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Q: “Is GOOD Screenwriting About GREAT Dialogue?” >> NO!!


So, in yesterday’s post, writer and filmmaker Glyn Carter aka @StoriesIn2Light argued the case for YES, good screenwriting IS about GREAT dialogue. Catch up with Glyn’s post if you missed it, HERE.

Now, as everyone knows, I’m a script editor and one of the main issues I see in just about everyone’s spec screenplay is DIALOGUE. The reasons for this are plentiful, but needless to say, I think Glyn is totes wrong and should probably be put out of his misery for the sake of all screenwriting humanity.

But hey Bang2writers, don’t just take MY word for it: I’ll paint in glorious technicolour WHY Glyn must be hunted down forthwith and drenched with a bucket of fire ants, plus why the answer to our question, “Is GOOD Screenwriting about GREAT dialogue?” MUST be a resounding NO …

1) Talk is just the tip of the iceberg

Glyn argued yesterday that language is HALF of how people communicate and express themselves. Um, no. NO NO NO NO NO NO. Non verbal communication accounts for waaaaaaaaaaay more than 50% of human interactions.

But even if you don’t believe that, get THIS: non verbal comms account for way more than 50% of human interaction in SCREENWRITING. Why? Because what you SEE is what you GET.

Never forget we’re dealing with IMAGERY here. That’s the point of a screenplay. If you want to hear people talking, listen to the goddamn radio or go see a theatre play. Ciao! MORE5 Reasons Dialogue Is Overrated

2) Talk is an ILLUSION

Everyone remembers dialogue, whether they’re screenwriting-trained or not. It’s the most **obvious** thing in any film or show. This is why people quote movie lines they’ve watched and heard IRL or online, all the time. It’s fun.

But it’s important to remember that dialogue’s principal function is MOVE TO THE STORY FORWARD and/or REVEAL CHARACTER (preferably both!) via the illusion of people “just” talking.

Yet the average spec screenplay does not get this. Instead, writers believe their “great” dialogue will CARRY a scene, simply because it’s well … great. But guess what: it doesn’t  matter how good you are at writing dialogue!!! If yours does not move the story forward and/or reveal character, it’s a dead duck. BLAM! MORE: Are You Making Any Of These 20 Killer Errors In Your Screenplay’s Scenes?


3) It’s the whole package (inc the writer!)

Glyn was BANG ON (see what I did there?) with his assertion yesterday that great screenwriters write great dialogue. But he missed out another vital point: the Tarantinos, Allens, Sorkins, Coens, McDonaghs and Ephrons are also brilliant at EVERYTHING ELSE. Le duh. Structure, characterisation, theme, you name it. They button down EVERYTHING and they deliver.

So the key here is NOT delivering a 140 page screenplay like The Social Network with an apologetic shrug and saying, “Yeah, it’s a bit long, but trust me, the dialogue is awesome!”

Instead, it’s about writing The Social Fucking Network and the whole thing being SO awesome no one gives a toss how long it is!! Crucial difference, hombre. MORE6 Reasons Dialogue Is Your Enemy

4) Dialogue alone does not guarantee cult or classic status

In his YES post, Glyn made the case that classic dramas and cult movies (especially comedy) have not only great dialogue, but great box office. The best ones will frequently have critical acclaim as well.

Glyn is right about this too, but as with point 3, it’s not as simple as he makes out. The examples he cites in his post all have A LOT of great dialogue, but they are NOT classics simply because of the talk in them.

Dependant on the film, cult or classic status may also come from: star power (especially “all star casts”); performance and delivery (especially comedy); nostalgia, spin and myth-making (especially “old school” films of bygone eras); truth (ie. underdog stories of real people, or even how the film got made) and so on.

Movies are the sum of ALL their parts. Great dialogue alone might get a writer *some* notice in the spec pile but it cannot carry the process through production and into audience’s hearts. It’s just not possible. MORE: The Secret of Writing Great Conflict In Scenes: 3 Examples

5) Why does it have to be either/or??

Glyn also posited that dialogue is “lost art” nowadays and even suggested script editors – and presumably audiences – would prefer to go back to the silent age. If this is true (erm it’s not) then really Glyn ought to take his own advice and stop writing so much dialogue, since audiences apparently don’t want it!

