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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Show and Tell

I've been thinking a bit, recently, about the famous maxim of screenwriting: Show don't Tell.

The idea is, action is character, and film is a visual medium, so if we want to really enliven our characters, we should show them taking actions that define them, rather than simply talking out their feelings, or whatever.

But then I thought about the progression of films overall, since the silents until now. Certainly, before the age of sound on film, actions were everything, and at the beginning of the sound era, the remnants of that remained. But then as film history progressed, films got more an more talky. (I feel the weaknesses of Neil LaBute's films are not just that people are saying what they should be doing, but that in their talking, they're really just talking about nothing. So instead of saying what they feel instead of showing it, they're just talking loud but saying nothing.)

Anyhow, I started to wonder if this was actually indicative more of a trend in culture in general. Has our society become one of talkers, rather than doers? Is our talk actually the action in itself? I mean, how many people do we know that would rather sit around and argue about something, rather then get up and do something about it? Maybe, talky movies are less inaccurate or inappropriate than they'd seem.

Now, believe me, I'm not suggesting that it's okay to just have a bunch of people sitting around and talking for a whole film. Just as Hitch said that "drama is life with the dull bits cut out," we should aim to write movies that are more interesting than real life, even if people sitting around and talking all the time is realistic. Might it be appropriate for certain characters, in certain films, to sit around talking all the time?

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Anonymous Eddie said...

Breakfast Club is a talky movie that works, but the talk actually developed something and was entertaining. On the other hand, I just watched The Interpreter which definitely could've used some action. I felt like I was watching some fifth grader give a book report. I guess implementation can vary if story and character are strong enough.

9:05 PM  
Blogger oneslackmartian said...

Yeah, I think that dialogue can be action when it is written well. Maybe that’s why I’m so impressed by it when I see it.

As a spec writer though, I’m concerned that if I’m dialogue heavy, the reader (looking for your input here) will think that not enough is happening and will give my script a big PASS.

We’re walking a tightrope without a net, aren’t we?


9:40 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

It's really about discovery - I think that as much can be discovered in a conversation as can anything else - discovery about the particular story being told or what have you - and I love me a great conversation filled with discoveries, I really do, and not simply because I'm a playwright (though I should mention that one of the rubs against my work in theatre has been that it's too influenced by film and television) -

I think about the great scene in Million Dollar Baby about the socks between Clint and Morgan - such a great scene, which told us much about their relationship (and the scene is not in the book, so it was created just for the film) - I can certainly see some director / producer or what have you (other than Clint) looking at that and going, "Socks? Why are they talking about socks? What does that have to do with fighting? Cut the damn thing!" and I'm so glad no one did, because it was a truly great scene.

I'm rambling, Joel, sorry. But this is a big thing, I really feel a great story can be all dialogue or none (like Quest For Fire, one of my faves) and it's all about the demands of the story. Some need to be told and discovered through mucho dialogue and some do not.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Eddie (and Joshua) -- I think you bring up the key point. What kind of a movie is it. In Breakfast Club, they were teens confined by plot to a single location, and by character to talking and expressing emotions verbally (with a few moments of more active expression).

My Dinner With Andre was such a remarkable film because it was so fascinating despite the fact that the entire film (basically, unless you include going to and from the restaurant) was two people sitting around and talking to each other. Here, it was the substance of the conversation that was so fascinating. The "discovery" that I think Joshua was mentioning. Interestingly, though, this was not as much an expression of character or situation, so I don't know if it was the best way this story could have been told.

Adam -- yes, we most certainly are. It is a very delicate thing. you are correct that too much dialogue and not enough action will turn some readers off. Unless the dialogue is so great that they don't even notice it. And most likely, it should only be specific characters or types of films that feature such dialogue heavy scenes.

12:14 AM  
Blogger Esther Kustanowitz said...

Worth noting: this is a lesson in nearly every writing or improv class I've ever taken, regardless of the genre...

1:25 AM  
Blogger writebrother said...

Very few people want to watch a movie about people sitting around and talking.
Whenever I run across movies like these I always wonder why the writer just didn't write a novel or perhaps even a play instead.

I definitely think we as a society are full of talkers instead of doers. That's why we have people that waste hours of time playing and discussing fantasy football instead of actually organizing a league on the weekends where they can actually play. That's why there are tons of writers who spend more time talking about writing than actually writing. Talking is easy, but making something happen or coming up with unique stories is tougher and takes more work.

1:33 AM  
Blogger Konrad West said...

I think people often confuse show vs. tell with action vs. dialog. It's not the same thing.

Telling means characters just say what they really feel, which real people NEVER do. Showing can mean acting out that feeling, or it can mean saying something that doesn't straightout say it, but still means the same thing.

Example: Character is on date, and he's walking her back to her door. She asks if he wants to go up. He says: "No. My wife died 3 years ago and I'm not ready for intimacy just yet". That's telling, and it's crap.

