TO MINIMIZE TALKING HEADS SCENARIOS!
If you’re thinking of writing your own screenplay for a film, Dov S-S Simens in From Reel to Deal” recommends that you create a story with minimal characters and locations; i.e. something that is like a filmed play. It’s a great piece of advice because it means you’ll be writing a script that can be done well on a low-to-no budget, which is a DIY philosophy we wholeheartedly embrace at Frenzy Films.
On the flip side, the problem when you try to turn plays into a script or write scripts which are very much like a play you tend to end up with big chunks of dialogue which fly in the face of the sacrosanct “Show don’t tell” mantra, hence the term talking heads.
Even after you have trimmed down your dialogue, had live readings and to hone your dialogue further (great article here by John August to improve your dialogue) you could still end up with a fair amount of talking heads type scenarios. So what could you do to make these verbose conversations more entertaining?
Level 1 would be to give the characters some business to do – such as walking their dogs, playing tennis like the scene in ANNIE HALL where Woody Allen swaps balls with the Dianne Keaton character, or trying to keep their balance on an ice rink like the scene in ROCKY where Rocky is chatting up his love interest without ice skates on. Putting your characters in an interesting situation can improve your scene tenfold (by the way the ROCKY scene was shot at an ice rink because the original location – a mundane diner – fell through at the last minute).
Level 2 could be to add a purpose to the interesting situation in order to make your scene more compelling. In other words, have your characters do something for A REASON; like Elizabeth Taylor frantically cleaning up the mess in her bedroom while haranguing her husband in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF because a young couple are about to come over for a night-cap, and the place is a complete mess. It’s not something you can force on a scene but always a good question to ask yourself. Can the business of my actors somehow be more motivated?
Level 3 could be to have a THIRD PARTY do something relevant while your characters are conversing. For example in A. Hitchcock’s ROPE the two murderers relax after the party is over because their plan of committing the perfect crime worked out okay – but then, while the most sociopathic of the two murderers is gloating they don’t notice the maid removes the plates and candle holders from the top of the trunk where they hid the dead body. After having gone back and forth a few times the maid comes dangerously close to opening the trunk but the two accomplices are too absorbed to notice what she’s doing. So an interesting idea is to try to figure out if a third party can inject the energy you need into the scene.
So now look into your dialogue-heavy scenes again and see how you can make them as memorable and visually entertaining as possible!