When people think of screenplays, they often think of dialogue. Sure, the words the characters say are a huge part of narrative fiction, but often the absence of dialogue can be just as powerful a tool.
Film is a visual medium. While audio and language are undoubtedly a huge part of film, just as much emphasis can be placed on silence. In many cases a word or a line can be completely replaced with just a look or a movement. Often a sign of bad writing is when characters say exactly what they are thinking. This is usually for the benefit of the audience, but the majority of the time it is entirely unnecessary. Audiences aren’t stupid. If they have been following the story and the characters then your protagonist doesn’t need to explicitly state “you make me so angry!” or “I miss her so much.” People rarely say exactly what they feel. Most of the time emotions can be read through their actions. And action doesn’t always have to involve dialogue.
Take this scene from Steve McQueen’s Shame, for example. The story of a man whose life is ruined by sex addiction, McQueen and Michael Fassbender do a stunning job of letting the audience know exactly what the character is thinking through his silences. If you’ve seen the film, here is the scene to remind you of what I mean. If you haven’t, I recommend you go ahead and watch the whole thing – it’s a brilliant showcase of how to use dialogue (or lack of) in drama.
The scene on the subway involves nothing but a look between two characters – but it is is all that is necessary for the audience to understand what is happening. Fassbender’s actions speaks volumes more about the character than words ever could. As his life unravels before him over the course of the film, the final scene wraps it up beautifully and wordlessly.
The biggest danger of writing is overwriting. In many situations, characters simply do not need to say most of what they do say. Try going through your dialogue with a finetooth comb and trim as many lines as possible. Why have a monologue where a shrug of the shoulders would suffice?
The image is a universal language. In the time of silent films, words were not needed for the audience to appreciate, love and laugh along with the characters and the story. So another good exercise is to try writing a silent film. It can be healthy to focus your attention on emotion and meaning rather than having the characters simply explaining to the audience what is going on. Never underestimate the power of silence.
Don’t forget, actions speak louder than words.