me

I just saw Kim Cattrall mentioned in the news and it took me back to a long time ago when I did a rewrite of one of her early movies, “Mannequin.”

It was my first script doctoring job and I was in a hotel in Philadelphia, every night faxing the new pages to the studio in LA. where the head of the studio read them the next morning. I wanted to make it as easy for him to visualize the script as possible, especially since he was reading in installments of about ten pages a day. Because of that, I used “parentheticals” like “angrily” or “wearily” much more often than I normally would.

Then the cast came in for the first read-through. Kim Cattrall took out a big marker pen and started marking stuff out. Somebody asked her what she was doing. She glared at me and said, “Crossing out all the places the writer told me how to act.”

Ouch. But I was right, because I was writing a reading script, one that was being read under difficult circumstances.

If you’re writing a script to be read by someone who is possibly going to buy it, you want to make it as easy and entertaining as possible. Yes, it’s easy to overdo the parentheticals, ideally your dialogue itself suggests how it will be delivered. But when it helps, go ahead. A sarcastic remark from an actress is not too high a price to pay.

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For screenwriting tips from Jurgen Wolff, come back here every Tuesday and also see his site, and check out his book, “Your Writing Coach,” available from Amazon and other online and offline booksellers.