How To Series

Say It Visually

Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole

   About this series.

Is the physical portrayal of dramatic action simply a combination of the dialogue, actor choices, and cinematography? Or is it something that the writer must put in? Physical action hardly exists without the writer, which reduces movies to simply dialogue.


Say it loudly with action

In the early days of movies there was no sound. Dialogue may be the most important and effective way in which we communicate, but entire movies were made with no sound. You could see the character's lips move, but no words arrived at the audience's ears. When dialogue was essential to communicate to the audience, a printed sign appeared on the screen and stopped the dramatic action.

Silent film was actually very effective at portraying dramatic action. The writer could not talk his way through the action - he had to show it. Charlie Chaplin, in his "Little Tramp," character, captured the hearts of his audience in movie after movie, but never spoke a single word.

Director Jean Mitry (Aesthetics and Psychology in the Cinema, p 281), in explaining the typical 15 minute length of early movies, says that "What audiences saw were things that were capable of being described... Dispensing with psychology and complicated plots (anything requiring dialogue), the drama confined itself to simple clear-cut conflicts, adventures and chases. It was concise, cutting out any tedious exposition, subtle characterization, or irrelevant detail."

This could be the final state of movies today, but Mitry continues to explain that from 1903 to 1909 cinema refined its techniques. "Actions and events were contrasted, places and times were juxtaposed, time sequences were inverted; memories were evoked; points of view became more and more diversified. From 1909 onward, it became possible to signify characterization and suggest feelings." To do that, films became longer.

Today we have long feature films with no dialogue that are very successful. They include Wall-E, The Thief, One Million Years B.C., Caveman, and Spielberg's TV thriller, Duel. Some aren't entirely without dialogue, but the dialogue is used sparingly. Preceding these films in the silent era are a host of Charlie Chaplin films that tell the story without dialogue. These movies are great examples to emulate.

Dialogue is much too easy a way to tell a story, and in my experience as well as others, becomes the default and it creates a lame story. Story architecture should be well grounded in the physical portrayal of dramatic action.

My favorite example for story architecture comes from the movie, They Call Me Trinity,*1 a western spoof. It has visual scenes that communicate fantastically in the opening. The opening motif communicates to the audience what kind of story it is (genre - western comedy), and tells the audience the attitude of the main character. There is very limited dialogue in the opening scenes - everything is communicated visually.

1. Lo chiamavano Trinità), the 1971 classic comedy, western. Writers: Enzo Barboni and Gene Luotto; Dir: Enzo Barboni, is a spoof on spaghetti westerns (Italian, French, Spanish westerns. (Available from Netflix and other outlets.)

In the opening, as the credits roll, we see a gun belt being dragged across the desert. We then see a canteen and a pair of boots being dragged. Our view widens to see a cot being dragged in the hot sun. A man is on the cot, dressed in very dusty and ragged clothes, his hat pulled over his eyes so he can sleep. He yawns. Our view widens again and we see a riderless horse is pulling the cot across the arid land. The man never moves, even when they cross a knee deep stream. Credits roll.

When the horse finally stops, they are at a stage coach station. The man yawns, stretches, and pulls on a boot - immediately removes it, scratches his foot, reaches in the boot, plucks out a scorpion, and carelessly tosses the scorpion away. He throws the horse some hay, and goes inside dragging his gun in the sand. So we see that this is a western comedy, and the man is incredibly lazy and doesn't care about much of anything. First 3 minutes, no dialogue.

After entering the station, the man slaps some of the dust from his clothes and sits at a table, leaving dust all over it. His clothes are full of holes. There are two other men, a wounded man, and the station attendants inside. When the stationmaster offers him beans and wine, and when others try to converse with him or insult him, the man responds affably in grunts and nods, speaking only when necessary.

The stationmaster brings a large skillet to the table and serves some beans. After a couple of scoops, the man takes the entire skillet, a half loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine, and eats directly from the skillet. He shovels beans with both spoon and bread, stuffing it into his mouth, scoop after scoop, his cheeks bulging, stopping only to flush them down with a cup of wine and burp, spilling much of the wine on himself, and pouring wine while he shovels beans.

Everyone in the station is transfixed by the spectacle. The men, who are bounty hunters who are taking the wounded man in, try to identify the dusty man from posters, and he affably lets them. They find nothing (tells character - he isn't a criminal). When the beans are gone, he uses the bread to swipe up the sauce until the skillet is empty.

This is where the guns come in. He straps on his gun belt. One man says, "A man only eats like that if he's on the run." Another says, "Your name, Stinkweed?" "They call me Trinity." Everyone gasps. "The right hand of the devil." Trinity then takes the wounded man from the bounty hunters without a struggle.

One bounty hunter remarks that they say he has the fastest gun in the West. Trinity downplays it, saying, "Is that what they say? Geeze." As he walks out, the bounty hunters open a window to kill Trinity. Without looking, he shoots from behind his back, hitting both men with one bullet.

The bounty hunters had been abusing the wounded man, but Trinity treats him much better. Later he releases him - so by his actions we learn more about his character.

The 6 minute opening scenes are at least 90% visual, and less than 10% dialogue. So primarily through visual action we learn that Trinity is not an outlaw, but is terrifyingly skillful, doesn't care much about material things, is lazy, but is good to people. The visuals do characterization, produce comedy, and move the story forward much better than 9 pages of dialogue could have.

So what do the guns and gunfire tell us? One, it's a comedy and we're not to dwell on the gunfire. Two, it's a spoof - no one is that good with a gun. Three, he lives up to his reputation.

For more on recent movies with examples of action, see Conveying meaning through non-verbal action.

- Scott

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