Screenwriting

Screenwriting Tip #78: Action Before Dialog: If there’s a way for a character to act instead of talk, write it!

Actions speak louder than words…

screenwriting

It’s cliche’, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

 

 

Action is just inherently more interesting than dialog. Arguments are interesting, but fights are better. Sexy talk is interesting, but sex is better. Hearing about a fifty-foot-tall, man-eating dinosaur is interesting, but…well, you get the idea. Cinema is an active medium. When people say something was “cinematic,” they mean things were moving, happening, possibly exploding. As much as dialog is integral to film and television, it’s not the essence of cinema. Nobody ever called a televised debate “cinematic.”

What this means for you: whenever you have a choice between making your characters act or talk, you should probably choose the action. Ever seen a “soft” act out on a TV show? I can almost guarantee that you have, and I can almost guarantee that it sucked. A soft act out is when the act break (which leads into the commercial break) ends on a line of dialog rather than a piece of action. It’s called “soft” because it’s weaker than a typical action-based act out.

What the hell am I talking about, you ask? Okay, try this: the act out in question is the revelation that the lead detective’s partner has been killed. The strong version of this act out is that the detective finds her partner’s body herself – we cut to black on her shock at seeing the body, no dialog necessary. The crappy, soft version is that the chief calls her into his office and says, “I’m sorry, but we found your partner’s body” – then cut to black on a relatively weak line of dialog instead of a strong action. The really crappy version is when she gets the news via phone call.

This is why, if you can manage it, all the turning points in the structure of your narrative should be physical actions. What would The Wizard of Oz‘s Act 1 turning point have looked like if the Yellow Brick Road hadn’t existed? Instead of beginning her long walk down the fabled road, Dorothy would have had to shrug and say, “Well, I guess this is the start of our adventure, guys.” If the main characters in The Kids Are Alright had stopped to chat about their blossoming lust for each other, it wouldn’t have been a very good midpoint. Instead they jumped into bed together, and that hasty act flipped the entire narrative on its head. And what if ET had just told Elliot he wanted to go home instead of indicating it physically in the legendary “phone home” scene?

When it comes to major moments in your narrative, sometimes words just aren’t enough. When the bad guy threatens the heroine, she spits in his face – an action that says more than any reply could. There comes a point in many screen arguments when a slap to the face speaks much louder than a verbal retort. And when the two leads finally kiss in a romantic scene, it’s usually because there was nothing else left to say.

But more than just turning points can benefit from upping the action. There’s a screenwriting rule, “Always have your characters doing something.” This rule applies to any scene and any character, not just the protagonist in pivotal moments. Not only is minor action more cinematically interesting than static, talking heads, but it’s also a free way to indicate character without having to resort to dialog.

I’m not just talking about nodding, pointing, smiling, or other physical punctuation. (In fact, unless it’s vital to the story, or necessary for clarity, you probably don’t need to be writing that stuff at all. Let the actors do their jobs.) I’m talking about incidental action – something that a character does during a conversation that adds an extra layer of meaning to her words.

Imagine a scene in a diner in which two characters sit and talk in a booth. Who eats and who doesn’t, and how they eat, says a whole lot about the subtext of that conversation. What if one character spends the entire conversation playing with his food – building mashed potato houses, pulling the labels off of ketchup bottles, and so on? Depending on the situation, incidental actions like this might indicate that he’s bored, anxious, scared, or horny.

How about a soldier who spends every spare moment loading and unloading his weapon (or shaving his face, à la Predator)? A stealthy alcoholic who always seems to be drinking faster than everyone else, pouring herself another glass whenever people aren’t looking? The schoolgirl who texts so often it’s as if her phone is glued to her hand? These incidental actions either reveal character or help enhance characterization without resorting to dialog.

Even the subtlest of actions can be vital to our understanding of a scene. What does it mean when a boss calls his secretary into a meeting … but just before she arrives, he takes the photo of his wife off his desk? What’s implied when a mother lets her drunk ex-husband into her apartment … but quickly moves to physically position herself between her drunk ex and their young daughter?

Actions speak louder than words. It’s not just a crappy greeting card slogan; it’s also a powerful bit of screenwriting advice.

Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett © 2011 Elsevier.  All rights Reserved.

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