You Know What You’re Trying To Say? Say The Opposite.

As Ronan Keating once put it ‘You say it best when you say nothing at all.’ Perhaps not the best way to start off a new blog post, but I’m going to stick with it. The flashback to the nineties aside, I went and saw Thor on Tuesday night. I was looking forward to it – I’m not a comic book girl, but I have a soft spot for Kenneth Branagh and Chris Hemsworth so was keen to see what magic the two of them could cook up together.

This is not going to be a review on Thor. No spoilers, nothing like that.
About thirty minutes from the end of the film, I started to get fidgety. The 3D glasses (which I’m still not sold on) had scratches on them and I was struggling to find a position to watch in that wasn’t annoying or blurred. I could hear two girls talking loudly about something – potentially Chris Hemsworth’s abs, I don’t know – but they were on the other side of the cinema. If I’d had popcorn, I would’ve thrown it at them.
If you’ve ever watched a movie or a television show with me – my siblings will back me up here – at a certain point I can often predict the next line of dialogue and proceed to annoy everyone by saying it aloud. Yes, I’m that person. But the thing about writing is that the audience isn’t supposed to be able to predict what the characters are going to say. Good writing is all about sleight of hand – leading the audience one way whilst you’re slipping the rabbit into your hat for later.
There were a few moments toward the end of Thor that I was mumbling the next line of dialogue under my breath. It was cheesy, it was clichéd and it annoyed me. Thinking about it as I walked home, I realised what was so frustrating about it.
The moment would’ve been so much more powerful if the characters had said nothing at all.
Subtext. What the characters don’t say is often far more powerful than what they do. One of the best examples of subtext I’ve ever read was a scene with a Man and his Wife in a bookstore and they bump into his Mistress. They have an innocent conversation about reading – how the Mistress is very fond of reading, as is the Man but the Wife rather snippily puts in that she doesn’t read much anymore which surprises the Mistress because the Man is such a fierce reader that the Mistress can’t believe that it hasn’t rubbed off on the Wife.
But they’re not talking about reading.
They’re talking about sex.
And it makes the moment brilliant. Because the audience knows what they’re really talking about and it heightens the tension – will they acknowledge what they’re actually talking about? Does the Wife know that they’re not just talking about reading? It was wonderful to read and it stuck with me.
It’s the same with dialogue and character action in films. Having a conversation about something seemingly innocent that is, in fact, about something else is a really great concept for a short film because it can be sustained for the duration of the short. It’s hard to maintain that over long periods of time. But the actors will be able to convey to the audience what the character actually means in their action – the action will intentionally contradict the dialogue.
Even better than using something else as a foil for what the characters are actually saying is saying nothing at all. To convey it in a gesture or a glance – an actor will fall over themselves to play a moment like that. The power is in the silence. Some of the best comic moments are physical – I’m not talking slapstick, a simple look, a blink, a cough can be enough to have an audience gasping for laughter. Some of the strongest dramatic moments are caught within an action – a stoic father, a stunned girl, a sobbing child. Think about the moment before a kiss. The charged energy in the air. Two people staring into each others’ eyes. Just before they give into temptation…
That moment is always more powerful than the actual kiss.
Really think about your dialogue. In a short, if the dialogue isn’t earning its place, it has to go. You don’t have time to be mucking around with irrelevant dialogue. Everything has to be essential otherwise it’s too random.
As for this moment in Thor, all the character needed to do was smile warmly and touch the other character’s shoulder. Instead, he said what he was thinking to spell it out for the audience. Sometimes you need to do this. Here, you didn’t.
Although it might’ve been handy for those girls who were distracted by Chris Hemsworth’s abs to know what was going on with the story…

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