Return to 3. elements of screenplay form

3.7. sound & silence

“I have assumed, and attempted to demonstrate, that music and dialogue, while they reinforce the photographic image, are really subsidiary lines in the total film composition.” — George Bluestone.1

“The role which sound is to play in film is much more significant than a slavish imitation of naturalism . . . ; the first function of sound is to augment the potential expressiveness of the film’s content.” — V.I. Pudovkin.2

3.7.1. Overview.

The tension between the filmmaker who works in images and the screenwriter who works in words has long been an impediment to the pursuit of screenplay analysis as a serious academic discipline, and no where is this tension called more into focus than in an examination of the role of sound in motion pictures. While film is essentially visual, the average screenplay expends a vast majority of its page space on dialogue, often with little attention devoted to visual detail, which is thought better left to the inspirations of a director. Despite this distinction, a careful survey of the uses of sound elements in both filmmaking and screenwriting will actually draw attention to the limitations of the screenplay text where sound is concerned.

A film can accentuate an exchange of dialogue with simultaneous music, something a screenplay cannot do. A screenwriter can refer to music (though extensive use of music cues would become exhausting for the reader), but he or she cannot offer the reader an aural experience of that music. If, for instance, the reader is unfamiliar with a particular piece of music, the effect of the reference will be lost. Film offers an entire, life-like soundscape, while the screenwriter can only afford to reference those sounds that are most important to an understanding of the story. And of course, the experience of sound in motion pictures is visceral, while the sound experienced in reading a script is mental and imaginative.

Here we will examine some of these limitations in more depth while also looking at strategies screenwriters have used to successfully incorporate sound into their scripts. First, we will begin with a look at the different categories of sound that appear in cinema.

3.7.2. Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Sound. [Back to Page Topics]

All sounds experienced in the act of motion picture viewing fall into one of two categories: Diegetic (or actual sound) and Non-Diegetic (or commentary sound).3

Diegetic sound is any element that’s source is either visible on screen or implied in the action of the film. These include the voices of the speaking characters, practical sounds made by objects in the story, and music represented as coming from a practical source (a stereo or live performance) within the storyworld.

Standing in contrast to this, Non-Diegetic sound elements have no visible or implied source but instead comment on the film or have symbolic meaning. These include voice-over narration, sound effects used for dramatic effect (e.g. a “record scratch” heard when a character learns shocking new information), and score or music cues not represented as coming from a natural source in the storyworld.

In short, Diegetic sounds are native to the storyworld of a screenplay and can be heard by the story’s inhabitants, while Non-Diegetic sounds are impositions of an authorial voice, meant for the audience only. Sometimes, however, screenwriters will use a sound prelap to introduce Non-Diegetic sounds that will, in the next scene, become Diegetic.

In its first paragraph, the opening scene of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape introduces the character of Graham, alone in his vehicle:

GRAHAM DALTON, twenty-nine, drives his ’69 Cutlass while smoking a cigarette. One would describe his appearance as punk/arty, but neither would do him justice. He is a man of obvious intelligence, and his face is amiable. There is only one key on his keyring, and it is in the ignition.4

Soderbergh then breaks in to this scene with voice-over narration from the character Ann: “Garbage. I started thinking about what happens to all the garbage.” Ann’s V.O. continues with two or three more lines of this monologue before the writer indicates a cut to the next scene, in which we’re introduced to Ann as she explains her garbage obsession to her therapist.

Here Soderbergh plays with the cinematic conventions of sound. Were Ann a man and her voice masculine, the audience of the motion picture might assume that her first few lines of disembodied dialogue were to be understood as Graham’s internal thoughts, as they have no source in the scene, and such uses of voice-over narration to express internal mental states are common. To avoid such confusion in the screenplay, Soderbergh names the disembodied voice, even though we’ve yet to be introduced to Ann when we first hear her. Had he simply labeled the monologue as “VOICE OVER,” however, it would have been quite confusing to the reader. In fact, Ann’s monologue is not true voice-over at all, but a prelap of dialogue from the next scene, in which case it could be said to have a delayed Diegetic source.

