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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dialogue or Less Dialogue - That is the Question

There is quite an interesting conversation going on in the comments section beginning with the noting of dialogue-heavy short scene finalists and traveling all the way to whether dialogue or visuals are more memorable, ergo, important in the cinematic experience.

Here's where I stand:

the dingo got the baby
it's definitely time for Judge Wapner
fasten your seatbelts, it's gonna be a bumpy night
you have no idea
I can't quit you
I'm ready for my close up, Mr. Demille*
I have the feeling I'm not in Kansas anymore
of all the gin joints in all the world...
I want to be alone
you talkin' to me?
you're gonna need a bigger boat
yippy-kiy-yay, motherf*cker
I see dead people
I read the Feminine Mystique! I'm in charge of my own orgasm!
Everybody knows, you never go full retard

...and that's just literally off the top of my head. Yes, cinematic scenes are also memorable, but it's the dialogue that moves the story forward and it's the dialogue that makes us laugh, cringe and identify with the character who said it.

I think that the Rouge Waver who began this discussion in comments is referring to the old trope that ideally, a screenwriter should be able to write a scene with no dialogue so well that dialogue is unnecessary to get the point of the scene across. I think this is of course a great skill and a great exercise, but as another poster said - welcome to the talkies.

Movies are about the human experience. And the importance of dialogue in conveying the truth, the terror, the contradiction and the joy of that is inestimable. Let's turn to the predecessor of movies - drama. Theater predates movies by hundreds of years. Movies are, relatively speaking, still in their infancy as a form of expression and entertainment.

In its earliest form, there were no visuals and certainly no action sequences in theater. Theater was just people on a primitive stage, speaking the truth about pain, joy, loss and what it means to be a human. Sophocles did not write action scenes. Either did Euripides or Aristophanes. Or Arthur Miller for that matter but that's pressing the fast-forward button.

And of course we come to the master playwright - Shakespeare.

Four hundred years later, how often is his dialogue quoted? How many people have heard "out damn spot" without even really knowing which play that came from (MacBeth) or necessarily remembering the dark, stormy, creepy castle that line of dialogue is uttered in? Because the castle is frosting - the sentiment - that guilt cannot be washed away - is powerful and that is memorable. 400 years powerful and memorable.

I think it inarguable that dialogue is the single most compelling and memorable part of most any movie. Because dialogue is spoken by memorable and compelling characters. The supposition that a great scene should or can be written without dialogue (or with minimal dialogue) is, in my opinion, Film School pretention.

I also think that the idea that dialogue is not entirely necessary is also born of the fact that there's so much BAD dialogue out there. Newbie screenwriters tend to write on the nose, expositional dialogue which is blunt, workman-like and uninteresting.

To be fair, let's also point out that movies are not exactly like theater. The cinema is a relatively new human artistic expression which is an extraordinarily powerful marriage of theater, music and visuals. Movies are an artform unlike any other and yet deeply, inextricably indebted to theater.

Really good writers know how to use dialogue sharp as a scalpel, light as a feather and as layered as a rich, creamy Trifle. And they do it so well that dialogue becomes part of our culture. Sometimes for literally hundreds of years to come. Not that "never go full retard" falls under that category. She says with a wink and a tug of her ear.

Now get back to work.

*This quote, from SUNSET BOULEVARD is often misquoted. In fact, the line of dialogue is this: All right Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close up.

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Kirkland said...

Ahhhh...someone has just outlined the major differences between the storytellers of yesterday and the majority of today's generation of screenwriters.

It's sorta like the difference between, dialog and dialogue (it bugged me, so I looked it up):

dialogue, dialog (n., v.)

The more commonly used spelling is dialogue, but dialog is a Standard variant for both noun and verb. The intransitive verb has been a recent vogue word, meaning “to converse,” but it strikes some conservatives as slangy and graceless: We dialogued for half an hour, but we got nowhere. Dialogued also smacks of the jargon of labor relations: spoke, talked, discussed, conversed, and the like would be better. The transitive verb, meaning “to put into dialogue,” is very rare

Long live the guardians of dialog in whatever form they choose.

Seth Fortin said...

Also, one of the great things about dialogue is that you can play with how much people tell the truth versus how much they lie to each other or to themselves. I love movies and scenes where nobody's directly saying what's going on. The Office frequently does this beautifully.

