One of the things we notice more and more at ScreenCraft is an over-reliance on dialogue to tell a story. Dialogue is a tremendously powerful tool that can be used to build and reveal character, convey vital exposition, express theme and set a tone…but it can also be a crutch. There are myriad branded screenwriters and writer-directors that have built their brand on dialogue alone, to the point that they can be identified solely by the voices of their characters. David Mamet comes to mind, as does Woody Allen, Tarantino, Joss Whedon, Billy Wilder, Martin McDonagh, Cameron Crowe, etcetera. Whether you like any or all of those storytellers, you can’t deny that they have singular voices.
But, as a general statement, it seems like more and more new writers and artists are trying to emulate these kinds of voices and trying to make a mark with dialogue. Unless the dialogue you create is really that singular and dynamic, relying on talk can result in a plodding and blocky screenplay that feels top heavy and short on sweep. As Norma Desmond famously said, “there once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world! But that wasn’t good enough for them, oh no! They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!”
At the end of the day, cinema…whether on the big screen, small screen, internet, tablet or smart phone…is still a visual medium, and if you can find scenes or sequences in your script where you can tell the story without relying on dialogue…where the image is of paramount importance…you should do so. It’s a chance to engage and audience and draw them in on the purest cinematic level.
As a helpful exercise, you might consider checking out some classic silent films just to see how visual storytelling has evolved. Two I would recommend right off the bat are John Ford’s The Iron Horse and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. And here’s a list of traditional, non-silent films that nonetheless use dialogue and music sparingly and tell a streamlined, intensely visual story:
Army of Shadows
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
No Country for Old Men
Any other suggestions?