One of my favorite things about screenwriting is all the excellent terms and phrases that come with creating for the screen. Of course, things like Chekhov's gun, beats, and sluglines are all important to learn about and use. But I would say the granddaddy of all the adages in screenwriting, and also maybe the most important one, is, "Show, don't tell."

If you've attended film school, read any of the posts on screenwriting from this website, or nerded out listening to screenwriters talk, then you have heard those words before.

But what does that mean? And how can you define it? 

Today, I'm going to go over the meaning of "Show, don't tell," provide some examples, and also talk about why this is maybe the most important thing to remember as you continue on your writing journey. Even if you think you've mastered it, there's always more to learn.

Incredible "Show, Don't Tell" Examples and Definition in Film and Television

Show, Don't Tell

As I mentioned above, this phrase has been circling since the dawn of screenwriting time. Chances are you were told it once and may have forgotten, or maybe you've watched so many TV shows and movies that you just inherently know what it means because it's part of cinematic language.

I have a master's in screenwriting from Boston University, which puts me around $200,000 in debt and greatly affects what I can afford. But I now get to tell you what "Show, don't tell" means for free, so I guess it's all worth it...

"Show, Don't Tell" Definition 

This is a technique used by writers that allow the audience to experience the story via action in conjunction with their own thoughts and feelings, rather than through exposition, dialogue, or voiceover. 

It means you're not hitting the audience over the head with on-the-nose dialogue or description.

"Show, Don't Tell" Explanation 

You have the bookish definition, but what this really means is someone watching a movie or TV show at home receives information about the characters or plot not through someone saying something out loud, but by their actions on screen.

In layman's terms, it means watching a character doing something and understanding the story rather than having a character tell you that same thing and understanding it. Instead of a character saying, "I'm sad," they demonstrate that emotion through subtext or action. Instead of a character declaring, "I'm a firefighter," you show that character wearing fire-fighting gear or emerging from a blazing building.

In film and television, we're dealing with a visual medium. If you had characters standing around telling you lots of information, it would be boring. Or it would feel like a play. We like to see people moving, in action.

While dialogue that snaps is great, at the end of the day we should get most of the information told to us through someone's actions, and not their words. 

The Origin of "Show, Don't Tell"

Often, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is said to have originated the idea in a letter to his brother. He wrote:

"In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you'll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball."

That's not exactly "Show, don't tell," but the idea is close.

Actually, it's probably more accurate to attribute the phrase to Percy Lubbock and The Craft of Fiction, a series of essays about novel writing published in the 1920s. He wrote:

"The story stands obediently before the author, with all its developments and illustrations, the characters defined, the small incidents disposed in order.His solethought is how to present the story, how to tell it in away that will give the effect he desires, how to show the little collection of facts so that they may announce the meaning he sees in them. I speak of his 'telling' the story, but of course he has no idea of doing that and no more;the art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself."

That's a bit heady, but what Lubbock writes here is very close to our modern "Show, don't tell."

All you have in screenwriting is, as we've said, the visuals. You can present them to your audience and hope they "give the effect" you want and the meaning you intend. Hopefully, you're writing in a way that the story "will tell itself" without you having to hit the audience over the head with exposition.

"Show, Don't Tell" Examples in Movies 

The best examples of "Show, don't tell" come from thrillers and crime movies, I think. The reason is that we usually see police or detectives gathering clues as they go. In something like Knives Out, we see its lead detective gathering clues the whole movie. Sure, at the end he tells us what they all mean, but up until then, we're just showing him bend to find dirt, look at footprints, and watch the family's behavior. 

Of course, a lot of the DNA of this movie comes from the great detective movies of old, like Chinatown. No better movie takes the showing to heart. We find Jake Gittes following and snapping photos of a woman he believes to be someone else. Then hired by the other woman to solve the murder of her husband, we see Jake slowly compiling his case. He puts clocks under car wheels to time their departures, steals a business card he passes on as his own, and commits actions like ripping pages out of books to build his case. 

We're showing the audience information here and allowing them to learn the plot and about Jake. He's smart, industrious, and not afraid to get into trouble or put his body on the line. He gets his nose sliced and crashes his car in an orange orchard in the name of detective work. We're shown things about him—no one tells us these details. And we're more invested because of it because we appreciate his hard work and put together the clues on our own. 

Another way to use it would be how they did in The Last Duel, where we're shown three different perspectives of the same story. Here, we're given lots of nuance and explanation depending on the point of view of each story. We're left with the pieces to put together and to understand the plot at hand.

"Show, Don't Tell" Examples in TV 

There are lots of examples of this in television. First, let's look at the Game of Thrones pilot, where we have to learn about so many characters and their status in the world. When the Lannisters arrive, we see people line up to greet them. We know, via this act of respect, that these are the important characters. We also know with a look and a grunt, that Cersei Lannister does not like leaving King's Landing. 

Or how about in LOST's pilot. We know Jack is a doctor not because we're told. That comes later. We know because we see him racing all over the beach to help victims of a plane crash. We're shown all of the survivors in their elements. Whether it's Kate trying to get a handcuff off, or Hurley just being a good guy, we learn so much by putting characters in adverse situations and showing us how they react. 

Finally, think about a talky sitcom like I Love Lucy. We know who Lucy is as a character. We know she can get overwhelmed. But instead of her telling us she's getting overwhelmed and saying she's getting drunk on "Vitameatavegamin," we're shown how she gets progressively drunk. And it's funnier for it! 

Summing Up "Show Don't Tell" Examples and Definitions in Film and Television

Now that you know all about "Show, don't tell," go off and use it in your writing. Think about every scene. Can you convey what's happening without dialogue? If so, maybe you can cut out some lines. The audience is smart, and we have to remember that. They want to be involved with the story and they want to interact with the narrative.

The more you show and the less you tell, the more they can dive deep into the story and enjoy it. 

Let us know any tips you have about doing this in your writing below. I can't wait to start the discussion in the comments.