5 Ways Movies Replace Dialogue

It’s not always necessary to have amazing dialogue in your movie. If you’re stuck filling in a scene before your plot twist look no further than these 5 transitions from popular movies.

1. Music and Relationship building

I recently was forced to watch Notting Hill in a class on British pop culture. Not sure how many people agree this represents the real Notting Hill, but this movie does a great job transitioning between plot points. Anna Scott (Julie Roberts) the American mega-celeb falls in love with a common British travel bookstore owner William Thacker (Hugh Grant). William is painfully awkward and star-struck in front of the great Anna Scott. He offers her tea and apricots, spills a drink on her, and gives suggestions on travel books. He really never says anything to move the movie forward. Instead when the movie needs to move, as in their relationship developing, it enters Ipod music mode.
• Anna and William sneak in a gated garden (never caught by CCTV) and music plays for a minute or two while they laugh and smell flowers. William does say, “whoops-e-daisy” a few times.
• Anna meets William’s family it’s fairly awkward. Instead of weighty dialogue once again music plays. They laugh, eat, and stare at each other. You really feel like Anna had a great time getting to know “a real family”.
•  William loses Anna temporarily after the paparazzi gets wind of their escapades. William walks down Portebello Street while music plays and the season’s change. A whole year passed without any dialogue!
Notting Hill isn’t the only movie to do this, obviously. Many romances and comedies use this technique to build relationships or pass time in their stories.

2. Shot-reverse-shot film editing

If you ever watch an Alfred Hitchcock movie you’ll know he puts more importance on framing shots than dialogue. In fact he once said,
“Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”

Examples of this can be seen in all of his work. Specifically, ones that I remember vividly are the shower scene in Psycho (white walls, jump cuts between the knife and blonde woman), the explosion in The Birds (camera cuts back and forth between the woman’s eyes and an oil spill leading to an imminent explosion.) Another thought about Hitchcock, he loves torturing blonde women. So if you have nothing to say just put a blonde woman in distress.

3. The Sound of Silence

Sometimes just flat out saying nothing at all can say everything. In the movie, The Graduate a young college grad deals with the reality of a post-college world (I can relate to this). He really just wants to sit around and think about his future, no plastics please. Unfortunately, nothing leads to a whole lot of something when he teams up with Mrs. Robinson and then her daughter. Director Mike Nichols uses silence numerous times to give depth to his main character Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman).

In one scene spoofed by Will Farrell in Old School, Ben is forced into a swimming pool wearing a brand new scuba-diving suit. The camera is set “inside” Ben’s scuba mask. It pans around at all the adults yelling at him to jump in, but all we can hear is the heavy breathing of Ben.
In the last scene of the movie (spoiler alert) Ben stops Elaine Robinson from marrying and they narrowly escape on a bus outside the church. Purposely the camera lingers on Ben and Elaine who are completely silent sitting in the back of the bus.
Having all this silence replaces dialogue and allows the audience to make up their own interpretations.

4. Tell a Joke

Here’s an interesting line of dialogue from Pulp Fiction where Vincent (John Travolta) has just taken out his bosses’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman). After a night out and an accidental overdose Vincent walks Mia to her doorstep. Vincent is a little petrified that he will get tossed out of an office window, like the last man who allegedly got too close to Marsellus’ (his boss) wife. Instead of wrapping up the night with some expected dialogue of, “You’re OK, I’m OK, goodnight,” Tarantino uses a “joke”.

Mia: Vincent, do you still want to hear my Fox Force Five joke?
Vincent: Sure, but I think I’m still a little too petrified to laugh.
Mia: No, you wont laugh, ‘cus it’s not funny. But if you still wanna hear it, I’ll tell it.
Vincent: I can’t wait.
Mia: Three tomatoes are walking down the street- a poppa tomato, a momma tomato, and a little baby tomato. Baby tomato starts lagging behind. Poppa tomato gets angry, goes over to the baby tomato and smooshes him… and says, Catch up.

Yes this is still dialogue and I promised alternatives to writing dialogue, but this is different. In no way does this move the story forward, but rather it gives insight to characters in the story. I guess I’m saying if you can’t move the story forward with dialogue why not use dialogue to give depth to your characters.

Also it’s pretty simple to come up with a joke or story for your character to tell. Next time you’re out with friends and hear something particularly hilarious, use that.

5. Multiple scene transitions

For lack of a better name you can replace dialogue with crazy amounts of scene changes. The best example I have of this is in The Dark Knight. Right after the Joker reveals the location of Harvey Dent and Rachel, tied to barrels on opposite sides of Gotham City, a back-and-forth montage begins. There are very few words spoken in the next ten minutes, but the intense scene changes reveal the story plot (Got to save the girl or the hero. At the same time the antagonist escapes).

When there is no dialogue being spoken, the music and scenery keep the action rising. This is the case many times in great action films. Think about Jaws and the suspense its music and shots set up, no words needed.

Next time you find yourself in a bind for words, maybe no words at all is the answer.