And then, too, there's the interaction between the visual and the dialogue, which can also be tricky and out of sync. I can't remember which of the guys who made Airplane said it, but basically he said that they tried never to do a "joke on a joke" -- in other words, if there was a joke going on in the background, they would have some absolutely serious dialogue exchange in the foreground. And of course there's the old Hitchcock example of a bomb under someone's chair while people are nattering away about the weather.

So -- hooray for both!

Julie Gray said...

You know, Kirkland, dialog verus dialogue has always bugged me too! It would appear as if "dialogue" is used more commonly in my line of business but it looks wrong to me.

And - perhaps today's generation of screenwriters is greatly influenced by ye olde comic book - blocks of action with very little dialog (ha!).

So what say you - are times a'changin' or is there still value and more to the point, relevance, in writing scripts with more than BAM! POW! CRASH! going on? You can tell what my preferences are but one wouldn't want to be out of touch, would one?

p.s. let me know, in private, if you wish, whether you shall be gracing our networking dinner on Sunday.

Julie Gray said...

Both good examples, Fortin, of the power of dialog (I'm just going with that spelling today, I like it!) to accentuate tension or comedy. Dialog can do a lot more than convey what is happening - dialog as subtext is something that newer writers often do not grasp.

In real life, people rarely say exactly what is on their minds. The thing is never the thing.

Kirkland said...

So what say you - are times a'changin' or is there still value and more to the point, relevance, in writing scripts with more than BAM! POW! CRASH! going on? You can tell what my preferences are but one wouldn't want to be out of touch, would one?

All I know is, so far they haven't come up with an award for best "action line," but dialog gets recognized. And as I recall, actors love it when you give them something great to say...

I'll get out of the game when dialog ceases to matter--and I'm not going anywhere anytime soon.

Dave Shepherd said...

I'm still going to disagree.

Visuals trump dialog.

You want to back as far as theatre? Fine, I'll go back further -- the first stories around campfires when man could barely talk.

They didn't talk about what the hunter who killed the ten lions said -- they talked about what he DID. The words were used to convey the images.

I never said dialog wasn't important. I said it seems to be favored in competitions and by newer writers, when it is LESS important than the images.

Basically I'm saying water is less important than air -- while we can't survive without either, we can last longer without water.

Someone (I'm going to guess Kirkland) told me to try writing without dialog and see how far I get -- try writing without images and see how far you get. No sluglines, no descriptions -- nothing but talking heads.

Can't. Be. Done. Not in a (good) screenplay.

Meg had it right -- action gives context to the dialog.

Your quotes are great, but if they didn't have the subsequent images behind them, they'd be worthless. You don't remember the quote because of the words, you remember the quote because of the subtext. Action gives dialog the its subtext.

Also, plays and film are two different mediums. Dialog is more important in plays, images are more important in film.

And just to prove my point. Go see a movie. A week later, write down how many quotes you can remember. Then, write down how many images/sequences you can remember. I can't remember a quote from Prom Night (don't rush out to see it), but I can remember several images.

You can quote as many movies as you want, and you've probably seen more movies than I have -- but I bet I can still remember far more images.

Even in Macbeth... Out damn spot is a useless quote unless you have the preceding ACTIONS to back it up. Without her believing blood is on her hands, she could very well be telling the dog to go outside.

Action gives context to dialog.

You can write several scenes in a movie that have no dialog, you can't write any that have no action (unless you're in a pitch black room).

Dialog is important, but without action, you're writing for the radio.

Dave Shepherd said...

To add --

For those of us who have been on a movie set, the easiest thing to change is the dialog.

Actors improvise, directors re-write lines, the editor cuts entire lines out.

Action -- while it is changed -- isn't changed nearly as often as dialog (mostly because it costs more money to change).

And from the audiences perspective -- people don't go to movies in the hopes of seeing great dialogue. They go because they want to see something happen.

Even a film like Clerks, which is much heavier on dialog -- all of the key points of the film also have visuals. I'd be willing to bet you could take 30 or 40 frames of that movie, line them up in order, and anyone would be able to get the gist of the story.

Dialog is great, I'm all for it -- but actions remain more important.

Julie Gray said...

