The Importance of Film Dialogue, and the Necessity of Hemingway's Minimalism / by Keith LaFountaine

About a year or so ago, in late June (perhaps creeping into early July) I wrote a short story titled "Weekend", which has yet to be published. This short story was an important crossroads for me. I wanted to impart feelings I had about a particular event (and, more importantly, about a particular person), but I did not want it to be obvious, both so I did not get too specific with the truth of the story, and so I could write a more interesting, minimalist narrative.

Since that story's creation, I have never written dialogue any other way, both in my films and in my literary projects.

"Why?" you might ask. "What benefit is there to writing minimalist dialogue?" 

The answer is complicated, and it is -- by no means -- an objective truth. That is to say, everything in this blog post is entirely my subjective viewpoint on the matter. Further, it's important to mention that I have pissed off a lot of viewers and readers for writing this way. But I am dedicated to writing like this, and for a few reasons.

Firstly, I have noticed an upsetting trend where readers/viewers don't want to do the work to discover the importance of the art they are ingesting. Viewers don't want to be challenged at the theater; they want to be entertained. Readers don't want to be challenged by their novel; they want to be sucked into some sort of escapist fantasy.

This is not true of all people, mind you. However, it is the trend I have noticed.

I was first made aware of this with my own work. While workshopping a chapter of a novel I am working on, I had a lot of online readers questioning my "vagueness" as they would call it. People wanted me to clarify, to delve deep into backstory, to explain every character nuance and every movement so they could be absolutely certain about what was going on (even, frustratingly for me, when the answers they wanted were contained a few pages later). This kept coming up -- in "Weekend", while I received some strong constructive criticism occasionally, the majority of the comments could be boiled down to "I don't get it" or "Why do we care what happened in the story?"

It was around this time that I was getting back into reading work by the master of minimalism -- Ernest Hemingway. I started re-reading his novels and short stories (particularly his story "Hills Like White Elephants"), and I found myself falling in love with this method of imparting narratives more and more.

I came to the conclusion that a lot of people don't want to do the work, or, at the very least, don't have time to do the work when it comes to more challenging stories and films. Lots of people go to movies, and read novels, because they don't want to have to do work -- they don't want these mediums to challenge them. Hemingway bucked that trend rather forcefully. His prose are easy to understand, and very accessible, but his stories always have some sort of profound depth to them that only intense analysis can unearth.

When I was writing my short film "Mirror" (which you can watch here on my website), I approached the narrative with the same kind of mindset. I was surprised that, for the most part, people were more accepting of the approach this time around. While I still received the "I don't get it comment" from people I've shown it to, more people seem interested in deciphering the messages than immediately disregarding it as some sort of pretentious self-pleasure.

So what does all of this have to do with film dialogue? Well, more than you might think actually.

Dialogue is the one area that takes writers decades to master. Very few people get a grasp on good film dialogue like Tarantino or Sorkin do -- they (myself included) have to continually work at it. But the true annoyance I have when it comes to film dialogue is the tendency to over-explain.

Think about the last film you saw, or the last blockbuster you went to the theater to see. Chances are there was a section, or there were multiple sections, that were crammed full of obvious exposition. This is extremely obvious in Marvel and DC movies (or any comic book/superhero movie, for that matter) where we get scenes of someone explaining the intricacies of a plan, or the specific workings of a weapon, before we see the effects of what is to follow.

This frustrates me, as a filmmaker and as an avid filmgoer, because it's lazy. Whenever you hear all of that exposition crammed into a string of dialogue, you know that the writer(s) was being lazy, and didn't know how else to impart the information. 

Often times, though, I find that filmmakers -- especially on bigger projects -- don't trust their audience. They feel as though they have to explain every detail in hopes that you know exactly what is going on during the scene/film.

This is easily visible in a scene like this one from The Avengers, where Tony Stark verbally spars with Loki about the latter's plans to take over Earth.

It's not the worst dialogue, and it helps that both Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Hiddleston have superb delivery, but take another look at the actual writing of their conversation. There is no nuance. There is no subtlety. Every intention, every feeling, is spelled out for the audience in this scene, and when it ends we have no misunderstandings as to who feels what, and why they feel that way.

This is present even in less blockbuster/Hollywood type films. Check out this short conversation in Nicolas Winding Refn's 2016 film, The Neon Demon.

This scene is interesting because we start in a good place: Refn uses words sparingly, and precisely, to exude a certain mood of discomfort (which is augmented by the cinematography and editing). However, about halfway through this scene, it descends into a similar type of overly-descriptive philosophizing about the nature of beauty. This wouldn't be an issue if it weren't so on the nose. It's almost as though Refn felt that we needed this element of the film spelled out for us because he was worried we would miss it. Instead of using his visuals to sell the idea the dialogue imparts, he resorts to hackneyed dialogue that feels forced and unnatural. 

It is even present in films that are considered excellent. Check out this scene from Christopher Nolan's lauded 2014 film, Interstellar.

The point I'm trying to make is not that these films are inherently bad because they have moments of poor, or overly detailed, dialogue; nor am I saying that filmmakers should avoid exposition in their dialogue. What I am saying, though, is that modern films seem to have this tendency to describe everything, to the point where there isn't any nuance. Why would we ponder the characters' meaning, or understanding, of beauty, or the importance they place on beauty, in The Neon Demon when the dialogue spells out for us how these characters feel? 

This is why I brought up Hemingway. His prose are like icebergs: the majority of it is below the surface, or in between the lines, but we can still understand what we see at face value. He had an uncanny ability to tell a story with varying degrees of profundity.

Take a look at his dialogue in "Hill Like White Elephants" again, too. You probably already know the subject of this couple's conversation (as this short story is a staple of high school English classes), but really analyze the precise language Hemingway uses. It's sharp, it's occasionally witty, it's heartfelt -- it's substantive. 

Sure, this style of dialogue may not be the most accessible at times. It may not give you all of your answers all at once, and it may require you to watch the film over and over again to truly understand its meaning. And there is the valid argument that film dialogue, and film writing, are very different from literature and cannot be approached in the same manner. However, I would argue that we try to do other things than what many filmmakers are currently doing. Or, at the very least, ask why when we hear these strings of exposition crammed into a scene.

Maybe you won't be as drastic as I was, and change the way you write entirely. Maybe you'll start by just writing out a scene a few times, trimming the fat on each edit until you reach a point where you're happy. Maybe you won't change your writing style at all, but will instead look for more ways to understand, and push, your own prose style. Any of these is fine in any regard. As I said before, these moments of weakness in these films do not make these inherently weak films, and the weaknesses I have pointed out are weaknesses from my personal, subjective perspective.

At the end of the day, the important thing is that we have unique films. Original films. The Marvel films will always succumb to these moments of poor writing, as will directors like Refn who have worked with a singular style their entire career. However, I hope that indie directors, and the younger generation -- of which I belong to -- really start to analyze film writing, dialogue, and Hemingway. It may not seem like there is a connection at first, but -- as Hemingway proved with every story, and every novel, he wrote -- there is always something underneath the surface to uncover. You just have to keep digging.