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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Modern Society Reflected in Screenwriting: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

In what could be taken as a rendering of modern society, David Howard (p. 82) characterizes the “heart of dramatic writing” as thinking of “the actions of the characters and how they should be seen by the audience.” Howard is referring specifically to storytelling by screenwriters. Whereas the novel genre is particularly well-suited to exploring the interior lives of characters (e.g., their thoughts and feelings) via the expository word and the stage privileges dialogue due to the limits on action (and place), film is a visual medium, and thus uniquely able, or free, to capture actions and vistas. Hence, Charles Deemer (p. 64) advises aspiring screenwriters: “Always look for ways to tell your story visually without words.” It is as though he were stuck in the “silent” era, before the “talkies.” That films having soundtracks were referred to as talkies, at least initially, suggests that dialogue was (and is) no small matter in the film genre of storytelling. In fact, some stars who were quite notable during the “silent” era found the transition to “talkies” rather daunting, if not impossible, given the importance of voice, which pertains specifically to dialogue.

Accordingly, Howard’s (p. 82) dictum that the “action stays with us more effectively than if any of these characters had simply spoken dialogue expressing their hatred, passion, or change” can be subjected to a dose of healthy critique. Behind the action-hypertrophy evinced by Howard may be the fact that the mobility of the camera gives it a rather unique benefit in storytelling, at least relative to the confines of a stage. Furthermore, the modern proclivity toward action (and function) could simply mean that Howard is reflecting modern (Western) society. The hegemony of empirical science and the value put on vocation are what I have in mind here. If I am correct, then we, being moderns, would naturally tend to overlook the overemphasis on action in film because of what we ourselves value. This essay is thus to say to the fish: Hey, look at the water!

According to Howard (p. 83), the “weakest scenes [in film] are ones in which dialogue is expected to carry all of the dramatic weight by itself.” Even worse is including dialogue that has no other purpose than to inform the audience of “facts of which they must be made aware” (i.e., exposition). Even so, Howard (p. 87) acknowledges that a “good line, a well-turned phrase delivered in just the right way by an actor, can have a very powerful impact on the audience.” In fact, dialogue is where a screenwriter “can express his inner poetry to greatest advantage.” Howard (p. 87) then retreats back onto safer ground by declaring: “Talk is a small part of what we do as human beings, and it should be a small part of how we expect to tell our stories to the audience.” Subjecting “talk” to do rather than mean, however, is already to relegate the spoken (or written) word. Indeed, “what we do as human beings” expresses a functionalist value that is clearly salient in modern society. At a party, someone being introduced says, “I am a lawyer” rather than “I do lawyering.” A crasher at the same party says, “I am a writer,” rather than “I write for a living—well, ok, I fantasize at least about money coming with writing.” Philosophically speaking (L.A. collectively yawns here), we moderns are wont to reduce ontology to functionalism. The slippage “works” monetarily, unless one happens to be a philosopher, occupier, or rascal like Euthyphro, who thought he know more than he did before he sat down with Socrates (hint).

Particularly where the dramatic conflict is internal—within the protagonist—the spoken word may have an advantage over action. “Externalizing the internal is a perennial problem for the screen story-teller—how do we know what somebody really feels or thinks? Usually this is solved by putting characters into action so that what they do tells us what they feel and think, regardless of what they might say” (Howard, p. 273). To be sure, what people say can belie what is going on beneath the surface. However, between the distinct realm of external action and the internal life of a character, there is Cartesian (i.e., mind-body) distance. Dialogue can be interpreted as a bridge of sorts, being external yet more revealing of—closer to—what is going on inside.

For centuries, novels and the theatre, as well as traditional oral storytelling, have highlighted the written and spoken word as a key to revealing characters (and thus story) and unlocking the human imagination. In philosophy of mind, it is argued that we cannot even be aware of something as something (i.e., as an entity) without having a word for it. In the words of Sellars on Wittgenstein (another collective yawn out in L.A.), there is no pre-classificatory awareness. This claim seems to me to be pretty radical—that we can’t even be aware of a car unless we have a word for it (i.e., “car” or “automobile”). My point here is merely that language may be very important to the human mind, and more specifically in how we humans experience ourselves and the external world. This may explain why for millennia humans have emphasized words in storytelling; the craft has not been (though it perhaps could have been) doing actions with perhaps just an occasional word or two (e.g., pantomime). The importance of inter-titles to the storytelling in silent films (i.e., the strain to read them in time) and the rush to invent and then produce “talkies” point to the salience of words in storytelling. The actions here speak louder than Howard’s (and your?) words. Ah, you say, “Got you there! Actions speak louder than words!” Check-mate? Should I admit defeat? “Holy scrabble, Batman!” (Robin’s character is impeccably “shown” in his “Holy” lines from his tone alone, through dialogue).

