One comment I hear often is that an important story element is too complicated to explain without resorting to dialogue. Now, yes, the fastest way to provide backstory is through dialogue. Another great device is flashbacks, which have become controversial. Both devices run the risk of being too obvious, plus dialogue can sound very clunky if it’s too “on the nose”. But before dismissing or eliminating an important aspect of your story for fear that it can’t be told simply and effectively, I suggest that you open yourself up to the possibility that it IS possible to do so — you haven’t discovered the solution yet. After all, as soon as you believe that something is impossible, you make it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think of it as a creative challenge. Here are some ideas to help you stretch your narrative muscles.
Practice crafting scenes that tell a story solely via images. In my first year of film school, we weren’t allowed to use sound. All the scripts we wrote and everything we shot was M.O.S. (or “without sound”). It wasn’t just a matter of not having the right equipment; the logic was also to force us to think “cinematically” and to train us into telling a story without the crutch of sound or words. This is an excellent exercise in thinking purely in images and in understanding how images and editing affect people. How long should a shot last? How do people “read” a shot? How much can you dispense with? Nowadays it’s especially easy to experiment with MOS narrative, given that we all have cameras in our phones.
Watch silent films. You might say, “Well, didn’t they rely on title cards?” Not as much as you’d think, actually. Yes, some of them are unbelievably dated in terms of storylines and mores, but asides from being an integral part of film history, they’re a good resource in learning how to craft a story solely through images. Once upon a time silent films were only screened at art houses in big cities like New York and London. Thankfully, nowadays we have Netflix, Hulu, and, hell, some are even on YouTube.
Think beyond images. Not all sound has to consist of words. Sometimes a melody or a well-placed sound effect can get a point across economically and elegantly. (Once you start watching silent films, you’ll see that your mind will fill in a sound, so that if there’s a close-up of an alarm clock you’ll “hear” the ringer.)
When I say melody, I’m not referring to letting the composer do all the work. The best way of explaining what I mean is to refer to an anecdote. Shortly after W.W.II, Poland was still a dangerous place for Jews. The few survivors had to keep their identity secret. One Friday night, one young man was at a dance. Feeling nostalgic for the Friday night rituals his family kept, he walked off to the side and whistled a familiar Jewish prayer to welcome the Sabbath. When he stopped to catch his breath, he heard someone else take up the tune where he left off. Realizing that only another Jew would know the tune, he immediately turned around and found himself face to face with a young woman. Wordlessly, they both realized they were survivors, passing themselves off as gentiles. Now, if that’s not a powerful scene that tells you everything you need to know without a single line of dialogue, I don’t know what is.
Okay, so you’d have to set up this scene for the benefit of non-Jews and others who are not familiar with Sabbath prayers, but this can be achieved elegantly and in a way that propels the story forward. It’d be worth it, too, since the more your audience understands intuitively, the more powerful the emotional pay-off.
Keep a Tumbler or journal of wordless cinematic sequences. When you find a sequence or scene that conveys a lot of information in pure cinematic terms and in a creative way without relying on dialogue, write a few notes about it or paste a part of the sequence into a Tumbler. Seeing how others conquered the same problems can get your creative juices flowing.
Lastly, remember: All great breakthroughs come as a result of surpassing an obstacle — no hurdles, no nifty solutions. So be thankful for the difficulties and don’t let them stop you. Use them.