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The Balance: Action Vs. Dialogue

By Leroy James King · July 26, 2010

When I was in college, I took 2 different screenwriting classes that were wholly different from one another.  One was through the Telecommunications school (where I received my rusting golden ticket of Bachelor's degree), and the other I took through the Drama school.  Needless to say, there was a huge deficit in the quality of the courses, namely the professors in general.

My T-com screenwriting class was taught by a Business School academic advisor.  In so many words, this guy did the following things to solidify his total illegitimacy as a screenwriting prof:

1) He'd only written one screenplay that he claimed was called… lets pretend his script was called Die Hard.  It didn't have the same storyline as Die Hard, but it had the same title.  Then he passed it along to "a big douche bag" in Hollywood (his words, not mine), and 2 years later Die Hard came out.  And he was incredibly bitter about it and was apparently owed something like $20M.  Blah blah blah.

2) He had a writer from Green Acres come talk to the class, and all we did was watch episodes of Green Acres.

3) He wouldn't let us turn in full screenplays, even though the course was listed as being a full-length class.  He said full lengths were a waste of time to learn since we were college students.

4) He shot down every logline I turned in until I turned in a joke one that was basically a hyperviolent mish mash of A Clockwork Orange, The Warriors, and Eyes Wide Shut, featuring transsexual nuns who are speed freaks.  He loved this one.

The Drama school one was a lot better, taught by a playwriting professor I had.  Essentially he just did his own DVD commentaries of amazing, totally different films.  I actually LEARNED in this class, that's all you really need to know.

So yeah, the 2 classes were totally different.  BUT, there was one major theme of both classes that were chanted by both professors non-stop.

DON'T HAVE TOO MUCH DIALOGUE, BUT DON'T KILL YOUR READER WITH TOO MUCH EXPOSITION AND ACTION DESCRIPTION.  MAKE IT A PERFECT BALANCE.

They even went as far as providing page examples to show what kinds of actual page aesthetics we should go for (i.e. maybe a quarter page of exposition/action description, a back and forth of 3 lines of dialogue, 3 lines worth of action description, 2 more dialogue exchanges, then 3 more lines worth of action description.  Rinse and repeat.

Of course, it's ludicrous to design your screenplay based on page aesthetics – it's completely unrealistic.  But having done a ton of script coverage in the past, as well as my fair share of writing, there is a much needed balance between the 2 – action description and dialogue.  So how do you strike that balance?  And is there ever an exception?

To tackle the exception question first, there's 2 extreme ones I can throw out there, albeit, these are iconic, amazing films.

Pulp Fiction is a perfect example of the dialogue heavy film with a more minimilast approach to action description (you can buy the script at pretty much any chain bookstore, or find it online.)  If you look at the aesthetics of the page, Tarantino (and Avery!) sometimes go up to 3 pages in a row of now breaks in dialogue – it's just straight up talking.

2001: A Space Odyssey kind of epitomizes the silent film that isn't a silent film.  With maybe about 15 to 20 pages that feature dialogue, this script is the ultimate action description text.  Aesthetically… it looks like a novel.

So there's 2 things I DON'T want to encourage:

1) Consciously thinking about page aesthetics while you write

2) Adding dialogue and/or action description when it's fundamentally unnecessary for the story you're trying to tell

It's possible to achieve a balance between dialogue/action description without needlessly adding or subtracting things to/from your script.  In all actuality, it's a really attitudinal principle that will more than likely come in handy when you're tackling a rewrite of your script.  One note: this is kind of a lofty principle, so all you Literal Larrys just calm down and just THINK about what I'm saying here.

It's simple: if you're writing something that's dialogue heavy, and there's minimal action description, punch up the dialogue as much as possible – make it animated, colorful, punchy, clever, and brief.  Don't give everyone a soliloquy – let conversations unfold.  It's best to think of dialogue heavy films as a cause and effect chain.  Take a look at the opening car scene with Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction.  It's manifest cause and  effect, and Tarantino/Avery keep their exchanges relatively brief – they interrupt each other, challenge other mid sentence, etc.  In so many words, put the action IN THE DIALOGUE.

So for the opposite scenario: if you've got a script that's super action description intensive and there's not a lot of dialogue, let dialogue unfold in the action description.  Okay… breathe.  I know that didn't make a whole lot of sense.  One more breath… okay, now I explain.  Take the time to nail the subtleties of body language – the look in someone's eyes – the blocking of someone in a room – spatial relationships of people – etc.  Emotion still needs to be expressed, not simply "he fired the gun, then people ran away."  Describe how quickly he lifts to gun – if he looks shifty eyed from side to side – if there's sweat on his brow, or if he's cool as  cucumber – whether or not the people scattered, ran away as a tightly knit mob.  You need to express a mental or emotional dialogue SOMEHOW, so this is where and how you take care of it.

I know these are really rudimentary concepts, but I think they're important to be highlighted.  I've had a lot of people ask me (for instance) how rule breaking films like Pulp or 2001 get made in the first place, and these are the answers I usually give on a super fundamental, industry based level.

Would love to hear any arguments, comments, or questions about what I've addressed here.  The flood gates are open.