In film, a character’s spoken word can be more revealing of his or her internal state than can even a riveting action. The relative closeness of tone and expression of voice and face, respectively, plus the mental choice of diction, to one’s emotional state can be betrayed, but this does not bring external action any closer to the internals. In other words, even if people can act, still the voice and face are inherently closer, and this explains the innate edge that dialogue has over action, generally speaking, in “solving” the problem of “externalizing the internal.” Besides, action too can be faked, even as words are genuine; action does not always speak louder than words. In fact, even the effort to fake what one says can be shown in the faking itself, and thus the speaking can be artfully revealing. So it would appear that Batman has managed to escape a sordid, tilted lair once again! “Pow! Wham!” Take that—words overlaid on (insufficient?) action—you ninja-action hegemons who rule the modern world! Upended by a philosopher no less!

Lines written and delivered well by an actor can be very powerful, period, as well as in revealing a character’s inner dynamic or state. In spite of my academic training that is rooted in tomes and treatises (with some film studies and acting courses thrown in for good measure), distinctive lines from movies are more likely to come to my mind when I am “out and about.” Besides the obvious social benefit in this proclivity (quoting from Nietzsche on morality is not the best way to get invited to a party), lines with meaning spoken in a distinctive tone and backed up by good characterization stay with me much more vividly than do lines that I read—even if the latter are substantively richer inherently. It is the gestalt of the various senses—which coincides with the integrative feature of consciousness itself as well as the inherent closeness that is possible between speech and the internal—that film is able to infuse in les spectateurs via characterization. Beyond the potential for stunning visual vistas and huge visceral explosions, this scorched-like infusing is a unique (and prime) advantage of cinema.

Consider, for example, the following line: “A baby should have seen it!” (Gen. Hill in Gettysburg). The line by the wounded Confederate general reveals his character as well as the reason for Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg far better than any action could. Consider too: “Will you die for him?” (The priest in The Seventh Seal). The repetition of this line by the priest infuses the theme of the entire film inside the viewer while evoking the character’s violent internals. How many times has “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn (Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind) been repeated, while Scarlett’s gaze of the vista of wounded soldiers has faded with time. “Go sell crazy somewhere else” (Melvin in As Good as It Gets), more than throwing the little dog down the laundry shoot, reveals Melvin’s attitude toward people. In another role and film, Nicholson flawlessly delivered a whopper, “You can’t handle the truth,” which went on to eclipse the entire film (I can’t even remember the title—A Few Good Men?).

The value of the spoken word in film is perhaps proved best simply by recalling the classic gem, The Wizard of Oz. Who does not recognize: “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!” Who can forget: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” The staying power of this line demonstrates how film dialogue can take on a life of its own in being used as a place-holder in popular discourse. Interestingly, the sound mixer or editor must have erred because the Wizard is saying the line while still walking the curtain back—away from the visible microphone he had been using to project the loud Wizard voice in the large hall! Dorothy and the others (and us!) should not have been able to hear the imperative through the Wizard's PA system. It may be that the oversight was the result of relegating dialogue in favor of action, even if unconsciously. Yet it is the line (rather than the image of the large green head) that survived into another century.

Less popular a line but certainly no less revealing of the Wizard’s character is the Wizard's line that is notable for the distinctive and unmistakable kind tone of Morgan's delivery: To the Tin Man, the Wizard says “Remember my sentimental friend, a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” The fraud, it turns out, is not such a bad guy after all, and the sentiment itself points to or suggests the same exists in the Tin Man’s character. Interestingly, the Wizard later selects the Scarecrow to replace him, to be assisted by the Tin Man and the Lion. Is reason over love one of the messages of the film? 

My main point is that even relative to action, the spoken word in dialogue can convey the internality of characterization and deliver the dramatic punch of heightened conflict. Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” is much closer to his internal state than even his subsequent action when he tries to go after the defense lawyer only to be physically restrained. While the audience’s anticipation of possible “real” conflict made literal in a fist fight is dramatically of value, I question Howard’s “solving” the problem of “exteriorizing the internal” by the default of “putting characters into action.” I am not dismissing this strategy; rather, I’m merely contending that what a character says can be a better solution because words combined with tone and facial expression can be more revealing of thoughts and feelings. Just because film has a strategic competitive advantage on the action front does not mean that action eclipses speech in being inherently indicative of what is going on inside a person. I sense an always implied in Howard’s dictum that points to an element of dogmatism in his broader thesis.

If I am correct, then neither dialogue nor action should be stepwise privileged in screenwriting. Exteriorizing the internal can privilege dialogue even as action can be allowed to (sometimes) speak louder than words. The distinctive freedom of the camera (and the visuals afforded by the screen) can still be leveraged while backing off a bit from the proclivities of modernity that at their worse produce an “action flick” highlighted by a bus or cruise ship out-of-control. In actuality, action as an end in itself (think of Kant’s categorical imperative) reflects values in a decadent modern society that treats substance and authenticity, including real connections between people, as an “oh, by the way” kind of afterthought even in storytelling. Should film be a projection of cultural decadence as if part of a race to the bottom, or is there a higher calling for filmmakers in understanding the medium itself. Filmmakers can challenge hegemonic societal values by understanding the craft itself from its own standpoint rather than simply as a reflection of modernity. Cinema is a modern invention, but it need not be unduly constrained by the values of modernity in how story and storytelling are understood and accomplished.


David Howard and Edward Mabley, The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993).
Charles Deemer, Screenwright: The Craft of Screenwriting (Xlibris, 1998).