Less is More

A stage play is meant to tell a story through dialogue. A screenplay is meant to tell a story through pictures. Here’s how to rely more on visuals and less on dialogue.

One of the biggest problems with many movies today is that they lack subtlety. Rather than let the audience think and figure things out for themselves, too many screenplays simply tell the audience what’s happening so there’s no mystery. Of course, there’s no suspense or interest either.

Remember, movies are meant to tell a story using pictures. To see an example of this, watch “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Although slow by today’s standards, it’s a perfect example of limiting dialogue and letting us watch a story unfold before our eyes.

The beginning of the movie starts out with no dialogue at all, but through the actions of the apes we see, we slowly learn that their band is dying out and they’re under attack from a rival tribe. Then a mysterious monolith appears and they all examine it. After the monolith’s appearance, the apes suddenly learn to use bones as clubs. The next time the rival ape tribe appears, the bone wielding apes defeat them because they’ve learned to use tools.

This entire Act I takes place with no dialogue at all, yet tells a story that everyone can follow. It does force you to engage yourself in the movie, but the rest of the movie continues with sparse dialogue.

Instead of telling us anything, we learn what’s happening through news reports and brief conversations between the astronauts. When HAL lip reads the astronauts’ conversation, it’s told to us simply by viewing the red glowing eye of HAL and seeing his point of view as it watches each astronaut’s lips speak. No dialogue needed.

Another movie that continues this method of telling a story without dialogue is “WALL-E.” Told through occasional noises but mostly gestures, we gradually learn that the WALL-E robot is lonely and alone. We see occasional electronic billboards that explain why nobody’s around and the world is full of garbage.

Act II offers more dialogue as additional characters appear, but the main characters, WALL-E and EVE, first start falling in love with each other during a dance in space. No words are needed as the two robots dance around each other while two humans accidentally touch hands and discover affections for each other. Then the captain further enhances the point by asking the ship’s computer, “Define dancing?”

The point is to create an effective screenplay, try telling it using as few words as possible. Show it without saying it. That’s what a movie is about.

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