Beyond dialogue: Write the story as characters live it

When I heard a new silent film, “The Artist,” directed by Michel Hazanavicius, was generating a bit of buzz at Cannes this year, I promptly checked for details, but was shocked to discover there was no writing credit, because screenwriting isn’t just about dialogue, it’s about conveying a story.

True, your favorite films likely have memorable lines of dialogue, but those lines are meaningless beyond the context of their stories.

“I’ll be back” in itself is not a particularly interesting line, but, in the context of the world of “Terminator,” and in the context of the scene in which it is delivered, by the character who says it, and to whom it is spoken, “I’ll be back” becomes quite a powerful phrase despite the subtle, nonchalant delivery — not to mention its comedic depth, whether intended or not, because at that point in the story the audience has enough background information to know it’s quite obvious a lopsided action sequence is about to ensue.

One of my favorite writing exercises, from a workshop, entailed writing a scene with no dialogue, and it turned out to be one of the most interesting scenes I’d written in a long time because the exercise forced me to focus on the story, the characters, and what was happening to them — which, yes, was the whole point of the exercise. When you focus on “story beats,” you get to the heart, the essence of the scene, or — if the beat is a critical, character-revealing, plot-turning beat — the essence of your story.

In “Casablanca,” when a despondent Rick mutters, “Nobody’s ever loved me that much,” the audience gains a new depth of insight into a heartbroken man who suddenly is realizing what he needs to do — a critical turning point that shifts the story toward its surprising-yet-inevitable finish. Still, the line carries freight because of the story beats revealed up to that point in the story. If Rick mutters that line in an earlier scene and under different circumstances, it wouldn’t pack quite the punch.

If you focus on story beats — the things that happen — rather than dialogue, you’ll discover you don’t need to write as much dialogue as you thought, and you’ll find the dialogue you do write more directly serves the story.


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