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Dialogue Is The Least Of My Problems

Writing a spec screenplay is difficult. Writing a spec screenplay that someone will say, “Bloody hell! This is brilliant! I’m going to pay this scribe well and not change this concept beyond recognition!” is akin to making it up Mount Everest on rollerskates. You may make some headway, but chances are you’ll slide all the way back down and collapse in a bloodied heap.

Any movies that are made of your script will be changed drastically from what you first conceive. That’s the fate alloted to all scribes. Why fight the inevitable? With a bit of luck, the movie made of your script will resemble what you came up with in the first place – albeit with a load of extra stuff put in and a bunch of stuff you really thought was cool and/or important cut out. And oh yeah: let’s not forget others’ interpretation. You saw that scene as green and the set dresser’s gone for yellow. You saw that character as black yet the casting agent’s gone for white. Oh and…those lines you thought spelt out the whole ethos of this story suddenly sound as wooden as the table in your living room.

I think of dialogue as the area as in need of least attention in a spec draft (notice I didn’t say least important). Why? Because even if your beloved spec does get optioned, that’s the first thing that’s going to go. Why? ‘Cos messing around with plot points when the director says, “Wouldn’t it be really cool if…” demands it. Or they don’t have enough money to do this or that or the other, which means whole scenes may have to go. If the scenes go, the dialogue goes -but crucially, anything you’ve revealed through dialogue in other scenes also has to go. In short, sort out various things (like structure), and dialogue *generally* falls into play with them.

Yet I notice scribes obsessing over their dialogue. I have had clients who’ve wanted to keep even the most flawed chunks of their scripts on the basis of just one “clever” line. Whilst on-the-nose stuff is never desirable, in early drafts who cares exactly what your characters are saying to each other? You’ll change it later and even if it gets sold, it’ll get changed again… And as soon as it’s spoken by the actors it will change even more! What’s more, I have never, ever plastered a “consider” or “recommend” on a script that has only good dialogue. Yet I have put through scripts with bad dialogue if they have something like good structure and/or an original premise. Here’s why.

There is no such thing as “nailing” dialogue as far as I’m concerned, just the best approximation you can make in any given draft dependant on where you are with it. The reason for this? If your script is a house, then perhaps a spec is a house of cards, with the dialogue cards aas its roof. You can take them off and the cards won’t fall down. Take the ones at the bottom though – the structure cards – and you’re screwed my friend. Your draft won’t stand up. After all:

You can have the best dialogue in the world, but if your structure sucks, then well–your script sucks. Who’s going to buy something where they have to lay the foundations to start with? They might as well write it themselves.

Not to mention–

You can have the best dialogue in the world, but if your scene description is heavy on black, then who’s ever going to read on past page 10 and find out?

You can have the best dialogue in the world, but if your characters are stereotypical and 2D, how is it going to resonate?

You can have the best dialogue in the world, but if your arena is non-existent, then surely the same goes for that notion of resonance?

You can have the best dialogue in the world, but if your story is ill-advised, boring or unoriginal, then why would anyone remember that dialogue?

You can have the best dialogue in the world, but if no one does much in your screenplay you might wow a few people with your observations, but does that mean your script is an interesting read or top heavy on telling it?

You can have the best dialogue in the world and whilst we might remember snatches, is this the only thing we watch films for, or the fact that we can relate to characters, stories, ways of life?

Dialogue. It’s important. But not the be-all and end-all as far as I’m concerned.

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20 thoughts on “Dialogue Is The Least Of My Problems”

  1. One sin I definitely recognise in myself, is wanting to keep lines solely because they’re funny or clever or good. But if they don’t serve the story, or just need to be pruned, then destroy them and use them somewhere more appropriate.

    Kill your babies, as they say – thankfully referring exclusively to babies of the literary variety.

    Good day to you.

  2. Recognising you have a problem Jason is the first step to beating it. They say so every week in an – ahem – meeting I go to.


    And we’re talking about killing again. It’s like Pringles – once you pop, you can’t stop.

  3. Dialogue is not my strongest suit by any stretch of the imagination. But I try not to get over-stressed about it, mostly for the reasons Lucy puts forward. I’ll try to keep it pithy and punchy, but my last pass on a script is almost always about improving the dialogue. Making sure each character has a clear voice [without going phonetics or slang mental]. Making sure the dialogue’s appropriate to the scene in terms of timbre and terseness. Giving it colour without going overboard.

    I’m not much cop at bringing the funny, so I don’t stress about keeping my brilliant jokes. And since I don’t rate my dialogue that highly, it doesn’t kill me to cut stuff.

    See, being unfunny and shite at dialogue is an advantage!

  4. Being shite at dialogue is something most screenwriters have in common David. Not least because it HAS to be joined up with a decent actor to have any resonance, but also because what constitutes “good” dialogue is so varied and so dependant on interpretation and/or personal opinion that it’s totally crazy. One lot of feedback I got, the dialogue was singled out for the most massive praise – on the very same day I had a meeting about said script in which someone told me my dialogue was “lukewarm at best”. Yikes!

  5. Blame Quentin.

    What’s the figure they generally quote for American specs being obvious Tarantino rip-offs? 40% at its peak? I seem to remember it being something that ridiculous. A lot of over written, extraneous dialogue can probably be traced back to that talented gobshite.

  6. Flat out disagree. If you’re dialogue doesn’t sing you are going to have a VERY hard time of it, especially in TV. It’s also the one aspect that can’t be taught. You either have an ear for it or you don’t.

    Being shite at dialogue may be something most screenwriters have in common but it’s far from the case with working writers. In fact I’d go further and say that I’ve known some writers who would look blank when you talk about structure but whose ability to write dialogue has carried them a long, long way in their career.


