Before you write a single word of dialogue, focus on telling a story through actions alone. Visual actions make far more of an impact on an audience than any amount of dialogue could ever do. In “Age of Ultron,” one of the biggest visual moments occurs when all the superheroes are jokingly trying to lift Thor’s hammer while Thor sits back, laughing at their efforts. Initially, this scene seems nothing but comical, but later the lifting of Thor’s hammer becomes far more meaningful when the Vision, another superhero, appears. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, watch for this moment. If you have seen this movie already, you’ll know the emotional impact this tiny visual moment creates.
That’s what you want every visual moment to create, intense meaning with little or no dialogue. In “The Artist,” most of the movie is completely silent so the actor’s actions have to tell most of the story. There’s a scene where the woman is in love with the silent screen actor, and finds herself in the silent screen actor’s dressing room. To show her love for him, she caresses his jacket and puts her arm through the jacket arm to make it look like the man’s jacket is caressing her in return. That visual moment alone tells you everything you need to know about the woman’s feelings for the man.
The more memorable visual actions you can create, the more of an impact your story will have without dialogue cluttering up the action. Dialogue generally slows down the action on the screen. Watch early movies based on stage plays and you’ll notice that the stories tend to move slower because the movie more closely resembles a filmed stage play than a movie. Compare today’s movies to older movies and today’s movies tend to move faster with shorter scenes, more action, and far less dialogue.
“Network,” a story about a newscaster who threatens to kill himself on the air to boost his show’s ratings, was written by teleplay and playwright Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote many memorable movies that won awards including “Marty,” another story that looks more like a filmed stage play than a movie. Because Paddy Chayefsky began as a playwright, his movies tend to be filled with interesting dialogue, just like a stage play where characters reveal information through talking. In the hands of a skilled playwright, dialogue can be interesting such as the scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Matt Damon’s character tells the National Security Agency people why he doesn’t want to work for them because he doesn’t want his actions to wind up killing lots of innocent people indirectly.
Because that soliloquy is so fascinating, the lengthy dialogue is actually interesting with plenty of insight behind the character, but most dialogue doesn’t fall into the category. You want your dialogue to be sparse and only necessary when actions alone can’t move the story forward.
In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the characters make so many references to the importance of finding love at the top of the Empire State Building that when the woman turns down marriage with her fiancé and decides to take a chance visiting the top of the Empire State Building, her actions alone tell us what’s going on in her heart.
In “Terminator 2,” John Connor has taught the hero (the good Terminator) that it’s wrong to kill, so when the good Terminator wounds all the cops surrounding the building, we see that he’s changed and that he’s learned. Seeing how someone has changed is the most effective way to know that they have changed. Having a character talk about changing means nothing. That’s why every dramatic moment in a movie depends on seeing, not hearing.
In “Casablanca,” the hero shows he’s changed when he gives the letters of transit to his ex-lover’s husband so they can stay together and escape the Nazis. That shows how he’s changes from a cynical, self-centered man to one who’s caring again. Nobody has to say that he changed. We just have to see that he has changed.
In comparison, when we’re told something happens, it’s far less emotionally intriguing. In the bad movie of “Dune,” there’s a scene where the hero falls in love with a woman. Instead of letting us see how they fall in love, we simply see them kissing while a narrator tells us that they fell in love. That’s bad story telling because instead of experiencing a moment, we’re simply passive observers being told something is happening.
In the opening scene of “Jupiter Ascending,” the hero narrates her story of how she was born and how she got to America. This narration weakens the visual action because now the visual action supplements the audio story rather than the other way around. We should be told a story through watching and experiencing the moment, and only hearing something to fill in the gaps that the visual elements can’t explain. “Jupiter Ascending” does it backwards, relying on audio and using visuals to supplement the audio, which creates a far weaker and inferior story telling moment. Is it any wonder that “Jupiter Ascending” is such an awful movie?
Visuals are extremely important. Go through your screenplay and look for visual moments that make an audience suddenly understand something in the same way that the lifting of Thor’s hammer does in “Age of Ultron.” When you can create multiple visual moments like that, you’ll have a much stronger story when visual moments actively engage the audience.