The form and function of film speech

Hooked – Dialogue and Narrative Connections

In film dialogue on April 30, 2012 at 7:09 pm


(Storyboard source)

A coherent essay requires paragraphs that flow into one another; if you jump around in your argument then the reader gets lost. The same applies for film. On average, a modern feature has between 30 and 50 scenes and David Bordwell uses the term ‘hook’ to describe the mechanism that tends to link them:

”[T]he audiovisual texture links a specific causal element the end of one scene to that at the very start of the next. The second, in a concrete way, completes the element we see or hear at the end of the first scene.”

He maps out four possibilities, with dialogue key to the first two: A sound can hook to another sound – This generally means that a line of dialogue at the end of scene X directly connects to another line at the start of scene Y. He notes that the test for this type of hook is whether the connection would still be clear if made on the radio.  A sound can hook to an image: Again, scene X typically ends on a line of dialogue, with scene Y starting with an image that is clearly related. The image might be a logical next step – such as someone mentioning they’re hungry and cutting to the image of a sandwich.

Bordwell suggests these are the most common type of hooks. Less common are scenes that end with the image posing the question that the next scene answers, either visually or verbally. See his complete analysis here. Once sound technology began to be incorporated in Hollywood, so too did dialogue hooks. Fritz Lang used sound-to-sound hooks in M (1931). For Lang, completing an idea in the next scene ”not only accelerates the tempo of the film but also strengthens the dramaturgically necessary association of thoughts between two successive scenes.”

Kristin Thompson‘s book Storytelling in the New Hollywood makes countless references to the continued dependence of the narrative on dialogue hooks. She explains how often a character will mention what he is going to do and then will immediately be seen doing it early in the next scene. While dialogue hooks can provide ”strong audiovisual cohesion” (Bordwell) they can also be used to disorient the viewer by connecting things in an unexpected way – with art cinema tending to repurpose this device. Hooks can also be used ironically. In Tootsie (1982), Michael is told he looks too old to play one (adult) part, but successfully auditions for the part of a child in the scene that follows.

Thompson expands on some other ways in which dialogue can be used for narrative development. For example, it can underline a character’s achievement of a goal the narrative has previously set out for them. During the closing scene of Jaws (1975), Martin Brody says ”I used to hate the water.” His fear of the ocean is central to his characterization as a New York cop isolated by his relocation to a new place.

Although Jaws left many viewers with a newfound fear of the sea, Brody’s final line signals that he has conquered the fear that previously separated him from the community. In fact, dialogue is crucial to the film in general; as many commentators note, most of the film is spent talking about the shark. ”Only after tremendously sustained teases and reversals does the title character show up and act precisely as advertised.” (Dan Pratezina)

Conveying plot through narrative can be obvious and awkward. Because filmmakers assume viewers will have lapses in concentration (missing visual and verbal cues in the process) they tend to follow ‘‘the rule of three”; similar information is communicated in three separate ways within a relatively small period of time. For example, in The Silence of the Lambs, three characters warn Clarice about how dangerous Hannibal is.

In addition to creating suspense, this gives the viewer time to build up a mental image of him – one that is subverted since Hannibal’s physical presence is not the norm for a movie serial killer.

Thompson notes how in other cases, the reinforcement may involve an event first being mentioned by a character, then ”we may then see it occur, and other characters may then discuss it.” Appointments constitute a subset of dialogue hooks. A character invites someone to ”dinner on Thursday?” so that when the viewer sees them in a new location they know how much time has passed. Since scenes can jump around in time and space, appointments are a neat way to reorient the viewer.

Dialogue therefore plays an important role in linear cause and effect cinema. Just as images appear in a logical order, dialogue is motivated (in advance or retrospectively) so that, as Thompson notes, ”each event, object, character trait, and other narrative component [is] justified, explicitly or implicitly, by other elements in the film.” Even if viewers are unaware of how scenes are linked, they will grow tired of an over-reliance on standard dialogue hooks. However, used cleverly, they can create unexpected relationship between the the sound and image track.

References / Resources: 

David Bordwell, The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema, January 2008.

Fritz Lang, ”M: An Interview,” Criterion DVD booklet for M (1998), trans. from Gero Gandert interview in Fritz Lang: M-Protokoll(Hamburg: Marion von Schroeder, 1963).

Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique, Harvard University Press, 1999.

A brief explanation of ‘Rule of Three


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