Show vs Tell: Balancing Dialogue & Action





Last update on .

Show vs Tell: Balancing Dialogue & Action

In this guide, we are going to take an in-depth look at the action and dialogue breakdowns of some well-known films across various genres and how you can make that information useful when you input your own script into the Story Scanner. By looking at the delegation of dialogue and action within a specific scene, you can easily see how much these two elements are incorporated.

Each genre has its own trends that vary across the board with comedies tending to rely on dialogue more than action, and action movies obviously skewing more to the side of action. A well-crafted script will traditionally lean closer to a 50/50 split, but acting outside the trends doesn’t necessarily mean your script isn’t worth a read.

Based on collections of data across various scripts, the general trends of action and dialogue among different genres are:

Past the general proportions of action to dialogue, by taking a “scene by scene” timeline perspective of your script, we can further evaluate the tempo of your story. One immediate and easy element to note is the extreme peaks where one scene is significantly longer than the rest or lulls that represent a particularly short scene. Unless intentional, your more significant scenes in your movie should keep about the same length to keep the tempo consistent for your audience.

By examining multiple scripts, you can start to get a noticeable visual representation of a story’s three-act structure with the narrative dips and ascensions. Does your script have an easily visualized act structure? Not all scripts do, but those that do often have visual peaks at climactic moments and dips around act transitions that help progress the viewer to the next sequence in the story.

One of the hardest parts of writing a script is getting started. Do you jump directly into the story with an action-driven cold open? Or do you slowly build up to the story by introducing your characters with plenty of dialogue? This will differ across scripts, but knowing when to use these narrative tactics are crucial to perfecting your story.

Let’s take a look at some popular movies from various genres to get a better idea of how others have written their script. We’ll look at:

-The Shape of Water
-Moonlight
-Baby Driver
-Kick-Ass
-Logan
-AVP: Alien vs Predator
-Back to the Future
-Bridesmaids
-Lady Bird
-Chinatown
-Citizen Kane
-Network
-Adaptation
-A Quiet Place


The Shape of Water:


2018’s Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water, a Fantasy/Romance by Guillermo del Toro offers a fairly even split between the action and dialogue with 48.3% and 51.7% respectively. This carefully crafted script defies genre trends and instead targets a balanced 50/50 split. The scene by scene plot gives us a visual representation of the film’s three acts. The first act is approximately until scene 44 where we get familiar with Elisa’s routine at work and home, followed by the jump into act two where we witness Elisa and the Creature bond as well as the circumstances that lead them to rescue the creature from the lab until about scene 89. Elisa’s inability to speak lends itself to some clever writing as we are shown through their bonding through actions and not a forced scene of the two confessing their love for each other. The Creature’s escape sequence is fueled by short, quick paced scenes that speed along until scene 126, leading us into the third act where she hides the Creature at her home while Strickland searches for the Creature and the people responsible.

These literal waves of action and dialogue give the audience time to digest bigger plot points by avoiding too much happening at once or nothing happening for too long. You’ll notice a massive spike of action in the very last scene of the film. The film’s action-heavy ending depicts our heroes facing off against the villain in a final stand-off to decide their fate but notice that the resolve and closure don’t seem to be there but rather that it just seems to end. We are not simply told the fate of the characters we’ve been following throughout the film, but shown a short scene of them embracing each other as we interpret our own ending. For more on the film’s ambiguous ending, check out this article on Quartzy.


Moonlight:


2017’s Oscar-winning Best Picture from Barry Jenkins follows dramatic trends with a 30.8 to 69.2% shift with a focus on action. The very first scene, our cold open, immediately jumps into the action with Little running from his bullies, the catalyst that brings him and Juan to meet. Since Moonlight moves us through three important periods of Little’s life as opposed to telling a singular story, there is much less structure in this script making the jumps between acts harder to visualize. However, you can see them nonetheless.

