How the ‘Moonlight’ (2016) Screenplay Uses Silence to Speak the Loudest

Between the Lines is a monthly column discussing everything around the craft of screenwriting: from in-depth breakdowns of screenplays to interviews with screenwriters.

The best screenplays are those that get the reader to understand the protagonist and see the world through their eyes. Screenwriters have a difficult job achieving this purely because of the format they’re working with: scripts act as a blueprint for what we see on the screen so, unlike a novel, a script doesn’t dive into the character’s head. Writers need to show what a character is thinking and feeling through visual descriptions and dialogue. We have seen time and time again when a script will rely too heavily on dialogue to describe everything going on within the plot and narrative but writer-director Barry Jenkins manages to balance action lines and dialogue masterfully to create a beautiful screenplay. Moonlight, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s stageplay, tells the story of Chiron Harris: a Black, gay, poor boy growing up in Miami. The narrative is split into three distinct acts, each titled after the name he adopts during that stage of life. Jenkins does a tremendous job of making Chiron distinct in each act; this is a story of someone who changes as he figures out who exactly he is, but what remains the same is the stillness. Moonlight is a screenplay where actions speak much louder than words.

Moments of quiet are used for characters, and readers, to reflect on a situation, but within that moment the writer can turn our focus on something to dictate what exactly to reflect on. Throughout most of the screenplay Jenkins tends to focus on the eyes:

A beat of the boy at peace.
An extended beat of this boy at peace, right here with him
for a change, no distractions, no deflections.
So young and yet... so much happening behind those eyes. So
much weight.

Even when Chiron is a young boy (when he is known as ‘Little’) he has gone through a lot: at this point in the screenplay we have seen how he is bullied for his sexuality and receives no love from his drug-riddled mother. This whole scene is centred around Little taking a bath and giving him, and us, time to reflect on what has happened. Jenkins revels in the silence and the emptiness, telling us there are ‘no distractions, no deflections’, which leads to the pinnacle of the scene: Little’s eyes. That last line should, theoretically, not work: a screenplay is supposed to represent what the story would look like visually and we certainly can’t see what is ‘happening behind those eyes’ (unless Jenkins decided to literally film that…). Jenkins manages to make this work, however, because he takes the time to visually build up to that moment and caps off the whole scene with a beautiful metaphor that we can, as empathetic readers, see.

In the second act Chiron, as a teenager, has a moment of physical intimacy with his friend Kevin:

Slowly, nearly subconsciously, Chiron going weak, leans
toward Kevin, their weight supporting one another here on the
All sound drowned by the echoing ocean, the night covering
these two as close as they’ve ever been.
Both sit up again, facing each other and still close, noses
nearly touching.
They stare.
These are waters they’ve never charted, the culmination of
invitations they’ve been sending since day one.

Again, Jenkins structures the moment where the scene is visually clear but the final action line becomes something akin to a novel: a metaphorical line we can’t exactly visualise but one that hammers home the emotions of the scene. The structure of this scene adds to the sexual tension too, by using short sentences with paragraph spacing that helps dictate the pace of the build-up. Of course, this moment uses the lack of dialogue and sparse sound to focus on the unfolding action.

This structure and writing style is also utilised for shocking moments too:

Chiron entering, moving directly to his seat, a wooden chair
Sets his bookbag atop his desk, takes the chair, slides it
from the desk and...
...brings it down atop Terrell’s head.
Terrell spilling to the floor; no blood, no movement, a total
collapse to the spot where he sat.
Everyone in the class in shock, nobody moving, all eyes on
Terrell. He’s not moving, not breathing, body prone on the
floor. A beat, then...

Another writer might have taken this in a much louder direction with Terrell screaming in pain or the other students audibly reacting. Jenkins utilises the stillness and quietness to focus directly on what has just happened. A lot of the writing is describing what is not happening: ‘no blood, no movement…nobody moving… he’s not moving’. All of those moments are beats in themselves, letting the reader digest the huge decision Chiron has just made.

The story then shifts gears into the third and final act where Chiron, in his late twenty’s, has become ‘Black’. Unlike when he was known as Chiron, Black is much more introverted and quieter. His life takes another turn when Kevin, after playing a part in his decision to become violent against Terrell, reaches out to Black. Black and Kevin meet up and rekindle their relationship that again oozes with sexual tension. This act, and narrative at large, culminates into one of the most beautifully written moments in a screenplay:

A beat as they hold eyes.
KEVIN: Where you gon’ stay tonight?
Nothing from Black. Nothing, no words, no gestures, nothing
rendered from him in this moment.
Black should be driving, should have eyes on the road, paying
attention to the other cars, the things passed. Instead, all
eyes on Kevin, staring back at the man lost in that question,
the space between its posing and this beat the clear answer.
Kevin looks away, out the window again. The earth just moved.
They both felt it.

Jenkins uses nearly half a page on such a micro moment: a man asking another man in a car a simple question. But Jenkins extends this moment and makes it feel absolutely massive. We know the silence and nothingness is huge because so much time is spent describing the lack of reaction from Black: no dialogue or actions, the fact that Black should be concentrating on driving but isn’t. Of course, there is the context of the entire story thus far that builds towards this moment but this technique of drawing out a moment and pausing everything outside of it is utilised perfectly here. The earth moved for the characters and us readers certainly felt it.

Moonlight is an epic story of one man’s personal life that utilises a particular style and writing voice. Jenkins juxtaposes earth-shattering narrative moments with words of stillness and quiet to amplify the effect it has on Chiron. There is a restraint to what actually happens within the story, but the words used to describe those moments are not. These opposites are used in harmony to tell a deeply personal but universally relatable story that won’t be forgotten about any time soon. When it comes to human connections, it is often the smallest moments that are in fact the biggest.

The Moonlight screenplay can be read at: