Practicing Show, Don’t Tell

Sep 21, 2022 | Tips & Techniques Emails

Summer is a great time to explore our creativity and stretch our writing skills. We can get out into the sun and nature, smell the flowers, daydream under the clouds, and make use of the long summer days to chase adventure and catch up on our big writing projects.
In lieu of a tip or technique this month, we’d like to share with you a fun “show, don’t tell” exercise to help keep those creative juices flowing as summer draws to a close.
First, watch the following clip from the opening scenes of the Pixar movie Up:     
Click here to watch the clip  
This short clip shows scenes from the life of a married couple—Carl and Ellie. And while it is a sad story, it clearly and eloquently sets the stage for the drama to come. (By the way, if you’re looking for a colorful movie about adventure and imagination to watch this summer, we recommend checking out the full movie Up (Pixar, 2009).)
What is intriguing about this movie segment from a writing perspective is that in four and a half minutes the screenwriters conveyed the ups and downs of Carl and Ellie’s marriage over decades. It’s an excellent representation of the writing concept “show, don’t tell.” The screenwriters could have just told us about Carl and Ellie or shown us a series of photos from their albums. But instead, they conveyed the richness of their life together by showing scenes from their marriage instead.
Now that you’ve seen the clip, take some time to practice your “show, don’t tell” writing skills. Watch the clip again and see if you can reconstruct in words what the screenplay might have read for this short segment. Also identify the emotions that the writers wanted to convey with each snippet that they showed. Here’s an example:
SCENE: Carl and Ellie are married.
Show Carl and Ellie standing at the altar just after being pronounced husband and wife. Flash to the wedding audience showing Ellie’s lively family and Carl’s not-so-lively family. Help the audience to feel the joy of their marriage and that Carl and Ellie come from two different backgrounds, but love each other.
Once you have finished capturing the various “show” moments in the scene, check out the actual screenplay to see how the screenwriters captured these scenes in writing (see pp. 10-14 starting with “A SERIES OF SHOTS” and ending with “FADE TO BLACK”). Notice how the writers caught the full vision of this short segment in relatively few words.

Click here to read the screenplay  
Now, ask yourself: What have I learned about the writing concept of “show, don’t tell” from this exercise?
Then take what you’ve learned and apply it to your next creative writing project!


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