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Q: Is GOOD Screenwriting About GREAT dialogue? >> YES!

When Glyn Carter got in touch with this blog, my first response to him was, “Are you on drugs? You KNOW my thoughts on dialogue!”

Then I got thinking: what if I were to run a two-post weekend, based around a question? In this case it would be, “Is Good Screenwriting About GREAT Dialogue?” Glyn could then argue the case for YES.

So here’s Glyn with his case FOR dialogue … Tomorrow, I’ll be writing MY take on this emotive issue for screenwriters with NO, so watch out for it!


YES, says Glyn Carter (@StoriesIn2light)

I’ve been getting feedback on a screenplay, and it’s mostly been along the lines of “too long”, “too much dialogue”, “cut the talk”, and “let the pictures tell the story”.

I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m not saying my script can’t be leaner. I’m not saying less can’t be more.


It’s almost a mantra. You’d think script reviewers want to go back to the silent era. You’d think actors want to be mimes.

So, here’s 6 reasons to praise dialogue:

1) People talk!

Language is half of how people communicate and express themselves. MORE: 3 Reasons “Show, Don’t Tell It” Is Bad Writing Advice

2) Dialogue is dramatic

Words can be clever, funny, profound, insightful, poetic. Words can build tension, or relieve it. Dialogue is accused of being for theatre. Well, it is for theatre, the home of drama, that’s because it’s dramatic. Duh! MORE: It’s All In The Delivery

3) Great writers write great dialogue

Quentin Tarantino. Woody Allen. Aaron Sorkin. The Coens. Martin McDonagh. Nora Ephron. Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network ran to 140 pages. Did David Fincher ask for a shorter draft? No, he got the actors to speak faster. You know what? More can be more too. MORE: 7 Ways Of Showcasing Your Writer’s Voice In Your Screenplay

4) All the classics are dialogue-heavy!

Before Sunrise, Sex Lies and Videotape, Glengarry Glen Ross, Clerks, Diner, Juno, Swingers, The Breakfast Club, The Big Chill, Sophie’s Choice, The Kings Speech, Good Will Hunting, LA Confidential, The Kids Are Alright, Twelve Angry Men and any courtroom drama, most comedies… Read the reviews, count the awards. Count the box-office. MORE: Drama Vs. Genre: The Difference Between Them

5) Dialogue is a lost art these days

Whoa! We’re on the Mad Max road bound for Transformers-land. Must all films be like these? Or, on the other wordless byway, there’s the realm of pretentiousness, where a five-minute hold on a face, or an actor walking, or washing up, is supposed to convey deep meaning and emotion. Less can be less. MORE: Genre Film: Don’t Overthink It

6) It’s not about wordcount, it’s about quality

If a film has corny shots, zooms or angles, shaky cameras or poor focus, no one says “too many pictures”. They say “rubbish direction and camerawork”. If an actor is over the top, they don’t say “too many actors” they say “hamming it” or “Jim Carrey”. To quote Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, when the Prince says to Mozart that his composition has too many notes, “Which ones would you like me to remove?” MORE: 7 Writing Reminders

Everyone from the actor to the audience loves good dialogue when it moves them, opens up a character’s soul, makes them laugh, and speaks a truth.

What people hate is cliché, exposition, on-the-nose, and untruth.

So let’s be clear. The problem is not too much dialogue, the problem is bad dialogue.

I got feedback to “let the pictures tell the story”. That’s wrong in so many ways.

Better advice would be: don’t tell the story at all. Show it.

Story is character in action, so let’s see their stories unfold through their desires, their relationships, their eyes, their deeds … and their words. Only make sure they really are their words, not the writer’s. And make them great words, make them sing, make them fly.


BIO: Glyn’s film A Changed Man is on Vimeo. His webseries of dark comedies Pillow Talk launches shortly on You Tube. Teddy Bears, the third in the series, recently won Mutiny Media’s short screenplay competition. Follow Glyn on Twitter as @storiesin2light and LIKE Stories Into Light on Facebook. Visit Glyn’s website HERE for blog and newsletter signup.

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7 thoughts on “Q: Is GOOD Screenwriting About GREAT dialogue? >> YES!”