At scene 28, we see the end of 9-year-old Little’s (real name Chiron) story and break into his teenage years where we get our most dialogue as he struggles with a bully and his own sexuality. Teen Chiron’s story lasts until scene 56, where he violently stands up to the bully and lands himself in jail, jumping to a much more hardened, adult Chiron, now nicknamed Black.

The final story with adult Chiron gives us the film’s most action-heavy scenes with the dialogue hitting some noticeable jumps until the film ends with Black accepting who he is as he reunited with his teenage crush, Kevin.


Baby Driver:


Edgar Wright’s crime/thriller Baby Driver sticks to the typical trends of its genre with a 70/30% split in favor of action. Notice how the dialogue slowly increases until it’s peak at the film’s midpoint where it then begins to decrease until another peak right before the third act. The pacing of the action pulsates along with the film’s music-centric scenes, fluctuating along the script until a major spike in action in the third act followed by some less action-heavy scenes as the film crawls towards the end in this action-focused screenplay.

Around scene 23, we close our first act as Baby starts a new mission with Doc and is introduced to the team. The jumps us into Act Two where Baby breaks new ground in his criminal endeavors. Then, at scene 82, we jump into Act Three after the big heist has failed and Baby must now flee from his former coworkers in a battle for his life and those he loves. The climactic parking garage fight between Baby and Armie is represented at scene 96 in the film’s most action-heavy scene. Take note of the ending of the script. Baby Driver doesn’t end immediately after the big fight scene but resolves with a few, short scenes with minimal dialogue that end the story with a fade-out rather than a quick snuff.


Kick-Ass:


Superhero films also behave similarly to a crime film like Baby Driver. Take Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s Kick-Ass as an example. The breakdown between dialogue and action is incredibly similar to a 68/32 split. Notice the near dialogue-free montage towards the end of the script from scene 145 to 167, followed by an expository scene of dialogue at scene 168 that propels us into even more action at scenes 169 to 177 where Kick-Ass and Hit Girl infiltrate the D’Amico Penthouse. Action-focused points like this are a perfect example of the “show, don’t tell.” After the heroes defeat the villain, we get a nice resolve as Kick-Ass and Hit Girl begin a new chapter in their lives. The very last scene is a nice cliffhanger that leads us to the sequel.


Logan:


Logan, the superhero action blockbuster from James Mangold that was nominated for Best Adapted script, also follows standard trends. Although the act structure is a little harder to visualize here, it is still very apparent at how the screenwriters broke up the action into a well-paced story. These critically acclaimed scripts follow a formula, and their success is nothing to balk at.

Although the act structure is harder to see in this plot, it’s worth noting the massive spike in action at the end with scene 157. This lengthy scene not only has an overwhelming amount of action but has the third most dialogue in the entire film in 342 lines. While an abrupt ending like this isn’t always impactful, it makes sense to end Wolverine’s epic journey with him simply dying and a small funeral scene leaving us questioning what will happen to mutant children. We don’t necessarily need to know the fate of the kids or where their journey will take them next. This was Wolverine’s story, and once he’s gone, the story is over.


AVP: Alien vs Predator:


A crossover that defined the dark, sci-fi generation. AVP is one of the more interesting scripts once you boil it down to action vs. dialogue, which shifts against action trends with 78% action and 22% dialogue. This action/sci-fi puts the audience on a journey alongside a team of archaeologists within an ancient tomb rumored to hold a massive fortune. Unfortunately for them, the tomb just happens to be littered with traps and nestled amongst a massive war between the Aliens and Predators.

What’s most interesting about this film is the abrupt loss of dialogue after scene 120, a scene with the most dialogue as well as one of the more action-focused scenes. The film first builds up the plot with the necessary dialogue to establish context, and after killing most of the human characters, takes away the “telling” and begins to “show” the plot through action-focused scenes with very little dialogue in a truly interesting take on “show vs. tell.” We get a nice, action-filled final scene with the Predators retreating into space that leaves the audience presuming the story is finished until a hybrid Alien/Predator bursts through the chest of the antagonist Scar. A haunting cliffhanger that hints at even more bloodshed in the future.


