A QUIET PLACE Part 2: Dialogue, Action & The Theme of Your Screenplay
In the first installment of this podcast, we looked at A Quiet Place in relation to writing action and discussed how all of screenplay formatting really exists for one purpose: to isolate visual moments of action.
By isolating visual moments of action we can hypnotize the reader into seeing, hearing, and feeling the story in their mind’s eye, rather than simply reading it on the page. We can invite them to tell themselves the story of the movie, rather than having it spoonfed to them.
We explored the idea that each image in your screenplay, just like each image in your movie—every line, every comma, every period—is really a cut. An isolated moment that, when bumped up against another isolated moment, draws the reader into your script and allows them to make connections to tell themselves the story of what is really going on.
So by now, we understand what the word “Isolate” means. But what about the other three elements of formatting: Visual Moments of Action?
And how does all of this relate to theme and character and dialogue and all those other elements of A Quiet Place and screenwriting in general? Well, that’s what we’re going to cover in this podcast.
So since we now understand the idea of Isolated in Isolated Visual Moments of Action, now let’s get into the concept of Visual. The next idea is Visual.
Visual formatting in your screenplay means that there is something visually exciting about each image.
Another way to think of that is that there is nothing normal in your script, and the reason there is nothing normal in your script is because there is nothing normal in the world. Everything in the world is really freaking weird. Your most normal friend is really freaking weird. You are really freaking weird.
Your desk doesn’t actually look like a desk. Your desk has something weird about it. Maybe it’s a scratch, maybe it’s a toothbrush sitting in a pen holder, maybe it’s the way that your papers are stacked up with a little crystal on top of them.
Your desk has something weird about it and you have something weird about you, and every moment in life has something weird about it, and if you don’t see it, you are just not looking closely enough.
And if you aren’t looking closely enough, that means that your reader, or your viewer, has to do the work of seeing, rather than you doing the work of seeing.
Visual means that you are going to do the work of seeing each moment. You are going to do the work of finding that little hooky thing, that little special element, that little thing that makes it just slightly cooler than normal. That every single thing you write is going to be something that is worthy of shooting.
And here is why that is important: every single thing you write is freaking expensive.
A Quiet Place had one of the craziest production schedules ever.
It was released about 5 months after they finished production, and think about that. Think about how short that is. Post-production was the biggest part of this movie. You had to cut this whole film together and actually use sound almost like it was a character in the film. This movie was all about post, and its rush to release date was insane.
In fact, they even had to reinvent the creature during the post-production process because John Krasinski wasn’t happy with the creature that ILIM had created; they actually went back to the drawing board and reimagined all that visual work. So that timetable is intense.
Why were they able to pull it off?
Well, actually Krasinski has talked about this. They were able to pull this off, and they were able to pull it off on such a low budget, because he wrote it (as did Bryan Woods and Scott Beck) to cut together in exactly the way they had written it.
Unlike most scripts, which basically throw the ball to the director and go, “Hey dude, you figure it out,” this script was written exactly the way it needed to be shot.
If you are an independent filmmaker, this is the most important lesson that you can take.
Usually, if you are an independent filmmaker, it means that your line producer isn’t experienced enough to really do their job.
And that isn’t because your line producer isn’t good. That’s because your line producer isn’t experienced because you can’t afford an experienced line producer. And usually, you are trying to squeeze in more shots in a day than the professionals are squeezing in, which is crazy because they have more budget and more pre-production than you do.
And what ends up happening is all of your days are going to run late, and your line producer is going to start making cuts because you don’t have time, and your director, who is likely as inexperienced as you are, is going to start figuring out on the fly “what do I need?”
But if you do this work on the page, like John Krasinski did, starting with a great script and then rewriting and rewriting until it’s written exactly the way you imagine your editor will cut it, then you can control your budget and the ultimate success of your film, regardless of how little money you have or how compressed your production or post-production schedule may be.
