David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin, Diablo Cody, and many more screenwriters have made careers out of their ability to create unique dialogue —but film is a visual medium. It is incredibly important to seek out and analyze great moments of writing with little or no dialogue and see how effectively silence was used. In the examples below, there will be several clear, recurring traits that can be easily applied in your own writing.
Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way — Animated Films. They almost all have moments with little-to-no dialogue with great impact. Belle searching through the West Wing to find Beast’s magical rose in Beauty and the Beast, establishing the underground world in the beginning sequence in The Box Trolls, the first half of Wall-E, etc. The list goes on and on. No one does a better job of this than Pixar. The clip above is the evolution of the marriage between Carl and Ellie in the film Up, chosen because I sob just thinking about it. These films must convey a lot to a young audience very quickly, and so as the adage goes — actions speak louder than words.
E.T. and other Spielberg Films
Much like Pixar and animated films, it was hard to choose one moment from Spielberg’s vast collection of work. He also works with children a lot (the dinner table scene in Jaws is another phenomenal example) and makes stories with a wide audience age range. Here in E.T. — written by Martha Mathison — neither the lead character nor his alien companion speak and they are not in the same location, but they are connected. It is difficult to write back-and-forth scenes in this way, and it can be difficult sometimes for script readers to keep up with it, but this moment is essential in establishing the evolution of these two characters’ relationship and seamless in its execution.
Written & Directed by Jane Campion
While this is a very adult film, we once again have the storytellers utilizing the relationship of a child and another character. Ada and Flora McGrath have an incredibly close relationship. Their head movements are aligned as they observe George Baines, followed by this beautiful sequence on the beach. Ada plays the piano while Flora dances on the shore, with Baines now observing the women. Their connection is shown further as they play the piano together, perfectly in sync. Finally, the McGrath women go home with Baines walking directly behind them, depicting his own emotional change as he falls in love with Ada. This sequence is essential in jump starting the emotional story between Baines and Ada, but also why the betrayal of Flora at the end of the film is so upsetting.
There Will Be Blood
Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
This sprawling, epic drama has no dialogue for… a while. It can be exhausting for viewers to have this much silence at such a slow pace. There isn’t a true film score as much as eerie tones that rise occasionally in the background but are absent for the most part. Anderson held onto viewers because of the beauty of every shot, and the careful precision of what is shown. In these first ten minutes we see everything we need to about this world and its protagonist.
Written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang
Switching over to another classic, we have Swedish thriller M, about a city on the hunt for child-murderer Hans Beckert, played by Peter Lorre. This sequence shows Lorre’s character struggling to control his inner urges as he stalks a young child. One of the most interesting moments is that there is dialogue in the scene, but whenever Hans speaks he is blocked from the camera by a wall of vines. This helps to build the fear of Hans. There is another moment in the film where he speaks to a child but the camera focuses on his silhouette or the balloon the girl holds. They say that what you cannot see is much more terrifying than what you can, by keeping Hans’s dialogue off-screen it raises the fear we have of him and what he is capable of.
Written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant
Amelie is a foreign, romantic comedy with a fairly mute protagonist. Amelie is an introverted girl living in Paris who falls instantly in love with a man she sees at a photobooth. She feels connected to him and has built up a bit of a fantasy of the male lead in her mind. In this clip, he finally tracks her down to her apartment. They have never said a word to one another before and yet have fallen in love, so naturally, Amelie does not need that to change now in this beautiful love scene.
Written by Jon Favreau
Made is an awesome, little-seen crime comedy and Jon Favreau’s directorial debut. There is plenty of dialogue in this scene, but only a couple of lines come from Favreau’s character. What this scene does so well is establish the rapport between Favreau and Vince Vaughn’s character, and clearly foreshadows how each of them is about to handle the mission they take from Peter Falke.
Written by Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, & Al Unger
This scene is a comedy classic and does nothing to move the plot. In comedy you can get away with halting story if the audience is laughing, and that is what this scene does. Brooks achieves this by leaning into a basic tenant of parody, what is the logical result? Logic and comedy may seem like enemies but they can go hand-in-hand. This movie’s goal is to lambast the many tropes of the western genre. Many western films show the cowboys sitting around the fire eating a can of beans. There is a natural physiological result to eating that way. These writers saw that and called it out. It is so utterly juvenile and hysterical, and it made complete sense in the moment.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Written by Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman
For some reason, this amazing movie has been forgotten in recent history by younger audiences. We need to fix this. I feel like I am constantly referencing this movie and no one knows what I am talking about. This two minute scene establishes Bob Hoskins’s character Eddie Valiant and his backstory. Everything on screen is necessary to tell us who he is while adding a good amount of whimsy to fit the tone of the movie, and mock the noir genre that Valiant exemplifies. Not a single prop is wasted and even without dialogue Hoskins’s emotions evolve throughout as he takes a trip down memory lane. So though the plot is not moving forward, the audience is learning everything they need to know while being entertained.
Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin
You cannot have a list of movies with little-to-no dialogue and not reference the silent film era, so here is the master: Charlie Chaplin. In this moment, Chaplin’s classic character “The Tramp” has just been released from jail and is in search of the blind girl he has fallen in love with. The girl meanwhile, has had her eye sight return to her and opened a flower shop. After being bullied by two young boys, Chaplin finds his love in a nearby shop. The girl sees him for the first time and is not turned off by him, unlike the rest of society. It is sweet and beautiful, and the perfect ending to this great comedy.
Now, a few notes on this list. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and E.T. are the only movies on the list where the writer and directors are not the same (Pixar/Disney often have different writers, but the “story by” credit almost always includes the director). You do not need to be a director to write cinematically, and you should not have to direct your own work in order to get your vision across. When you write, the goal is for it to read visually and guide the director without telling them what to do. Almost all of these scripts are available online and give you the ability to study them and learn the writing style that was utilized.
Another recurring theme in this list is innocence. This was not intentional, but There Will Be Blood, Made, and Blazing Saddles are the only films on the list that either do not include children, have a child-like innocence, or was written for a young/family audience. Innocence is a universal theme that is easy to identify on screen, and kid audiences are action-oriented making limited dialogue a stronger form of storytelling in those instances.
The "less is more" adage, also featured on ScreenCraft as one of the 15 Platinum Rules of Screenwriting, is key in writing great screenplays. Allowing the visuals, sound, and character actions to guide audiences instead of dialogue is a challenge, but compelling form of storytelling. What are some of your favorite examples of “less is more” in film? Let us know in the comments below!
Emily Jermusyk is a screenwriter and story consultant. She got her start in high school writing over 150 episodes of a soap opera parodying Knots Landing. If desired, Emily will talk to you at potentially-annoying-length about topics such as why the CW is her favorite channel, the current amazing state of underground comedy, and how she avoids TV/films about zombies because most of them do not chew with their mouths closed. Follow Emily on Twitter, and check out her website, Ruining Television.