But like I said, this is not the case. Whilst it’s true the highest grossing films DO involve action set pieces, the beauty of the success of recent blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road shows you CAN combine GREAT dialogue with complex characterisation, effective plotting **and** spectacular stunts.

It doesn’t have to be either a talky film … or a non-talky film. It can be both. It just needs to be visual, FIRST. What’s more, scenes should never ever stand still as characters **say line** at each other, whether they’re driving war rigs in the desert, or trapped in a tiny box underground . MORE: 3 Tips For Getting Rid of Static Scenes 

6) It IS about quality … but also economy

And now, the crux of the matter. Here’s another of Glyn’s points from yesterday:

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

Again, Glyn is BANG ON here. If talk *is* an illusion as per point 2 (and it is), then anything that EXPOSES this illusion will immediately cause an audience (or reader) to suspend disbelief. That’s the worst thing that can happen in any type of storytelling.

But then Glyn goes on to say:

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

If only THIS were true! I cannot tell you how many times over the years I’ve said to writers the following:

Your dialogue is great. You need to cut 50-75% of it.

So, this is the thing: dialogue is the EASIEST thing to write. This is why the average screenplay is literally just chains of talk. That doesn’t mean the dialogue is automatically bad, but it does mean the screenplay is NOT visual. Yet we’re writing SCREENplays, here. We need those all-important visuals – and we need far more of them than most writers think. It really is as simple as that. MORE: 10 Of The Worst Screenplay “Fillers”

SO, who do you agree with, Glyn or Lucy???

Slide5Leave your thoughts in the comments, or get over to Twitter and tweet @storiesin2light or @Bang2write! You can leave your thoughts on the Bang2writers Facebook wall, LIKE the page to join in. If you want to challenge Lucy to a YES/NO post on writing craft, pitch her an idea via The B2W Contact Form. Check out my Amazon page HERE or click the pic on the left.


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22 thoughts on “Q: “Is GOOD Screenwriting About GREAT Dialogue?” >> NO!!”

  1. Is good screenwriting only about good dialogue? No, and I never said it was. I don’t even think it’s mainly about good dialogue. It’s mainly about good story. And characters. And theme. And the unexpected. And and and…

    And dialogue. My blog was actually called “In Praise of Dialogue” – because I think good dialogue is underrated (actually, I think screenwriting is underrated, but that’s another story).

    We need dialogue. So we’d better make it good. We need it for several reasons, including:
    – it’s a massive plank of characterisation
    – people don’t only express themselves through dialogue, but they (and actors who portray them) use words to hang their feelings on
    – they also need words to hide behind – without text, there’s no subtext
    – dialogue helps move story along. Story moves in other ways too, but dialogue is a key tool here. It should be used but not overused. More, dialogue lends meaning and depth to plot developments that are themselves shown in other ways
    – without dialogue, our comedy arsenal is confined to slapstick and visual. Dialogue allows irony, wit, and juicy insult

    Perhaps it comes down to a debate about genres. For sure, if you’re writing thriller or horror, too much dialogue will break tension and hold up action – cardinal sins. But I love to have my brain cells tickled by wit and intelligence and subtlety, and I’m not alone. There’s a market for this, and it’s not expensive to produce, so it’s a staple of low-budget indies on both sides of the pond. But – it’s hard to do it well, while maintaining story pace and visual interest. So let’s keep praising good dialogue when it enriches character and story.

    1. Glyn, I can understand what you are saying a lot better now that I’ve read your comment, but in the original post it really feels that you are defending dialog alone can carry a movie and that’s a very dangerous (and wrong) statement.

      I think my main issue is the title. It puts too much focus on dialog. Not sure if the title choice was yours or not, but it doesn’t read well.

      Anyway, throughout the rest of the article, the arguments were not compelling enough.

      eg: “People talk”.

      They do. They also go to the toilet, sleep 1/3 of the day, eat lunch, etc. We don’t put that in a screenplay unless something relevant to the plot will happen during those periods.
      And we don’t make people talk if a silent action will do a better job.

      All I’m saying is that the way your arguments were presented lead me to believe you were saying something entirely different to what you apparently meant.

