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?