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StoryTelling without Dialogue

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To say what something means to say how it is related or connected to something else. To ask the meaning of an event is to ask how it contributed to the story in which it occured.

 

 

Distinguishing between two different modes of storytelling: non-verbal and dialogue-based.

 

 

For many writers it's very easy to slip into too much talking. Any time you can have something happen with very little dialogue all the better.

 

Also try to remember that a spec script is nothing like a novel. If there's any description of smell and ambiance it's a couple of quick sentences and then only if it's critical to understand what's going on.

 

Don't spend a five-line paragraph describing the knick-knacks on the shelves in the den. Don't mention the knick-knacks period unless there's a great reason like a secret formula is hidden inside one.

A spec script is a very lean animal that is all about visual action. Even in a character driven romantic script a character can reveal himself with action and not words. 

 

 

Example: Imagine a husband who climbs out of the bed, goes and sleeps on the sofa in the living room when his wife pulls the blanket off of him as she turns her back. 


 

That tells us a lot about the guy, right? 

 

 

Let's see what we know.... He'd rather avoid the confrontation by just leaving the room. Why?  Well, we don't know yet, but we'd like to. How can we find out more?  What if when he went in the other room, he also took two alarm clocks? Then, besides setting both of these for 4:00 A.M. he also set his watch too. Now, we know that he has to get up tomorrow morning really early. 
     
Now, back to the wife. If we see her smiling ear to ear as she hears her poor husband out in the living room we know some more about her. How about if in the middle of the night, she slips out of bed, sneaks into the living room, unplugs all the alarm clocks and drops the watch in the fish tank? We have a pretty good idea what kind of person she is despite her not uttering a word.


 


If you want a good writing exercise try and write a ten-page story without any dialogue. Always strive to make your scripts as visual as possible and avoid the "talking head" label.

 

 

** If you don't think that development people won't label your script "a talking head" script that should be a play faster than you can say "New York minute", then you're in a dream world because that's one of the first things they're looking for to take you out of the running.

 

 

Once you've written your ten pages without dialogue go back in and place a few bits of strategic dialogue. You’ll be surprised if you didn't then find yourself with very strong 11 or 12 pages.


 

 

 


Here's 11 example scenes withou dialogue:

 

 

#1 - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Written by Tobe Hooper and Kin Henkel
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Starring Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hanson

Basic plot: Heading to clean-up their grandmother's desecrated grave, five teenagers pick-up and quickly drop off a freaky, knife happy, hitch hiker. On their way to search out an old swimming hole on their grandparent's old farm, the teens stumble upon a deserted house, a family of cannibals and a big guy with a chainsaw.

The scene: Screaming eyeballs. After witnessing all her friend's deaths and realizing that she is trapped in the cannibal's house, Sally (Burns) does a lot of screaming. The cool thing is that throughout her ordeal, Hooper gives us a close up of Sally's eyes. With every scream we get her blood shot, nervous and desperate eyes which turn out to be as scary as some of today's more graphic and bloody takes on this cult classic.

#2 - Le Fabuleux Destin D'Amelie Poulain

Written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz

Basic plot: A quiet and naive Parisian girl, Amelie (Tautou) decides to devote her life to helping others after a series of events enables her to reunite an old man with his boy-hood treasure.

The scene: The "kissing" scene. After tracking her down at her apartment, Amelie's (Tautou) crush, Nino (Kassovitz), stands out side her door waiting to be let in. When the two come face to face they do not say a word, little kisses are exchanged and we just know that they will be together forever. Amelie's happiness and vulnerability at finally finding her one true love is as delicate and determined as the way she pecks Nino's cheek and neck.

#3 - 2001: A Space Odyssey

Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain (voice)

Basic plot: A monolith that has been inadvertently responsible for most of humanity's great achievements, guides a ship full of men to Jupiter. We all know that I could go on forever with the plot summary, but I think its best that I end it here.

The scene: The end of the fourth "act." After disarming the murdering, renegade, ship master control computer, HAL, spaceman Dave (Keir Dullea) navigates his way toward Jupiter and his inevitable death. In a symbolic room, Dave sees himself as an old man, eats his last meal and prepares to die. Kubrick uses Dave's final moments to enforce the alienating and dangerous impact technology has had on human advancement. It's not all doom and gloom though, for Kubrick still saw the possibility for change in future generations and the "birth of the star child" attests to that.

#4 - Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Written by Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamu and Kuo Jung Tsai, based on the book by Du Lu Wang
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zang

Basic plot: Two warriors in pursuit of a stolen sword and a mysterious fugitive are lead into the life of a skilled and rebellious teenaged girl.

The scene: The tree fight. The battle scenes in this film revolutionized what American audiences thought of foreign, in particular Asian, films. The stereotypical cheesy, dubbed kung-fu was replaced with breathtaking aerial acrobatic work that demonstrated physical mastery and resounding creativity. The fight that stands out the most is the one between Master Lui Mu Bai (Fat) and Jen Yu (Zang) in the forest. Running from branch to branch with the ease of animals (squirrels?) the warriors chase each other through the canopy of trees. Definitely one of the coolest fight scenes ever.