      Again, just my 2 cents 🙂

    2. Basically Glyn: Anything that’s good, works. Doesn’t matter what it is. And great dialogue should always be praised. I am guilty of simplifying the argument via the question, sure — but that’s what brings people to the debate. Here’s another, more difficult question for you then: why do you think SO, SO MANY spec screenplays DON’T do dialogue well … and even when they *do*, they put “too much” emphasis on the dialogue and turn it into theatre?

      1. Bruno – I had an issue with the title too – I called my blog simply “In Praise of Dialogue”. All elements of a screenplay have to serve the story, and be true to character (story=character in action). Dialogue is one of several of these elements.

      2. Lucy – Good question. You read more screenplays than I ever will, but as a writer I suspect it might be to do with the voices that sound in our heads. I know I imagine scenes, and the movie in my head is filled with talk. It may be too easy to try simply to regurgitate these wise and funny words.

        Should I see a doctor? A script doctor?

        Not all writers are storytellers. Not all storytellers are story-makers. Story-making is hard, crafting it into screenplay form is hard. We can’t see the story-forest for the word-trees. Ooh, nice line, I want to use it even if I don’t have a story for it, or a character who’d say it.

        Also, we often cut our teeth doing short films, which are possibly more forgiving of lots of words relative to strong story.

        1. I think you’re absolutely right, Glyn when you say the scenes in writers’ heads are filled with talk. It’s how we think we communicate in real life via our POV (we can’t “see” ourselves), so we imagine that’s how a movie “looks”. But the two are not the same and this is where screenwriters’ struggle ultimately lies I think.

          1. So what you’re saying, Lucy, is that we writers are so obsessed with our own verbal pearls, that we’re pretty damn useless at watching and listening to others.

            You’re probably right.

            And the best prose writers (and indeed poets) are those who have absorbed lots of detail – specifics of place, and nuances of character – and can offer it back to their readers. Screenwriters should be the same, observing and reflecting (only with less of a load, because the actor is there for nuance of character, and the production designer is there the mise en scene).

  2. When I’ve read the title of yesterday’s post, I thought: “Lucy has gone mad” and I ended up not reading it because… well, “Lucy has gone mad”.

    Today, I got on my e-mail the exact opposite title so I thought: “wtf? Lucy has gone mad!” and went to read it.

    I was expecting to see some arguments that fall in a grey area of screenwriting.

    However, now that I’ve read both, I have to say Glyn’s first 4 arguments are too weak and there’s nothing I can really agree with.

    I can see where Glyn’s coming from regarding the fact all movies look and sound the same nowadays and I partially agree with him when it comes to blockbusters.

    I disagree that most blockbusters have great dialog. Some lines are there simply because they are cool and sound great in a trailer, but have no real substance. Yes, they reveal character. The hero is either fearless towards what’s about to happen or she’s masking her true emotions, but must all action heroes fall into one of these two? Le yawn (sorry Lucy, had to steal it).

    Out of blockbuster land, I believe dialogs are usually good, IF the movie is also good.

    Glyn adds: “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.”
    That’s because when well done and in the right context, it DOES convey deep meaning and emotion. A silence or a pause can be more powerful than any dialog line.
    12 years a slave has a scene focusing the face of Chiwetel Ejiofor for maybe 10 seconds. Nothing happens. Nothing at all. But that pause, in context of what happened just before is extremely powerful. It allow us to understand what’s on the character’s mind and at the same time, gives the audience enough time to breathe and think about what just happened. It’s brilliant. One of my favourite scenes of all time.

    Great camera work tells the story way better than any word will ever be able to. There must be a reason why we keep saying that an image is worth a thousand words, right?

    It’s our job as writers to write those moments where great directors and cinematographers can translate those words into great pictures.

    So, if I’m allowed to leave any advice to writers: direct something. A 5 minute short, a webseries episode, anything with a narrative. Even if directing is not what you want to do. It helps you understand what a director, a DoP, an actor and all heads of department, really, will look for in a screenplay.

    I think it’s commendable that you let someone with a different opinion share their vision in your blog. However, I believe it’s very dangerous to post something like this, considering you don’t even share the opinion.

    Your blog was the very first source of information I’ve read when I first started learning how to write a screenplay (thank you, btw) and for a long time, your word was law to me. It took me a considerable amount of time before I started reading other sources of material and started questionning your opinions (I ended up agreeing with a huge majority :P).

