Dialogue is great. It’s one of my favourite things to write because I feel like I can really see and hear the character when I put those words on to a page. However, studying Creative Writing has taught me that too much dialogue can be the equivalent of binge-eating your favourite food: it can take your love away.
If you write screenplays, the temptation can be to write dialogue and only dialogue, and leave the description up to the director. However, this gives you less control and creative freedom. It also makes it harder for the reader — and potential bringer to life — of your script to envision what it will look like on screen. We may hear scripts, but we predominantly see them, and what someone does as they speak can completely change the meaning of what they say.
Why Dialogue is Great
Dialogue allows you to hear the character both in fiction and in scripts. The way someone constructs their sentences and pronounces their words can say a lot about them without us ever needing to be told it.
Dialogue can be great for telling back story. Conan Doyle uses it a lot in Sherlock Holmes, when potential clients are recounting the details of a case to him and Watson. Whilst his characters speak a lot, I don’t feel that it’s too much dialogue — Watson and Holmes aren’t mind readers, and they only way they — and the reader — will learn about the case is from the client telling it to us. The characters very often speak eloquently, but with their own idiolect. The way they recount their story also gives us a chance to work out how reliable or unreliable they are.
Why Too Much Dialogue is Terrible
Too much dialogue can be condescending to the audience. It offers up the opportunity to explain things too much, and run the risk of telling over showing. If your character doesn’t need to speak, there’s really no point in giving them any dialogue. A simple exchange of glances between characters can be far more intimate than a verbal exchange.
Examples of Great Use of Dialogue
Stoker begins and ends with a voice over. I talk about it a lot, because it completely changed my view on screenwriting.
In some of the most poignant scenes, there is little to no dialogue. The tension is built up using either silence or background music, and the talent of the actors. The actors convey a lot through very little, particularly the main characters of India and Charlie. Very subtle changes — such as India’s shoes — give us an insight into their psyche without us needing to be told anything verbally.
The Breakfast Club
The Breakfast Club is about five teenagers from completely different social circles during detention one Saturday. If it was made now, it would be a completely different film, but the film lives on because the high school stereotypes and prejudices in it still exist in one form or another. There’s actually very little dialogue in the film — a lot of what we learn about the characters is through their actions or the way that they treat each other. Allison hardly speaks at all, and yet we know just as much about her as everyone else through her fidgeting, interactions with other characters, and the distance she keeps from them.
There are some brilliant scenes that contain no dialogue, including when they’re running away from Principal Vernon, and when they’re dancing around the library. The scene when they’re all confessing their secrets is heartfelt without being soppy, and uses just the right amount of speech.
I couldn’t rave about it above, then not include it in here, could I?
Gilmore Girls was highly influential in the way that it approached writing, dialogue, and production. The average script per show was 70-80 pages, whereas for most shows of the same length (about 44 minutes, 60 including ads) it’s 40-50 pages. This shows you how fast the cast had to speak to get everything in. The scripts were littered with pop culture references, odd words and an intelligence a lot of shows these days lack. The characters were all unique and had their own ways of speaking, such as Miss Patty’s use of pet names (‘sugar’ and ‘honey’ spring to mind), Michel’s dry wit and Sookie’s neuroticism and clumsiness.
Examples of Too Much Dialogue
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Many have tried to argue with me that the second instalment of the Captain America franchise is great, but the only things that impressed me were the production values and Sebastian Stan. Stan’s character — The Winter Soldier himself — says very little, yet conveys so, so much. The other characters, meanwhile, explain things almost to the point of patronising the audience. And don’t even get me started on what happened to Black Widow.
We all had such high expectations for Disney’s Maleficent, but it fell short. It over-explained much of Maleficent’s world, explaining to us exactly what we could already see onscreen. Films should be about showing people and allowing them to reach their own conclusions. The voiceovers used — particularly at the start — was completely unnecessary.
Dialogue is important, but it has to be balanced with well thought out description. What our characters don’t say is just as important — if not more so — as what they do. The words a person uses can often be construed in different ways, but the way a person holds themselves, the pitch they speak in, or even just their lack of eye contact helps to demonstrate to the reader how your character feels without telling them directly.
How do you feel about writing dialogue? Do you worry about overusing it, or do you feel that you use it just right? I’d love to hear how you feel in the comments!
Last updated: 10/01/16