Yup, we're gonna have to agree to disagree, Dave. For every line of dialog that I quoted off the top of my head, a visual goes along with it when I think of the line. For me, dialog does not exist without the image that accompanied it. You talkin' to me cannot exist or mean what it does without Travis Bickle, with his fresh mohawk looking into the mirror while he says it.

Kirkland said...


"...for those of us who have been on a movie set..."

I've probably been tossed offmore movie sets than you've been on. That aside, in my experience--which is more than just a little--people go to the movies to "see" images, but they remember what they hear. And as I pointed out, in conversation, they quote dialog and describe action. Not the other way around.

You can't quote action. You can remember it, re-tell it (using words) to others when you talk to them, but you cannot describe the visual you saw without words. But dialog is remembered for the words, for how those words moved us, for what they mean, and for for what they imply. Dialog is the most important thing to any screenplay--and I'll point you toward My Dinner with Andre as one fine example of dialog as a film experience. Nothing really happens (no real action), but ohhhhhh those words, so sweet, so deadly, so real.

And images, while visually stimulating, only last until replaced by some other image. Dialog, memorable dialog, will haunt you forever.

Dave Shepherd said...

To add (yet again) --

Foreign languages.

Pan's Labyrinth.

Seen it? Remember any quotes? What about images?

Nominated for Best Original Screenplay despite being made in a language few in the Academy understand.

Images are universal, dialog is not.

We may have a philosophical difference as there isn't a quantitative way to measure what's more important. You have your beliefs, I have mine, that's what makes us different writers.

I'd rather not live in a world where every writer believes the same thing is key to good writing. You'll no doubt stand by your opinions no matter how many films I pick that contradict them, as I will with mine.

Kirkland said...


I've seen tons of movies, most of them I've forgotten...

All I know (and I could, as Julie all has, list films that are indeed memorable because of the dialog) is that a hundred years from now people will still be quoting dialog from Casablanca and nobody will be quoting any "action" scenes from any movies.

BTW, I bet you're no fan of Mamet.

Kirkland said...

Actually, Shepherd try this next time you're watching a movie: place a blindfold over you eyes, now watch the movie. I bet the dialog becomes really important and you might gain a whole new perspective on how important dialog really is in a screenplay/movie.

Eddie M said...

You guys have convinced me, I'm using both from now on. :-)

I don't think it's a matter of less or more dialogue compared to action, but the quality of each.

Anonymous said...

Writers are precious people. The most precious in Hollywood. It's like, it's our way or you are an amatuer. You don't belong here in Hollywood. Even Diablo Cody is sick of the hate email she gets from precious writers who don't think she deserves any success.
I am not Charlie Kaufman or Sofia Coppola (much as I supplicate at their Cannes-weary feet.) I'm not Paul Thomas Anderson. I'm not even Paul W.S. Anderson. I am middle-class trash from the Midwest. I'm a competent nonfiction writer, an admittedly green screenwriter, and a product of Hollywood, USA. I am "Diablo Cody" and if you're not a fan, go rent Prospero's Books again and leave me the fuck alone.

I may have won 19 awards that you don't feel I earned, but it's neither original nor relevant to slag on Juno. Really. And you're not some bold, singular voice of dissent, You are exactly like everyone else in your zeitgeisty-demo-lifestyle pod. You are even like me. (I, too, loved Arrested Development! Aren't we a pretty pair of cultural mavericks? Hey, let's go bitch about how Black Kids are overrated!)

In my opinion, there are no rules in Hollywood. Whatever works for you. Good for you.

Anthony Peterson said...

This is a funny argument.

I can't help but think of Mel Gibsons "The Passion of the Christ"

Both images and dialogue were extremely memorable, even though

...the dialogue was Aramaic

...and the story wasnt original.

Whatever engages the audience emotionally.

Julie Gray said...

I'm sorry, Anthony, I couldn't see what you were saying ;)

Dave Shepherd said...

My argument is that none of the quotes would be memorable in the first place if it wasn't for the action behind them.

Take Macbeth -- Out damn spot.

On a whole the quote is unspectacular. Three words, one syllable each. So what makes this quote so interesting?

The context. It's Lady Macbeth trying to wash figurative blood off her hands, trying to rid herself of her guilt.

And how do we know the context? Because of the preceding actions.

