Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience.
“What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?”
That’s one version of the legendary Riddle of the Sphinx. The Great Sphinx at Giza, which has the head of a man (probably the head of the Egyptian pharaoh, Chephren) and the body of a lion, devours any visitor who cannot answer his riddle.
So, what’s an even greater mystery than the Riddle of the Sphinx? Why aspiring screenwriters keep writing movies that don’t move.
I’ve evaluated literally thousands of scripts in my career as a screenplay analyst, and, like Indiana Jones, I’m always on the scent of adventure, seeking the next “treasure” in the pile. In fact, I’ve been doing this job since King Tut was just a gleam in his father’s eye. And it never ceases to amaze me that so many writers’ screenplays are mostly “talking heads” and have so little going on in them visually. They don’t take advantage of what movies can do. Movies are a visual storytelling medium. This means that, ideally, the plot is carried mostly by action and images rather than through dialogue. Your action lines should consist largely of action and visuals that aren’t merely “decorative”, but rather reveal character and advance the storyline. Dialogue should be used only where action or images won’t suffice to reveal necessary information.
Too often, screenwriters assume that “action” consists of two people chatting in a restaurant, ordering food from the waitress, and sipping coffee between lines of dialogue. “Sipping” is not action (unless, for example, one character spits coffee in the the other’s face). Describing the holes in the vinyl on the booths in the diner is not screenplay action, nor is it visual imagery worthy of film. Two characters sitting and chatting is not action– though in some movies the dialogue is so fascinating, and so fraught with conflict, that audiences don’t notice (but if I were you, I wouldn’t count on that). Nor does a scene like this take adequate advantage of the fact that film is a visual medium.
Instead, action and images must be part of the storyline. They must tell us something significant about the characters, and also move the plot forward. The last time ordering food from a waitress in a movie was interesting was in the “no substitutions” scene in “Five Easy Pieces” (1970). Watch that famous restaurant scene again, and you’ll discover that it’s not just the great sarcastic dialogue (delivered by Jack Nicholson, and written by Carole Eastman and director Bob Rafelson) that gives the scene “bite.” The scene also has action, visual interest, dramatic tension, the element of surprise, and a sense of danger. Notice also the crucial role that shots of other restaurant patrons play in that scene.
If you have scenes in your film script in which characters sit around typing at their computer keyboards, talking to each other in restaurants and offices– or, God forbid, on their cell phones– consider giving them something more visually interesting to do in a more interesting place. Remember that what they’re doing in the scene must have a direct impact on the content of the dialogue, and should also advance the plot and illuminate the characters in significant ways. Yes, it’s a challenge for screenwriters that, in real life, most of us spend a lot of our time interacting with electronic devices instead of with other human beings in person. But who said movies have to be an accurate reflection of life?
Besides reading classic screenplays and studying great movies, what’s the best way to learn how to write films in which action and images combine to tell the story? Watch the great silent movies. Yes, many of them use “title cards” for snippets of dialogue or occasional description. But these movies are, for the most part, stories told in images and action (the musical score also helps). It’s absolutely amazing to discover how much plot and character information can be conveyed to a film audience without using any dialogue at all. Watch movies by the great “silent” comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and others. Study the classic swashbucklers by Douglas Fairbanks or movies starring his wife Mary Pickford; see the silent films of Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, or the charming “it” girl of silent movies, Clara Bow. Recently, I saw the original “The Thief of Baghdad” (1924) and was absolutely blown away by it. If you thought that George Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic “invented” special effects, you absolutely must see Douglas Fairbanks’s silent movie, “The Thief of Bagdad,” which is enchanting and light-years ahead of its time. And all the reasons for Fairbanks’s megastardom (acting chops, charm, doing his own amazing stunts, great abs) are on full display in that movie.
When watching a film, there should always be something interesting for the audience to see on the movie screen. Action and images shouldn’t distract from the story, they should BE the story.
Visual storytelling is, of course, about more than just doing “special effects”. It’s about building the blocks of the story mostly through action and images, which also reveal the hero’s personality and story purpose. It’s about moving the plot along with a minimum of dialogue, and making sure that audiences identify with, care about, and root for the hero or heroine in a suspenseful storyline. Silent movie stars (especially Chaplin and Keaton, who were also writers and directors) were masters at quickly generating audience sympathy for the hero in their films. When watching silent films, pay particular attention to how they build audience compassion for the hero through visual storytelling (visuals are not just a director’s decision– they are in the script, too). When you write a script, you must take advantage of the fact that movies are visual and they are meant to move. As has often been said, this is why they call it “motion” pictures.
It can also be helpful for screenwriters to study great TV commercials. Many of the best use few words and yet manage to tell a complete story with characters we love– and do it all in just one minute. They are mini-movies. Some of the best recent commercials to study are the video ads for Turkish Airlines (especially “Legends on Board”, which starred basketball player Kobe Bryant and the soccer star Lionel Messi, competing to impress a little boy on an airplane flight), which you can find at Youtube.com. There are very few words in that Kobe Bryant/Messi ad, and yet it is a complete story told visually, is utterly charming, and sells the “product” (the airline), too. This sixty-second ad has had over 108 million hits on YouTube. When you see it, you’ll know why.
If you remember to make sure your screenplays have plenty of action and images that advance the plot and illuminate your characters, and keep dialogue to a minimum, you will avoid stumbling into the Temple of Script Doom and won’t get eaten alive by the Sphinx.
And what, you’re probably wondering, is the answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx that I posed at the top of this article? Well, in the Greek version of the legend, Oedipus’s answer to the riddle was “Man.” That must have been the right answer, because the Sphinx promptly keeled over and died. Hopefully, your script will meet a better fate than the Sphinx did.
- More articles by Staton Rabin
- Spit Takes: What a Silent Film Can Teach You About Screenwriting
- Magic Bullet: High Concept
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