It’s a strange recommendation to make, I know. Why would I urge writers – especially romance writers, whose key tool of trade is dialogue – to go see a silent movie?
If you haven’t heard about it, “The Artist” is a new release movie that’s not only filmed in black and white, it’s almost entirely silent. (It has a beautifully orchestrated score.) At its heart, it’s a love story between a fading silent-movie hero, George Valentin, and a rising talking-movie diva, Peppy Miller.
As I was watching the movie, I was struck by how the actors and all the things surrounding them (the set, lighting, costumes, music, etc) had to work so hard to tell their story in the absence of dialogue. How do we know George Valentin’s wife is unhappy in their marriage? Amongst other things, she draws fake moustaches and blacks out his teeth in the photos of him that appear in the newspaper. She doesn’t ever say, “I’m not in love with you anymore.” But we see it, clear as day, through her actions.
I loved the opportunity to observe, without the distraction of dialogue, all the elements that go into telling a story. Facial expressions, body language, habits, tics. All the vital things writers need to use to envelop a reader in their story, to immerse them in the life of their characters.
Without giving away any spoilers, there is an important scene, a turning point in the story, that is beautifully shot on a multi-level staircase. Apart from the obvious symbolism of George going down the stairs while Peppy is going up, there is acres of meaning in their postures and expressions that tell us what is going on for each of them at that point in their lives. There is a tiny amount of dialogue in the scene – provided through captions on the screen – from each of them, but many layers of meaning behind their otherwise superficial words.
Perhaps it was because the actors had to deliberately exaggerate their expressions and movements that I was suddenly noticing elements of movie making that I don’t usually pick up in the average Hollywood blockbuster. Perhaps today’s movies are so much more subtle than those of the silent era that we don’t notice the characters in quite the same way. Or perhaps it was simply that without the audio queues of dialogue I had to rely on my other senses to “feel” what was going on. Whatever it was that was happening, I was constantly amazed at the level of meaning the story managed to convey.
I couldn’t help thinking that it was just like a good book, when there’s more happening than what appears on the page. When an author has skilfully shown you their characters, has drawn you into their lives, you feel their pain, share their excitement, cry when they grieve. And this occurs without the author telling you what’s happening, without queues that say “feel sad now”.
“The Artist” manages to tell a fascinating story without actually “telling” you very much at all. That’s a trick most of us writers can learn from.