  7. I can’t write dialogue for shit but then the writers of most of the scripts I read on the internet – made or not – can’t seem to either. So does this mean I agree with Lucy? Oh shit, maybe — UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!

  8. ESM – Unclean?! with your beard I’m not surprised, you remind me of Quentin Whatsisface’s pictures of Mr. Twit! ; )

    FJ – loving your work darling too, MWAH!

    DD – I realise there will always be people who are mega-talented in a particular area no matter what and sail because of it, even if it’s “against” the tide. But in my experience, certainly with specs since I don’t deal with inside-TV-land, it’s other stuff like structure that needs most attention ‘cos so many specs have none. Here’s to making the switch tho, SOMEONE GIVE ME A TV JOB! Ta.

    Anon – agree. It was Tarantino’s genius with dialogue that stopped everyone from seeing him as a plagiarist in terms of plot IMO. Natural Born Killers = Badlands anyone?!

  9. It sucks that you either have it or you don’t and that it will be a major determinant of whether you have a career or not, but it doesn’t change the fact that, certainly in TV land, the better you are at writing killer dialogue the higher your chances of survival. There are of course writers who so spend so much time trying to shoehorn what they think is a great line into a scene that the scene itself is a pile of shit. Annoyingly enough producers like them too.

    It’s very far from against the tide though. It’s a pre-requisite. If you want to have anything approaching a career that is. I’m not saying you have to be great at it but you’d better at least be good. For a novelist, maybe not so much. For a TV writer you’d better have it in your armoury.

    Now I’m off to tell some small children that Santa doesn’t exist.


  10. Oh you beast DD. I suspect that extra D does not stand for “Dublin” at all but “dastardly” after all! ; )

    I also suspect however that comparing spec feature writing and the plethora of “maybes” that orbit around it to the commissioned yes-land of TV is much like comparing an apple to a banana. But I get your drift: be good at dialogue or get back in your hole, bee-atches. Right? ; )

  11. What the scribosphere proves is that there are a lot of people looking to apply reason and a system where there is none. Formatting can be taught. Structure? Ditto. Although it’s far more fluid than many people would like to think.

    What can’t be taught? Dialogue’s one. The ability to create engaging characters is another.

    Bang on about feature this or feature that. Spec this or spec that. As David Thewliss’s character said in Naked, “It’s all the same bag of bones, anyway.”

    Whether I’m writing a spec feature, or an original hour, or a half hour soap the only unique thing I bring to the table is my sensibility and sense of craft. Plus I get out in the real world and spend a LOT of time doing coalface research.


  12. Ah, we’re back to the “talent can’t be taught” debate and I totally agree DD. Some people suck at writing no matter how hard they try. Which is a shame.

    “Coalface research” – like that term. Though my first thought was what might constitute “coalface research” if one was writing a porn movie. Is that wrong? ; )

    BTW: MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING is on Film4 right this sec! I will always think of you when I see Julia Roberts now…

  13. You can have the best dialogue in the world. Can you send it to me then, or I’ll purchase. I kept reading that line and thought I’d scrolled down to far which was amusing. Margaret Thatcher came to mind also. But yeah, you are of course right, structure is King.

    Hmm, the question of dialogue. Structure is a question of mathematics mostly (classic, yeah i know) whereas dialogue is altogether more intuitive? So not as easy to improve.

    I’ll shoot myself, don’t worry.

  14. If you were embarking on a comedy script (or any other script for that matter, but maybe that’s a slightly separate argument), I’m not so sure that you’d be able to get away with writing crappy dialogue. Check out the Big Break finalists this year – one of the UK writers on the list – Geraint Horwood – writes blisteringly funny dialogue. If he didn’t, what he does would not work as comedy (I can’t imagine people commenting on his ‘amusing sctructure’).

    Me? I love good dialogue, and tend to obsess over it in a script to the detriment of everything else, which probably isn’t an ideal state of affairs!


    Dialogue is of course important – and this is why I say “least attention” COS of the fact you reference that obsessing over it can be to a script’s detriment.

    But dialogue’s more important in comedy than any other? Not as far as I’m concerned: I see loads of comedies, Rom-Com and otherwise, that might have funny dialogue, but would be far more hilarious if they actually made sense.

    Comedy’s so subjective anyway – and do they depend on dialogue? I
    thought what was funniest about GROUNDHOG DAY was not so much the dialogue, but the actual events as Phil got more and more depserate. Thought I would die laughing when he and the groundhog drove into that quarry!

    But anyway…It’s not enough to make me laugh Chip. You gotta thrill me at the same time. This is why I have a huge pile of reject exes ; )

  16. I’m with Lucy on this one too.

    In movie scripts, structure/story is more important than dialogue. Dialogue is more easily fiddled with.

    But it seems dialogue impresses some people to a distracting degree(the Tarantino effect?). They read dialogue that pops & it fools them into thinking the story is a lot better than it actually is. How else do you explain Kevin Smith’s career?

    Dialogue is the sizzle, structure is the steak.

    Ideally, you should have both in your script. But if you’re going to be great at one, & mediocre at the other, structure is the thing you want to be great at.

    … at least that’s what I keep telling myself, as I’m admittedly mediocre at dialogue. 😉

  17. Just backing DD on this. I’ve got a very high up insider friend and she told me very early on that structure can be taught, writing dialogue can’t – you have an ear for it or you don’t. Bad dialogue for me is the one of the worst sins along with crap acting. Good actors can make crap dialogue work however and some are so good that you hardly notice just how pants it is.

    I guess the thing is that in TV/film world it all has to be good – structure, story, character, dialogue, tone, etc.

    If your dialogue is weak though and you’re sending it off, it’s no good thinking “I’ll change that later” but because whoever reads it won’t neccessarily know or trust that you can improve or develop it.


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