Screenwriting : Action between Dialogue by Andrew Bruce Lockhart

Andrew Bruce Lockhart

Action between Dialogue

Following on from Michael Ford's post on length of Dialogues, it made me want to ask about what happens between dialogue and what rules of thumb people might use to decide what Action they put in there. I've just written a scene to a screenplay where there is about ¾ of a page of dialogue where I have no Action lines between them. It’s an important scene that reveals some key traits of both the characters involved. My approach is, if the action is important (developing character or plot etc etc etc) I’ll put something in. I look back on it and think ok show don't tell – and where I can write an action that might replace or enhance the spoken words I try but wont force it if it feels wrong… but then having recently directed a film that had no dialogue in it, but ad libs, I now wonder if the director and actors would want the freedom to work out their own accompanying actions? What do you do?

Laurie Ashbourne

Just remember, you are writing for a visual art form. Think of it from the audience perspective. Is what your character saying so important and riveting that the audience won't get bored with staring at their flapping jaws for a nearly page long monologue? Even the famous Mad as Hell speech from Network had visual interest in cutaways and him walking to the window. That is your job as a writer to convey what is going on. Good on screen action is also a must when laying the pipe that is exposition. City Slickers has great examples of this. Give the audience something to watch, and they won't feel like they are being preached to.

James Chalker

Your approach sounds reasonable to me and is similar to how I try to do it.

David M Hyde

I typically visualize the scene and ask myself "what are the actors doing while they are talking". The action doesn't need to replace the dialog. A mentor once told me "Always give them something to do. Actors don't like to stand around and talk".

William Martell

Pointless action like "He touches his wine glass" just to break up a long stretch of dialogue makes no sense. It's not action, it's some actor's "business". " having recently directed a film that had no dialogue in it, but ad libs," is not the same as no dialogue. There's a great 14 minute segment of Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor's VERTIGO with no dialogue, but it's all about character: Scottie follows Madeline, falls in love with her, discovers that she is possessed by Mad Carlotta, and we learn all kinds of things about both of them in the process. It's all done through the actions of the characters. I basically use the actions first, then dialogue method. The thing about dialogue is that actions speak louder than words, what people say often tends to be what they wish were true, what they do is who they really are. So dialogue is usually a counterpoint to actions... and what a character does shows us their true character. If you were to ask Scottie in VERTIGO if he was in love with Madeline, he would say, "Of course not! She's my client's wife! Following her is my job, what he hired me to do." But that would be a lie. We've seen that is is not true. One thing to consider if you have a long patch of dialogue is what do we see? What makes this visually interesting? Often this comes down to an interesting background location and an ability for the actors to move (ie: no sitting at tables or bars or on sofas or anything else that takes a visually static situation and makes it even worse!). Let your characters move around.

Dave McCrea

Y'all need to stop calling it a visual art form. It's an audio-visual art form. Words, pictures, music, dialogue, images, the whole bit. A visual art form would be, say, painting. Anyway, Andrew, you're worrying about 3/4 of a page of just dialogue with no action lines? That is not a problem. But bear in mind there are action lines you can throw in to break up the dialogue that are not necessarily visually things happening, but that clue you in to the character's actions emotionally. A line like "Something darkens within [character]." for example, or "John's grin quickly fades".

Dave McCrea

William, "what people say often tends to be what they wish were true, what they do is who they really are" - yeah, but sometimes what people wish was true is actually more interesting, and when that is contrasted with their actions can show complexity/duality of character. Sometimes people's public face is what's interesting about a movie, not who they are when nobody is watching. Also some things are just too simplistic to be explained visually. Yes, if a woman is running from a crazed killer, you don't need dialogue. Jamie Lee doesn't need to say a damn thing in the whole third act of Halloween. But try conveying some of Gordon Gekko's awesome speeches visually... not so easy. Certain characters live in an intellectual world where words are their weapons and their actions, and these people have movies made about them too - And Justice For All, The Social Network, Wall Street, King's Speech, etc..

William Martell

My method seems to be getting me regular studio meetings, sales and assignments, and the occasional produced credit... so I'm gonna stick with it.

Dave McCrea

William your track record speaks for yourself, no disrespect at all, man I just think that a well-written speech has its place and I want to make that point because a lot of people act like dialogue is this stain on their script or something.

James Chalker

When I think of the great moments in my favorite films, they all involve dialogue. The only exception to that would be for the film Themroc, in which there is no intelligible dialogue.

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

William, you write action movies. Your method is downright perfect for action movies. But if he's talking about a drama or comedy, dialogue is key. Don't worry about 3/4 of a page. If the dialogue is compelling, no one will notice. The only people that would are writers, and we don't make movies.

