If possible, watch a stage play that’s later turned into a movie. “Jersey Boys” started as a stage play and will later appear as a movie. The reason to study both the stage play and the movie is so you can see how the different mediums affect the way you tell the story.
With stage plays, all the action takes place in a limited number of settings. That’s because it’s too difficult to constantly move props and furniture around on a stage. As a result, stage plays rely more on dialogue and less on action.
When you see the movie version of a stage play, you’ll notice that the director had to “open up” the scene. That means instead of keeping all the action confined to a single room, the movie version breaks the action into multiple settings such as outdoors. In movies, you generally don’t want to stay focused in one setting for too long because the story tends to feel slower as a result.
While stage plays rely heavily on dialogue to tell a story, movies rely more on visual action to tell a story. If you close your eyes while attending a stage play, you can follow the story just by listening. If you turn off the sound while watching a movie, you can follow the story just by seeing what’s happening.
When writing screenplays, try to tell your story visually first. Then worry about the dialogue. As a rule of thumb, try to eliminate dialogue through visual action. Rather than having one character ask another to pass the butter, just have the character point to the butter dish. If you can eliminate dialogue with action, that tells you that your dialogue wasn’t worth hearing in the first place.
When writing your screenplay, study your dialogue. Can you give the audience the same information without anyone saying a word? Nothing sounds more stilted and phony than when one character, all by him or herself, talks aloud and professes he or her love for another person. However in “The Artist,” a silent movie, one character shows her love for a man by sticking her arm through the man’s jacket and making it look as if the man’s jacket is hugging and caressing her.
Just seeing that visual action tells you more about that woman’s emotions than any dialogue could ever tell you.
Watch older movies and you’ll see how they tend to be dialogue heavy since many early movies were mostly filmed versions of stage plays. Even if the original story wasn’t a stage play, many of the early screenwriters were originally playwrights so they tended to treat movies as just another form of stage plays. Only until recently have movies started to feel faster with less dialogue and shorter amounts of time spent in any one particular place.
Compare a movie like “Network” (written by playwright Paddy Chayefsky) to a more recent movie like “The Lego Movie.” You’ll notice that most of Paddy Chayefsky’s movies feel more like filmed versions of stage plays (especially his movie “The Hospital”). On the other hand, it’s hard to see how a movie like “The Lego Movie” or “Avatar” could be adapted for the stage and still maintain the same visual impact.
In screenwriting, strive to eliminate all dialogue. Only when you absolutely cannot think of a way to deliver information to the audience visually should you use dialogue. Not only will this keep your dialogue lean, but it will also keep your story visually interesting. Think of dialogue only as a last resort. Visual action will always be far more important than dialogue.