Shut Up Already!

January 10, 2012 by cindy  
Filed under Writing Method

January 10, 2012
You know that as a screenwriter, you will need to put words on the page to tell your story. You may not, however, need to use quite so many of them.

Writer types (myself included) often love basking in the glow from their sparkling, perfectly obscure, amazingly profound WORDS. Their characters say such amazing, impeccably-timed THINGS. They talk, Talk TALK their way through three acts, telling you not just the plot points you need to know, but also how untouchably brilliant the writer behind that masterpiece is.

Not that we don’t love the Sorkins and Codys of the world. But sometimes, it’s nice to give the words a break.

Hmmm, is it obvious that I watched the new silent film The Artist this week?

The Artist uses maybe 20 lines of spoken or written dialogue in its entire 100 minutes. And yet, despite the fact that we don’t hear crackling wit snapping back and forth between the characters, we always know exactly what’s going on, we’re on board with how characters are feeling and we get to delight in the visual medium that film is.

Without so many words, you get to delight in and focus on all the other ways to tell a story: what characters are wearing, their expressions or what artifacts are in their environments. Characters in fact, can often come to life much more when they are not resting on the crutch of words. Actions, in turn, get to be much more definite, clear and decisive when you don’t have someone in the shot narrating what we’re seeing anyway.

My two favorite sequences in one of my favorite movies, Children of Men, also have no dialogue. In fact, most of the third act of that movie is, apart from score and sound effects, silent. If you haven’t seen it, it’s amazingly powerful and nothing any character could say would do those moments justice.

There are so many moments in our own lives that are made powerful not by the clever turn of phrase someone threw together at just the right second, but by what they didn’t say, by what email didn’t come, by who wasn’t at the party, or who was, or the way they just turned away when you showed up and made eye contact. A point, a smile, a frown, a tear, a step away from you, or a subtle scoot toward you, a kiss, a stumble, a something left behind when they thought they had cleaned up all the evidence…these types of things often speak loudly and clearly without using words at all.

Just for fun, try rewriting a scene or two of your latest screenplay without just half the dialogue, or if you’re feeling up to it, no dialogue at all and see how it changes the scene, or the piece entirely.

Thank you for your time this week. In honor of the topic, I’m gonna shut up now.

When your characters say “Let’s go do XYZ” or “we’re going to ____”, you’re going to have some boring dialogue ahead.

September 6, 2011 by cindy  
Filed under Writing Method

When your characters say “Let’s go do XYZ” or “we’re going to ____”, you’re going to have some boring dialogue ahead.

One of the challenges with screenwriting is that it is necessary for your characters to do things. There is a plot to service and so characters are obligated to take various actions. And as humans (or other thinking, feeling entities), your characters will need to puzzle through their decisions, come up with a plan and execute it.

But you know how tedious it is when you’re discussing the pros and cons of the various logistics of your evening with friends? It’s just as tedious to hear characters talking about their logistics as well.

BOB: What should we do for our date tonight?

JANE: Well, we could go to the movies.

BOB: Oh, and then we could get fro yo after that.

JANE: That sounds good. What time will you pick me up?  Or should we meet there?

BOB: Why don’t I pick you up at 8 so that we have time to find parking and get good seats.

JANE: Great, see you then.

I was so bored writing the above passage that I just woke my roommates up with my snoring. We don’t know anything about the characters other than their plans for the evening. While the plot has ostensibly been moved forward, we don’t know what it means in terms of character development. We don’t know whose side we’re on, or if the characters are in danger or if they even like each other.

When your characters are deciding to do something, avoid having them list out the details and instead, have them talk about their feelings so we can see how they’re reacting to the situation.

BOB: I cannot wait to see you tonight!

JANE: I’m not sure we should be doing this.

BOB: We’ve waited two years to have one night together, Jane. We can finally act like a normal couple–go to a movie, maybe get some fro yo.

JANE: Argue over where to sit and how much to tip the valet.

BOB: Exactly.

JANE: You’re right. I can’t wait to see you tonight.

This time, the scene was so excited, I almost peed my pants.

That’s not true. There was no almost about it.

In the second version of the scene, we still get the basic information: Bob and Jane are going on a date, they’re going to the movies and out for yogurt. But we also get so much more. We know that Bob is excited and Jane is nervous. That there’s something in their past that makes this night special. That Bob is able to convince Jane of his point of view and that Jane acquiesces to Bob without much of a fight.  When we do seem them on their date, we will be full of anticipation for them because we’ve been given a description of the stakes of that date.

The second version has plot, character development, tension and movement. The first version does not.

In some genres, heavy and specific logistics are necessary to the storytelling. If you’re writing a procedural, then at some point, the doctor is going to have to explain what she’s doing or the team of detectives is going to have to tell their no-nonsense boss what they’ve found. We can get away with those kinds of moments in procedurals because that information is important and is usually something the audience has been waiting for anyway. But if you’re not writing the next Law and Order: Phoenix/Toronto/Master Bedroom, then make sure that any logistical information your characters talk about tells us more than the next scene’s agenda.

Soonami Productions