Wanna Know How to Tell Stories? Watch “The Walking Dead”

Two summers ago I interned at Valhalla Motion Pictures. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a production company headed by Gale Anne Hurd. And if you don’t know who she is, take a minute to edumacate yourself here. The company sort of specializes in producing films and TV series based off of graphic novels, comic books, and the like. While I was interning there, they had a project up on the big board in the works. It was titled The Walking Dead. Frank Darabont, of The Shawshank Redemption fame, was the series creator. Gale Anne Hurd wanted to produce. No pilot script had been finished yet. No stars attached. On that strength alone it had been picked up by AMC. During my time there, I didn’t get to see much in the way of development of that series, but from that long ago I could not wait to watch it when it aired.

Two years later, and I’ve just devoted the past two nights of my life to watching the entire first season of The Walking Dead. It’s a 6 episode season, half the number of normal episodes usually ordered for an established premium cable television series. But man, what they do in 6 episodes, most network series can’t accomplish in a full 24. It’s as wonderfully written as it is shot, and for an upstart storyteller like myself, it’s the perfect example to take from of how to take a badass concept and weave some real emotional heart into the sucker.

What sets The Walking Dead apart from most other series is, in my opinion, it’s ability to find the human truth in every single circumstance. No matter how fictional or fantastical a situation may be, at the end of the day, you are telling stories for a human audience, and raw human emotion is what all anyone will ever connect to. That’s why, for instance, you can have a far greater investment in characters fighting off zombies than you might for desperate housewives cheating on their partners. It doesn’t matter whether or not one situation is more realistic than another, what matters is which one of those instances feels more emotionally honest. In this respect, The Walking Dead is head and shoulders above many more shows airing today.

In terms of the power of cinematic narrative, The Walking Dead is a great example of the difference between having a camera tell a story than anything else. In the pilot episode, there begins the introduction of the audience to the zombie apocalypse with a 5 minute non-dialogue sequence. In this moment, our hero wakes in the hospital from a coma, and he sets out to make his way home, discovering what the world has come to along the way. During his whole journey home, perhaps four words total are said, and for a solid 5 minutes, we watch in dialogic silence as the world around us is slowly, powerfully revealed onscreen. From the use of juxtaposition, to the rhythm of the shots, and the exposition of subject matter, every single layer is peeled back, emphasizing and simultaneously enlarging the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe.

Through no other medium of storytelling other than film is a silence such as this so powerful. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then moving pictures are like those one thousand words being screamed by the most eloquent banshees you ever heard. As a filmmaker, it’s a glorious piece of cinematic achievement to behold.

And as a screenwriter, reading the pilot teleplay is like seeing that “A” paper the smart little shit wrote in your 8th grade English class while you were toiling away with a “C-“. Everything you might have learned about writing, or read about writing, is executed in such a way that you fully understand the meaning of how it’s accomplished. Wanna know how to best use white space? It’s right there. Wanna see how to write the tone and tempo of a scene onto the page? You got it. This day in age, it’s all to easy to do a search for screenplays online and get them for free, legally. The insane copyright laws that exist for the finished products of music and movies don’t yet extend to the scripts themselves. So if you’re looking into getting into the filmmaking business, do yourself a favor and get while the getting’s good. Search for some movies you like and download their screenplays. Learn from them. And then expand upon the knowledge they give you.

In screenwriting, one of the first exercises you’re given is to write a short, dramatic, non-dialogue scene. It all started with silent films, and if you can’t translate the drama of your piece without dialogue, forget trying to make your scene seem authentic with it. If you want to know how to write an amazing non-dialogue sequence, read pages 13-20 of The Walking Dead pilot. If you want to know how to tell an amazing story onscreen, read the rest of that pilot script. Then watch the actual show. Or vice-versa. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

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