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Show, Don't Tell With Concisely Written Scripts

“Good writing is vigorous. Vigorous writing is concise. Every word must count.” This guidance from William Strunk’s book “The Elements of Style” was the most valuable lesson I learned in high school. How does this apply to writing for the screen?

The economical and efficient use of words is necessary regardless of the type of project. Screenwriters are guided by the maxim that movies should “show, not tell” the story. We can’t “see” what’s going on inside a character’s mind. To understand the character’s feelings, the writer may give the actor some insight through scene and action descriptions – but they absolutely must avoid the temptation to allow those descriptions to balloon into an essay. They too must be concise.

Unscripted projects, such as interviews, also benefit from the interviewer posing clear questions in straightforward language. It is incumbent upon the interviewer to ask follow up questions when the subject falls into the use of jargon by either restating the answer or by asking a followup question to coax the guest into giving a more easily understandable response.

Writing ad copy for commercials obviously has its own challenges. The principal one is time. You can’t ramble on when you only have 15, 30, or 60 seconds to motivate the viewer to take an action. An unfocused pitch is not going to lead to a sale.

My advice to writers is to follow the “KISS” principle – keep it simple, stupid. KISS doesn’t mean the language must be bland. With thought, the concise use of comical, vernacular or evocative language can be extremely effective. Have fun with it, but remain disciplined.

John Aaron, author