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5 Reasons Dialogue Is Overrated

Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue … I see writers obsessing over this element of screenwriting all the time. Yet the reality is, this the least important element of your spec script. Don’t believe it? Here’s 5 reasons why:

5. Structure & character is where it’s at. When I’m writing script reports, there are two things I report on, again and again and again: structure and character. Why? Because these two elements are the most important of your spec script. Good structure is paramount in keeping the reader’s (and thus the potential audience’s) interest – and character motivation is key in achieving this; it is a symbiotic relationship. We watch films and TV because we want to see characters DO something for a specific reason: that’s how stories work. Now *of course* good dialogue plays a part in this too and yes, there are some writers who place a specific type of dialogue at the heart of their stories, ie. Tarantino & Sorkin. And if you’re brilliant at dialogue and can pull this off, good for you; I will note it in the report, though it will be an addition to good structure and character, not instead of it. Why? Well put it this way … Have I ever recommended a script just because of its good dialogue? No. Never.

4. There’s always too much of it. Early drafts, there’s always too much dialogue … Even if you don’t write too much dialogue. This is particularly true of spec TV pilots. Why? ‘Cos generally speaking there’s more dialogue in TV than movies. And that’s okay. But never allow this thought to justify using more than you should. A couple of Bang2writers asked me recently “how much” is “too much” when it comes to dialogue: infuriatingly, I always answer that it depends … Though a good rule of thumb I think is seeing how much you want to write, then halving it. So in other words: if you want to write a 3 page scene, cut it to 1.5 pages; if you want to write a 1.5 page scene, cut it to .75 pages – and any shorter than that? Cut it altogether.

3. Delivery counts for more than you think. Every produced screenwriter has a horror story about how a crappy actor massacred their super deluxe dialogue. But equally, unless those produced screenwriters are very unlucky, they will also have at least one story about how a great actor took their great dialogue and turned it into something they had not envisaged, but was just as good, if not better. In addition to this point, audiences pick up on moments of dialogue and quote them at each other and in their Facebook statuses not just because the writing was great, but because how that actor said it caught their imagination for whatever reason. Think again about your favourite lines: what would they have looked like on the page? In my house, our faves include, “Over here … Over here ” (Echo style); “Game over, Man! Game over!” and “Don’t waste my mother****ing time!” Where are they from? Bet you know, instantly. Brilliant lines? Or brilliant delivery? Or a bit of both? Oh and by the way: there’s every chance in that delivery the actor or director may change your great line anyway – either on purpose, or by accident. It happens. You can embrace it or fight it … But you ain’t gonna change it.

2. You’re not using it effectively anyway. I’ve lost count of the number of screenwriters I’ve seen hold on to flawed scenes that do not fit their script’s structure or character motivation, simply because they like a couple of lines in said scenes. That’s right: those writers will potentially screw up their chances of getting their story across, simply because they like a few lines of dialogue – and dialogue is simply not enough to carry a scene or make it “fit” story-wise. If you don’t believe me, check out your nearest spec pile and read a few hundred screenplays and see. So how does one use dialogue effectively? By remembering this: dialogue is there solely to reveal character and/or push the story forwards – like pretty much anything in this screenwriting lark! The difficult thing then is doing this via the illusion the audience is “just” watching people talking. That’s the hard part. But if you think of dialogue as an element of screenwriting on its own, that is when you will run into trouble.

1. It’s the easiest thing to write! Yes. Writing pages and pages of dialogue is easy. Our characters feel alive to us, so we can get into writing long chunks of dialogue and justify it by saying this is how “real” people talk. But movies and TV are not reality; they are representations of reality. Every conversation has to serve the plot or character in some way (without becoming expositional), otherwise it must not happen. That is just the way it is.

Recognise any of the above in your own work?

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12 thoughts on “5 Reasons Dialogue Is Overrated”

  1. Pingback: Screenwriting Sparks Around The Web #4 | The Screenwriting Spark

  2. As I said over on the FB, I couldn’t agree more, but I’ll elaborate a bit here.
    The way I sum it up, when I’m doing courses or workshops, sounds a bit like this:
    “Forget about writing or being writers, or God forbid it; authors. Yes, you put some words on paper or screen, but it’s just a tool to convey the drama. Did I say ‘drama’, yes, because it’s not even about story, so forget about being storytellers, too. You design drama, you construct drama. You deliver a blueprint to the director and the actors, and they will (hopefully) make it come alive. The better you design and construct, the better the chances.”

    1. Agree so much Troels, sounds like you would like Yves Lavandier’s book “Writing Drama” if you haven’t seen it already! 😀

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  4. Many single location films made on a micro-budget rely hugely on dialogue and performance to tell their stories and many indie filmmakers learn their craft working on such films.

    Dialogue is a tool like any other and you can’t blame a tool for bad workmanship – not unless you’re a bad workman.

    1. Yeah, that’s my point hombre 😉 Check out movies like THE BREAKFAST CLUB, SAW or CUBE … None are static or play-like, yet the average spec screenplay is. So what can we do to change that?

      1. In UK writers have a better chance of getting work in TV which does rely a lot on dialogue.

        For feature film screenplay writers, your best bet is to write a single location or contained genre script for the US market which would also be dialogue-driven.

        If the budget is low enough no one will care that you don’t have any previous writing credits. And that’s another point, no one really knows anything about what audiences will like, apart from how well or badly the script is written. But producers want their films to make money and there are almost zero scripts with truly great concepts that are not obvious rip-offs – usually of a film like ‘Seven’ or ‘Blow Up’. This is partly why many studio producers prefer to do endless remakes. I mean – why do a rip-off when you can do a remake?

        Also, producers generally prefer to buy scripts from writers with previous credits simply because it’s good business to go with experience and business is by nature likes to play it safe.

        Producers want to make the next ‘Blue Ruin’ but can’t afford to take those sorts of risks.

        So, the really great producers are like gunfighters in the Old West – plenty of battle scars but still ahead of the game and ready to gamble everything at the drop of a hat. Where are you?

          1. Sorry to quibble Lucy but I assume you’re suggesting the term ‘dialogue-driven’ is incorrect so I googled it and it is in popular usage for describing dialogue-heavy films or scripts.

            1. It’s fine and yes, it is used but it confuses writers and makes them end up writing chains of dialogue, so their scripts end up like a play. I prefer the term “character-led” 🙂

              1. I can’t disagree with you on that, Lucy. Personally, the most satisfying and challenging writing that I’ve ever done is a screenplay that possesses the three dramatic unities – time, place and action. This kind of writing is obviously very theatrical but it can also be very dramatic and in its immediacy it can appear very true to life. Is that a cinematic quality?

                I know of only one film that possesses these qualities – ’12 Angry Men’. Would you say that ‘Buried’ and ‘Locke’ have unity of time, place and action – when the main characters are engaged in dialogue with characters who are off-screen? I don’t think so. But I’d love to know if there are any other movies out there that possess these classical dramatic unities and whether they also possess cinematic qualities.

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