One mistake that a lot of writers make is to over-explain things (hey, that’s me!); to put everything you want the audience to understand into dialogue so as to ensure that they ‘get it’.
To be fair, this isn’t (usually) a huge deal; just clumsy and amateurish. But it’s more elegant and often much more effective (and sometimes even necessary by the logic of the situation) to let the actions and circumstances speak for themselves, either to replaced dialogue entirely or to make a little dialogue go a long way.
In order to illustrate this, I present the three following examples. Be warned that they all count as spoilers, and in two of the cases, spoilers for pretty significant payoffs, so if you haven’t read and / or seen any of the below, proceed with caution.
To start off with a masterpiece, we have Jane Austen’s Emma. I won’t go into the whole story here, of course, but for our purposes the important thing to know is that one of the characters is Miss Bates: a middle-aged, unmarried and impoverished gentlewoman whose dialogue often takes up whole pages of (seemingly) irrelevant chatter. Late in the story, during a dull picnic, Emma succumbs to the temptation to mock her for this tendency in front of several of their acquaintances.
Emma’s friend (and unacknowledged true love) Mr. Knightly later confronts her over this, pointing out that Miss Bates deserves her pity for her present impoverished circumstances, that she’s very much dependent on Emma’s charity, and that Emma’s conduct might be a guide for others, and overall how cruel and mean-spirited the action was. Emma quickly realizes the justice of this and feels extremely contrite, resolving to make amends right away.
Now, the obvious thing would be for her to apologize. But that actually wouldn’t be appropriate in this context. The moment is past, and Miss Bates is the kind of woman who would never admit to having been wronged by someone she considers a friend. Trying to apologize would be gauche and serve only to reinforce the insult by bringing it up again.
Instead, Emma simply goes to call on her the next day and sits a good while with her, not just patiently listening with a half-concealed smile for once, but actually engaging and conversing with her. She resolves hereafter to make regular such visits for the woman’s comfort.
Again, openly apologizing wouldn’t be appropriate in this context, so instead Emma pays her a visit as a signal that she does value the older woman’s company and friendship, and that her lapse will not be repeated. Because the important thing isn’t that that particular moment should be forgiven, but that Emma should show respect and compassion on Miss Bates. The action, and the sentiment behind it, is the only thing that matters here.
Our second example comes from Sing, in the way that Johnny’s father redeems himself.
The short version is that Johnny’s attempts to balance rehearsing for the singing contest and helping out with his father’s gang leads to him blowing a job and his father being arrested. When he comes to visit him in jail, his father is understandably furious with him. Upon learning that it was because Johnny wants to be a singer instead, his father brutally tears him down, demanding “How did I end up with a son like you?” before storming off and refusing to speak to him again.
Then, when the concert ends up being broadcast live, Johnny’s father sees him on TV, playing before a cheering crowd, and he quickly becomes ecstatic over it (this, by the way, is perfectly in character; he’s clearly a proud man who’s lived on the margins his whole life, and here’s his son on TV, receiving respect and praise from the whole city). But then he remembers what he said to him in their last meeting and is overcome with remorse. He then proceeds to rip the bars out of his cell (he’s a gorilla, by the way, in case you missed that) and flees across the city with the police on his heels…all so that he can embrace his son and tell him how proud he is.
The impact here comes from the superficial disconnect between the effort it takes for him to get there and what he does when he arrives. He could, conceivably, have simply waited for his son to come and see him again, or even made a phone call. Instead, he puts himself through tremendous risk and effort just so that he can see him now and express his pride and love for him.
Not only that, but he explicitly does not expect to benefit personally from it; he cheerfully heads back to prison once it’s done. Because it wasn’t about him, it was about his son.
It’s the effort that it took him, and the fact that it was all for the sake of those few simple words and gestures that makes them mean so much.
The Straight Story
The final example comes from this rather obscure film directed by David Lynch (yes, that David Lynch) and based on a true story.
To summarize, Alvin Straight is an elderly World War II veteran living in Iowa who learns that his long-estranged brother, Lyle, has recently suffered a stroke. Realizing that neither of them has much time left, he resolves to go and see him and reconcile before one of them dies.
Trouble is that Alvin is himself partially paralyzed and half-blind, so he has no driver’s license and certainly can’t walk two-hundred and forty miles to Wisconsin. His adult daughter and primary caretaker is partially brain-damaged and so isn’t allowed to drive either. So, using a little ingenuity, he hitches a trailer to a riding mower and sets out to putter his way across the Midwest.
It’s a slow, quiet, and very sedate kind of film; just an old man riding a lawnmower through middle America, occasionally stopping to chat with people along the way. But my point today is the payoff. Alvin has several opportunities throughout the movie to get a ride from friendly strangers, but he turns them all down, wanting to do it his way, on his riding mower.
Then, when he finally arrives and meets his brother, they each say exactly one thing to each other:
Lyle: “Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?”
Alvin: “I did, Lyle.”
At which point the two simply sit down on the porch together in silence. Because after that, what more needs to be said?
Which is the whole point; if you can get the actions right, you can say all that needs to be said while saying hardly anything at all.