#5 - Lost In Translation

Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray

Basic plot: An unlikely duo, newlywed Charlotte (Johansson) and veteran actor Bob Harris (Murray) end up meeting in a Tokyo hotel and lose themselves in their new relationship.

The scene: The goodbye. When Bob sees Charlotte walking on a busy street on his way to the airport, he gets out of his cab to properly say good bye. Standing in the middle of the street, this couple inhabits the alienation that Coppola has been struggling with through the entire film. Rising up to stand on her toes, Charlotte hugs Bob tightly; this one small movement encompasses the delicacy of their entire relationship.

#6 - Psycho

Written by Joseph Stefano based on the novel by Robert Bloch
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins

Basic plot: After embezzling money from her employer, Marion (Leigh) seeks shelter at The Bates Motel. Shortly after arriving she meets her end at the hands of, well, a psycho killer.

The scene: The shower. Do I even need bother? The scene that raised the bar for scary movies, and made the high-pitched-stabbing-knife-noise something to be emulated and parodied for generations. Marion is randomly murdered while taking a shower in her motel room. All we see of the killer is the shadow of his knife on the shower curtain, then his hand as he violently stabs Marion to death.

#7 - Last Night

Written and Directed by Don McKellar
Starring Don McKellar and Sandra Oh

Basic plot: This Canadian takes on the end of the world, released around the time of the famed Armageddon, opts for a more passive tone. Instead of trying to stop their inevitable doom, Last Night, depicts how some people chose to spend their last earthly moments.

The scene: The end. When it becomes obvious to Sandra (Oh) that she will not be able to make it home to her husband before the world ends, she asks Patrick (McKellar) the stranger who has been helping her, to fulfill her death wish. Just before the world ends she wants Patrick to shoot her, a bit of a "f*** you" to fate. As the countdown fades out and the two sit face to face with guns to their heads, humanity gets the better of them and we fade to white on a kiss.

Honorable mention: the death and resurrection in Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal.

#8 - The Conversation

Written and Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman

Basic plot: An experienced surveillance technician becomes convinced that his work will lead to the deaths of a young couple.

The scene: The apartment trashing. As Harry (Hackman) dives deeper into his paranoia, the tables are turned and his previous employer begins tailing him. Convinced that he can find the surveillance bugs in his apartment, Harry rips apart his place, tearing off wall-paper, bringing up floor boards and unscrewing outlets. Only once he is satisfied that his apartment is clean, he sits down and resumes playing the sax.

#9 - The Sweet Hereafter

Directed by Atom Egoyan
Screenplay by Atom based on the novel by Russell Banks
Starring Sarah Polley, Ian Holm, Tom McCamus

Basic plot: The sole survivor of a horrible school bus accident that devastated a small town, Nicole (Polley) must face the ways in which this event has altered her life and deal with the pressure on her to answer to the community's grief and need for vengeance.

The scene: The accident. The brutal bus accident that plagues this film isn't played out in it's entirety until we have come to fully understand each character's suffering, loss and transformation. On a snowy day, a father follows his children's school bus down a rural road on his way to work. As the bus begins to lose control on the ice, he watches helplessly as it breaks a high-way barrier and plunges on to a frozen lake and starts to sink. The shattering noise of the ice giving away under the weight of the bus, plunging dozens of children to their untimely deaths is absolutely haunting.

#10 - Nostalghia

Written by Tonino Guerra and Andrei Tarkovsky
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Starring Oleg Yankovsky, Erland Josephson, Domiziana Giordano

Basic plot: A Russian poet, Gortchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), travels through Italy researching the life of an 18th century Russian composer. After meeting Domenico (Erland Josephson), who years earlier had imprisoned his own family in a barn to save them from the evils of the world, Gortchakov becomes drawn to the lunatic's life. Their strange connection brings forth the poet's nostalgia for his homeland and his wife.

The Scene: Domenico's death. The entire film is a visual masterpiece, but the most provocative scene comes when Domenico sets himself on fire in the town square. Leaving his dog by the base of a statue, Domenico climbs on top and douses himself with gasoline. The first part of this stunningly traumatic scene is set to music, making Domenico's actions seem somehow heroic and meaningful. When the music fades out however, we hear his screams of pain and his pleas for his dog to save him. Only then does the physical and emotional impact of his actions begin to manifest.

#11 - Say Anything

Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring John Cusack and Ione Skye

Basic plot: A teen romance about a brainy girl trapped in the body of a game show hostess and the "average" punk-ish boy who wins her heart.

The Scene: The serenade. After Diane (Skye) freaks out and breaks up with Lloyd (Cusack), he vows never to call her again, but in a last ditch effort he goes to her house, stands outside her window and serenades her with his boom box. Standing in front of his blue Chevy Malibu, ghetto blaster blearing Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" held high over his head, Lloyd is teenaged angst, heartbreak and love personified. This scene raised the bar for guys everywhere.

 

Although do keep in mind that this is just a slice of many top scenes without dialogue in cinematic history.