Gerald Hanks Filmography

Friday, July 28, 2023

“Barbie” and Dialogue: Say Less!


One of the most troublesome aspects that aspiring screenwriters encounter involves how they employ dialogue. The writer will often use their characters' dialogue to “tell” the viewer what's happening rather than using the character's choices and actions to “show” the story. 

This approach to dialogue often falls into one of three categories:

Exposition Dumps: The character tells another character (and the viewer) what's happening or how the story world works.

On The Nose: The character tells another character (and the viewer) exactly how they feel at that moment without subtext or intent behind their words.

Long Speeches: The character delivers what should be a rousing speech or a call to action that often goes on too long and exhausts the audience.

I encounter these problems in the scripts I'm assigned to read more frequently than I can count. I also typically downgrade scripts that I see employ these tactics. When I conduct my VOTE Method seminar, I often advise my clients to check out the opening sequence to Up to show how to convey the story of an entire relationship in an emotionally impactful way, all without delivering a single line of dialogue.

Barbie breaks every one of these rules. Does that mean that writer/director Greta Gerwig (Little Women, Lady Bird) and co-writer Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) don't know what they're doing? How did they get away with using dialogue in ways that would get a student writer a note that reads, “See me after class”?

Here's how:

Exposition Dumps

One of the biggest examples of an “exposition dump” occurs when a story uses an off-screen narrator to inform the viewer about the status of this world.

For instance, the recent superhero film “Black Adam” included a narrator in the opening sequence to tell the viewer about this ancient world and the cruel masters who allowed a young boy to die.

In Barbie, Helen Mirren's regal inflections informed the viewers of the “before times”, when the only dolls available to young girls were baby dolls.

The difference between these two approaches stems from their tone. The narration in Black Adam took itself seriously and told the viewer nothing that they couldn't see for themselves.

The same technique in Barbie showed how serious narration could complement the over-the-top silliness of the opening sequence (a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey) as young girls smashed their dolls and worshiped at the feet of a 30-foot-tall Barbie doll.

On The Nose

One of the aspects I teach in my VOTE Method workshop (LINK VIDEO) involves how each line of dialogue should serve a purpose for the character. 

Each line should get them closer to their Victory or deter their “opponent” from getting theirs. 

When one character tells another exactly how they feel, especially early in the story, this approach can undercut their efforts to get what they want. 

This tactic resembles a poker player showing his hand before the other players have finished betting. At that point, they've given up on the game and conceded their Victory to the “enemy”.

In Barbie, when Barbie starts to feel anything other than happy, she expresses it outright and questions where these feelings could come from.

Much like in Forrest Gump, the character's naivete allows them to get away with conveying their feelings in such an open and honest manner.

While this approach could lead to healthier relationships in real life, it also leads to the death of dramatic tension and narrative momentum in your scripts.

Long Speeches:

Speaking of narrative momentum, the “long speech” stands as one of the biggest momentum-killers in any script.

When one character delivers a speech, that character has to take on the weight of the scene while everyone else stays still and remains enraptured by the speaker's words.

These speeches typically occur at the close of Act II, when the protagonist and their crew have hit their lowest point in the story.

This speech should stir the masses into taking decisive action toward overcoming the antagonist and building a groundswell of support from the viewer.

In dramas, these speeches can become overblown, over-long, and over the top.

In comedies, a brief silence followed by a sight gag or incongruous sound undercuts the speaker's efforts and renders the speech pointless.

In Barbie, the intent behind Gloria's speech isn't about rousing the Barbies into action against the "Ken-vasion". Instead, it shows her anger with how women in both worlds can't get ahead in a "system (that) is rigged".

As her frustrations with the Barbies, the Kens, and her daughter bubble over, she lets loose with this lengthy but effective speech as she confronts these inequities.

So how did the Barbie writers do it? (TL;DR version)

Exposition Dumps: Make the exposition a tool to convey the tone more so than the information that the viewer can already see.

On The Nose: Make the character naive so that they lack the guile to employ subtext when conveying their feelings.

Long Speeches: Avoid these early in the story. Use them at the Act II/III break as a means to stir up the other characters and the viewer.

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