One common mistake that novices make in writing screenplays is that they rely too heavily on dialogue to explain something. Two cops might be looking at a dead body in a room and a typical dialogue might go like this:
COP #1: Look at that dead body.
COP #2: He sure got beat up before dying.
COP #1: It looks like he has something in his hand. Open it up and let’s take a look.
COP #2: It looks like he grabbed somebody’s hair.
Such meaningless dialogue could be replaced by action such as:
Two cops step into an apartment. A dead body lies sprawled face down on the floor. One cop turns the body over to reveal the dead man’s face severely bruised and beaten up. The second cop points to the dead man’s hand where a wad of hair is entangled in the dead man’s fingers. The two cops look at each other confused.
Notice that showing the action is far more effective than having the dialogue tell us what’s going on. By seeing the action, we become active participants in the story where we can draw our own conclusions. By having dialogue explain everything to us, we become passive, bored spectators waiting for the characters to tell us everything.
Screenplays aren’t radio plays where dialogue has to explain the story. Screenplays need to rely on visual elements first and foremost. To write an effective screenplay, focus solely on telling a story visually with no dialogue whatsoever. Then use dialogue only when you can’t impart information visually.
Three great movies to watch to learn the elements of visual storytelling are “The Artist,” “WALL-E,” and “Shaun the Sheep.” While “WALL-E” eventually uses dialogue, both “The Artist” and “Shaun the Sheep” tell a story completely without dialogue. “The Artist” displays dialogue occasionally as text, but notice how intrusive such text can be even in a silent movie. That’s how intrusive bad dialogue can be in a regular movie.
When writing dialogue, think of those silent movie dialogue cards that fill the screen with nothing but text, taking away any visual element of the story. What’s more interesting? Reading dialogue or watching action?
You want your screenplay to keep the audience’s eyes actively involved and you can do that by telling a story without dialogue as much as possible. In “Spy,” the opening scene shows a James Bond-like character sneezing and accidentally shooting a guy. Imagine how ineffective that scene would have been if the James Bond-like character told the hero, “I just sneezed and shot a guy by mistake.” Instead, the scene visually plays out and the James Bond-like guy and the hero immediately react to what just happened. That keeps the story moving forward rather than just repeat what we just saw.
Dialogue is always meant to enhance what we see, not replace it. Don’t use dialogue to explain everything to the audience because it comes across as phony and contrived, like villains explaining their entire plan to the hero at the end, which becomes a boring monologue where nothing happens.In “Under Siege,” the villain explains his plan, but he also shows the hero the radar screens of the cruise missiles heading towards Hawaii. He still explains his plan, but by showing the hero, he also shows the audience and that lessens the dependence on dialogue alone.
So don’t make dialogue explain what you can show. Movies are meant to be watched more than to be heard.