Telling a Story Visually

If you watch this music video from Disney’s animated film “Tarzan,” you basically get the main story in less than four minutes, all without hearing a single line of dialogue. One huge mistake novices make when writing a screenplay is that they rely on what’s known as “talking heads.” That’s when two people sit at a table and talk where their dialogue tells the story.

This is absolutely boring. Remember, movies are visual in nature so you always have to keep the eye interested by providing movement of any kind. In his book “Save the Cat” Blake Snyder offers an idea that he calls “The Pope in the Pool.” The basic idea is that if you need two people to talk, put them in an interesting situation. In Blake’s example, he talks about having two people talk while the Pope swims in a pool in the Vatican. That simple action can be visually interesting to make the dialogue seem more active than just two talking heads.

In the above “Tarzan” music video, you can visually follow the story and see the main plot points just by watching the actions of the characters. Now if you toss in dialogue, the dialogue enhances the visual story telling. Dialogue should never┬áreplace visual story telling.

There are two ways to make a scene interesting. First, you can use the “Pope in the Pool” technique and put your characters in an interesting situation. In “Rocky,” there’s a scene where Rocky and Adrian roller skate alone in an empty skating rink late at night. That’s an interesting scene because it’s different and something we don’t normally see.

A second way to make a scene interesting is to make the dialogue interesting. In “Pulp Fiction,” John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson ride in a car and talk about Burger King and fast food in Europe. The action itself is dull, but the dialogue is interesting because it starts off as silly, then gradually hints at the more sinister foreshadowing by talking about a guy who got killed for touching the mob boss’s wife’s foot, and now John Travolta is supposed to take the mob boss’s wife out. Suddenly we get both foreshadowing and tension.

In “Fargo” the opening scene is kind of boring when Jerry first meets the two criminals. Yet right away the tension begins when the criminals complain that he was late and then Jerry starts talking about having the two men kidnap his wife.

So to make a scene interesting, you can make it visually interesting in a way that’s just different, or you can make the dialogue interesting by using foreshadowing with tension that hints at danger. The more terrifying the topic of the dialogue (people being killed, etc.) the more interesting the dialogue will be.

Just be aware that dialogue alone must be fascinating and interesting if there’s no action taking place. Even in the car scene of “Pulp Fiction,” the two characters are driving and in the opening scene in “Fargo,” the characters are already starting to fight each other before we understand their deadly intention.

Scenes should be:

  • Visually interesting
  • Contain dialogue that foreshadows something horrible
  • Contains dialogue that creates conflict right away

One of the least memorable scenes in “Pulp Fiction” occurs when Bruce Willis escapes a boxing match in a cab driven by a beautiful woman. Riding in a cab is kind of boring, the two characters don’t have any conflict, and their dialogue doesn’t foreshadow anything horrible. As a result, this entire scene is pointless.

Make scenes active. Imagine a scene with no dialogue and tell your story through the mute actions of your characters themselves. Then add dialogue and you’ll likely have a stronger scene.

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