Tell, Don’t Show: Nine Exceptions When You Should Break Screenwriting Rules

tl;dr Understand diegesis and mimesis.

  • Explain everything immediately, vs. letting audience figure it out.
  • Nothing is ambiguous; good characters are neither completely good nor completely bad.
  • Bad dialog is simplified; good dialog is idiosyncratic and shows that different people live in different worlds.

Exception #1: Use sound. Don’t show, don’t tell.

Exception #2: Show characters’ reactions to event, and skip the events.

Exception #3: Sex and violence are best left off-screen, unless you’re making a horror movie or porn.

Exception #4: Use dialog to show a character’s idiosyncrasies and the inner world he inhabits.

Exception #5: When characters aren’t present to events, you can’t show the events.

Exception #6: Subvert expectations by revealing inner feelings that contradict outward appearances.

Exception #7: Each scene needs a character that the audience identifies with. If an event occurs in which the audience won’t identify with the characters, move the event off-screen and have the event discussed by a character whom the audience identifies with.

Exception #8: When making connections from the past to the present, visual references don’t work. A screenwriter has to break the fourth wall and tell the audience to make the connection.

Exception #9: Images distance viewers; inner thoughts and feelings connect us

Howard’s End (1992)

Have you written any other blog posts about screenwriting?

Your screenplay Young Adolf sounds awesome! Where can I read it?

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Thomas David Kehoe

Thomas David Kehoe

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I make technology for speech clinics to treat stuttering and other disorders. I like backpacking with my dog, competitive running, and Russian jokes.