If we could break down each one of the elements of storytelling in a screenplay, action, visuals, character... and assign a metaphorical dollar value to the worth of each when it comes to telling a story for the screen, dialogue would definitely be the least valuable. The old phrase “talk is cheap” is never more apt than when applied to the screen. It should be painfully clear to any writer worth his or her salt by now that dialogue is the least effective and least dramatic way to communicate information, develop character, advance story when compared to the alternatives, such as action, visuals, character behavior, and sound effects. Over-reliance on dialogue creates a story that is dull, slow moving, long-winded and stagnant.
Yet still a good majority of developing writers do just that. They overload their attempts at screenwriting with the craft's cheapest and least effective element. They fill their scenes with pages of useless dialogue. Characters talk on and on about every little thing. This problem is made even worse due to the fact that most of their dialogue never actually ACCOMPLISHES anything. Characters often seem to talk just for the sake of talking. Many young writers seem to think that as long as their characters keep chattering away the scene will continue to be interesting. This is not so.
Now, I easily admit that despite dialogue's low place of value in the craft of cinematic storytelling, it is still an essential tool. Even films from the silent era had to frequently rely on dialogue through the title card to get across information when other options were not possible. However, whenever a writer sets about writing a scene, the idea is to use dialogue in a way that squeezes the most possible value FROM it.
Every line of dialogue should have a specific story reason to be said. The dialogue should have a reason to exist, simply because it DOES something. Dialogue functions in a scene in three specific ways that work to serve the story as a whole. In a great screenplay, every piece of dialogue will work to do one of three things:
1. Gives information that advances the scene towards its goal.
This is the most important thing dialogue should do. Every scene in a script must have its own individual GOAL, the point of the scene, the reason why it is in the story. Every scene should accomplish something that moves the story forward into the next scene, and then forward from that scene to the next, and to the next, and ultimately to the story's ultimate GOAL, the climax of the story. (This is what people mean when they say a script has "story momentum", each scene continuously does something that moves the story forward towards its ultimate ending.) When you write a scene, you must first figure out the reason why this scene is in the story (the goal the scene needs to reach), and then use the actions and dialogue of your characters to move the scene steadily towards that goal. (If you have a scene that doesn't seem to have a goal, then it probably does not belong in the story. It adds nothing to the story and will only slow things down and kill your momentum. You need to find a way to give that scene a reason to exist or cut it from the script.)
Here is a sample scene from the screenplay The Shawshank Redemption, (written by Frank Darabont, based on a story by Stephen King). Though most scenes should be given a goal that advances the plot, once in a while you can get away with a scene that focuses on advancing the theme, as this following scene does. The theme of Shawshank is "Never give up hope."
(Exposition: Andy, an educated banker, is sentenced to Shawshank Prison for the (supposed) murder of this wife. There, Andy is befriended by Red, a wise and pragmatic con who knows more about how things are done in Shawshank than anyone. In the previous sequence, Andy locked himself in the Warden's office and broadcasted a Mozart record over the loudspeakers for the whole prison to hear. Andy was given two weeks in "the hole" for this. Here, he returns to his friends for the first time since.)
150 INT -- MESS HALL -- DAY (1955) 1 50
Hey. It's the mystero. Couldn't play somethin'
good, huh? Hank Williams?
They broke the door down before I
could take requests.
Was it worth two weeks in the hole?
Easiest time I ever did.
Shit. No such thing as easy time in
the hole. A week seems like a year.
I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.
Hardly felt the time at all.
Oh, they let you tote that record
player down there, huh? I could'a
swore they confiscated that stuff.
(taps his heart, his head)
The music was here...and here.
That's the one thing they can't
confiscate, not ever. That's the
beauty of it. Haven't you ever felt
that way about music, Red?
Played a mean harmonica as a younger
man. Lost my taste for it. Didn't
make much sense on the inside.
Here's where it makes most sense.
We need it so we don't forget.
That there are things in this world
not carved out of gray stone. That
there's a small place inside of us
they can never lock away, and that
place is called hope.
Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a
man insane. It's got no place here.
Better get used to the idea.
Like Brooks did?
(Brooks, an old man who spent decades in the prison, committed suicide after being paroled.)
Notice that every line of Andy's dialogue works to move us closer and closer to the scene's goal: to establish the theme that one should never give up hope. Andy only has seven lines. His dialogue doesn't sway from this path, but works to move the scene closer and closer to its goal. Also notice how quickly the scene ends. Once the scene's goal has been accomplished, that's all that needs to be said.
You probably noticed that there was a good deal of dialogue that seemed to be there for a different reason. Dialogue spoken by characters other than Andy that added a lot of color and personality to the scene. That brings us to dialogue's second function:
#2. Develops characterization.
We can learn a lot about the characters by listening to how they respond to Andy's goal-oriented dialogue. We can tell that Heywood is a Good Ol' Boy who doesn't have what it takes to appreciate Mozart. He is also a straight shooter, immediately trying to shoot down Andy's claim that his time in the hole was easy. We learn that Red is a down to earth and practical type of guy. He doesn't really get what Andy means about Mozart. His idea of good music is his old harmonica. While Andy speaks with metaphor and the poetic mind of an educated man, Red speaks in short, choppy thoughts. He thinks he knows the way things are and that's just the way it is.
While most of Andy's dialogue in this scene is oriented towards reaching the goal, almost all of the dialogue spoken by the other characters is motivated AGAINST Andy's goal. Their dialogue pushes against Andy's dialogue, making it more difficult for him to prove his point and reach the scene's goal. This is dialogue's third and final function:
#3. Creates conflict within the scene
Like you have heard a thousand times before, conflict is the lifeblood of drama. Drama cannot exist without it. It is what makes things interesting. Now while your plot must have a MAIN STORY CONFLICT -that one problem that the story revolves around, that thing that drives the action of the story forward- it is also important to have some sort of conflict in every scene you write.
It is important to not confuse the two. Though your plotline should have only one major conflict, the conflict in your individual scenes can come from anywhere. From characters, from the environment, from a coffee machine that won't work. As I already stated, every scene should involve a character pursuing a scene goal. If that character achieved the goal easily with no problem, then that would be a rather dull and nondramatic scene. Nothing can ever be easy in a screenplay. To achieve any scene goal, it is best to have some conflict in the way to make things more interesting.
In our example from Shawshank, the scene conflict comes from the differences between Andy and his friends. There is conflict between two different personalities: Andy the cultured, educated man vs. Haywood the uneducated Good Ol' Boy. There is conflict between Andy and Red due to the fact that they see the world in two opposite ways. With Andy, hope springs eternal while Red feels certain that hope should be given up. There is even conflict between two different levels of understanding: Andy says he had Mozart with him in the hole. Red misunderstands, thinking they let him keep the record player.
As you see, good conflict in dialogue usually comes from different personalities, outlooks on life, and backgrounds butting heads over some idea or situation. And this all comes from putting thought and effort into building your characters. So many people seem to think that plot, character, and dialogue should be treated as separate screenplay elements, but the truth is that everything is connected. The more you strive to make your characters different and unique, the more life and individuality their dialogue will add to the scene and the story as a whole. When Frank Darabont wrote Shawshank he created three extremely different people in Andy, Red, and Haywood. If they had been too similar and always seen things in the same way, their scenes probably would not have been so compelling. But because they are so different, the dialogue of every scene is alive with chances for conflict.
Don't waste your dialogue. Make it valuable. Make it DO what it is supposed to DO.