When less is more

When less is more

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50235576After our critique group this past week, we all piled into Terri’s terrific home theater space to watch Loving, the quiet and moving 2016 movie about the interracial marriage of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter Loving in 1958, and what happened to them when the state of Virginia decided to enforce its anti-miscegenation law.

The film is remarkable not only because of what it says, but because of how it says it: with as few words as possible, with as little music as possible, with no hype whatsoever. When I described the film to Dear Him the next morning, I joked that it’s the most powerful story I’ve ever seen told in 300 lines of dialogue.

Then, being a data-driven sort of gal, I decided to see how many lines of dialogue there actually were. Fortunately for me, the nofilmschool.com site has a list of links for Oscar-nominated screenplays that are available for legal download, and Loving was one of them. I did the count. To be honest, I did the count twice because the first time, I started reading somewhere in the 400’s, and eventually couldn’t see through my tears.

When I was finally done, I had counted around 520 blocks of dialogue in a 95-page script.

The first 100 dialogue blocks occur over a span of 18 pages. Compare that to the first 100 dialogue blocks in other screenplays:

  • Manchester By the Sea — 11 pages
  • The Theory of Everything — 15 pages
  • Birdman — 10 pages
  • The Big Short — I shudder to think

It’s worth noting, too, that each scene in those 18 pages of Loving included 4-6 lines of dialogue. As in, an exchange = 4-6 lines of dialogue = 1 scene. Holy cow! The only people who expound at length in the movie are the sheriff, a judge, lawyers, and a Life Magazine photographer.

All this got me thinking about writing economically. I’ve come to realize that when I’m fishing around, not quite sure where the story’s going, my scenes get longer. The ratio of spoken words to character and plot development gets way outta whack. People reflect a lot. They go back over decisions they made 50 pages ago. They consider the future — again. They use a lotta words.

Even when the story’s on track and I’m writing somewhat economically, I can still go off on a tangent — an image or a thought or obscure plot point — that might not add to the story or character development as powerfully as it could. Or at all.

I’m a huge fan of scenes that accomplish several goals at once, and the Loving screenplay by Jeff Nichols has provided many wonderful examples of it.

Here’s just one to ponder*: Richard, Mildred, and Mildred’s father are in the car headed from Virginia to the District of Columbia, where they can be legally married.

Richard drives on the open highway with the windows down and music drifting from the radio. Mildred sits up front next to him. They wear their finest clothes. Mildred’s father, THEOLIVER “Jake”(52), rides quietly in the backseat. He wears a suit and hat.

MILDRED

You think they’ll see us today?

RICHARD

I called up there.

THEOLIVER

Seem like a long drive to me.

RICHARD

Thanks for coming Jake.

MILDRED

Daddy what’s the city like?

Theoliver shrugs, unimpressed.

THEOLIVER

It’s fine.

In this brief scene, we can see and infer the following:

  • Mildred is willing to drive all the way to Washington D.C. even if she and Richard can’t be married that day. She’s with Richard, and for her that means everything will be fine.
  • Richard has taken care of the logistics — he’s arranged the appointment with the JP. (This is a character trait that comes out again and again in subtle ways. He always takes care of Mildred.)
  • Jake and Richard are on familiar enough terms that Jake can indirectly acknowledge his reservations about their marriage by commenting on the length of the drive. (He’s one of several people who mention that Richard and Mildred would have been just fine if they hadn’t gotten married, which is one of the great ironies of this real-life story.)
  • Richard hears what Jake isn’t saying and addresses it by thanking him both for his tacit approval of the marriage and for attending as witness.
  • Despite his reservations, Jake has dressed in his best clothes to honor the wedding ceremony and serve as witness.
  • Mildred is thinking about the near future — she’s ever the optimist, one of her foundational character traits — when she asks her father what the city is like. We also now know that Mildred has never been in a city, and that her father has.
  • Jake indicates his ambivalence for city life.
  • As we learn later, Mildred’s questioning of her father foreshadows a major plot development.

All that in 6 lines of dialogue and a bit of scene setting. Would that my stories could be so efficient!

Granted, a screenplay is very different from a novel or short story. In acting, facial expressions are our cues to the characters’ internal states. And these characters are naturally reticent, so they aren’t going to have reams of dialogue to learn from. But I have to admire the economy of scenes like this one. This simple exchange between 3 people conveys so much more than casual chitchat on a long road to the city.

