We open on a burning spaceship thundering through the atmosphere of a planet far, far away. The steel asteroid crashes into the ocean and amid the wreckage our luckless hero emerges, bobbing up for air. He washes ashore and observes the lush, alien forestation. There is no one for our hero to talk to. That means no dialogue to break up the endless blocks of description.
How on planet K2-18b can you move the story forward while maintaining the reader’s interest with little to no dialogue?
Start With a Strong Opening Scene
Readers know within the first few pages if they’ll like the screenplay or not. The goal for every writer is to make the reader want— No, need to turn the page. First impressions are important, which makes the first few pages pivotal in an industry built on fleeting chances.
One way to reach the reader is to jump right into the action. That’s not to say that you have to begin your story while the building is already burning, but you can show an unsuspecting family sleeping while the youngest child plays with matches. Build momentum from the very first word.
Something needs to happen fairly early on in order to hook the reader. It’s important to establish the world, but don’t let that slow the flow of the script down.
In A Quiet Place, the writers do a great job of establishing the world without slowing down the movement of the story. Small details that might go unnoticed on the first read hold great significance to the rules of the film’s world.
We first see the abandoned streets of a small town, so instantly we’re placed in a post-apocalyptic world. Naturally, the reader asks themselves, what happened?
And we’re given breadcrumbs that answer that question indirectly. We see what’s left on the shelves. Chips, nachos — noisy food. A family speaks in sign language, which only makes us ask more questions. They must remain quiet. We see them go through great lengths to remain quiet.
The younger boy wants to play with a toy shuttle. The father signs no, it has batteries and makes sounds. He’s upset. His sister takes the batteries out and gives him the shuttle, leaving the batteries on the counter.
As they leave, the batteries are gone. A Chekhov’s Gun — we’re given information that other characters are unaware of and we know it can’t lead to anything good. This creates anxiety in the reader and helps build suspense.
Walking on, we go inside her point of view and it’s revealed that she is in fact deaf. She doesn’t hear her brother turn on the shuttle, so we’re as surprised as she is to witness her parents’ reactions.
The monster attacks, presenting the catalyst event that answers our initial questions and presents the monstrous antagonist that threatens our characters throughout the film.
Write For the Screen, but…
…don’t be afraid to represent your own style. It’s a delicate balance. The general rule is that if you don’t see or hear it, usually you can cut it. Exposition that demonstrates your own original writing style can benefit your script, but it should never slow down the reader and must always remain clean.
If you include sound effects, stick to italics or other indicators so the reader knows what it represents every time they see it. Keep a mental key of what each font style represents.
All caps might signify characters or important objects. Italics might represent emphasis or special effects. Bold might signify an existing intellectual property or significant detail. A Quiet Place uses bold and all caps to signify sounds.
The goal is to remain consistent in your styling. Readers will be more open to a writer breaking conventions if it’s clear that they know what they’re doing.
A writer must tip toe the line between excessive exposition and necessary details. Anything mentioned on the page will be reflected on the screen, so backstories shouldn’t be explored in the description. Instead, try hinting at the backstory with little details that tell a broader story.
The old adage, “Show, Don’t Tell,” reigns supreme when it comes to writing descriptions that move the story forward. Don’t tell the reader that the character lost a limb from an IED while serving in Iraq, show a bent and burnt dog tag hanging from his dresser mirror while he’s fitting his prosthetic in the morning.
Don’t tell the reader that the monsters react to sound. Hint at it with bags of potato chips left on the shelves. Establish the rules of your world — you must be quiet. And then show what happens when your characters break those rules.
Read More About SCREENPLAY ELEMENTS THAT SCRIPT READERS CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF
Use Details That Matter
Only write details if they benefit the story. You don’t have to mention the time on the clock if there’s no reason to. If someone can’t sleep, sure. If a character is supposed to meet a blind date at a specific time and she’s sitting in the restaurant alone, then it makes sense to show the time. If the detail has nothing to do with the story or tone or character, get rid of it.
Same goes for character reactions and directing actors with your words. When I ask actors what they look for in a good script they often say they like minimal acting directions. Don’t tell the actors how to react to a situation, trust them to tap into the character and react for themselves.
Let the other professionals work their magic on that end. The cinematographer will worry about camera directions and shot selection. The actors will discover their own reactions. All you need to worry about is the story. If you’re also directing, then you can get away with more technical details like the Cohen Brothers below. If not, limit any excessive details.