    A new writer that reads this out of context can be sent in a completely wrong direction. You do mention in the original post that there would be a different post for the “No”, but it’s still “wrong” information polluting the internet (and your blog) and it doesn’t reflect your opinion at all. And to be honest, I usually skip the text in the headers and I’m sure most people do too.

    Maybe if you agree with the other person upfront that you will only post it if you feel that it’s a grey area and people might learn anything useful from having the two different approaches? It’s a bit of dictactorship but hey, it’s your blog.

    And with this, I’m reminded it’s your blog and you can do whatever you like with it 🙂
    Not trying to say it’s right or wrong, just my 2 cents.

    1. It’s not Glyn’s or my concern or responsibility if people take stuff they read the “wrong” way though, Bruno – especially if they skip parts 😉 As I mention in my post, Glyn is BANG ON re: various elements of dialogue , the only difference is I don’t actually agree with HOW or WHY … In other words, it’s a matter of interpretation. So in real terms, these posts ARE about the “grey areas” of screenwriting you mention. How about that??? 🙂

  3. The issue I have here is the nigh on fundemental maxim that each scene must ‘move’ the story forward. No it doesn’t. Blockbusters aside I have watched hundreds of films where in a scene, neither the action nor the dialogue moved the story forward. Writers need to learn how to create ‘space’ in scenes that might not give you some startling revelation about a character, but instead they help reinforce what you already know and much of this is dependent upon the pace of your screenplay and the genre.

    Animation films for example create scenes which allow you to create a sense of empathy with the struggle of the protagonist. They give you moments of laughter or beauty that give the audiance (mainly children) a chance to catch up and reflect and say to themselves “I’m with you!” They present an oppurtunity for you to root for the protagonist and animation frequently does this with scenes that do not move the story forward.

    1. In that case, that’s moving the story forward in my book, Paul. Stories are journeys. Empathy with the protagonist then is part of that journey.

      1. I agree with Lucy. Protagonist saves cat – we know he/she is good. Strong silent type doesn’t tell of his feelings (no problem writing dialogue for him!) – but we know he’s not a psycho because he has a friendly mutt and is building a boat by hand. Make your protagonist sympathetic, but don’t do it in a clichéd way.

  4. Unless we return to the silent era [even then there was text], dialogue will be in films. Best that we make dialogue good [ not on the nose conversation]. Dialogue must move story forward, not slow it down and stop it. Avoid exposition. Avoid the obvious. Don’t explain;let actions explain and tell only what audience needs to know. Where you need dialogue, make it count [is it really necessary?] Proofread. A lot. “Psycho” [Hitchcock] has vast sections without dialogue. Shakespeare’s plays are mostly dialogue [but its for theatre not film]. Films need good scenes and good dialogue – move story forward.

  5. I love good dialogue, and I do love writing dialogue. But for me, it really is one of the pieces. I can’t tell you how many movies I turned off just because the supposedly brilliant dialogue didn’t move the story forward at all. Maybe it provided some interesting characterisation, but it has to do more than that for me to keep watching.

    And don’t get me wrong, I do love a good quote. But I quote funny/memorable TV dialog more than movies because many, many people have already memorized the TV line along with the actors’ facial expressions, other characters’ reactions and the plot that accompanied that line.

    With movies, I find myself remembering and telling scenes, with the details, and then maybe mention the line. Because it’s really not complete without those aspects. And even with my favorite comedies, I hardly ever remember lines. It’s more about the whole scene For me, with The Hangover, I don’t remember any lines. But boy do I remember the baby in the closet and tiger in the room.

    It just might be my thing though… 🙂

  6. I am fortunate that with my first screenplay the whole story grew from a series of epic scenes, many based on famous paintings, so the dialogue has really come last of all!