A similar effect is seen in Cameron Crowe’s screenplay for Almost Famous.5 In one of the film’s most enduring moments, Crowe uses Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” to poignant effect. As with Ann’s dialogue in the Soderbergh scene, “Tiny Dancer” is introduced as Non-Diegetic sound. In the middle of a nighttime scene of dialogue and commotion, Crowe inserts the rather unassuming technical comment, “We hear the beginning of Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer.'” The scene continues with no further reference to the music.

In the next scene — a time and location jump to early morning on a bus — the music is referenced as coming from a Diegetic source: “‘Tiny Dancer’ continues on the bus stereo,” and everyone on the bus begins to sing along. What is interesting here is that screenwriters rarely make reference to Non-Diegetic music, leaving such decisions to the director and music supervisor, and Crowe could have chosen to mention “Tiny Dancer” for the first time when its Diegetic source was known. Crowe, however, chooses to make a point of introducing the music in the previous scene, where its source is undetermined, having the effect of commenting on that scene’s meaning.

In both examples, sex, lies and videotape and Almost Famous, screenwriters emulate an edited film in their screenwriting by using sound prelaps to turn Diegetic sound from one scene into Non-Diegetic sound that comments on the preceding scene.

3.7.3. Situational vs. Expressive Diegetic Sound. [Back to Page Topics]

Within the category of Diegetic sound, there are two distinct kinds: Situational sounds incidentally produced by the environment and the characters, and Expressive sounds, which are naturally produced but not incidental, used for dramatic effect to create a mood or tone (e.g. a dripping faucet that heightens the sense of desperation for an insomniac).

While films are by their nature filled with Situational sounds, almost all sounds described in a screenplay are Expressive by the very virtue of the screenwriter calling attention to their existence. Screenwriting is a craft of economy, so a screenwriter will rarely describe or report a Situational sound that will be incidentally recorded on set anyway, unless the sound moves the plot forward in some way (a phone must ring for it to be answered). On the other hand, if a sound is important enough to be mentioned in the script text, it is likely being used for dramatic effect and therefore Expressive.

Consider the following sequence from John Michael Hayes’s screenplay of Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much6:


 In a quiet street off Camden Town we see Ben, alight
 and pay off a London taxi. The taxi does a U-turn and
 disappears around a corner. Ben starts to walk TOWARD
 THE CAMERA. He glances at the piece of paper from,
 his pocket bearing Ambrose Chappell's address. He is
 completely alone in a deserted street -- so much so
 that his footsteps click on the pavement and create
 the feeling of an echo. As he walks he listens to the
 echo and for a moment wonders if it is an echo. He
 slows up and comes to a stop close to the CAMERA.
 There is complete silence -- only the faint distant
 London traffic noises.


 He resumes his walk, the CAMERA DOLLYING HIM. The
 echo starts again. He slows up again and stops -- but
 this time the echo continues. He becomes tense, looks
 around in alarm.


 The CAMERA PANS the streets from Ben's viewpoint.
 There is no sign of anyone.


 Ben resumes his walk, the CAMERA DOLLYING him. He
 stops suddenly, as though to trap the echo -- but the
 echo comes on after him. Slightly scared, he now
 resumes his walk with a more hurried pace. The echo
 gets louder. He glances quickly over his shoulder


 A man is following him, at about the same pace.   He is
 rather well dressed, and appears nonchalant.


 Ben continues walking, and after a bit cautiously
 glances behind him.


 The same man is following behind.


 Ben glances down at the paper in his hand, and looks
 up trying to locate the right house number as he walks.
 The street has a mixture of houses, yards, an odd dirty-
 looking store or two. Ben's expression indicates that
 he would like to make his destination before the man
 following catches up with him. Then he changes his
 mind. He deliberately slows up.


 Showing Ben as he walks slowly along, listening to the
 man approaching behind him, listening with the back of
 his head, and with his whole body. The man walking
 behind is aware of Ben. He begins staring at him.

