DIALOGUE, as I have often stated in my classes and articles, is an important part of the writer’s toolkit. It promotes the plot, reveals character, and, at its best, draws us into the minds of the story’s characters.
But, sometimes, scenes are better served through action alone.
When Character Action Trumps Dialogue
The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey springs to mind. Here the pervasive feeling of awe at the trajectory of intelligence, from ape to spacefaring humanity, is conveyed through the silent appearance of the featureless Monolith. Its presence at key moments of evolutionary history creates a depth and gravitas in the minds of the audience that is ineffable.
And who can forget the laconic style of the Spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastward as the cigar chewing, dead calm, gun slinger whose draw is lightning fast?
As he faces off against man after man, willing them to draw, tension is conveyed through the biting down on cigars, unflinching gazes, twitching fingers hovering above holstered guns, and the like. No need for dialogue here.
Some of the most seemingly innocuous, yet telling moments that reveal character come from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver where Travis’ (Robert De Niro) silent, sardonic smile, suggest that he is disconnected from the world.
When a pimp, played by Harvey Keitel, tries to have a locker-room conversation with him regarding the hiring of one of his girls (Jody Foster), Travis can only stare silently at him, refusing to participate in verbal banter.
Some stories, of course, are predisposed to character action without dialogue. In war or action films the power mostly comes from the relentless movement of men and equipment, where the only sounds are those of exploding shells, small arms fire, or thundering car and truck engines – Saving Private Ryan, the Mad Max films, Apocalypse Now, Fast and Furious, and countless of others.
Sometimes words seem to mock their very existence in a scene, becoming placeholders for that which cannot be expressed – mysterious, indecipherable, perhaps even an obstacle to meaning itself.
Remember the confusion arising out of Jack Nicholson’s indecipherable utterance in the last moments of Chinatown as he walks away from the crime scene, prompting the lieutenant to ask him repeatedly what he said? Neither the lieutenant nor the audience ever get to hear the answer to that.
An absence of dialogue often adds power to scenes by shifting the focus on character action and its significance.