From shorts to features, there are entire films made today that have little to no dialogue. And the screenplays for these films are often the perfect example of what a screenplay should be, a demonstration of showing and not telling.
We asked Screenwriter Doug Richardson (“Bad Boys,” “Die Hard 2,” “Hostage”) what he believes are the keys to success when writing a screenplay with little to no dialogue.
“Oh, that’s very simple,” he told us. “How to write a screenplay with little or no dialogue, and how to keep the reader engaged? It’s a very simple thing. Tell a story that makes the reader want to turn the page.”
Screenplays are blueprints for a film, and so much more than dialogue. The theme, setting, sound, characters, expression, action beats, and more go into your storytelling. You need all of this to work in tandem to tell the story effectively. Let’s not forget where it all began: Silent films, where they “didn’t need dialogue. [They] had faces,” as Norma Desmond proudly exclaims in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard.”
Take “Shaun the Sheep” for example, written and directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak. The screenplay paints a vivid picture, sans any dialogue from the characters, except for a few grunts and mumbles. “WALL-E” written by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, and Pete Doctor, is a movie with a big message, but very little dialogue. And “A Quiet Place” is just that, a quiet movie void of dialogue and full of terrifying suspense if a character dares make a noise. Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski wrote the screenplay.
“It’s that simple,” Richardson continued. “Be compelling. If you put something on paper … and you start telling a story in such a way that the reader has to know what happens next, you don’t need dialogue. You just need skill, talent, and a great story.”
Here are some tips to consider if you’re limiting dialogue in your screenplay:
- Describe what the audience is seeing, including the setting and any action that the character is taking
- Include sounds, even when there are no words
- Consider what your character is doing that could further the story
- Separate every new location with a heading in CAPS that includes INT. or EXT (interior or exterior) – short location description – and time of day (MORNING, NIGHT, DUSK, Etc.)
- Give your characters distinguishable characteristics
“Make them turn the page,” Richardson concluded.
Now shhh, I’m writing over here.
Courtney Meznarich, Director of Community Outreach