The exception to this rule is when the gesture acts as an action or line of dialogue. For example, if there are two characters in the hospital, one in the bed and the other visiting, and the visitor asks, “Are you okay?”
It’s perfectly fine for the sick character to answer with a shrug or sigh. In this case, the detail is essential to moving the story forward and providing insight without the use of dialogue.
In the script for Lars and the Real Girl, when Lars introduces his family to Bianca, the sex doll, their expressions of utter shock speaks for them.
On the other hand, in The Office, the text doesn’t describe every facial reaction the characters make when breaking the fourth wall to look at the camera with a roll of the eyes. Gestures are only written to serve as a narrative device. Does the gesture matter? Is it saying something? No? Then cut it.
Keep Paragraphs Concise
Most readers don’t like seeing large blocks of text and value a good balance of white space on a page, so a good way to help with the flow is to break up the paragraphs. Even in this article, I tried to keep paragraphs down to four lines or less.
Do you have to stick to this rule? Of course not. You don’t have to stick to any rules — but you should still know them. Many excellent scripts have paragraphs of five lines or more. Just keep in mind that reading a screenplay should not be arduous. There should be a rhythm to it.
A writer should be cautious of overdoing this as well. You don’t want to end up with a script that reads like a series of text messages.
A good rule of thumb is to think of your paragraphs like shots in the film. Look at this section of No Country For Old Men:
“A hard pneumatic sound. The man flops back against the car. Blood trickles from a hole in the middle of his forehead.
Chigurh waits for the body to slide down the car and crumple, clearing the front door. He opens it and hoists the air tank over into the front seat.”
You can visualize this sequence as two distinct shots. One of the men getting killed, the next of the killer watching his victim fall. Two separate paragraphs that show two distinct actions.
Lead the Reader
Leave breadcrumbs for characters to follow and the reader will become immersed in the action. An important plot device is to ask a question and let the answer linger just out of grasp like in the earlier A Quiet Place example. Give clues that get both the character and reader closer to the answer.
To take it further, let’s look at the hunting scene in No Country For Old Men that leads Llewelyn to the drug deal turned massacre. After he shoots a deer and it escapes, he’s tracking its trail when he comes across a second trail of blood:
“He stands and looks again toward the distant mountains. He brings up the binoculars.
His point-of-view: landscape, swimming into focus, heatwaves exaggerated by the compression of the lens.
Panning, looking for the animal.
Movement, very distant. The animal is brought into focus: a black tailless dog, huge head, limping badly, phantasmal by virtue of the rippling heat waves and the silence.
Moss lowers the glass. A moment of thought as he gazes off. He turns and heads in the direction from which the dog came.
EXT. RISE NEAR BASIN – MINUTES LATER
Moss tops a rise. He scans the landscape below.
Not much to see except-distant glints, off something not native to the environment.
Moss brings up the binoculars.
Parked vehicles: three of them, squat, Broncos or other off-road trucks with fat tires, winches in the bed and racks of roof lights.
On the ground near the trucks, dark shapes lie still.
EXT. BASIN – MINUTES LATER
Moss is walking cautiously up to the site, unslung rifle at the ready.
We are immersed along with Llewelyn as he notices something off and investigates it. Llewelyn doesn’t just accidentally stumble upon the crime scene. One detail leads to the next, slowing adding up and building to reveal the bigger picture.
A good way to break up large blocks of description is to insert a single line of dialogue as a reaction to a task. Take for example the hunting scene above. When he misses his shot, he reacts with a single word we won’t mention here. It helps break up the blocks of text.
Similarly, if your character is in her bedroom listening to her headphones, don’t describe her singing along. Have her sing along. A sung line of lyrics between humming can do the trick and break up the humdrum.
Use Action Verbs
I always recommend a round or two of thesaurus edits, where you comb through your descriptions looking for ways to trim down your sentences. Sometimes a single word works better than an entire sentence. Beware of passive writing and try to keep your voice active with action verbs.
Instead of, “He runs out of the house and across the street,” try, “he bursts through the door and dashes across the lawn.” Choice words should reflect the tone or emotion you’re trying to convey while adding a bit of flair.
As a writer, starting with a blank canvas can be intimidating and it can be easy to bog down a story with exposition. We want to paint a vivid enough picture that the reader becomes absorbed into our words, but we have to remember that this is a moving picture we’re creating. The story must move with it.