Monday, 14 November 2016

SCREENWRITING FUNDAMENTALS #11 SHOW CHARACTER - DON'T TELL

A simple one today - but for some reason, it's an area that many writers fail at... 

We've all heard the maxim - Show Don't Tell.

But what does it really mean?

Telling is when the writer plainly states what the actor's emotions are.

Michelle feels sad.

John is happy. 

It's the simplest way of conveying an emotion on the page. 

The problem with this kind of writing is that the audience will be watching your film on a screen. They don't have access to the screenplay. 

But my actor will know how to show the emotion - the audience can tell from that.

Maybe.

Odds are the actor will go with a rote performance - they'll change their performance to try and reflect the emotion that's being asked of them.

This CAN work - but you run the risk of phony emotions. 

Emotions are best conveyed through context. 

You put a character in a terrifying position - say - trapped in their car teetering on the edge of a bridge, over a 300-foot-deep canyon - and you'll find that writing - John is really scared - is completely moot. 

We know just how John is feeling because of the context of the situation. 

Your first step is to setup the emotion through context. 

The audience should KNOW intrinsically how the character is feeling simply by the scenario of events that surround them. 

But what if my character's emotion is different to the expected emotion?

Great question.

We deal with this by SHOWING the REACTION to that scenario. 

This is where we get into SHOWING rather than TELLING.

Let's take that car teetering on the edge of a bridge about to plummet to the bottom of a canyon.

You've setup your context.

The expected emotion is TERRIFIED. 

But terrified is a broad canvas. What kind of terrified is your character going to be?

1) Terrified - panicked.
2) Terrified - together.

Let's look at how to SHOW these two different versions of the same emotion...

1) Terrified - panicked.

Rather than write - John is terrified and panicked... 

You would show John get out of his seat belt in a rush, try to open the door - but it's locked - he crawls to the back of the car quickly and kicks desperately at the rear window until it shatters then he dives out. 


2) Terrified - composed.

Rather than write - John is terrified but composed...

Try... John takes a second to breathe - think - how best to deal with this situation. He slowly releases his seat-belt - wary of his every move. He gently tries the door, won't open. He carefully climbs into the back seat, moving like a sloth so as to not upset the equilibrium of the car...

Of course - it doesn't have to be that your character is a variation of the expected emotion.

Their emotion could be the opposite...

3) Ambivalent.

Michelle looks at the canyon below, strangely fascinated by just how close to death she is.  She lights a cigarette, grabs her cell phone and dials a friend... 'Hey buddy, you won't believe where I am and what just happened...'

Ultimately it's up to you, the writer, to decide what emotion you want to convey, then when you've decided on that - express that emotion through the REACTION your character has to the CONTEXT of the SCENARIO you have setup.

THE TAKEAWAY

Go to the script you're working on at the moment. 

Go scene by scene.

Write down what the context of each scene is. 
Then write down the broad emotion that would be expected of that scenario.
Now decide - is my character going to react in an expected way or unexpected?

EXPECTED - which type of that expected emotion will it be?

HAPPY - What kind of happy?
SAD - What kind of sad?
ANGRY - What kind of angry?

Etc...

Now SHOW that emotion through your character's reaction to the scenario in the scene.

OR...

If you're not going with the expected emotion...

Decide on the UNEXPECTED emotion you want your character to express, then...

...SHOW that emotion through your character's reaction to the scenario in the scene.