One of my screenwriting mentors once sat me down to discuss the value and importance of dialogue. While this was seemingly one of many counseling sessions where true, professional knowledge was imparted to me, the words he spoke shaped me into the writer I am today. After taking his eyeglasses off, he stated that there is never a moment in the screenwriting process where a writer should consider dialogue perfect. Not so much the actual words, but the quantity and frequency of dialogue should be continually questioned. In the quest of writing the truest version of your internal story, you must allow characters to be long-winded, soft-spoken and everything in-between.
Analyzing your dialogue to determine if the appropriate quality is used requires a solid understanding of desires emotional intensity, objective revelations and character relationships.
Too Little Dialogue?
There was a very poignant moment in my screenwriting life where I was terrified to write dialogue. Not that I was doubting my ability to construct conversations, but after reading multiple screenwriting textbooks I came to the conclusion that most screenwriters put too much emphasis on dialogue and not enough on silent exposition. While there is a solid truth in never saying what can be shown, there is a balance that must be achieved.
Because of this fear, I penned several screenplays that are practically void of lengthy conversations – if there are conversations at all. To be honest, parts of the screenplay benefited from the absence of dialogue; however, as a whole there was an element missing – the element of dialogue.
While certain storytelling techniques rely very little on dialogue as their narrative descriptions and action sequences are the primary driving force (think Tom Hanks in “Cast Away;” there are numerous consecutive scenes where no dialogue is given), there are many more moments where lengthening the conversation or adding an extra line to a response would greatly benefit the story.
The goal of storytelling is to find your unique voice while still providing viewers with the appropriate amount information delivered through dialogue. Attempting to forego the natural method of how a particular story needs to be told results in a stilted and strange script.
Too Much Dialogue?
There are several very successfully screenwriters who are known for their depth of dialogue within a single scene. Practically any Quentin Tarantino film is an excellent example of how a plethora of dialogue is best; however, this is a very particular type of storytelling that follows its own unique set of rules. As a whole, if you feel there is too much dialogue, then there is; however, there are exceptions to this rule.
If you’re finding your story requires a decent amount of dialogue to naturally progress and reveal character specifics, then you may be delving into a very specific form of screenwriting. This technique mimics the techniques used by theatrical playwriter. These literary artists must use dialogue to paint a full picture. Therefore, scenes often consist of hundreds of lines. Screenplays don’t require the primary use of dialogue to drive the story forward, which is why many scripts don’t require a lot of speaking to be successful.