First-time screenwriters and filmmakers tend to find themselves in the same predicament when first venturing into the world of visual storytelling. TOO MUCH DIALOGUE. In the world of theater, it is absolutely necessary to tell the story with plenty of exposition. We do not have the luxury of showing the audience all the small nuances of our world, so we must tell them.
But the film world is a different beast entirely. “Show don’t tell” is a mantra most film schools pound into their students’ minds. It can often speak to the greenness of the writer when a script is bombarded with dialogue, often clichéd, as most people speak using subtext. Meaning they do not say exactly what they are thinking but rather use words or phrases with underlying meanings that subtly convey their true thoughts.
New writers become very attached to their words believing that the film cannot live without this line or that line, yet nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, when done right, visual storytelling WITHOUT WORDS can be more powerful than you could ever imagine.
We are going to use the final scene from Episode 8 in Season One of Big Little Lies as an example of master storytelling. If you haven’t seen Big Little Lies, you should, especially the first season which in this filmmakers opinion was the only necessary one and an almost flawless series with award-worthy performances.
In the final scene, where Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) comes to find his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) on the stairs with the rest of the soon to be “Monterey Five.” Director Jean-Marc Vallée uses the power of visuals to let the audience know EXACTLY what every single character is thinking without ONE ACTOR HAVING TO DELIVER A LINE. You can fast forward to 2:30s where Perry makes his entrance and this moment begins.
These exceptional actors conveyed EVERYTHING we need to know simply by the looks on their faces. There was no need for Jane to say something stupid like “That’s him, he raped me,” which let’s be honest, who would ever actually say that? No one. That is what makes this scene so unbelievably powerful. It’s what they are NOT saying. This is a perfect example of how to tell a story without saying a word.
For those of you that are on a new draft of your screenplay, take a look at movies and shows that master the art of storytelling without saying a word. It might inspire you to make some changes that could lead you to become the next great screenwriter.