Developing scenes or an entire short film without dialogue will focus your story’s essentials.
Some moviegoers mistakenly believe that a screenwriter only writes what the actors say and that the film’s director and cinematographer supply what the actors do, but of course screenwriters write both dialogue and action and need them to work in tandem to tell a feature story effectively. A good way to enhance your skills in writing action and use one of the professional story hacks is to write a short script with no dialogue at all.
Outstanding Shorts Without Dialogue
A number of strong short films have been created without a single spoken word. Here are two:
- Geri’s Game won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1998. Written and directed by Jan Pinkava and produced by Pixar, this five-minute comedy involves only one character, an elderly man playing chess by himself. But it’s not a conventional story of the loneliness of old age. Geri demonstrates his lively imagination as he moves from one side of the chess table to the other, alternately playing the black and the white sides while giving himself the persona of a crafty chess wizard battling a hesitant, glasses-wearing version of himself.
If we saw the script, we would find no dialogue segments. Instead, it would be filled with short paragraphs describing Gerri’s behaviour, each one taking the audience a step closer to the climax where the ‘meeker Geri’, ostensibly outmanoeuvred by his gloating ‘opponent’, fakes a heart attack and switches the board to ensure his ‘victory.’
Geri says nothing during the film. What he does, however, tells the whole story.
- Strangers, written and directed by Erez Tadmor and Guy Nattiv, is a dramatic seven-minute film without dialogue. Produced with the assistance of Fox Searchlab Films, Strangers won top prizes in 2004 at the Aspen, Palm Springs and Sundance Film Festivals.
On a French subway, a young man wearing a Star of David pendant sits across from another young man reading an Arabic-printed newspaper. They eye each other suspiciously. Three other men sporting shaved heads and neo-Nazi tattoos spot the newspaper-reading man and begin their intimidation by spray-painting his paper and planting a boot on his seat.
When the first man’s cell-phone suddenly ring-tones the popular Hebrew song, Hava Nagila, the thugs now turn their scowling attention to him – they hate all ‘ethnics’. With violence imminent, both men scramble to their feet at the next stop and race to the opened doors pursued by the startled neo-Nazis. They jump from the car to the platform on either side of the train just as the subway doors close and before the angry thugs can reach them. From either side of the tracks, the two men briefly celebrate their triumph and then go their separate ways.
Without a word spoken, the tensions between Muslims and Jews and the widespread prejudice they both face are effectively depicted through action – and given a ray of hope.
Write Your Story as Action-Only
Imagine your story as a silent movie and write a series of short paragraphs that describe what an audience would see from beginning to end. Visualise different locations that quickly and dramatically set the stage just as a sunny park and a dark subway establish the different moods and contexts for Geri’s Game and Strangers.
Make your characters vivid and distinct. Strangers uses the characters’ appearance to help communicate the story’s meaning: the two men from different religions look similar to each other but are both visually distinct from the threatening neo-Nazis who, in turn, look very much alike.
Sometimes dialogues become just boring conversations and you have to rework them anyway. Imagine what each character does to further your story. If you feel you need people speaking, rethink the situation until you find a new way to present the information. You can do this by just replaying the story in your head until the right circumstances click into place.
Your character Jack is going to prepare a fancy meal and you want to show that he has purchased top end groceries. You could show him in a fancy store talking with a butcher, but do we need that dialogue?
How about just having him unpacking a fancy shopping bag instead.
The action would look like this:
INT. JACK’S KITCHEN – DAY
Jake lifts onto his tiled kitchen counter a bulging shopping bag stamped with an elegant logo that says ‘Jordan’s Gourmet Viands.’
Once you’ve fully outlined your story and exhausted all possible ‘silent’ approaches, you will find that any dialogue you must have in order to communicate the story will now be spare and more purposeful.
Tips for Maximising Action
- Write the whole story down in a series of short, unintended paragraphs, properly cleaning up your writing.
- Current practice is to describe each separate action that you would see on the screen with no more than three lines. Any longer than three lines and you should simplify the description and/or break to a new paragraph.
- Ensure that each paragraph/action moment advances the story.
- Start each separate location for your action with a three-part heading in CAPS: interior or exterior (INT. or EXT) – a very brief description of the location – (JACK’S KITCHEN) and whether the time is day or night (DAY/NIGHT.)
- Visualise locations that quickly and dramatically set the stage for your story.
- Conceive and describe your characters distinctively.
- Write what your characters do, not what they say.
- “No dialogue” does not mean “no sound”: The WHINE of an accelerating subway, a door SLAM, or a SIZZLING steak can be effective action-ingredients.