Show, don’t tell.
These are probably some of the first words any of us ever heard in a screenwriting class.
At first, it might seem obvious. Film and television are visual media. You always want to give the audience something to watch. It’s boring to hear characters “speak information” to each other. It’s undramatic, and not entertaining.
But this most basic principle of dramatic writing goes beyond that — and it is an issue, at some point, in almost every script.
It’s not just that spoken dialogue is not an engaging way to transmit facts to the audience. It also doesn’t work very well. Readers and viewers are not able to absorb and process nearly as much information as writers tend to think, when it’s merely spoken in dialogue. Such information tends to just “bounce off”, especially when it comes out in undramatic situations, where the audience isn’t glued to the screen, because something really compelling is going on. If they’re not strongly engaged by conflict, drama and entertainment of some kind (and they’re just reading or hearing dialogue that’s giving them facts), they will tend to not really absorb all the information the writer is trying to feed them. Readers and audiences don’t want to work hard to have to take in, process and remember facts they’re being given. They’re there to be emotionally engaged and entertained.
Illustrate and dramatize
The best way to get an audience up to speed with what you need them to know about characters and situations in a screenplay is to let these facts come out within a dramatic, emotional, entertaining scene, where the information will emerge as a by-product of what they’re watching. You want what they SEE AND EXPERIENCE to communicate what they need to know. They should be watching characters under stress and in conflict, taking action of some kind, reacting to problems and trying to solve them. As the characters are doing that — feeling, wanting and reacting in relatable ways — the audience can also be learning things that they need to know, to understand the story.
Sometimes dialogue that states certain facts can be part of this, if it’s coming out within a really dramatic situation.
Consider the opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds. The audience needs to know a number of things. The Nazis are trying to round up French Jews, and this particular Nazi’s job is to do that. He’s been working on accounting for all the Jews in a certain area, and there’s one family that’s missing. So he decides to ask a particular French dairy farmer about that family — who are actually being hidden by the farmer beneath the floorboards of the room they’re sitting in.
Imagine how boring this would all be if we were told these facts in some scene of dialogue prior to this tense conversation between the Nazi and the farmer, or after it. Or if this Nazi was telling us about his work in voice-over. What if he were in a meeting with colleagues and they were talking about the missing French family, and this farmer? Or consider how it would play if we learned all this from the farmer talking about it with a sympathetic family member or friend. It would still suggest compelling scenes to come, because of the massive life-and-death stakes (which always helps keep an audience involved), but it wouldn’t be nearly as impactful.
But thankfully, none of this comes out in low-conflict information exchange between characters. Instead, you have an incredibly tense and dramatic scene where the audience is feeling strong emotion — on the edge of their seats, basically: fascinated, concerned, and entertained. And although some of the information about the situation does come out in the Nazi’s dialogue, it doesn’t feel boring, because there is so much DRAMA going on. And we will NEVER FORGET the things we learn in this scene. They are branded upon our consciousness because of all the emotion and stakes that were present as they came out. If we had learned any of this through informational dialogue in low-conflict situations, we might not really keep track of it. But because we EXPERIENCE it in a high-conflict situation, where we really CARE about what we’re finding out, it stays with us.
This is the real secret to “hiding exposition”. When you absolutely MUST have characters explain what’s going on in dialogue, it’s best to have them do so as part of a dramatic scene where there is high emotion and high conflict. (High spectacle helps, too.) So they’re not just speaking facts to a friend. Instead, something big is at stake, and there are problems and conflicting agendas that are present, and building. They’re saying it because they HAVE to, to try to get what they want. And everything they say only adds to the emotion and entertainment value of the situation, as opposed to subtracting from it by being bland “information exchange.”
When facts are related in a dull way, they often have to be repeated, even several times, if it’s something the audience absolutely needs to be aware of. Because if the writer hasn’t grabbed their attention and emotion (which is really the writer’s job), they’re just not paying that close attention, and they don’t have a reason to care about the facts being presented, or understand their importance.
Too much information
The most common issue with informational speech in screenplays is that characters relate facts to the audience by saying them to other characters who would already know those facts, in a wooden-sounding and overly explaining sort of way, that sounds like anything but realistic, naturalistic dialogue. And these tips can help with that. But I would go further by saying that even if the dialogue feels natural, it’s almost always boring for characters to just be exchanging information, without any meaningful conflict which advances the story, and is entertaining to watch. People telling each other facts is about the most unengaging thing one can watch on screen (along with people getting along and being happy). What grabs and keeps the attention and engagement of readers and viewers is conflict, difficulties, and emotion. Is there even a single moment of Inglourious Basterds (or other films you love) that isn’t focused on those three things?
Sometimes writers also put information for the audience in the scene description, not realizing that description is ONLY for painting the picture of what the audience would SEE ON SCREEN (or hear), and nothing else. Meaning, you can’t explain inner thoughts or back story in the description.
One might conclude from all this that it’s really difficult to give the audience the information they need. Sometimes there is a lot of it that is necessary to understanding the story and characters — seemingly too many things to be able to dramatize them all in scenes like the one described above.
What is one to do?
Sometimes the answer is to start the script earlier in time, so you can dramatize the key back story events, rather than tell us about them later. One can always then cut to the “present” after doing so. This almost always works better than giving us the back story in flashbacks, later. Flashbacks tend to be less compelling, because they pause the forward momentum of the present-day story, and because we know what’s happening in the flashbacks is in the PAST, so it lacks stakes. It’s already OVER. It’s not what’s happening now. It’s just a memory or explanation of something that once happened.
It’s also very possible that your story idea just has too many facts for the audience to be able to digest them all. This often happens with science fiction or fantasy-based scripts — where the underlying situation of the movie story is just too convoluted, and requires too much work on the part of the reader or audience to really get it, and buy into it all. Great movie stories tend to be pretty simple and straightforward, with easily identifiable lines of conflict, big and clear stakes, and easy-to-grasp situations that the audience can get emotionally hooked into, without a lot of explanation.
The key thing to remember is that every scene should be dramatic. It should be about conflict and emotion. If any scene is primarily about “information exchange,” there’s a problem.
Sometimes writers err on the other side — in order to avoid wooden dialogue, they don’t explain anything to the audience. But that can create an even bigger problem: confusion. Nothing makes readers or audiences angrier than not understanding what is going on, and feeling like an outsider who lacks the facts necessary to be able to process and get inside what’s happening.
So there’s really no escaping “rule #1,” the “prime directive” of screenwriters. And it’s not just something one learns as a beginner, and remembers not to do. It’s a living issue in every script, and in every scene.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.