Back to the Future:


Back to the Future is the scriptwriting student’s go to for a tightly written, expertly paced script. So it’s no surprise that this time-traveling romp has a near 50/50 split with 46.5% dialogue and 53.5% action. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale do a fantastic job of balancing action and dialogue, and the plot shows us how they both rise and fall at a similar pace.

The large spike in action and dialogue at scene 15 is what accelerates us into the second act as Doc’s test run is interrupted by the Libyan nationalists he stole from, forcing Marty to flee in the time-traveling Delorean and sending him to 1955. There’s a small, dialogue-free transition into Act Two as Marty first lands in 1955, followed by a lengthy second act that’s filled with dialogue and action.

The end of Act Two can be visualized from scenes 85-98 as Doc and Marty race against time to send Marty back to the future. These quick snippets of action provide the necessary tension as we question the fate of our hero.

With its action and dialogue marching in consistent fluctuation, it is obvious why Back to the Future is still able to captivate audiences over 30 years later.


Bridesmaids:


Annie Mumulo and Kristen Wiig’s quick-witted comedy lands itself straight into genre traditions with a 32.7% action to 67.3% dialogue shift.

The scene by scene plot shows us how the dialogue steadily increases until reaching a peak before decreasing at a similar pace. You can see just how much Bridesmaids relies on its ensemble fueled banter to provide the comedic narrative. Again, you can see visualized act breaks. At scenes 14 and 15, we see Act One’s peak in dialogue followed by a gradual decrease until around scene 29, the infamous bathroom scene that happens right before Annie is removed from the bridal party.

Like the first act, Act Two has a gradual increase of dialogue that peaks in the middle and slowly decreases until hitting Act Three at scene 76 where Megan gives Annie some tough love that pushes her to change Annie to take a good look at her life.


LadyBird:


Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age comedy/drama collected its fair share of Oscar noms in 2018, including Best Screenplay. With 47.3% action and 52.7% dialogue, LadyBird is a fairly well-balanced script.

You can see the break into Act Two in scene 23, where LadyBird is reeling after her kiss with Danny, her new boyfriend. After a long, drama-filled second act, you can see the break into Act Three at scene 103 where LadyBird and Marion fight over LadyBird secretly applies to an expensive East Coast college and makes the waitlist, something Marion forbade her to do.

At scene 116, Marion drops off LadyBird at the airport for her flight to her New York college. Refusing to even speak to her daughter, Marion abruptly drives away, leaving her daughter and husband alone at the airport while she “circles around.” We see Marion slowly regret her decision as her eyes swell with tears. A perfect example of Gerwig showing, not telling how Marion is feeling.


Chinatown:


As a crime film, Chinatown sticks closely to genre norms. While the dialogue to action breakdown of 57.1% to 42.9% falls just outside the genre average, we can chalk this up to Robert Towne’s eye towards symmetry on the page. This is further revealed by the dialogue versus action by scene chart as we can see action peak alongside dialogue nearly every time. While dialogue accounts for more of the screenplay, there are few instances where one does not fall in line with the other. Furthermore, the film’s three-act structure is fairly easy to parse out from this graph. While the break between act one and two may be the most difficult to parse out, act one can be seen as ending at around scene 16. The break between act two and three, however, is far easier to spot with act two ending around scene 58. Towne’s eye towards form and genre conventions are what makes Chinatown a great script for beginning writers to study, as one needs to understand the basics before spinning them on their head.


