Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Thunderous Silence

Recently my husband and I rented Witness--a 1985 Harrison Ford movie. Ford plays John Book, a hardened city cop who goes into hiding in Amish country to protect himself and a young boy who knows too much. Kelly McGillis plays Rachel, the boy's mother. The movie won two Oscars--Best Screenplay and Best Film Editing--and was nominated in six other categories.

I love this movie. What strikes me most about it: the silent scenes.

If you haven't seen this movie--rent it. If you have seen it--rent it again. Pay special attention to the dialogue--and lack of it. Sometimes no dialogue at all is the most effective.

I won't include spoilers here for those who haven't seen the film. Instead I'll generally note that there are numerous key sequences or scenes in which not a word is spoken. The actions, facial expressions, and body language say it all.

Which makes me think--how effective is the dialogue in my novels? Are there scenes in which my characters could best convey meaning by action only?

DVDs are wonderful things, thanks to the extras. I always like to watch an interview with the director. The Witness DVD includes long interviews with all major players in the movie--director, producer and actors. After noting the lack of dialogue in key scenes, I was very interested to hear the director, Peter Weir, talk about the end of the movie. In the last scene between John and Rachel, the script contained a couple pages of dialogue--John telling Rachel how he feels and why he's making the choice he's making, and Rachel doing the same to John. Peter Weir cut all the dialogue. In that final crucial scene! Others protested that he was nuts. But he won out. And the scene is powerful because of its lack of dialogue. The acting is so good, and everything in the story has so led up to this moment that words would be superfluous. We know what each character is thinking.

Hm. Something to think about as I start a new book. Are there scenes in which the action between two people could be written so powerfully that no words are necessary?


Pam Halter said...

I am totally going to rent this movie! I love DVDs for the extras, too. I like hearing how the screenplay came about and how they selected the actors. And seeing what each person brings to the part.

Thanks for the reminder about this movie. I wanted to see it but had forgotten about it.

Anonymous said...

I never thought about that. The next movie I watch, I'm going to remember this post and watch the silent scenes.

Hmmmm, I think I may have to go review my WIP and see what I can apply.

Thanks for the post!

Karen Eve said...

Witness is one of my all time favorite movies. I think it's about time to watch it again. Harrison Ford ain't bad either. :)

Nicole said...

It seems to me the only way to do this effectively is to create the visual. And, if you'll forgive my insolence to the current writing trends, telling can be much better than showing to create a powerful silence because much of the time when creating this visual, there is next to no action involved. And the language used is critical. JMO

Timothy Fish said...

Brandilyn, what an excellent example of how the movie industry applies show, don't tell. I also am considering my work. My first thought was I shoulda done that and then I thought back to some of the scenes in my latest. In one scene the man watches his wife sleep. In another, they are going home and she just stares out the window. Sometimes, silence just happens. It grabs us by the collar and demands to be heard.

SolShine7 said...

That movie is excellent! And you're so right about the beauty of the lack of dialogue. I'm trying to craft my screenplays so that actions are the main way of communicating the emotions instead of words. It's a tough but fun task!