(SPOILERS: Casablanca, Little Miss Sunshine, The Godfather, Some Like It Hot)
There’s an old writing saying, “show, don’t tell.” Of course on film, something is always being shown to the audience. But the adage still applies, particularly when it comes to the character’s internal thoughts and feelings. We don’t want the character to tell us what’s going on with them psychologically, we want to see it. Telling the audience is exposition. Showing is drama.
So, how do we show something internal? The first tool we have is behavior. Actions speak louder than words. We’ll believe what a character does more than what they say.
Olive’s introduction in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) is a good example of this. Olive could say in dialogue that she dreams of being a beauty queen. But instead, we open with her watching a videotape of a pageant. The winner is crowned. Then Olive rewinds the tape and pauses. She mimics the winner’s pose and expression. We know she wants to be one of these women.
Dialogue can be behavior, too. What a character says can show how they’re feeling without being on the nose. You need to create a situation, however, that motivates revealing dialogue.
For example, consider the scene in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) when Michael goes to Vegas to buy out Mo Green. Fredo has arranged a big party, with girls and a band, but Michael tells him to get rid of all that. When Mo Green shows up, Michael says he wants to buy him out. Mo gets angry, tells Michael off. Michael doesn’t rise to the argument, but brings up a report that Mo slapped Fredo around. Fredo quickly defends Mo, saying, “Mo didn’t mean anything by that.” Trying to make peace, Fredo appeals to Tom, but Tom defers to Michael. The scene ends with Mo storming off and Michael warning Fredo never to take sides against the family again.
Notice what we’re learning about the characters in this scene. We see that Michael has now become the leader of the Corleone family – not just literally, but in his behavior. Like the Don, he is calm and collected, speaking softly because he knows he has a big stick. He even uses his father's legendary line, "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." Contrast that with how Mo Green behaves, belligerent and threatening in the scene. Michael is all business. And it tells us who really has the power.
Meanwhile we also see that Fredo is weak and afraid of conflict. He constantly tries to placate everyone. He defends Mo even though Mo has treated him badly. The characters never verbalize their feelings or anxieties – they couldn’t given the situation – but those things are still apparent in what they say and the way they say it.
The writers of The Godfather have set up a scene that forces Michael, Fredo and Mo to reveal themselves in the way they respond to each other. You can expand this idea to show character arc by create similar situations at various points throughout the script and using the character’s varying reaction to demonstrate change.
For example, in the first act of Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch), Rick says more than once, “I stick my neck out for no man.” And he demonstrates this when Ugarte is arrested. Ugarte comes to Rick, looking for help, and Rick refuses.
Later in the movie, Rick has discovered that what happened in Paris didn’t go down quite the way he thought. He begins to question his neutral philosophy. How do we see this?
A pretty, young Bulgarian woman comes to Rick. It seems one way to escape Casablanca for women like her is to sleep with Renault. This woman asks Rick if she does this thing, will Renault honor the deal to get her and her husband visas. Rick learns her husband is playing roulette in the back room. As the roulette game is fixed, Rick arranges for the man to win – they now have enough money to buy visas without the woman needing to prostitute herself.
The staff of Rick’s is overjoyed at their boss’s noble act – precisely because he would not have done it at the beginning of the film. We saw this with Ugarte. Notice that the Bulgarian couple scene has nothing to do with the main plot of the movie. It is there simply to demonstrate Rick’s changing character. And because of this scene, Rick doesn’t have to explain how he’s feeling.
Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) creates situations to show Joe’s character arc. Early in the movie, Joe and Jerry go to a music booker looking for work. We discover Joe stood up the secretary the night before. And we watch Joe lie to her to get out of trouble. Then, he goes even further – dangling the implication of another date to get her to loan him her car.
Compare that to later in the movie when the gangsters show up in Florida and the guys realize they are going to have to run again. With their lives in danger, Joe decides he can’t just leave Sugar without a word. He calls and once again lies, but this time he tries to construct a lie to spare her feelings. And he leaves her a diamond bracelet – the only real asset Joe and Jerry have for their flight! Would Joe have done that at the beginning of the movie? Based on the scene with the secretary, not likely.
And toward the very end of the movie, Joe sees Sugar singing a sad song on stage. He goes up on stage, kisses her, and tells her no guy is worth it – exposing his disguise. We now know that Joe’s attitude toward women has completely changed, without him needing to talk about it.
I see many bad scripts where character information is delivered in unmotivated, on-the-nose dialogue. Then I see scripts where the dialogue is better motivated and more natural – but the character is still talking about their feelings. These scripts don’t stand out as bad, but they lack drama to involve us in the story. They are telling us things, not showing us things.
During my rewriting, I always take a pass through my scripts looking for these moments where the character is telling us about their thoughts and feelings. When I find them, I think about how I might dramatize the character’s feelings instead. And if I need to show that a character is changing, I construct a situation like the Bulgarian couple in Casablanca that will cause the character to react in a revelatory way.
The result is a story that is filmic and dramatic – in other words, a movie!