There’s a tendency for novice screenwriters to reveal too much in dialogue. The problem is that hearing someone describe something is far less interesting than seeing them reveal their true feelings. To learn how to tell a story only through visuals, the two best movies to watch are “WALL-E” and “The Artist.”
In “WALL-E,” notice how much you can learn about what WALL-E wants and his personality just by watching him rummage through a garbage dump. Without a single line of dialogue, you can see that WALL-E is curious, playful, caring, and lonely.
In “The Artist,” a young woman is in love with a silent screen star. Instead of just saying she loves the silent screen star, she sneaks into his dressing room, hugs his jacket hanging on a post, and slip her arm through the sleeve to make believe his arm is holding and caressing her. That scene alone is more than enough to imprint in our minds how much she really loves him.
Later there’s a scene where the silent screen star survives a fire in his house and the doctors tell the young woman that they found him clutching a movie reel. When she opens the movie reel can and looks at the film, she sees it contains an early scene when the two of them were dancing and laughing together while making a movie.
The fact that the silent screen star clung to that particular movie reel and she sees the scene that he saved reveals his love for her too. All that information and emotion gets imparted to us through visuals alone with no dialogue whatsoever.
Study “The Artist” for how sparsely dialogue needs to be revealed on the screen. Another scene shows the silent screen star looking at a tuxedo in a store window, although he can no longer afford it. To show his longing, the movie shows him studying his reflection in the store window glass, seeing how the tuxedo would look on him.
By creating visually interesting scenes, you can tell much of your story without any dialogue. Then use dialogue only when absolutely necessary. As an exercise, see how much of your screenplay you can tell through visuals alone. Then if you absolutely cannot think of a way to reveal information visually, think of a way to reveal it through interesting dialogue.
Every action, speech, and visual has to be interesting and move the story along. The more your story’s actions can reveal, the faster your audience will follow the story. Often times silence is the best way to reveal the true emotions of your characters.