Show, Don’t Tell

I’ve been participating in the last three months in the screenplay writing classes [en, blog] recommended by Cinemagia [ro, html]. So I thought I could share with you some of the things I have learned and some conclusions I could get.

First, talking to some Romanian experts (being private conversations, I’ll not name them), there isn’t a Romanian screenplay school. Well, theoretically, there have been some initiatives (and now I’m participating in the most daring one). There are academic classes and master’s degree seminars on the topic, but they do without real relevance in the market. The few good screenplay writers write for television. Romanian film directors write their own screenplays. This is not normal for such a developed film industry as it is the case in Romania, but it’s the truth.

When writing a screenplay for a film on the big screen means structure. It means to develop a story in which each minute, each frame, contributes to moving the action further and revealing information that forms the character to the audience. It is far from writing a novel; it’s something much more mathematical-oriented. Considering how much a single minute of produced film costs, respecting the investor’s resources is a good practice.

A screenplay must have a theme and a general abstract reduced to a few words. The screenplay’s idea is what it says about that theme. It’s a complex, abstract sentence, which leads to how the ending must be constructed to reveal that specific idea. The subject is the general concrete manner in which the screenplay will show the selected idea about the theme.

Each screenplay can be resumed by constructing “what if…?”. Then, causing plot point one (the intrigue) comes the “but what if…?”, which is incidental to the action, causing a conflict which will develop, climb beyond the midpoint into plot point two, and be resolved in the ending. Although it might seem simple, the more complex an action is, the more difficult it is to translate it into these terms to make the correct dose.

As I mentioned in this article about author positioning [en, blog], one of the main issues with my short writings or exercises is that there isn’t any twist in them, or the action is too simple or too static. Although this might be acceptable or appropriate in some dramatic plays for theatre, it is incompatible with film writing. If your reader says: “so what?” to your story, if it doesn’t have the proper structure or doesn’t have the right way to express your vision, then its potential is totally irrelevant.

Therefore, if there’s a conflict, it must be visual. In literature, you can write pages about a character’s dilemma with his own thoughts. In a film, you can’t. You must show it. And here comes the good news for me. Having a nuanced understanding of how psychology works and studying human resources allows me to have a deeper approach to how to choose certain behaviors to show certain aspects. To establish a character talking about the information you want your audience to find out is redundant and pleonastic. To have information about a character, you must be able to create that message through conflict through visuals. To be extreme, what you can’t see in a movie, doesn’t exist. What cannot be shown cannot live in the film. It’s as simple as that.

What I’m learning now is how to create signification through devising such means of visual expression, and it is truly inspiring to have such a great teacher like Mihnea Columbeanu to learn from because he has a great way of delivering structure, practically, for everyone, no matter of the experience or field of work.

Another important aspect of writing screenplays is keeping the field to what you know. Explaining what happens on the screen must be articulated, integrated into the whole vision, and coherent and credible. A certain credibility is used as a common language in a film. There are things you can use, things you cannot, and things to use. I would have liked to write a screenplay about the Iraq war’s siege from Fallujah in 2004, for example. But I haven’t been to Irak. I don’t have any military experience and no knowledge of political and historical circumstances. I have merely read two books and a few articles about it. But, having expertise in a particular field is not a clear recommendation for writing screenplays. For example, I had a few exercises set in the corporate world. They did not work. They weren’t too visual. And I was too involved to think like a screenwriting professional approaching the topic with objectivity. I can write good commercial screenplays, but that is not news for me, nor is it my goal.

I think there will be a while until I have the first screenplay for a short film, but now I’m just working on it and sharing some of my impressions with you in the meantime.

Marcus Victor Grant

Text copyright © Marcus Victor Grant 2009-present, all rights reserved.

The materials on this blog are subject to this disclaimer.


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