If you remove the context, the dialog is weakened.

The visual action the characters take is more important than the words they say.

To take a more recent example --

"Who left the fridge open?"

It's a good line in Tropic Thunder. But in order to appreciate the dialog, you have to understand the context.

To those who haven't seen the movie, the dialog isn't amusing because they don't have the visual that runs along with the lines. To them it's a valid question -- who did leave the fridge open? Has the milk spoiled?

The visual of Ben Stiller standing in a frozen world with two babies strapped to his chest provides the context for the dialog, thus making it memorable. After all, there are probably TONS of movies that have had a character say "Who left the fridge open" -- but this is the only one that is memorable.

Same with "Full retard" -- it's not the words themselves that are memorable, it's the context. Quoting the line brings back the context. If it was one kid calling another kid a full retard at high school -- wouldn't be memorable. But because of the situation and the actions the characters have taken, it is.

Don't get me wrong -- dialog is great, it's a storytelling tool and should be used as such, but action provides the ground on which dialog can stand.

And I do like Mamet -- that's where I learned to write a lot of my dialog. I also like Wilder and Kevin Smith, which are both more focused on dialog than action.

Very very few quotes can survive without action, but most action can survive without memorable dialog.

Anonymous said...

I can see you smile while typing the last post, Julie.

Anonymous said...

If action wasn't so important there would be no Hollywood. We would still be listening to radio drama.

No Action = No Hollywood. Hollywood could never survive on dialogue, no matter how good the dialogue is.

Deb said...

Context is just as important to images as it is to dialogue.

I haven't seen TROPIC THUNDER and don't know why Ben Stiller is standing in a frozen world and has two babies strapped to him or why the image and dialogue are supposed to be funny.

The reason I don't get it is because I don't know the context of the image.

It's ALL about context.

Julie Gray said...

@Anonymous who could see me smiling while typing that last post - are you my next door neighbor? Because I feel like we discussed the binoculars thing and had arrived at an agreement on that :)

Seth Fortin said...

Just for the sake of argument, I'd like to flip what Dave Shepherd said around for a minute -- if you put black tape over the subtitles in _Pan's Labyrinth_, would you have the slightest clue what's going on?

I think this whole thing is a bit of a silly question. Both dialogue and imagery are ways of getting across all kinds of information and evoking all kinds of emotional responses. Some films lean one way -- believe me, the visual of Wallace Shawn's shiny pate is not what makes My Dinner With Andre exciting -- and some lean the other -- I read somewhere that Mel Gibson had a total of 14 lines in The Road Warrior, and the first ten minutes or so of There Will Be Blood has no dialogue of any kind. Even great silent films, like The Passion of Joan of Arc, require some dialogue to ground the action. Only pornography and kung fu films could conceivably get away with no explanation at all, being fundamentally non-narrative in character.

But, just for fun, here's another scene from the Todd and Barnes script that I used a part of for the Short Scene Competition. This one contains no dialogue whatsoever.

(I hesitate to put this out there, lest I seem to be vote-tampering, so please, if you're going to vote, go here and do that first. Hope that's all right, Julie!)

Anthony Peterson said...

Julie, Im saying its not an "either/or" argument between dialogue and visuals. Its whateve engages the audience emotionally - and thats so dependant of the story. Compare the first 40 minutes of Wall E vs Juno. Both are highly entertaining. One has no dialogue, the other is a dialogue fest on steriods.

Julie Gray said...

Hey Anthony, oh I'm just teasing you, honey. It's obviously both.

Désirée said...

It is a little unfair to say that Shakespeare used long dialogs, so then I can use long dialogs as well. When Shakespeare wrote his plays the effect-department where less bombastic. He had to write things like "look, they appear from nothing" when a character climbed up through a hole in the stage floor, otherwise the audience would not get it. If Shakespeare lived today I am sure he had written another type of dialog.

Kirkland said...

Awwww...because I'm feeling a tad on the cantankerous side toady (money in the bank does that), I wanted to add one (for me, anyway) final comment to the dialog vs. action conversation. And it is this:

When you go to IMDB and punch in "memorable action lines" not a whole lot happens. Ahhh...but when you type in "memorable quotes" lines and lines of terrific dialog pop up for whatever film you search for...

People quote dialog from films and they describe action.