Structuring a Scene as a Foreigner

Here’s the worst way to write a scene. Have two characters sit in a restaurant and do nothing but talk. This is visually boring no matter how exciting the dialogue might be. Unless the dialogue happens to be fascinating in and of itself (like the fast food comparison of how people in Europe eat burgers and fries in “Pulp Fiction”), every scene needs to be more than just dialogue.

Every scene needs to consist of both action and dialogue. Of the two, action is far more important because it’s easier to follow.

Watch any foreign language film. Even though you won’t understand the language, notice how much you do understand based on the actions of the characters. It’s easy to see if a character is happy, sad, or angry just by what they do. When you write your own scenes, think visually and pretend you have to create an entire scene without any dialogue whatsoever (or dialogue in a foreign language that nobody will understand).

Consider the scene in “Die Hard” where the hero limps towards the villain who’s holding his wife hostage near the end of the movie. We’ve already seen how the hero and villain have been fighting the whole time and now the tension rises as the hero staggers towards the villain with a pistol taped to his back. Even without knowing the language, you can already guess that the scene will lead to a violent struggle to the death.

There’s a scene in “Okja” that’s all in Korean, but it’s easy to understand. A little girl is upset at her father and smashes a piggybank open to grab the coins inside. The father tries to stop her and collect all the coins scattered on the floor, but then the girl angrily leaves the house with the father chasing after her. Even though the entire scene is in Korean, you can clearly understand what’s going on even if you don’t know all the details.

When writing your own scenes in your screenplay, think action first. How can the actions of the characters tell what’s going on? Once you get this action down, then you can worry about the actual dialogue. Pretend you’re writing a scene in a foreign language and make sure it’s filled with action. Action doesn’t have to mean explosions and car crashes. Instead, action is just what the characters do whether it’s to charge a bunch of stormtroopers in “Star Wars” or fake an orgasm in a deli in “When Harry Met Sally.”

Action reveals character and so it’s an excellent way to portray your characters without relying on dialogue. When someone sees the hero dancing on a giant piano in “Big,” there’s no doubt that the hero is a playful person. Likewise, when someone sees a mentor gun down a sheriff in front of witnesses and then boldly hold forth a paper to show that the sheriff was a wanted man in “Django: Unchained,” there’s no doubt that the mentor is a deadly man but also clever as well.

Actions speak louder than words. Think action first and dialogue second and your scenes will likely be far more interesting to watch as a result.

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