If you are a dedicated cinephile/screenwriter, you have already explored silent storytelling for the pure magic they invoke.
The first fans of silent films believed filmmakers were using magic tricks. That’s how “Hollywood” was born.
Throughout myths and legends, magicians used a magic wand/rod made from the wood of the Holly tree. Homer wrote about one in The Iliad and The Odyssey, it was used by Hermes to put people to sleep and then wake them back up again.
Sounds like suspended disbelief!
Silent films make you pay attention. They did not have the safety net of words to tell the story. They had to survive without dialogue.
Any dialogue, backstory, or descriptions were told by short flashcards on screen. Long expositions (more than a sentence) would disrupt the pace and build tension causing the viewer to disengage.
Silent filmmakers and screenwriters (yes, there was a script) were experts at showing the social norms and morals of our culture as well as the imperfections of society and human nature.
Silent films used heightened creativity. They had to rely on their storytelling skills and narrative economy without modern technological resources.
Silent films teach the importance of keeping focused on the story you are telling. Every scene counts! There is no wandering off to shoot the breeze. The scenes establish, portray drama, or build on the theme and the film's meaning, such as redemption or desire. This keeps the audience fully engaged in suspended disbelief.
Comedic silent films stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton came from vaudeville and were trained in physical and slapstick comedy. The jokes weren’t dependent on the verbal set-up/payoff, but on the physical or action set-up/payoff. The action pay-off is universal, where the verbal pay-off is often to a definitive audience. The comedy on CNN is aimed at a different audience than the comedy on Fox News.
Silent films rely on visual cues ( objects, pictures, symbols, depth of field, movement) to convey emotion, creating a deeper immersive experience. Mae West wasn’t a silent film star, but she used a real snake boa as a neck scarf to emphasize her power to ‘take your breath away’. This is visual communication!
Silent films use the principles of close-up and longshot to create depth, intrigue, and to hold the audience’s attention. Screenwriters aren’t supposed to ‘direct’, that’s for the Director, but specifying that a character gets ‘in someone’s face’ during an argument, or is a ‘spot on the horizon’, keeps a reader on point and conveys that you are ‘seeing’ what you are writing, not ‘thinking’ what you are writing. “Show them everything, tell them nothing” – Ernest Hemingway.
I hope this article inspires you to watch a silent film and fine-tune your script for maximum entertainment value.
Below are links for Trailers to the birth of the HORROR genre…
“The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari“
And the masterpiece by Buster Keaton…
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Blog written by Pamela PerryGoulardt
Pamela is the head writer: @Flyingcloudstudios.com.
She is an award-winning, produced screenwriter. Pamela was the coordinator of the ‘Script to Screen’ Screenwriting Summit in Simsbury, CT. sponsored by Storyteller’s Cottage, Final Draft, Robert McKee Seminars, and the CT. Film Board.