Read any book, ask any pro, and you’ll be told that showing it is better than saying it in most cases. If you can get the story across without saying a word, you generally end up with a more compelling story, and it sounds less cheesy.
So what am I talking about? Well, let’s take the very basic example of a character who is supposed to be happy. You really have only a couple of options.
Spelling it all out in the dialogue
Your character goes around saying, “I’m happy!” or another character tells him that he’s happy. Either way, you end up coming across as talking down to the audience, telling them exactly what’s going on when you could be…
With this method, your character walks around showing his happiness. He smiles, he waves to people on his morning walk. He shrugs and laughs when his cup of coffee falls out the window on the bus. Obviously, this guy is so happy, he can’t contain it.
When you show the audience what the character is feeling, you let them figure it out. They get the point better because they aren’t thinking about how cheesy that last line was.
Now, the example of a happy character was extremely simple. This technique can (and should) be applied to almost everything. Say your character wants to sneak into a building. On one end we have…
“Hello! I’m sneaking!”
The character walks up to everybody he meets while sneaking and basically tells them to be quiet because he is sneaking into that building over there. Keep in mind that this is exactly what Elmer Fudd is doing every time he says, “Be vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits!” Of course, he’s supposed to be stupid, so it works. The complete opposite is…
A much better approach is to do two things.
First, have your character actually sneak around, avoiding people, and generally giving the idea that he doesn’t want to be caught. Consider having him almost be caught, but then he gets away just in time. This will further cement the sneaking in the audience’s mind.
Second, shoot from sneaky-looking angles, and get lots of close-ups of both the sneaking character and the guards/villain. Make sure to throw in a couple longer shots, too. Then edit the scene by starting with longer shots, then cut quicker when the action is happening, and then return to longer cuts after the character escapes notice of the villain.
You might have noticed that I’m not really very good at explaining this. It’s just something that you have to see. With that in mind, I recommend that you find a copy of the cartoon short One Froggy Evening. The cartoon was directed by Chuck Jones, and you can find it on Looney Tunes – Golden Collection, Volume Two.
This short is a prime example of telling a story without words. There is no dialogue in the cartoon at all, in fact, the only words are in the songs. The story is told almost completely with body language and good editing. You’ll see what I mean when you watch it. Study that short and you’ll soon have a good idea of how to say things without words.