In Praise of Dialogue

“Don’t tell, show” goes the creative writing rule. And it’s a good one. Telling is not only inelegant and obvious, it pulls the reader or viewer out of the narrative, and denies them the satisfaction of drawing their own conclusions.

But when it comes to film, what constitutes telling and showing has come to be misinterpreted into their most literal forms, taken to mean don’t use words, show images. This has resulted in competitive filmmaking whereby the movie with the least dialogue wins. Bonus points if you are adapting a book and cut out all the talking. So we are due for a corrective message to screenwriters: as any novelist can tell you, this is not what show, don’t tell means.

Sagittarius plant in a pond.If I were to write, “Millicent was tenderhearted, even to the point of reckless self-sacrifice” that would be telling. If I make a film with the above as a narrated voiceover, or have her brother say, to an exposition-bearing sidekick character, “the trouble with Millicent is that she is tenderhearted, even to the point of reckless self-sacrifice”, that is telling. If I film Millicent taking off her cloak and wrapping it around someone’s shoulders, then cut to her sick in a hospital bed, that is showing. But if Millicent’s mother says, “we ration for a reason. If you keep sneaking your portion to Horatio, I don’t know how I’m going to keep you alive”, that is also showing. Showing can be done through dialogue. Even more crucially, there are times when words are needed to express concepts central to a work that are simply not going to be communicated by a look, even if it comes from a hybrid of Sophie Okonedo, Rose Byrne and Judi Dench.

Herb rue flowering.Clever filmmakers know what they can express without dialogue. One of my favourite examples of delivering a major plot point using only visuals is in the BBC adaptations of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in “The Knight’s Tale”. In this modern version, the heroine has a live-in boyfriend. At home in their flat his phone beeps with a received text message, and she picks it up without even thinking. The boyfriend rushes out to take it from her and she playfully holds it away from him, and they begin to struggle for the phone. At some point the struggle turns serious. He wrests it away from her and says something like, “there, it’s deleted anyway”, then walks out of the room. She is left sitting on the floor knowing her boyfriend is having an affair and her relationship is over, without them having exchanged a word about it. Brilliant. But the same episode let Chiwetel Ejiofor give a monologue straight to camera describing what he he feared about his brother having a chance with his girl. Really clever filmmakers aren’t afraid of being good with words.

Can you tell I’ve been watching The Hunger Games? The screen adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian thought experiment have been, broadly speaking, excellent. It is never possible to make a film do all the things a book can do, that is the nature of the beast. But when the whole thematic (as opposed to plot) driving force of your piece is a series of urgent philosophical/ethical questions, you need to hear a few positions stated and even – gasp! – expanded upon.

In short, Katniss looking thoughtful and then blowing up a pile of food is not the same thing as Katniss saying “we’re strong in a different way. Do they know how to be hungry?”

2 thoughts on “In Praise of Dialogue

    • I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from watching them. Increasingly I’m learning to treat film adaptations of books as something like expanded illustrations. That is, I don’t ask them to represent the book, more to give me the additional imaginative stimulus that you get from reading an edition with added pictures. However, I do think that there is a trend to underestimate what the audience can cope with in terms of hearing ideas articulated.

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