And on A Quiet Place that’s exactly what they did! Although they did a little bit of rearrangement in the editing room, they actually cut it on the page exactly the way they wanted to get it shot and edited—each image written on the page in exactly the way they were going to shoot it.
What Krasinski did was he took a great script, the early draft we referenced in the last podcast, and revised it until he had isolated each of those visual moments of action, and that allowed him to know exactly what he needed as a director.
But that also allows you flexibility and huge budget savings when something goes wrong. When you don’t get your location, or it starts to rain, or you’re running behind and you don’t have the budget to pay overtime—you can actually make the cut on the page and see how it is going to affect the rhythm and the tone of your script.
And your inexperienced line producer isn’t going to be able to predict this. And trust me, if you’re doing a low budget movie, your line producer is almost certainly inexperienced, since you’re not going to have the money to hire an experienced one.
The chances are, your inexperienced line producer has already under-budgeted your production.
And if you write non-specific action, like “Jake is recording his podcast” it’s just going to exacerbate the problem.
Your inexperienced line producer isn’t going to think, “Jake records his podcast, what are the shots I’m going to need to convey that in a captivating way?” He’s going to think, “Jake sitting at a desk, one shot, bang, bang, done!”
But if you write those isolated visual moments of action like we discussed last week:
“Jake’s hands tip the microphone towards his mouth. His lips move within a bushy grey beard.”
Instead, he is going to realize, “Oh, I need to get in a shot of that hand. I have got to get the close shot of that mouth. I have got to get hair and makeup to make sure that beard looks right for that close shot.”
When you learn to do this work in your screenplay, you are actually going to be writing better than the professional screenwriters.
Most professionals don’t have time to do this, and because of their reputation they don’t have to do it. They can throw it back to the director and go, “Hey, here is the story, get the gist.” They can think of it like it is a blueprint.
But, you as a young writer, an emerging writer—or if you are planning to self-direct, if you are working on a low budget, or if you are trying to break through to Hollywood, or if, as they did in A Quiet Place, you are actually doing both—you are thinking you are going to make this yourself, and meanwhile your agent is out there shopping in Hollywood… and everyone says “no.” But, finally, Michael Bay says yes, because he sees it and feels it and experiences it, and he knows it is going to work.
If you actually do that kind of writing, you are going to save yourself so much money, or you are going to make yourself so much money, and you are going to give your film so much better of an opportunity to actually get made.
And that’s all we want. At the end of the day we want our movies to get made and we want our movies to be great.
And writing in this way protects you. It protects you from producers. It protects you from coverage readers. It protects you from inexperienced line producers. It protects you from inexperienced directors.
And let’s say that film was made not by John Krasinski. Let’s say that the director hadn’t been such a brilliant filmmaker who could come to that original script and do his own revision and make it even stronger.
When you write this way, if you get stuck with an average producer or an average director, you’ve given them something that they can actually shoot. You haven’t given them a blueprint that they have to figure out—that they need special expertise like an architect does to read. You’ve given them something that translates directly to that little movie screen in their mind.
So, the first element Isolated, the second element Visual.
The third element is called Moments. Moments mean we are going to see the greatest hits. We’re not going to see all the stuff in between. If you were writing a play, you would watch the character enter, walk across the rooftop, say “hi” to the other character and then leave. They would have to actually track all that little detail, and that is why a play is actually very little action, because we go, “Ah, we will figure that out on the stage.”
But when you are writing a film, we have the power of the cuts—these isolated visual moments of action—and that means we only need the greatest hits moments, the moments that create the impression, the trailer moments.
So oftentimes what this means is first overwriting our screenplays and then compressing our script down to the very, very best moments that we’ve written.
Remember, if your movie is worth $1 million, which would be an extremely low budget movie, that means each page you write is worth $10,000, which means each line you write is worth about $1,000.
So, if your line isn’t worth the $1,000 it would cost, it means that you are asking a producer to invest in something that’s not worth the investment you’re asking of them. It means you’re asking them to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.
