In yesterday's post, I talked about the need to make fiction more visual (something I call visuality), through the use of props, setting, situation, costume, and action.
Good fiction is vivid. It conjures imagery. The weakest thing you can do is describe a scene through narrative exposition. The second weakest thing you can do is have characters "carry" the action through dialog. Good dialog is more than just characters engaging in smart, "dramatic" conversation. A memorable scene is usually memorable because of what happens visually, not orally.
Some screenwriters advocate writing a silent-film version of a script first, before adding dialog. For example, before finishing a script, writer-director Lina Wertmüller cuts out every line of speech and tells the whole story with visuals. When the story is sufficiently explainable through action, she adds back only the lines of dialog that are required.
Imagine what this allows you to do. When you've got a good visual story, dialog can go to the next level; you can afford to devote spoken lines to subtext, things that aren't being said, the way things are said, plus foreshadowing, back-references, innuendo, irony—you have so many things to do now, with dialog, besides carry the story.
You can try a thought experiment right now. Think of some of your favorite movies (and maybe some of your least-favorite). Which ones would still be tremendously entertaining to watch with the sound off?
Consider the first of the Star Wars movies—a visual feast from start to finish. We know, even with the sound off, that Darth Vader is the villain. The first time we see him, he's all-black, he's giving orders (and others are carrying them out), and the fact that he's a foot taller than everyone else tells us (visually) that all the Imperial soldiers around him are quite literally underlings. (Plus he of course strangles a coworker early on, which tells us this is one seriously bad dude.) The first time we see Princess Leia, we can see (with the sound off) she's being held under duress. The barroom shootout works even without subtitles. The first time we meet "Ben," he's robed, has a beard—it's pretty obvious he's a wise old man with special knowledge. The entire movie works in silent mode.
The later movies in the Star Wars series (later, as in release date) are dialog-topheavy movies that don't work nearly as well in silent mode as the original film.
The first film in the Alien series would make a very decent silent movie. The later Alien films, not so much.
Jim Carrey has been in a ton of movies. Which ones do you remember most? That's right: the ones that are highly visual. The wordplay in Dumb and Dumber is first-rate, but guess what? The movie is still funny with the sound turned off.
I'm not saying the only good movie is one that can be enjoyed with the sound off. Obviously, movies benefit from having sound. I'm saying most stories can be made better by doing the storytelling in a highly visual way.
Tomorrow, I'm going to give practical tips for boosting the visuality of your novel or screenplay. It turns out there are many ways to pry the lid off this particular can of worms.