Show it don't tell it, and don't direct it... unless you have to

The title of this section is one of the biggest secrets in successful script writing. This is more of a style issue than a formatting issue.

As a writer, your goal is to tell a story, that will be seen not read. But before it is bought, it'll be read, not seen. So, you have to tell it in a way that makes the reader "see" it. And you want them to feel like they're seeing a movie, not a slide show.

Script readers refer to a good script as a "fast read." And they mean that literally. That they can get from page 1 to 120 quickly. That they feel a flow as they read a page and a rhythm as they turn the pages. That they don't find themselves stuck on a page, trying to imagine what's supposed to be happening.

Two powerful ways you can help create this effect for the reader are by "showing not telling" and by not directing. "Telling" most often refers to characters who describe something we could just as well see. If they're describing a past event, we might, instead see it in a flashback. If they're talking about another character doing something, it might be more interesting to see the other character do it. If a character says, "I love you," would it be more interesting to see the character gently kiss his love on the forehead and place a rose petal on her lips as he leaves. If a picture tells 1000 words, a moving picture tells 10 times that!

In your Action, too, use images whenever you can. Reading a good description of how a man smolders (specifically, how he behaves) as he sits on an airplane, with a noisy neighbor, is much more interesting than reading:

The man smolders, annoyed by his noisy 

Of course, sometimes, that's the best way to say it. But, one of the most common problems in scripts is things told and not shown.

"Directing" in your writing means that you're describing shots, camera angles, ways the actor should speak when it's either not necessary or when you could do it more subtly with better writing. Directing in your writing slows down the read, because you're trying to create a very specific mental image in the reader's mind. Creating that image takes more time than if you let his mind create something that's close enough to your intention. In fact, the reader will often have images in his mind before you get to direct your writing. If his images conflict with your direction, that'll make a "bad read." Think about the difference between reading a comic strip and then seeing it animated. You know how the voices in the cartoon are never what you had in your head when you read the strip? You don't want to add so many directions to your script that you create that same feeling in the reader.

Notice what happens when you read the following two sentences:

Jim's nose turns bright red.


CLOSE ON JIM'S NOSE as it turn bright red.

Both describe the same event. In addition to the second one taking up more space than it need to, it's telling you to focus on Jim's nose, to make sure you get a picture of Jim's nose in your mind. Didn't you automatically do that when you red the first sentence? Didn't your mental camera naturally get "CLOSE ON" Jim's nose just because we mentioned it?

I'd be silly to suggest, though that you can never tell or direct in your writing. There are times when you have to! Think of the final scenes of private eye movies when the investigator sits all the suspects around the table and describes how the crime was committed. That's telling which is necessary and works... now if you cut away from the scene before the criminal confessed and took a leap for the investigator, and then had another scene where a cop says:

          I can't believe you got
          Smiley to confess! And when
          he took a jump at you! Boy!

That's telling in the worst way.

Same thing with directing. There are times when, if you don't direct in your writing, the reader misses the point or the joke or the clue. We would miss a chance to build suspense in our private eye movie if, right before the criminal takes a leap at the investigator, we didn't add some direction like:

Under the table we see someone's take a 
knife from a holder, hidden in their sock.

But, it would be too much directing to say it this way:

                                     CUT TO:
Where we SEE a pair of hands.
As they move down the pants leg to a hidden
knife holder.

If you think your average agent hates being directed, imagine what would happen if a director was reading a highly directed script. They'd have hours upon hours of mumbling, "Don't tell me how to direct and where to put the damn camera! That's MY job!"

Oh, and actors are even worse. They really don't like being told what to do by writers (and, often, by directors or producers either). Write your dialogue so that the directions to the actors about how to read it are "hidden" in the dialogue itself. Compare this:

          Do you love me?
          Of course I do.

To this:

          Do you love me?
          Yeah, right, Mr. Commitment.

Obviously, you'll sometimes need to use a Parenthetical to make your point about the line, but too many parens screams "bad writer" to most readers.

Finally, use the same judgments and guidelines above when you want to use italics, bold or underlined text for emphasis. Do it if you need to, but try to write so that the thing you're trying to emphasize demands emphasis by your writing, not your highlighting.

If you haven't already been there, head to Scripts are elements.