 Ben instinctively clenches his right hand into a fist
 of preparedness. As the man closes in Ben we see that
 he is rather elderly, sixty years old, perhaps. As
 the man reaches Ben, and passes him, Ben's follows him
 and studies him.

While the footsteps are natural (Diegetic) they are not incidental (Situational) but instead contribute fundamentally to the tension of the scene, making them a quintessential use of Expressive sound in screenwriting.

3.7.4. Elements of Sound: Dialogue & Narration. [Back to Page Topics]

The most commonly referenced sound in screenwriting is of course dialogue and its cousin voice-over narration. Dialogue is a loose term and encompasses all words spoken diegetically by a screenplay’s characters, whether spoken in conversation with one another or alone in soliloquy. Voice-over narration refers only to non-diegetic monologues delivered directly to the audience by an off-screen narrator, often but not always representing the thoughts of one of the on-screen characters. Not all voice-over cues should be considered narration. For instance, dialogue delivered over the phone will receive a “V.O.” tag, but it is still considered dialogue.

Evaluating dialogue is difficult. Script readers usually look for verisimilitude and balk at dialogue laden with clunky exposition. Generally, screenplay dialogue tends to be less wordy than the dialogue in novels and plays. It reveals character and moves the story forward. Beyond that, some lines just seem to grab readers more than others. Can one identify some objective criteria by which the American Film Institute has deemed “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” the best line of dialogue in all of film history? Could one follow that criteria as a guide to writing memorable dialogue? Both questions remain unanswered. The best dialogue writers simply have an ear for the musicality of human speech that proves enigmatic to critical analysis.

Screenwriters are often cautioned against the use of voice-over narration in their scripts, a practice lampooned in this fantastically self-aware scene from Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation7:


 McKee scribbles a diagram onto a transparency in an overhead
 projector. It's some kind of complicated time-line with act-
 breaks and corresponding page numbers indicated. The audience
 members take copious notes. Kaufman sweats.

                      KAUFMAN (V.O.)
             It is my weakness, my ultimate lack
             of conviction that brings me here.
             Easy answers. Rules to short-cut
             yourself to success. And here I am,
             because my jaunt into the abyss
             brought me nothing. isn't that the
             risk one takes for attempting
             something new. I should here right
             now. I'll start over --
                (starts to rise)
             I need to face this project head on
             Well, leave and --

             ... and God help you if you use
             voice- over in your work, my

 Kaufman looks up, startled. McKee seems to watching him.

                      MCKEE (CONT'D)
             God help you! It's flaccid, sloppy
             writing. Any idiot can write voice
             over narration to explain the
             thoughts of a character. You must
             present the internal conflicts of
             your character in action.

 Kaufman looks around at people scribbling in notebooks.
 "Flaccid..." writes the guy on one side of him. "Any
 idiot..." writes the guy on the other side.

The gag, of course, is that Adaptation is riddled with voice-over narration and would not work as a screenplay without it. Narration is discouraged in most cases as unnecessary because some writers use it lazily to fill plot holes that should be solved at the structure level. One needn’t look far, however, for dozens of examples of effective use of voice-over, as many of the best American screenplays have used it. The same general guidelines that mark good dialogue also mark good narration.

Sometimes small snippets of dialogue are indicated in the scene text through the speech mode. Scene text speech usually refers to non-specific dialogue that may be improvised on set, such as a greeting between characters (“The door man greets him as he enters”). One should opt for this method only in rare circumstances, however, as the need to establish appropriate lines on set may slow down production and lead to confusion for the cast.

The speech mode of scene text can also be used to express dialogue that is not meant to be heard. Consider this example, also from The Man Who Knew Too Much8:


 The CAMERA PANS with Ben as he hurries forward. He touches
 Jo lightly on the shoulder. She turns, startled, and
 manages to suppress an exclamation on seeing him. We
 do not hear what they are saying but by their pantomime
 we see that Jo is telling Ben all about the impending
 shooting. Ben argues with her. He indicates he will
 tell Buchanan. She frantically restrains him, but he
 shakes her off and dashes away.