  1. It’s a good basic rule to cut speech as much as possible, which that means that the remaining dialogue will (or should) be pithy and gem-like. But the amount of dialogue in a script is surely dependent on the kind of story being told, and the personal style of the characters. A courtroom drama would look a bit strange with hardly any dialogue, but there should still be no room for repetition or over-egged writing (remember the disastrous courtroom scene in Roeg’s “Eureka”?).

  2. I agree. And comedy. Charlie Chaplin and Rowan Atkinson are geniuses (genii?), but I don’t just want mime and slapstick for laughs. I do get tired of American gagfests, but when genuine wit shines through, I get a warm glow!

  3. Man, this sounded like a difficult question to answer, until I thought about one thing: there are just two basic ways to move a story forward: Dialogue and visuals (with subtitles, because there’s no dialogue).

    If that’s true, I’m gonna say those two things weigh the same. Therefore, with 50 percent weight, which is a high amount, good screenwriting does depend on great dialogue. They are interdependent and therefore, the importance of each is equal.

    So, when and how could one argue that good screenwriting is not about great dialogue?

    The only answer can be, when the dialogue is indeed great, but it blends together impeccably with the visuals, voiceovers and subtitles. Until we have technology that taps into our five senses, seeing, hearing and feeling (loud bass tones, for example), that’s all we got. Emotions triggered by these senses will enhance them, but it’s a numbers game with just three senses.

    And when all elements of a story are impeccably blended, that’s something special.

    I am not to that point in my screenwriting life. A writer for decades, I’m relatively new to screenwriting. So far, all I’ve heard is this din, in my right ear mainly. It’s the “show don’t tell crowd,” non-textual tinnitus, a buzzing fly. Sometimes, the buzzing gets in the way.

    When that happens, I reassess the blend of action, narrative and dialogue. I generally seek the balance that’s called for by the story. Some action-heavy stories need just snippets of snarkiness to advance the story, such as in Guardians of the Galaxy. Chick flicks, rom-coms, stories that are likely to cause slight teariness, need a bigger mix of dialogue.

    I was told – before this became my opinion as well –that stories told by, about, or involving women must always be mixed a little heavy with dialogue.

    Fiction or fact, any story told must be told with the weight of plausibility.

    Do women talk a lot in real life? I think the more important question is, not including hugging, do they use dialogue to move forward the arcs of their own daily lives, in real life?

    Does the way it unfolds on the silver screen occur in real life?

    Yes, in this case, good screenwriting depends on great dialogue.

    But wait! How about the other genres? Do they depend on dialogue?

    Like a lot of decisions in writing a screenplay, the decision of how to tell a story can (and should) be dictated by the type of story. That’s my thinking, anyway.

    Long action sequences and films leave one drained – Die Hard. I like Bruce Willis, but I couldn’t leave to pee when I saw it in the theatre. I have my limits.

    In docstock, documentaries, the sequence of action, dialogue and narrative rises to supreme importance. The story progresses in the sequence it originally occurred – people talk, stuff happens, you see something, minute by minute (not including flashes forward or back).

    On film, pace takes over and sequence is important, but second.

    Again, I’m no expert, just someone who likes to tell all kinds of stories. The telling will always involve dialogue, and I try to make it great and plausible. My heritage also genetically calls for me to use my hands when telling a story in person.

    1. Good dialogue is essential to screenwriting… and so are a lot of other things. Above all, story is at the core, which means that character is at the core, because story is all about what characters do. So as long as the dialogue serves story/character, rather than serving itself or the writer, it’s to be treasured. As is showing a characer by their actions – so, for example, we can get a clearer instant impression of a character not from what they wear or what they say, but from what they are up to the first time we see them on screen.

      But that doesn’t mean they should say anything.

  4. Oh my goodness. I loved hearing your thoughts on this. I had a writing coach tell me that it isn’t word-count that should matter. It’s saying the most with the least amount of words that makes for great writing. Looking to read more from you!

  5. Sure, dialogue is important, moves the scene along, contributes to the story on a variety of levels.

    All that means bupkis if the scene isn’t properly set. Otherwise, you got two or more people speaking to each other in a black box. Dialogue takes on different meanings, for me at least, depending on the scene. They go together, dialogue and scene. As for a dialogue rule of thumb, depending on the time period of the scene, I try to let people speak as they would normally. It worked for Louis L’Amour, but screenwriters always modernize his dialogue. I don’t like that.

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