Why “Show, not tell” works

The screenwriting principle of “show, not tell” works because people do not normally criticize their own work.

If you show the actions of a character, the audience will make their own judgements of who that character is and what they want. These judgements of the characters combine in the audience’s minds to build up their own stories about the ingredients of your movie. One of the tricks then is to let the audience sometimes get ahead of the characters and at other times let them fall behind.

People enjoy being correct in the assessments of what will happen. They also like to be surprised, as long as the surprises are consistent with what has gone before. If you are writing clear actions based on specific desires, the audience will enjoy developing their own takes on what is going on; very few people criticize their own ‘writing’ ability when enjoying a well-written film.


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