This entire sequence is set against a soundscape of live orchestral music, and an effective tension is created between the silence of the characters and the thrilling suspense of the building score, a tension that is difficult to fully appreciate when reading the screenplay. The audience of the motion picture, however, is set on edge by their unfulfilled desire to hear what is spoken. Hayes and Hitchcock have utilized music and the absence of explicit dialogue to excellent effect.

3.7.5. Elements of Sound: Sound Effects & Ambiance. [Back to Page Topics]

As explained above, situational sound effects and ambiance are usually excluded from the script text, unless they play some active role in the narrative (a knock at the door motivates a character to answer it). When sound cues are given, they are typically written in CAPS to help the sound engineer locate them during production.

The opening sequence of Melissa Mathison’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial9 is unusually rife with sound effects and ambiance. The sounds are used to set the tone and reveal character. Some examples follow:

  • “An OWL HOOTS. THE CREATURES FREEZE. The danger passes. Work is resumed.” The innocence and alien nature of the creatures is established in their fearful response to the hooting owl.
  • “THE SOUNDS of the forest rise: birds, babbling brooks, the twitter of insects. THE CREATURE moves deeper into the forest.” The idyllic, tranquil quality of the scene is established through its ambient environment.
  • “To the SOUND of heavy BREATHING and an awkward tread, we SEE the CREATURE’S HAND reach out and pull back a leafy limb.” These sounds establish a creature ill-suited to this environment, foreshadowing E.T.’s future illness.
  • “The KEYS make a tremendous racket, displacing all other sounds of the night.” E.T.’s primary antagonist is introduced here through a prop, and it is no accident that this prop conflicts aurally with the peaceful sounds of the forest.

These excerpts from E.T. demonstrate nicely how screenwriters can use sound effects and ambiance to drive plot and create conflict.

3.7.6. Elements of Sound: Music & Score. [Back to Page Topics]

While non-diegetic music and score constitute two of the most noticeable uses of sound in a motion picture besides dialogue and narration, screenplays rarely make reference to them. The reason for this is really quite simple: non-diegetic music cues require technical comment, and technical comment is generally discouraged in contemporary screenwriting. Diegetic references to music, however, are much more common.

Consider the opening scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation10:

A band of street musicians have just set up in the
park. Clarinet, trombone, banjo, saxophone and trumpet.
They wear fragments of velvet and silk, pieces of old
uniforms and odd-ball hats. They haven't yet attracted
a crowd. One of them take a top hat from his head, puts
it on the ground and then throws a few coins and bills
into it. Then the band breaks into a jazz rendition of
"Red, Red, Robin."

Because the music here is diegetic, it only makes sense that the screenwriter would give an explicit cue. Of course, designating a specific song has both budgetary and marketing implications, so screenwriters often leave the song in question to the imagination of the reader, as Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have in the excerpt below from Election11:

Paul is in the driver's seat of his hitching big-wheeled
PICKUP TRUCK. His door is open, and his radio blasts a
SONG carefully selected to boost soundtrack album sales.

While references to score are rare in screenplays, they do pop up occasionally, as one can see in the excerpt from William Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid[Goldman, William. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Directed by George Roy Hill. 20th Century Fox, 1969. Unpublished “FINAL” draft dated “July 15, 1968.”]:

THE CAR, drawing closer, and now there is music under
it all, nervous and fast, but not loud, not yet, as the
train and the single car continue to come toward CAMERA.


BUTCH AND SUNDANCE looking at each other in absolute


THE CAR. It is still some ways off but the music is
faster now and starting to get loud as the car continues
to come toward CAMERA, steadily and swiftly, and the music
builds and builds and then without warning we are into:


Of course, Goldman’s writing is unconventional in many ways, so it is not surprising to see him reference music in a way that most screenwriters would avoid.