Richard Koman

Any action can reveal something about the character, if you look closely enough at it. He drinks wine? Does he stick his nose in the glass, run his finger around the rim, chug it down like water, etc? That said, don't feel bad about writing lots of dialog. Gotta get the thoughts out there. In rewriting, cut all the filler and turn just keep looking for what the different characters DO while they're talking.

Doug Nelson

Andrew – the question is “what would I do” which point me to what I’ve done (that’s worked.) Lots of control freaks will spell out the rules (which can all be bent and broken.) I like to break up blocks of dialog every so often with a line of action (I try to keep action to three lines or less – not always possible.) I’ve recently started throwing in an occasional parenthetical to put a little action onto dialog delivery to avoid the talking-heads syndrome. What I do is to set up a table read.

Doug Nelson

Ron, correct; it’s a table read and I personally believe that every script should go through one or more as the writer tries to put the finishing polish on his work. It’s one of the more valuable tools available to writers. (p.s. it’s good for actors too.)

Gregory Kauffman

All really good comments, but it is not true that you should not have dialogue alone, no action. Just dialogue can be very compelling. Example: _My Dinner With Andre_ or many scenes in Tarantino's films.

Doug Nelson

That begs the question; what constitutes action? Two people having diner – one gestures with a fork, one points with a knife, one sips wine, one downs a shot and throws the glass against the wall, one throws a napkin at the other – These are all little actions that breathe life into a talking head sequence. Something must be happening on the screen or your audience may just doze off. The writer must be aware of it and understand how to write it – the actors will figure out how to play it.

Kathryn Gould

I try to focus on the actions that are important to move the plot forward or reveal character, and more on the what happens than how it happens. You have to paint with broad strokes, but in a compelling and imagery-driven way. I used to get really bogged down in description, but I learned to curtail my desire to spell out every single thing that happens on the screen, and leave the details up to the director and actors. The best piece of advice I ever got was to think of a screenplay as a blueprint, not a finished product.

Siegal Annette

Yes agree.Leave place for the director and the actor for the so-calles small actions.Nothing then is needed in the script.But if an action not usually related to the situation , let's say, 2 are sitting and eating and dialoguing in a coffee house and a bug is crossing the table in search of a nice bit.That the special think to detail as fun or as terribly disturbing for the couple as possible.That has to be in the script for sure.

Robert Gosnell

First of all, Andrew, 3/4 of a page of dialogue is a lot, so your first job is to make sure it's justified. Long speeches, just like long blocks of action are detrimental to a screenplay. Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth" speech in "A Few Good Men" is a good example of one that is acceptable. It was important, it was climactic and it was revealing. The entire story had built up to that moment. (Plus, it was Jack Nicholson, so hey, who's gonna get up and go out for popcorn?) Second, any action that comes within a long stretch of dialogue should be there to enhance the dialogue - to reflect what the character is thinking and feeling as a reaction to what is being spoken. A frown, raised eyebrows, an ironic smile, a shake of the head, that sort of thing. And Kathryn, I mean no offense when I say this, but I believe that thinking of a screenplay as a blueprint is the worst, not the best advice you ever got. I've heard this many times over the years, and I couldn't disagree more. It's a notion promulgated by some directors, producers and others who don't write and only diminishes the value and responsibility of a screenplay. A script is not a blueprint. It is a story written in visual form, and should stand on its own as a reading experience. Of course, it is one (the most important) element in a collaboration, and tweaks will be made by directors and actors, but their job is to interpret and enhance your words, not to change them or to fill in the blanks for you.

Kathryn Gould

Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree on that. The blueprint advice was given to me by a working, repped screenwriter and the most creative human being I know, and since I started following it my writing has gone from bogged-down, overwritten crap to contest-placing and under consideration by a reputable manager. Calling it a blueprint is not meant say that it should be unreadable, it's simply meant to say that it is not the intended final product of this process. There are whole departments of people who will figure out a great number of details that will make the final product, the film, worth watching. Our job as screenwriters is to outline a direction and an overall vision for them to follow, not tell them how to do their jobs every step of the way.

Richard Koman

Or put another way, Kathryn ... the "final draft" is still a "rough draft" for the actors and director. They're going to dive into the material and discover levels of complexity and richness that make it a movie. The best screenplay in the world is not a movie. I like this Kruger idea: Dialogue is just another flavor of action. It's not chars talking to each other, its chars DOING stuff to each other (in furtherance of their objective). If your scene is too dialog heavy, trying writing the scene with no dialog and see if you can get the characters to chase their wants without words. Then, allow them even more action by letting them use words to get what they want.

Richard Koman

I have yet to read a script (maybe Taxi Driver, but that is certainly not a usable template) that worked as a rich reading experience in and of itself. A novel is a reading experience, but you can't make a movie from a novel. A screenplay is a document from which filmmakers will make a film. I think that can be called a blueprint. Like a blueprint, it needs to provide all of the structure needed for the building, but it does not dictate paint color or even interior wall placement.

