Many people watch movies to study the craft of screenwriting, but don’t forget the really old movies too like all those silent black and white films that can teach you the value of dialogue.
One of the most common types of mistakes for screenwriters is the way they handle dialogue. One common problem is that dialogue doesn’t really say anything. For example, dialogue may simply repeat what we can already see such as:
EXT. JUNGLE — DAY
A huge tyrannosaurus rex appears over the treetops.
Watch out, Bob! There’s a huge tyrannosaurus tex appearing over the treetops!
Another problem with dialogue is that it sounds too artificial where characters say things that they would never say in real-life such as:
INT. RESTAURANT — NIGHT
Bob and Mary sit inside a five-star gourmet restaurant.
Bob, as you know, we’ve been married for ten years.
I know, Mary. I still remember falling in love with you the first time we met at Martin Smith High School where we both graduated in 1995.
In real-life, people don’t speak in such stilted language where the only purpose is to provide exposition to the audience. Dialogue also isn’t real life dialogue, but the illusion of real-life dialogue.
However, before you get too involved in dialogue, try this experiment. Watch any old black and white silent movie and notice how much of the story you can follow without hearing any dialogue at all. Then notice that dialogue only appears when it’s impossible to convey this same information visually.
That’s what you want to strive for in your screenplay. Tell your story visually as much as possible, and eliminate as much dialogue as possible. Then only use dialogue when absolutely necessary.
In old silent films, dialogue has to be used sparingly because no one wants to read dialogue on the screen. However in today’s films, dialogue must also be used sparingly because no one wants to hear actors say something that could have been told more visually if the screenwriter had simply focused on telling a story in pictures.
If your story relies on dialogue, think about writing a play. If you can tell your story in pictures, then you have a better chance of writing a better screenplay.