MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

SHOW DON'T TELL


Ong Bak DVD

If you can't see it on film it doesn't exist. We have to communicate the story to the audience. Often in screenplays the writer TELLS the story on the page in a way that doesn't translate to the screen. Instead of finding ACTIONS that DEMONSTRATE the emotions of the character they write how the character feels... which probably never shows up on screen.

"George feels miserable. He has a throbbing headache."

When we read the script, we know that George doesn't feel well, but this lays the burden of transferring this information to the audience on the actor. How can the audience ever know that he has a headache? How does an actor "play" headache? Instead of finding the way to give the audience this information, you have dumped it onto the actor's lap. Made the actor responsible for telling the story, when that's YOUR job as a screenwriter!

Many writers "cheat" by telling us how a character feels - but this is always tied to an ACTION we can see.

"George massages his temples. He feels miserable."

The "cheat" is telling us HOW George massages his temples. He isn't trying to prompt a thought - that's a different kind of temple massage. The "cheat" is used to prevent confusion.

The best thing to do is to come up with a concrete action - not an expression - that tells the audience that George has a headache. What do people DO when they have a headache? You could have him pop aspirin - maybe pouring two into his hand initially then deciding to increase it to four. Man, that's a serious headache! Or maybe he lays a warm, damp cloth over his head.

Ong Bak 2 DVD

If you don't SHOW IT the audience can't know it. As *screenwriters* our job is to find the actions that show us what characters are feeling or thinking... or that show relationships and emotions. We can only use sight and sound - which means we need to find the way to transfer thoughts and feelings into actions of dialoigue. When some "guru" preaches against cheats, the often leave out the *reason* behind the rule - if you tell instead of show you may end up with critical information that never makes it to the screen. George's headache or his sorrow due to the death of his mother or his anger over whatever - may never end up on screen. If that is *critical* information for the story, you may end up with a script that reads well but a *film* that doesn't work at all. Though I haven't seen SAVAGES yet, most of the reviews complain that we don't care about nor understand nor believe in any of the characters... and that is often a sign of a script that *tells* us that information but never demonstrates it. So those things are left on the page and never make it to the screen. So characters end up all surface, because their *character* is never demonstrated. Script reads well, film doesn't work.

You may not have heard of ONG BAK, it's a martial arts movie from Thailand that's similar to the movies Jackie Chan was making in Hong Kong (like PROJECT A and POLICE STORY). Amazing stunts and lots of humor. The ads say, "No computer graphics. No stunt doubles. No strings attached."

The film is filled with amazing acrobatics and inventive action sequences... and like the old Jackie Chan movies the stunts are the star. Lots of things that make you wonder if the stunt men are suicidal, and others where you marvel at their physical abilities. There's an amazing scene where the hero is cornered by about a hundred bad guys, and actually jumps up to a bad guy's shoulder (no wires) and runs across their shoulders until he's behind them! This begins an amazing chase scene where the hero jumps through a roll of barbed wire, glides between two panes of glass, and jumps through both doors of a moving car. The star, Tony Jaa, does all of these things for real (like Jackie Chan used to, before he came to Hollywood).

Even though films like this often end up being nothing more than "action porn" (a bunch of action scenes strung together by a flimsy plot), ONG BAK has a pretty good story behind all of those amazing stunt sequences.

Protector - not as good DVD

The film begins with a couple of dozen young men at a little rural village's annual competition: on the very top of a giant ancient tree is a flag, the guy who gets to the bottom of the tree with the flag wins. Doesn't sound like much, huh? But when the village's Monk says, "Go!" not only do the guys start climbing the tree like monkeys (jumping from branch to branch) they also try to knock each other off the tree. Some of these guys go *bouncing* from branch to branch down the tree until they either hit the ground or grab hold of a branch and start climbing again.

Our hero, Ting, gets to the top of the tree first, then manages to avoid every shove, win every fight (two guys standing on a tree branch fighting) and do some amazing acrobatic swings from branch to branch in order to make it to the ground with the flag in hand. He's the winner - the best athlete and best fighter in the village. The old Monk has taken him on as protege (Ting is an orphan), and taught Ting the ancient Muay Thai martial arts technique... but warned him that it should never be used for fighting. It's deadly, and people should not hurt each other. Ting swears he will not use the techniques in fights. He's a good kid.

When bandits from the city come to plunder the village, they take steal the head of the village's Buddha, Ong Bak. This sacrilege will cause the village to suffer if it's not resolved. The rain will stop, the crops will die, and animals will become ill. They need someone to go into the big city (Bangkok), find the head of Ong Bak, and return it... and Ting volunteers. One of the village elders a son who has moved to the big city, maybe he can help... though he hasn't written to his father in years.

So Ting prepares to leave his little village for the big city. How can we *show* his responsibility to the village? How can we *show* that the fate of his village is in his hands?

haven't seen this one DVD

In a great scene, everyone in the village gathers to wish Ting luck... and many of the villagers give him their own personal good luck charms to take with him. Others give him the coins they have hidden away (money isn't used in the village - they barter). There's something from every single member of the village. All of these good luck charms and coins are carefully wrapped in a yellow scarf that Ting carries with him for the rest of the movie. That yellow scarf full of valuables is symbolic of the village.

When Ting gets to Bangkok and looks up the elder's son, the guy has Americanized his name to "George" and has given up all of his traditional values... and eventually steals the yellow scarf and its contents to bet on a prize fight. When George loses all of the villager's money and good luck charms, Ting has no choice but to enter the ring and fight a *huge* guy in order to win them back. Hey, didn't he swear never to use his fighting skills? So Ting is torn between his promise to the Monk and his responsibility to the villagers... a pretty good dilemma for a stunt-driven action flick... and something we can *see*. We can now see Ting torn between his two responsibilities... in an action scene!

That yellow scarf filled with all of the villager's money and good luck charms is something we can *see*, and that means we can *show* Ting's responsibility to the village that's hundreds of miles away. The scene where they give him their treasures *shows us* Ting being entrusted with the village's future.

The problem with TELLING instead of SHOWING is that your story stays on the page... it never makes it to the screen. I've read too many scripts where important information about a character is only available to those who read the script. Our job is to communicate to the AUDIENCE. That means any emotions or thoughts or feelings a character might have need to be communicated through either DIALOGUE or ACTIONS - what characters SAY or what they DO.

Go through your script and remove anything that isn't dialogue or action - those things won't show up on screen so why waste a devo's time reading them?

If you like the humor and amazing stunts of Jackie Chan's Hong Kong films, check out ONG BAK on DVD.

Remember, if you don't show it, they can't know it.


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DESCRIPTION & VOICE Blue Book.

IS HALF OF YOUR STORY IN TROUBLE?

Most screenplays are about a 50/50 split between dialogue and description - which means your description is just as important as your dialogue. It just gets less press because the audience never sees it, the same reason why screenwriters get less press than movie stars. But your story will never get to the audience until readers and development executives read your script... so it is a very important factor. Until the movie is made the screenplay is the movie and must be just as exciting as the movie. So how do you make your screenplay exciting to read? Description is important in a novel as well, and the “audience” does read it... how do we write riveting description?

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copyright 2017 by William C. Martell


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