So, as you look at each isolated visual moments, you want to make sure that that moment is worth $1,000, that $10,000, that $100,000—that it is so vital, so important to the rhythm, the tone, the feeling, the experience of the script, that if somebody asked you “would you rather have a thousand bucks or have this moment in the movie, you’d say “Keep your money—I want this moment!”
The last element of formatting is Action.
Your director is going to cut on action, and that means you should cut on action—that means you want to build your movie around these isolated visual moments of action so that any time you see something, if you see something isolated, visual, and it is a moment, add some movement to it.
And what you will discover is that suddenly your script starts to have a drive. Suddenly you can go, “Oh, I can cut from this action to this action.” And once you’ve created that isolated visual moment of action, you can start to use the power of the cut. You can start to ask yourself, “If this is the first thing I see, what is the coolest thing to cut to?”
Not what do I need to describe to make it clear to the audience, but what is the coolest thing I could cut to from here? What is the next isolated visual moment of action, or what is the next cool little isolated visual moment of talking? What is that next thing that I could cut to that is going to start my audience seeing, feeling, hearing, experiencing my movie in their mind’s eye?
To get back to A Quiet Place, if you’ve seen this film, you’ve realized the power of this technique, because this film should not work!
After all, the characters barely speak at all.
And in fact, John Krasinski went back into that original script and rewrote it, taking out some of the exposition, and taking out all the flashbacks that used to exist in the movie in the initial draft, where we flashback to a time before when the characters spoke.
He took all that stuff out and basically said, “No. I am going to trust my audience to be smart. I am going to trust that if I just give you this image, plus this image, plus this image, I need to give you very little explanation. I need to give you very little talk. Even if you don’t know exactly what is going on, you are going to start to tell yourself the story of the movie. You’re going to tell yourself the story of these isolated visual moments of action.”
And the reason that works is a psychological reason, and it is the reason why watching A Quiet Place, even as you know it isn’t really happening—even as there is a part of your mind that is going, “Uh, in this world, what happens when you cough? What about that baby’s first cry? Why don’t they just have the baby under the waterfall where things would be nice and quiet, or even better yet, find a sound studio or someplace where they won’t be heard? Why haven’t they been spending all their time under that mattress in that basement?”
Even though there is an intellectual rational part of your mind saying, “Not all of this makes sense! Why does feedback broadcast over a radio channel stop a monster in this room?”
Even though there is an intellectual part of your mind that knows that this doesn’t totally make sense, because of those isolated visual moments of action there is a subconscious part of your mind that doesn’t know, that is pulled into the story whether you like it or not.
And that feels your heart beating at every freaking moment that simply cannot let go of the fear and the feeling that you are experiencing this terror in the same way that these characters are experiencing it.
And this is the power of isolated visual moments of action. They are how we process our world.
We don’t remember all those minute little details, but we do remember those isolated visual moments of action—those greatest hits things that changed our lives.
And the way that our minds process that information is by linking those big moments together to tell ourselves the story of who we are, of our lives, of our families, of our relationships.
So when you isolate the visual moments of action in your story, when you start to think about formatting in this way, and when you start to get even more advanced in this work like we do in our Write Your Screenplay Level II classes, what you will start to realize is that two people get hypnotized.
The first is the collective person of your audience: every single reader and every single viewer. They start to get hypnotized because you are speaking not the conscious mind language but the language of their subconscious mind, the language by which we believe the things that we see, hear, and feel.
But the second person who gets hypnotized is you: you the writer as you see, feel, hear, experience. As you actually force yourself to do this work of isolating the visual moments of action, you the reader start to hypnotize yourself.
You start to feel and see and hear as if it was real, and in this way, you start to make those big cuts and those big leaps that move your story to places that even you didn’t know it could go.
You let go of the need to set things up for your audience, and instead, start to put your audience into a visceral, visual, and auditory landscape in which their subconscious mind cannot distinguish fact from fiction, and your subconscious mind can’t either.
In this way, you stimulate the kind of creativity that gets the kind of writing on the page that only you could do—that captures the specific voice that only you have.
