“Show don’t tell” is one of the first bits of advice you will be given. It is the sort of advice that you think is obvious and doesn’t need giving. But after reading a few amateur scripts you realise not many people know how to implement “show don’t tell”.
Where does “show don’t tell” get used?
Everywhere. When you are writing a scene, a character description or an entire screenplay you must stick to this maxim as much as possible.
Here is a character description. JESS (40) enters the room, resourceful from growing up on the street.
What does that look like? Jess may have a suit on, Jess could be male or female, Jess could be any race. Even if we ignore the lack of detail around appearance. What does, “resourceful from growing up on the street”, look like? If a character is resourceful you must show them being “resourceful”.
Some writers start telling (rather than showing) in a hope that it will tell the reader the character’s personality. When the film is made, how will the character’s personality be demonstrated? This needs to be performed and on display to be understood by the audience. Remember, the audience will not have the screenplay to read.
Here is a “show don’t tell” example.
JESS sits at her desk staring at a spreadsheet on her PC. She grabs her phone and calls someone. In that phone call she explains how a project can be brought back in budget. She quips about it’s just like getting $10 worth of groceries for $5. The benefit of growing up on the street. This conversation could be used to show other aspects of her personality, the relationship with the person she is calling and even how the world sees her now. This is a far better outcome than just telling the reader Jess is resourceful. Information given, is far better to be shown in context. Just telling the reader rather than showing them is the worst outcome and does nothing to make the reader feel that they are in good hands.
Here is a video that explains it as well.
The exception. The only time I think it is okay to tell the reader is an emotion. Jess looks down sad. This is simple. You could put Jess looks down; tears fill her eyes. But this may not be how the reader saw Jess. Sad is universal. Having said that describing how an emotion appears physically can be more heart breaking or get a better emotion from your reader. Try both and see what works.