The Walk and Talk: Crafting Exposition That Won’t Bore Your Audience
Popularized by Aaron Sorkin, the “walk and talk” is a clever way to convey a lot of information in an active transitional scene.
Cover image via Shutterstock.
This brief introduction to the walk and talk scene will take you inside the method, including when to use it, ways to shoot it, and how to get the most out of it. We’ll cover a couple of key features, and we’ll check out a few famous uses of this dialogue-heavy narrative trick.
Reasons to Use a Walk and Talk Scene
Now, we’re not just shooting these often complicated-to-choreograph scenes to demonstrate that our characters are sharp enough to walk and chew gum at the same time, are we? There are many reasons to use this clever device. Consider the following:
- Emphasize a busy environment using key elements like interruptions from minor characters and “relay races,” in which characters essentially tag each other in and out of the scene to deliver information or hand off paperwork, important props, and so forth.
- Get your characters from point A to point B without simply cutting or fading out and back in.
- Create an active space for exposition, and add interest to what would otherwise just be a talking heads scene.
- Highlight the production design and set dressing, especially if your work is a period piece or a “love letter” to a famous or interesting city.
- Build anticipation among characters before a big event or plot point.
- Show locations in relation to each other to establish a blueprint for your characters’ environment. This is especially useful if you’re setting up a location that will play throughout an entire project, like an office space or a character’s home.
- Leap from one storyline to another. This plays especially well in commercials or anthologies, in which unrelated characters exist in the same general space. It’s especially fun to use a walk and talk scene to allow them to bump into one another.
There are a few familiar settings that almost always yield a walk and talk scene. These are great places to base your characters if you’re interested in Sorkin-style dialogue-heavy action.
Politicians and White House Staffers
We get it: they’re busy! They’ve got paperwork, they’ve got news to share, they’ve got Secret Service trailing them.
Law Enforcement and Detectives
Often, a detective will fill her partner in on the details of an entire case in the time it takes the pair to walk away from the crime scene. This is incredibly useful in shows like Law & Order and CSI.
Hospital Employees, Doctors, and Nurses
We all love the moment when the doctor steps out of the calm operating room and into the chaos of a busy emergency room hallway. In this particular scene from Grey’s Anatomy, we watch these characters literally run from another character rather than confront them to express discontent.
Restaurant Employees, Servers, Cooks, and Managers
We can move from the kitchen onto the floor, back into the kitchen, then into the back office all in one good walk and talk scene. The following scene from Goodfellas establishes the setting and adds visual interest using varied interactions to establish the character.
Entertainers, Band Members, Musicians, and Theater Actors
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is one giant walk and talk scene, and, man, is it a feat! Shot in its now-notorious, one-take style, this film features characters weaving through green rooms, dressing rooms, catwalks, and stage wings — moving on and off the stage and out into the world while maintaining conversations that advance the narrative. It’s brilliant, and it likely wouldn’t have been as successful shot any other way.
Romances, Meet-Cutes, Breakups, Fights, and Quirky New Relationships
If you want two or more characters to have a lengthy or explanatory conversation, but you’re afraid you’ll lose your viewers’ attention, these nonspecific filming locations will help you create an active dialogue scene.
- Multi-level buildings: Stairs are your friend. They create depth and movement, and you can find them in some capacity in most locations.
- Hallways and elevators: Elevators are full of actionable moments: waiting for the elevator, entering or exiting, pressing the button, asking the elevator operator to visit a certain floor, making eye contact, avoiding eye contact — the list goes on. It’s the perfect place to hold your characters captive for any number of reasons.
- Buildings with busy lobbies: If you have access to a busy lobby setting (or the means to create one), this is a great place to drop characters where they can have a conversation without being isolated.
- Busy city streets: There is usually so much action on, say, the streets of New York City, that anything goes. Surprise your characters, make them late, give them a reason to stop.
- Gardens and other outdoor terrain: A walk through the gardens can be slow and meandering or chaotic and full of interactions.
- Public transportation: A subway car, a bus, a taxi, or any combination of the like can provide great moments for your characters to “stay busy” while they have a conversation. Public transportation also gives you the opportunity to introduce a new character, a distraction, a diversion, or a spectacle.
- Bars and night clubs: There’s nothing more exciting than following characters into a party, initially focused on their dialogue, then panning or tilting to reveal the Technicolor world they’ve just entered. Music plays a huge part here, and these scenes can be some of the most fun to shoot.
Technical, Narrative, and Performance Considerations
- Steadicam: These “tracking shots” require detailed choreography and often rely on a Steadicam system to stabilize the shot.
- Dolly system: Steadicam work requires an experienced operator; therefore, it isn’t usually cheap. If you’re working on a budget, you can opt for a dolly setup instead. Using a dolly also allows you to smoothly transition from a frontal follow to a rear follow by simply letting the characters overtake the camera as they walk.
- Give them something to do: Just because your characters are moving, you shouldn’t neglect other actions. The most interesting, impressive, and dynamic walk and talk scenes involve the characters with their surroundings in as many ways as narratively sensible. Let them stop briefly and consider something, pick something up, pass something off, and so forth.
- Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse: I cannot overemphasize the importance of blocking and choreographing a walk and talk before the day of the shoot. There are many elements that need to come together. For example, lines of dialogue might need to land on certain beats, or you may need to reset props between takes. Don’t underestimate the intricacy of these scenes, even if they look effortless.
Remember, the key to a successful walk and talk is choreography and camera movement. Here’s a bit more advice on the topic.