What’s really cool is that these same techniques apply to dialogue as well. Because dialogue, in movies, is not just talk.
And it’s certainly not explanation or exposition or setting stuff up for the audience. And if you make the mistake of thinking that it is, you’re not going to write very good dialogue.
We’ve talked about the idea that every image in a movie is an Isolated Visual Moment of Action. But we haven’t yet talked about what drives those Isolated Visual Moments of Action. Because the technique of writing in this way is really just a tool that we use as writers to hypnotize our readers, our audiences, and ourselves.
Movies are not just a collection of pretty pictures, just like dialogue is not just a collection of snappy lines.
Movies are stories of characters going for what they want, against often impossible odds, grappling with real challenges and life altering obstacles that force them to reveal who and how they really are, make choices that force them to change forever, whether they want to or not.
It’s the compelling power of that character’s want that drives all of those Isolated Visual Moments of Action. That lets you know what we should see, and what we should not see.
The scene in the store I described in last week’s podcast is not just a bunch of pretty images designed to create a story for the audience. It’s a scene driven by a profound want by the characters—to get medicine for their child, against the obstacle of a world where the slightest sound can mean instant death.
And the images that we see are inflected and influenced by that want. The bare feet, the sand sprinkled on the floor to muffle their footsteps, the careful navigation of those pill bottles…
And the inciting incident of this scene—the moment that opens the door to change in this scene—is motivated by a want as well. When the little boy, who believes that a rocket ship will take them away from this hellish place, sees a toy rocket ship, and wants it…
So just as each image you write is an Isolated Visual Moment of Action driven by a compelling want, so too each line of dialogue is simply an Isolated Moment of Action driven by a compelling want.
That’s right. Dialogue isn’t talk. It’s Action. It’s the stuff people say to get what they want. Just like action is the stuff people do to get what they want.
And when writing dialogue, we want to Isolate the lines that capture that want most clearly, the lines in which they are going for their want with everything they’ve got. We want to strip away all the filler, all the, “Hey, how you doing?” “Good, how you doing?” that we hear in everyday life and get right to the good stuff.
Similarly, as we write dialogue we’re not just looking for lines that “reveal character,” even though that’s the common wisdom of many screenwriting books. Spend your time trying to “reveal character” and people will start saying this about you: “Well, she’s great with characters, but she doesn’t really get structure” or “Well, the characters are awesome but nothing really happens.”
Your job as a writer is not to “reveal character” but rather to reveal those isolated moments of action and dialogue that allow our audiences tell themselves the story of who the characters are and what our characters want.
Just like action must be Visually compelling, dialogue also must be Rhetorically compelling. Which is just another way of saying, “Don’t let your dialogue be normal.” Instead, drill down to the character’s want, feel the need burning underneath that want, and notice HOW your character pursues that want in what they say in a slightly different way than any other character.
If you see something normal, strip it away. Look closer. Let it grow so organically from your character that putting it into any other character’s mouth would feel impossible.
And then, just as you allow your first images to creatively inspire the ones that follow, let that line inspire the future lines of dialogue of your characters.
But don’t do it intellectually. Do it instinctively, simply keeping that last line in your head and letting it echo through the ones that follow until you start to know one character from the other just from the way they speak—just from the way they pursue their wants in dialogue.
You want to be able to pull out any line of dialogue at random and know who must have said it, because you can feel the want and the how underneath.
Just like we’re looking for moments in our action, we’re looking for Moments in our dialogue. The Moments of choice, the shifts in tactic, the push and pull, and those huge decisions that change our characters’ lives forever. Those words we say that we can’t take back. Those choices of action from which there is no return.
And most importantly, remember that your dialogue is also a type of action.
Movies move. And in movies, this means action moves, and dialogue moves.
Every single word you write is driving your story forward, because every single word you write is motivated by an action from the character, a desperate desire they are trying like crazy to pursue.
And when you stick all these actions—all these isolated visual moments of action and dialogue—together, something else starts to emerge: your theme.