Citizen Kane:


The epic drama Citizen Kane catalogs the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane. The film is heralded as a masterpiece of cinema and a gold standard. Yet in looking at the data, the film is anything but conventional. As a drama, it falls outside the norm by containing more dialogue than action. And while the percentages are close, a 58.5% lean towards dialogue over 41.5% of action writing is still a clear break. The biggest revelations can be gleaned from its dialogue vs. action by scene plot. While the three-act structure of many films can be deciphered from this plot, as the peaks and troughs of the graph clearly demarcate three separate sections, Citizen Kane’s act breaks prove to be a bit more elusive. By the raw data, one would expect a very condensed first act, ending as early as scene 13 yet getting most of its work done in scenes five and six. Yet the break between act two and three is far harder to distinguish. In reality act two never really seems to end, peaking at scenes 55 and 64, then continuing at its usual pace. Perhaps this is due to the resolution of the film only happening in its final shot, although the conclusion begins a little earlier. The flashback storytelling on display may also explain why the three-act structure proves elusive through the data, as the story both unfolds chronologically and out of order simultaneously. Regardless, the praise the film has been awarded over the years is only further proof that working outside the norms can lead to the biggest successes.


Network:


In Paddy Chayefsky’s satirical story about the ravings of news anchor gone ballistic via his television network’s taking full advantage of its contribution to their ratings, the dialogue takes the front seat with 64.8% of total dialogue in the story, and the inner workings of news gathering and network politics makes up the 35.2% of action. A drama fantastically set against the rapid growth of media, or what director Sidney Lumet calls “reportage,” Network makes use of revealing the ever-presence of shifting power structure within media, and revels in the foundational truths to be discovered in the moneyed interests that make up the advertisement arms of the major networks, mostly through dialogue, setting it apart from later dramatic examples.


Adaptation:


Charlie Kaufman’s self-referencing metafilm about his struggle to adapt The Orchid Thief from book to script defies drama trends by offering more dialogue than action with a 60.7 to 39.3% split. The fictional and real Charlie Kaufman rebuke the standard script formula and instead attempt to defy the trend with their own take on story structure. Because of this, it is near impossible to identify any act breaks or even transitions. Despite this, Adaptation is often used in scriptwriting classes as it showcases the debate on if it’s better to stick to the formula for a better chance at success or pave your own road for maximum artistic integrity.


A Quiet Place:


Notice how there is an overwhelming shift towards pure action for this near dialogue-free movie, an impressive 93.1 to 6.38% shift. While horror films definitely tend to sway towards action as they use visuals to haunt their audiences, this film takes a turn and gives the audience an truly unique film experience.

The scene by scene plot details how the action stays fairly consistent until the near end as the action ramps up, giving us some dialogue to go with it. There are no discernable act breaks, transitions, or montages in this unique script. A Quiet Place is a rare example of how breaking the mold can get you noticed and ensure success.

After looking at the breakdowns of 14 different movies, you should be getting a good idea of how to process the information our Story Scanner gives you. Short snippets of action often indicate scene transitions, large peaks in action or dialogue are typically the most important scenes, and scripts that end with a large chunk of action can mean the story ends on a cliffhanger. You should be getting a good sense of when to show and when to tell as well as if your script is going to fall within industry trends or if it’s made to break the mold and become a success.

Scriptonomics’ visual breakdowns of these crucial script elements is an excellent way for a screenwriter to get a glimpse of their prospective script’s action and dialogue. Whether it incites you to add a little more dialogue to your comedy, to spice up the action in your thriller, or to defy trends and sow your own path, Scriptonomic’s Story Scanner is a helpful tool for any script. To make sure your tempo is solid you can quickly identify peaks in action or dialogue that might make a scene too long and touch them up for your next draft. Your opening can introduce your characters and world with a slow burn, or you can cold open into an action sequence (which is less common). Similarly with your ending, finishing on a large cliffhanger scene might be good if you’re expecting a sequel, but having a true resolve with short scenes showing your characters readjusting to their lives after the climax takes place can leave the audience feeling at peace and satisfied after watching your movie. While there’s no right or wrong way to write your script, you can upload your script to Story-Scanner to start thinking through these steps and making sure that every decision was intentional.

Do you have multiple drafts of your script? You see if you can more clearly see your act breaks from draft to draft as your sharpened your story.

Check out our next guide on how Location appearances. can affect your budget and success of your script.

Happy Writing!
The Scriptonomics Team

Get your scripts analyzed now!



Continue Reading






Comments



Sign Up

to comment



No comments yet.