  7. First of all, I loved BOTH articles. You are both insightful and passionate, and easy to read. And I think you agree on 90% of this topic. Yeah! I do! I just think you’re coming at it from VERY different angles. One of you is looking at what’s come out, what’s been popular, the trends on the surface. One of you is on the front lines, slogging through all the muck that will never see the green light. So OF COURSE you will have different perspectives! So once we account for that, WOW, you guys are practically singing the same song! Example:
    PEOPLE TALK –> Lucy points out that people do lots of other boring stuff too and we don’t put that in. True! And it makes sense that sh’d peeve about that, given how many hours she’s spent reading pointless dialogue. Glyn points out that a movie without dialogue would be ridiculous as we’d be missing a major part of the human experience True! And it makes sense that he’d peeve about that, given how many movies he’s seen where they deliberately replace dialogue with cheesy melodrama shots.
    You see what I mean. Bottom line for me is this: a movie is a way to tell a story with images and sound. But nothing exists in a vacuum – movies are contrasted with plays, for example, and therefore we place (and expect) more emphasis on visuals in a movie because it’s something a play can’t do. But above all it is a way to tell a story. So if you don’t have room for your story because you’ve spent too much time on cool action scenes, CUT IT. The same goes for dialogue, backstory, flashbacks, voice overs, side stories, melodramatic stares into mirrors… the story comes first. How much dialogue will depend entirely on the individual story, not just the genre. There is no rule of thumb. There are classics with lots and classics with almost nothing, but you as a writer – an INDIVIDUAL WITH AN INDIVIDUAL VOICE – should NEVER decide how much dialogue OR ANYTHING ELSE you’ll put in your script because of what SOMEONE ELSE has done. SERVE THE STORY. If the story isn’t important enough to be the decision maker for everything else, then it’s not important enough for you to be writing it. And as for the kind of QUALITY of dialogue? THE BEST! OF COURSE! The best everything! If your script sucks in every way but one, it doesn’t matter what that one thing is! We must strive for excellence! And we must be okay with taking chances. So if your story ACUTALLY MUST rely on dialogue, do it. With unflinching standards of dialogue and everything else. And if your story ACTUALLY MUST have almost no dialogue at all, do it. The only thing that’s going to get you through is your story. Your job is to get out of its way, with GREAT dialogue, GREAT scenes, THOUGHTFUL movements, and TRUTHFUL people. Who talk. But not too much, probably. And not too on the nose, because that’s boring, and nobody does that. But we’re back to the part where everyone agrees with each other. 🙂
    I realize I went preachy. It’s been a weird morning! 🙂

    1. YUP >>> “If your script sucks in every way but one, it doesn’t matter what that one thing is! We must strive for excellence! And we must be okay with taking chances. So if your story ACUTALLY MUST rely on dialogue, do it. With unflinching standards of dialogue and everything else. And if your story ACTUALLY MUST have almost no dialogue at all, do it. The only thing that’s going to get you through is your story. Your job is to get out of its way, with GREAT dialogue, GREAT scenes, THOUGHTFUL movements, and TRUTHFUL people. Who talk. But not too much, probably. And not too on the nose, because that’s boring, and nobody does that.”

  8. The medium is all about ENTERTAINMENT, which can come in several forms/combinations. However, to your point – you are correct, in my opinion, action can speak louder than words. Action is a universal language and adds to the actors bag of tools.

    To ask someone to ‘come over here’ vs. snapping your fingers and waving them to come over, can suggest so much more.

    Listen to great radio…what make it great? The broadcasters paint the visual picture over the airwaves…”theater of the mind”. When we listen to truly great radio the broadcaster is describing the scene and our mind enjoys that entertainment of painting the picture.

    Nice articles Lucy. Thanks!

  9. One of my screenwriting teachers told us (students) that if we really want to become great screenwriters we should watch silent movies. He said we should be able to understand what is going on in that movie without dialogue. I wonder what Glyn and Lucy think about that?

    1. Yes, that’s a “classic” bit of screenwriting teaching there and it’s a good idea to get students to realise movies are predominantly a visual medium.

    2. Pictures are more powerful and immediate ways of getting information across than words. And silents are a great teacher of what can be done. Just for the record, my last two shorts were full of dialogue (check ’em out, they’re quite funny), while my next will be silent (it won’t be funny, incidentally).

      But silent movies were strong on physical comedy, and adventure. So is Mr Bean’s Holiday. The Artist showed how romance can be done with next to no dialogue. But most modern comedies need dialogue. Conspiracy, detective and courtroom dramas need dialogue. Anything that aims to tickle the intellect needs dialogue. So let’s value it and work to make it as good as it can be, and of course, avoid turgid reams of words that take us nowhere.

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