3.7.7. Silence. [Back to Page Topics]

Even in the silent era, scenarios and continuities made explicit reference to sound. With the advent of the synchronized sound film, however, silence for the first time became an expressive tool. “Silence, too, is an acoustic effect,” writes Béla Balázs, “but only where sounds can be heard. The presentation of silence is one of the most specific dramatic effects of the sound film. No other art can reproduce silence, neither painting nor sculpture, neither literature nor the silent film could do so.”12

Consider the following scene from Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides13, in which silence is invoked to create a meditative tone, only to be shattered by a mother’s wild grief:


IN SILENCE the still body of a 13-year-old girl floats in pink
bath water. She stares past us.


Two PARAMEDICS (one fat, one tall and skinny with a Wyatt Earp
mustache) look down at her, mesmerized and frightened by her

Suddenly we HEAR a woman's SCREAM -- the silence is interrupted
as her mother, MRS. LISBON, lunges into the bathroom, reinstating
the reality (and sounds) of the room.

Such a passage would have been impossible to pull-off in the silent era. One must have sound as a norm in order to use silence expressively.

According to Balázs, “silence can be extremely vivid and varied, for although it has no voice, it has very many expressions and gestures. A silent glance can speak volumes; its soundlessness makes it more expressive because the facial movements of a silent figure may explain the reason for the silence, make us feel its weight, its menace, its tension. In the film, silence does not halt action even for an instant and such silent action gives even silence a living face.”14

This is a principle all screenwriters must keep in mind. Andrew W. Marlowe recalls the following anecdote from the making of Air Force One: “I’d written this little speech. Harrison [Ford] came up to me and he said, ‘It’s a great speech.’ I said, ‘Oh, thank you.’ He said, ‘I’m not gonna do it. All this, I can do with a look.’ And he could.”15 Silence can be a powerful tool for both the writer and the performer.

3.7.8. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • Diegetic Sound
  • Non-Diegetic Sound
  • Situational Sound
  • Expressive Sound
  • Dialogue
  • Narration
  • Sound Effects
  • Ambiance
  • Music
  • Score
  • Silence


  • What are some uses of non-diegetic sound in screenwriting?
  • How does using a sound prelap affect the meaning of the sound?
  • Why are situational sounds rarely specified in screenwriting?
  • Why might a writer use expressive sounds?
  • What is the difference between dialogue and character narration?
  • Why are non-diegetic music cues and score rarely used in screenwriting?
  • Why is synchronized sound necessary in order for silence to become expressive?

3.7.9. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]

  1. Bluestone, George. Novels into Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961. Pg. viii.
  2. Pudovkin, V.I. “Asynchronism as a Principle of Sound Film.” Film Sound: Theory and Practice. Edited by Elisabeth Weis & John Belton. NY: Columbia UP, 1985. Pg. 86.
  3. Learning Space Dedicated to the Art and Analysis of Film Sound Design.
  4. Soderbergh, Steven. sex, lies and videotape. NY: Faber & Faber, 2000. Pg. 1.
  5. Crowe, Cameron. Almost Famous. NY: Faber & Faber, 2000. Pg. 112.
  6. Hayes, John Michael. The Man Who Knew Too Much. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1956. Unpublished “Final Draft” script dated “07/May/1955.”
  7. Kaufman, Charlie. Adaptation. NY: Newmarket, 2002.
  8. Hayes.
  9. Mathison, Melissa. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Universal Pictures, 1982. Unpublished shooting script dated “Sept. 8, 1981.”
  10. Unpublished “Final Draft” dated “November 22, 1982.”
  11. Election. Directed by Alexander Payne. MTV and Paramount Pictures, 1999. Unpublished, undated draft.
  12. Balázs, Béla. Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art. NY: Dover, 1970. Pg. 205.
  13. Coppola, Sophia. The Virgin Suicides. Paramount Classics, 2000. Undated draft.
  14. Pg. 207.
  15. Hanson, Peter, and Herman, Paul Robert. Tales from the Script. NY: HarperCollins, 2010. Pg. 170.

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