Everything Communicates in a Movie

Copyright © 2014 Dorian Scott Cole

   About this series.


People get hung-up on a lot of things when they write. This setting is gold. That piece of dialogue is gold. This character is gold. This plot twist is gold. Everything is gold.

Writing, evaluating, analyzing, recommending, and revising screenplays leads to one conclusion: There is far less gold in screenplays than writers' love of their own work. There is very little that can't be changed, and usually for the better.

Writers should start with the concept that everything in a screenplay communicates something to the audience. It's best to prioritize these squawking elements so that one doesn't distract from another. The drama (dialogue, action, etc.) is the most important element. The interaction between characters should always have top priority, and anything else should enhance, but not overshadow, that interaction.

When a writer is going on and on describing scenery, or a director/cinematographer/editor is showing scenery, there is minimal dramatic action, and the reader is out of the flow of the drama. That doesn't mean the scenery shouldn't be there, or that there shouldn't be exciting shots. You have to realize the impact it is having on the audience and their engagement with the story. In general, you use these things to set the mood.

Dramatic action is "the subtextual undercurrents and reciprocal actions that occur beneath the dialogue and physical actions of a screenplay." I usually include vocal expression, since it is not inherent in the words, although technically it isn't within the definition.

Consider black box theater, and some of the techniques used in other kinds of theater. Black box is done "in limbo." This means there is no setting and usually no props. It is just the actors in a blank, or black area, and not even in costume. You might think this would be boring. But generally the audience is so lost in the drama that they don't notice the lack of a set. The audience has a perfect imagination and will create the set in their minds. This limbo effect makes what is important stand out. It's the drama.

Similarly, stage plays with a set use the audience's imagination and simply suggest various areas of a house or city, sometimes defining them with raised platforms or artistry.

When I write a script, either the set is absent (black box) or minimalist during the writing, or the set is the third character (an active element that communicates). One of the things you learn in analyzing hundreds of screenplays is that the action can be set almost anywhere. The set is a very secondary consideration. What is important is the motif and ambience, which are used to set mood.

Motifs and ambience consistent of any sign that communicates emotion or change, such as sound, lighting, recurring activity, the set style, etc. You use these to transport the audience into the setting that enhances the drama.

Everything communicates to the audience in a movie. Background sounds, color, lighting effects, background, style, items of furniture... these all communicate to the audience. If they don't, they have no purpose. You use them to establish context, and set the mood.

The setting can be in a multitude of places. If you want to communicate something expansive with the set, there are many settings that do that. The view from high atop a mountain, the view of the ocean, the view from atop a skyscraper, the view of the night sky.... If you want to create a restrictive atmosphere, the set might be a small room, a cave, a trash can, a small car.... You determine what you want to communicate to the audience, and then choose the set that communicates that. But the audience is often so focused on the drama that it doesn't matter.

You don't need to bring the ogre, the monster, the nagging mother... on stage - you simply hint at them and the audience does the rest. Often when something is seen, it becomes more known and smaller in the audience's mind. When you start with a minimalist approach, you get right to what is relevant and important. You can always embellish by adding to the dialogue or adding to the setting, as the next step in rewriting.

Power that grabs the audience in a visual production doesn't come from adding more dialogue or adding more action, or "acting out," or elaborate settings. Power that effects the audience comes from the emotion in the dramatic action, and that comes from the design of the writer, and the presentation and interaction of the actors. Less is more. Additions tend to dilute, distract, or take away from the power of scenes.

- Dorian Scott Cole

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