I’m off now to see how hard my Evelyn scenes are working for me. If you’re writing a novel, how hard are your scenes working for you?

* Excerpt from Loving, by Jeff Nichols. No copyright infringement is intended or implied.

Sandra K. Moore

Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.

8 thoughts on “When less is more

  1. Thanks for spelling out why you liked the film. You know me. I’m a knee-jerk reaction kinda gal. Like the day, long ago, when we all went and saw the Keira Knightley version of Pride & Prejudice and I nearly lost my damn mind when they didn’t kiss in that morning sunrise scene near the end of the flick. So knee-jerk on Loving was that it took forever for anything to happen. But as you pointed out, there was actually a lot happening, I just don’t do “subtle” very well. So before I can delve in the “how hard are your scenes working for you?” bit, I think I need to work on subtlety – trying to see it, understand it, appreciate it. Great post.

    1. You’re right, Lorinda. It did take a long time for anything to happen.

      For me, that was its power: The story is told from the Loving’s point of view, over the course of several years. The continual shots of their everyday lives — working the day job, fixing a car, doing dishes, cooking a meal, playing with their children — was a beautiful, slow build-up of their fundamental humanity and commitment to their family juxtaposed against a law proclaiming their union to be a threat to the Commonwealth of Virginia. By the time we get to the Supreme Court case, in which the arguments against their union are intercut with shots of the Lovings sitting down to dinner, the moral case is entirely made.

      That said, I’m pretty sure your WIP has many scenes that are accomplishing more than just furthering the plot or maneuvering a character into position for the next scene. 🙂

  2. It was a powerful movie. Unlike Lorinda, I fully appreciated the subtly of the movie. So much was said with out anyone saying a word. For instance, when Richard returns to his car to find a picture of him and Mildred banded around a brick. He doesn’t say a word, just looks around at his co-workers wondering who made this threat?

    I also noted that when Mildred is being interviewed by the media, after the Life magazine article, Richard comes is and is not happy. He asks her to come out side with him, where he tells her he doesn’t want ‘those people here’. She says she thinks its important and goes back inside. SO REVEALING OF THEIR RELATIONSHIP OF MUTUAL RESPECT!

    I loved this movie!

    1. Yes, I agree! Each gave the other space and yet they remained entirely loyal to one another.

      Another moment that slew me was when Richard said he wouldn’t go to the Supreme Court to hear the arguments (one of which was going to be Virginia’s argument that his children were illegitimate) and then Mildred looking as if she really, really wanted to go while at the same time saying to the lawyers, “I wouldn’t go without him.” Beautiful piece of acting by Ruth Negga.

  3. Now I really have to get hold of this movie & watch it. And I have to go look at my stories and see if there’s any subtlety in them…

    One thing I’ve noticed in reading contest entries and such is that people tend to write novels as if they were writing a screenplay– and that doesn’t work well. We tend to miss a lot of motivation that we can infer, as you said, from the actors’ expressions & body language. But I’m straying from the point of your blogpost, which I really liked.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Gail!

      The movie is a master class in understatement… It’s also a slow burn, so if you prefer more action and dialogue, YMMV.

      As for me, I’m writing around and around in a couple of scenes right now and that’s telling me I need to boil them down to the basics to get at what’s really going on.

  4. As for the actual story, I was surprised the Loving’s didn’t “fight” more for their rights, but after seeing the way their “fight” was portrayed, I think they were dumbfounded that anyone would question their love and marriage. Like HIDDEN FIGURES, this movie makes me wonder if my personal tolerance level would have held up against such societal pressures.

    As to the subtley issue, my favorite scene is when Richard, who is the poster child for reticient, tells the lawyer to “tell the judge I love my wife.” WOW! The man hardly says a word, but when he speaks, it carries such weight.

    I enjoyed watching that performance and will probably watch it again before I settle in to write Mike’s story, becuase I picture him being a man of few words. But since Mike’s words come from me, I’m sure he’ll be quite a bit wordier than Richard Loving.

    1. Great point about societal pressures, Dawn. The Lovings were up against such stout institutional and systemic resistance — a law on the books, time in jail — that the only way they could manage was to fly under the radar as best they could. I’m just astonished anyone actually took note of Mildred’s letter.

      Can’t wait for Mike’s story! I really like what I’ve seen of him so far in the other two stories, so I’m ready!

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