But if the same character looks away, then smiles and says: "I had a really nice time. Thanks." and walks away, you're not telling, but the character is still showing how he feels. Sure, it's not as specific as telling, but you've got the whole story to explain what the character is feeling without actually having them say it to anyone.

1:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dialogue vs. action, always a battle -- I'd like to comment on the "more interesting than real life" part at the end of Joel's post --


This "but this really happens in life" or "that's how it happened" when telling a true story is the refuge of writers who do not wish, for whatever reason to engage their imaginations, or hold themselves to the high standard of quality writing. I refer y'll to Robert Mckee and the distinction he draws between "Truth with a BIG T and truth with a lower case t." --

-- the exact dialogue spoken at an incident, how it might actually progress were it to really occur, the exact details of incidents concerning a real life character and other such minutiae...fuhgeddaboutit, who cares? This is truth with a small "t"...

...the meaning behind the events, what we can learn about the human condition thereby, whether these events are fictional or historical, THIS is truth w/ a BIG T.

A thing being realistic is not license for it to be filmed, nor included in a screenplay. As a prof. of mine at USC used to say: "We are double-consomme", meaning a broth made with twice the flavor...drama needs to be at least twice as interesting as reality.

This is one reason all these "true story" movies so often stink...all that "we've got to tell the whole story" ethos chokes us in unimportant detail and meaningless events, this is why so many biopics suck -- we don't want to know EVERY detail of the guy/gal's life, just the ones the define him/her and from which we can draw the MEANING that their lives brought to the world...

RAY is a good movie, never a more deserved Oscar than that won by Jamie Foxx (ties w/Denzel for Training Day and Jodie F. for The Accused), but it didn't need to be more than 3 hours long and packed w/meaningless, little "t" detail...


PS. And to echo Joel's earlier post, love to hear from you on my humble blog as well.

3:14 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

They have been showing some Harold Lloyd silents on TCM tonight. Amazing how much can be done with little or no words at all. Good storytelling, at it's heart, remains in the story and not necessarily the words themselves.

On the other hand, having just seen Pride & Prejudice, it's in many ways striking how illiterate a culture we have become. For all the talk, we say very little. We don't write letters anymore. We don't take full advantage of the truly vast extent of the English language an all the nuances and variations it allows.

Movie-wise, I think it depends on the material. Some stories are inherently wordy and dialogue-intensive. Others could be told better with more visuals and less yakking (hear that Quentin Tarantino?!) I don't think there are any hard and fast rules.

4:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's the actual performances that make films seem talky. Casablanca is a 110 page script but it's only 90 minutes long. The performances are crisp and there are very few long pauses. Nowadays every scene seems to play forever. (Like an Wes Anderson film.)

12:57 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

writebrother -- I think you're right about the play thing. It is a big pet peeve of mine. I just finished covering a script this morning that was clearly meant to be a play. And then I looked up the author online and found out he's actually a semi well-known playwrite. Guy thought he could just write a play and call it a screenplay so he could make a pretty penny.

3:25 AM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

Writebrother (and Joel) we watch people talk ALL the time, every time you turn on television - sports center is primarily people talking about something that happened, the news, entertainment tonight - a lot of it is talking -

And a lot of great movies are people talking - Pulp Fiction is a great choice, cause it's loaded with it - it's mostly friggin' talk - great talk it is - Sex, Lies and Videotape? Almost all talk, very little sex.

I saw WIT, both the play and the movie, and they are both great - both different in some ways, but loaded with conversation between great characters.

It's not ALL about the action - there are plenty of kickboxing movies from the late eighties and early nineties that are wall to wall action.

It's about the story, how good the story is you're telling and what the best way to tell it is - and if the story is people talking, that's what you do. Great stories are great stories, be it comic book, play or film. They can be told in all forms - that's why spiderman is a movie and a comic book. Rent is an opera and a movie.

The bible has been a movie, a mini-series and a comic book, in addition to its current form.

I have a bunch of great friends who tell great stories. I'd take that over a Michael Bay film any day of the week.

It's not the dialogue that makes or breaks a screenplay - it's the great story told.

Just my opinion.

5:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neil LaBute's work doesn't seem to translate so well to the screen. Plays are plays and films are films for a reason. They're two different mediums. I'm a huge LaBute fan and will end up seeing his stage work at The Studio Theatre in DC in January. That's where LaBute makes his biggest mark.

6:26 PM  
Anonymous Moses said...

I tend to write talky characters and then have to whittle them down to a point, which is funny cause I'm not a big talker, not a big doer either, but I've always felt (or justified because of my style) that lots of talk works if it moves characters emotionally, if the talk connects or disconnects characters in an impactful way. Then there's a movement or exchange that's felt by the reader/audience. Character's are not being used as little pundits expressing opinions but human beings engaged in relationship.

Then again maybe it's one of those many things I have no clue about. Kinda like, hey that works, god that's boring.

12:46 AM  

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