Words in Action

Forms and techniques of film dialogue

by Paolo Braga (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 223 Pages


Words in Action dedicates to the subject of film dialogue a comprehensive exploration. The book analyzes a wide series of examples, perfectly chosen in contemporary American mainstream cinema – from Gladiator to The Devil Wears Prada, from Schindler’s List to A Beautiful Mind, from Collateral to The Dark Knight – and, in some cases, also in prime time TV drama – ER, The West Wing, House M.D., John Adams.
In a screenplay, the secrets of well written dialogue are hidden in the construction of the scene, where every word should stem from the theme of the story. At the light of this basic assumption, the book explores how Hollywood screenwriters create verbal duels assigning characters different frames of values and making the hero win by «reframing» what is at stake in the scene. The author elaborates on how Oscar winner authors such as Paul Haggis, Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian create subtext. Finally, the book highlights the screenwriting techniques to cover exposition, an issue which gives the author also the opportunity to concentrate on the differences between dialogues in movies and in TV drama.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: The perfect dialogue
  • The different role of dialogue in theatre and in cinema
  • Sight is fast and reliable
  • Stage-to-film adaptations prove the importance of terseness
  • Three functions of dialogue in film
  • The aim of this book
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1: Dialogue and conflict
  • Dramatic dialogue and its features
  • Dialogue is action
  • Dialogue pushes the story forward
  • Dialogue is dynamic
  • Dialogue has deep implications
  • Dialogue has structure
  • Dialogue is succinct
  • Dialogue has a climax
  • Dialogue changes the fate of the character
  • Dialogue surprises
  • Dialogue tends to follow a set pattern
  • Three scenes
  • Munich. “Mazeltov”
  • Lethal Weapon. “You really like my wife’s cooking?”
  • The Best of Youth. “Then let’s get you signed out!”
  • Direct attack and sudden backlash
  • The counterattack
  • Dialogue, conflict and values
  • John Adams. “My sons…”
  • Chapter 2: Dialogue and subtext
  • Dramatic subtext
  • Why use subtext
  • Reason one: it reflects real life
  • Reason two: subtext creates tension
  • Reason three: subtext holds an audience’s interest
  • Reason four: subtext can be acted out
  • Two kinds of subtext
  • Deep subtext
  • The Next Three Days. “Goodbye”
  • Strategic subtext
  • The West Wing. “We’re gonna get the names of the damn commandments right.”
  • Non-shared subtext
  • Manipulation
  • The irony of fate
  • Crash. “Is there a problem, Cam?”
  • The Lives of Others. “I am your audience”
  • Chapter 3: Dialogue and exposition
  • The problem of exposition
  • The screenwriting techniques to solve the problem of exposition
  • Dramatization of exposition
  • Use of irony
  • Use of examples
  • The right moment for exposition
  • How to reveal themes in dialogue
  • Verbal setups and payoffs, taglines, key words and metaphorical texture
  • Batman Begins. “Justice is about harmony”
  • Theme in dialogue
  • Metaphorical texture
  • Munich. “Break bread with me”
  • Theme through visual metaphors
  • Subtheme in dialogue
  • Subtheme through verbal metaphors
  • Metaphorical texture
  • Dialogue and revealing metaphors
  • Collateral. “Guy. Gets on a subway. Dies”
  • The revealing metaphor
  • The Dark Knight. “Because he can take it…”
  • The revealing metaphor
  • Filmography
  • References

← viii | 1 → Introduction

The perfect dialogue

In the last scene of The Devil Wears Prada (USA 2006), the protagonist and antagonist of the film randomly catch sight of one another on the streets of Manhattan. By now some time has passed since the young assistant Andrea (Anne Hathaway) rebuffed her boss, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), resisting the temptations of the diabolic director of Runway.

Now that all is said and done, destiny seems to have brought them together for one last time. They have not seen each other since their thorny adieu. Andrea, however, found out that Miranda showed confidence and grace to Andrea’s resignation by writing a letter of recommendation to an editorial office for her, so she could fulfill her dream of becoming a journalist. The opportunity to thank her ex-boss arrives unexpectedly, right now.

Andrea catches sight of Miranda and stops. The magazine director still hasn’t seen her. She walks in haste, searching for her car. She is on the phone complaining, in her usual cross manner, about the driver being late. Then, as the car pulls up to the curb for her to get in, Miranda spots Andrea. She freezes.

For a brief moment, the two women hold each other’s gaze from opposite sidewalks.

There are no words, but their looks make for intense dialogue.

Andrea hints at a smile. She raises her hand timidly to wave. Her gesture is equivalent to a line that is never said:


The letter… Thanks.

Miranda, however, does not wave back.

← 1 | 2 → She is cold, impassible and stares at Andrea from head to toe. She quickly gets into the car. She remains silent, but it is as if Meryl Streep says:


You still disappointed me. Goodbye.

Andrea just smiles and shakes her head before walking away. She also remains silent, but it is as if she says:


(to herself)

You’ll never change. The icy,
one and only… Miranda. I’ll
never forget you.

Miranda is now inside the car. She takes off her sunglasses ‒ the main accessory to complement her look in public. She sits in the back seat and sighs wearily.

Her gesture, the deep look in her eye that has become melancholic, is yet another unspoken line:


(to herself)

Such solitude… I can’t take it


Miranda then looks up and stares at Andrea, who is walking away. She briefly recalls everything that happened between them and makes peace with herself.

Then, as the screenplay reads, “And Miranda, alone, finally breaks into a real smile”, the audience picks up the last, unspoken line:


(to herself)

Good choice, Andrea. As for me…

it’s not easy being the Devil,


someone has to do it.

← 2 | 3 → Her brief inner crises is left behind and her normal personality returns to the fore. Miranda looks at the driver and very impatiently says, “Go!”. With this spoken line, the Devil puts her sunglasses back on and situates herself back into her public figure. She leaves the scene as the car disappears into traffic and the ending credits start to roll.

Another example of a film with a dialogue that has no words, or rather, a dialogue that can only be heard within the minds of the characters and the audience, is The Town.

After robbing a bank, Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and his gang have almost made their dangerous escape. Gotten the police off the track, the bandits pull over to switch cars. They spread strands of hair collected from barber shops all over the city in the first car to throw off forensics.

Then something unexpected happens.


VIII, 223
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
movie dialogue, screenwriting film studies Film dialogue
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. VIII, 223 pp.

Biographical notes

Paolo Braga (Author)

Paolo Braga is Assistant Professor in Semiotics at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, where he teaches Screenwriting. He has published extensively on the topics of the construction of empathy with character and of U.S. television series. The rhetorical dimension of storytelling is his general research area.


Title: Words in Action
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233 pages