When it comes to cinema, there’s a broad range of possibilities when conveying your story through dialogue and scripting. 

In the age of silent movies, screen titles would relay the dialogue, meaning the only way they could communicate the spoken word was limited to it being written on separate cutaways. This reliance on visuals was originally how the film industry came about and made the medium lean quite heavily on the visual storytelling element.

The tradition of visual trumping sound has continued to a degree, but the truth is that sound typically makes up a greater percentage of a film. Without sound, you wouldn’t be able to hear characters speak, hear important Foley work or get a sub-textual understanding of the actions on the screen from the soundtrack’s score.

While our culture is preoccupied with visuals in an image-saturated world, it’s amazing how wrong some film-makers get this when not giving sound and the invisible aspects of film-making their dues.

One struggle is determining how much dialogue you want to leverage in your story. Dialogue helps drive emotion and extrapolate character, which gives audiences a better grasp on the inner workings of characters as they play off one another. While performance is an important way of translating this emotion, having too few words makes it difficult for audiences and even actors to truly grasp the minutia.

Of course there are directors who are able to coax pitch perfect expressions that do a lot of the storytelling and explanation, but for the most part, it’s critical to strike the right balance depending on genre and the aspirations of the storyteller.

Watching an art house drama, you may find the dialogue has been limited to focus more on mood and atmosphere. David Lynch often uses dialogue as a medium for emotion, not necessarily trying to impart information or drive action. Settling into the poetry of the moment, the words often become a conduit. In films with much longer shots, there’s often a greater emphasis on what’s happening on screen. Bela Tarr is an extreme example, who often turns the focus on visual composition and detail rather than peppering the film with words.

Each word is important because it’s ultimately being committed to film. Yet, you’ll also notice that speed of delivery can lessen the importance of the words being said. Consider comedies with motormouth Vince Vaughn, whose attitude and loose-lipped delivery becomes the comedic vehicle. Then, clustered screenplays aren’t necessarily a bad thing when you consider the work of Aaron Sorkin, whose The Social Network screenplay simply forced the film-makers to speed up delivery in order to accommodate a nearly 3 hour screenplay into a 2 hour run time.

The trap is simply having dialogue as filler or overburdening the audience with too much information. This undermines characters and the sloppy attitude filters into the rest of the film. Crisp, purposeful writing demonstrates attention to detail and an understanding of subtext. Getting the balance right can make all the difference and it’s about understanding the constraints of genre and storytelling. There’s something joyful about reading between the lines, which makes tight screenwriting so satisfying to watch on screen.

So be sure of what you’re trying to achieve. Just like a good editor will be able to slice through the unnecessary detours in a novel, screenwriters should employ great self-criticism in order to get the best results. Having underdeveloped characters from a perceived lack of intelligent dialogue or overwhelming viewers with a deluge of babble each have an effect – the secret is being aware of and in control of the desired effect.

Dialogue: Sparse, Overload and Everything In-Between
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