Doug Nelson

Robert – where did you get your notion that 6/8 of a page of dialog is a lot? I often wear different hats on any single project but started as a writer, became a producer and reluctantly I’ve been drawn into directing. No matter which hat I’m wearing, the script (mine or someone else’s) is the common blue print or skeleton around which to show the story – your script is not cast in concrete. Sounds to me like you just missed a couple of days in class.

Robert Gosnell

Doug, that's an "oops" on my part for misreading the post. I was thinking 3/4 of a page for one speech. However, I'll stick to my guns concerning the "blueprint" debate. As for missing a couple of days in class, I'm not sure what you're referring to. I've been a screenwriter for 30 years and have produced credits in studio film, independent film, TV and cable, so I'm not exactly a novice. Of course, the script is not cast in concrete, and I think I made that point in my post. As a director, if you want to consider the screenplay to be a blueprint, you certainly have that option. To do so as a writer implies that one can leave some or much of the development of the story up to others and not worry about the fine points. I think that's damaging.

Robert Gosnell

Richard, let me recommend three scripts, off the top of my head, that are great reading experiences.: "A Few Good Men," "The Big Chill," and "The Usual Suspects." No, a script is not a novel, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be a reading experience. I'm aware that there are many in the industry to take the "blueprint" stance, where screenplays are concerned, and perhaps I'm arguing semantics, here, but a blueprint is void of emotion, while the very task of a screenplay is to evoke emotion. My concern is that when a writer views a screenplay in such a structural sense, he or she will feel free to allow others to fill in the emotional blanks, and that can be dangerous. The primary task of a director is to interpret the script, not to write it, just as the primary task of an actor is to interpret the character. If they are good at their jobs, they will enhance our vision, rather than replacing it with their own. That means attention to detail, by the writer. We have to give them the material to build on, not blanks to fill in. Of course, changes will be made during production for a variety of reasons, including logistical concerns, but that doesn't mean we should put less effort into our story at the outset, simply because "what the hell, it's just a blueprint." I just don't see how that mindset helps a writer create a great screenplay. A note to Andrew - my apologies for misreading your original post. No, 3/4 of a page of dialogue is not excessive. My misunderstanding made me think you were talking about a single speech, not just dialogue in general. A note to Kathryn - Once again, I meant no offense, and if viewing your screenplay as a blueprint helps you, that's all that matters. The "blueprint" analogy has always been a sore spot for me, for reasons I've already stated earlier in this post, so it's my opinion and that won't change. As you say, we'll just have to disagree on that, and that's okay. I wish you the very best in your writing pursuits.

Dave McCrea

Great post Robert. To a filmmaker/director the script might be a "blueprint", but to the writer, if they think of what they're doing as just the blueprint for someone else's vision, they're limiting their own creativity. That doesn't mean a script isn't part of the overall filmmaking process and it shouldn't be improved on if possible or necessary by the producer/director and do what they want with it, but to compare it to a blueprint is a bad way for a screenwriter to think. Also blueprint is a technical term that has no place here - a movie is not a building - buildings serve practical purposes and only a tiny percentage of them have any artistic merit, but even with those, that is secondary to the building's main function.

Doug Nelson

Robert – I understand your POV. I started in the industry in 1976 so I tend to be a bit archaic at times. I’m comfortable with the blueprint concept, I also like design, plan, chart or map (even treasure map) but no matter what you call it – it’s not cut in stone. When I’m directing, I want the writer on set – willing to listen to me and the acting talent. That certainly goes the other way too. After all, filmmaking is a team effort that requires participation of one and all and respect of each by each. I’ll stay with blueprint until a better word comes along.

Robert Gosnell

Understood, Doug, and I don't intend to knock anyone's process, if it works for them. As I've mentioned previously, the blueprint concept has always been a pet peeve of mine, but that's my choice. I just don't care for the analogy, and fear that some writers may interpret it in a way that can be detrimental to them. I certainly don't mean to imply that the screenplay is not a part of a collaborative effort. I do believe that the collaboration that takes place relies, first and foremost, on what is on the page. The films I cited above, "A Few Good Men," "The Big Chill" and "The Usual Suspects" were chosen as examples because they were so skillfully crafted, evidenced by the fact that the finished films so closely reflected the scripts. That is because the writers gave them depth, nuance, dimension and emotion. They reflected the writer's attention to detail; a treasure trove of material to build on. And, by the way, God bless you for having the writer on the set!

Doug Nelson

Robert – sounds to me like your rant has more to do with the writer’s product (script.) My rant has more to do with the formulaic writing style I see spoon fed to new writers. I think both rants are justified. (But I’m still gonna call it a blueprint)

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