A Quiet Place is not a movie about a deadly sound seeking creature terrorizing a family. That’s just the outer hook of the movie.
A Quiet Place is a movie about the terror of silence, and what it does to our relationships. The horror of not communicating. The story of what happens when a father doesn’t know how to say “I love you” to his daughter. The horror that occurs when loss and blame creates a rift between people who love each other.
It’s a movie about what a father would do for his children, and how hard it is to know what we really mean to each other.
And while most of our readers, or most of our audiences, will never know the horror of being hunted in a post-apocalyptic world. Every single one of us knows the horror of that silence, and what it can do to a family.
We came to see a horror movie, but it’s not actually the genre elements that move us. It’s the character elements—those powerful primal wants that drive every action that these characters take.
A little girl who just wants her dad to love her.
A little boy who wants to save his family with a toy spaceship.
A father who loves his daughter, but who can’t get over the loss that she caused him. Who tries to show her love through a hopeless quest to repair her hearing aid… but can’t treat her with the same love he shows her brother.
A mother who wants to protect her family, but knows she’s bringing new life into an impossibly damaged world…
The aliens in A Quiet Place are the plot. But the theme is the structure.
Some movies start with a theme—an area that the writer wants to explore.
Others just start with an idea. Or a character. Or an image. Or a dream.
But regardless of where you start as a writer, all these aspects are inextricably tied together. And if you learn to do one of them well, the others will reveal themselves.
If you don’t know what your movie is about, you’ve got to look to those isolated visual moments of action in your script—those compelling lines of dialogue and those compelling images that ring with your personal truth.
If you’re having trouble finding that truth, you can look big, or you can look small. You can ask yourself, “What is this movie really about?” Or, “What’s the big thing that my character wants more than anything?”
Or you can ask yourself, “What does my character want at this moment?” Or, “What do I see hear or feel at this moment?” And build from there.
If you’re having trouble writing compelling action seeing, feeling, and hearing those isolated visual moments of action, it’s probably because there isn’t a strong enough want underneath or a strong enough obstacle in the way.
And if you’re having trouble writing compelling dialogue, you’ve probably got the same problem. You probably don’t know what your character wants. Or you’re probably not making it hard enough for them to get it—hard enough that they have to reveal the aspects of themselves they otherwise wouldn’t show you.
And if you’re having trouble feeling connected to yourself, well, do the same darn thing. Decide what really matters to you—who you really want to be—and take a step towards it in the way that only you can. Isolate that visual moment of action for yourself. And let it bump up against your normal world.
And notice how you expand your story of who you are and who you can be.
I’ve often said that if you want to learn to write a great movie you need to learn to live a great life.
And I also believe if you want to learn to live a great life, then you can start by learning to write a great movie.
Because just like in life, when we are standing still rather than making choices—feeling caught in the flow rather than appreciating the moments where we swim against the current, trying so darn hard to be normal rather than seeing, hearing, feeling and doing things in the way that only we can do them—we tend to feel lost.
But if we learn to isolate those visual moments of action in our lives, to find those moments and make those choices, to go for what we want, and navigate the obstacles in our way in the way that only we can navigate them, to break from our habitual patterns and strive to be ourselves as much as we can, to go for what we really want and express who we really are in everything we say and everything we do…
Well then suddenly life starts to have a lot more meaning.
We start to root for ourselves, just like we start to root for our characters in a film.
We start to invite ourselves to tell ourselves the stories of our lives, not from the mud we’re trying to climb out of, but from those isolated moments—those steps we are taking to make that change.
In life, this can take a moment, or it can take 100 years. And for some people, it never happens at all.
But in movies, it has to happen so darn quickly. We’ve only got 100 pages for our characters to experience the changes that normally take a lifetime.
And when you learn how quickly your characters can make those changes, you learn how quickly you can make those changes—simply by taking one step after another towards your want and towards the theme that drives everything in your life.
So ask yourself, if you’re feeling lost in your screenplay or in your life, what steps are you willing to take today?
*Edited for length and clarity