The Bad Stuff
Look, we ALL know that characters are what they DO (not what they say). So why the hell are so many spec screenplays dialogue-led???
You know the ones, you’ve probably written them yourself (I know I have). In these pesky dialogue-laden specs, we:
- … Have extended introduction sequences to the characters, especially via chit-chat (‘How are you?’/ ‘I remember when you …’/ ‘What do you plan on doing next?’ etc).
- … End up reading pages and pages of talk (‘chains of dialogue’)
- … Read a never-ending flow of moving body parts and false movement, so the scenes end up feeling static.
- … Discover everything we know about the characters – including worldview, backstory and place in the narrative – via talk, rather than what they actually do in the plot
- … End up with endless arguments, debates or wailing confessions in order to give the reader a sense of ‘conflict’ (tip: this is not conflict).
- … Find out crucial exposition pertaining to the story (including backstory and story world) via talk, not actions or visuals
- … Get a complete lack of visual storytelling.
Sometimes a spec screenplay will include ALL of the above. Supersadface.
Every time I post about dialogue being a PROBLEM in the spec pile, writers (not Bang2writers, obvs) start frothing at the mouth. I’m not even kidding. It’s like I’m personally insulting them, or the Holy Grail of Screenwriting or something. It’s seen as a kind of WRITING BLASPHEMY!
And you know what, I get it. We all love to quote our favourite movies and TV shows, so it stands to reason that spec screenwriters might be more than a little in love with dialogue, or the idea of creating GREAT DIALOGUE. Why not?
But here is an uncomfortable truth:
Dialogue is not as important as you think it is.
Before you blow your top, just think about it. All those screenwriting greats – both writers, films and moments you love to quote – might be great, but they’re great not because of *just* what is on the page. They’re great because:
- The screenwriter is a great ALL-ROUNDER (not just at dialogue)
- The filmmakers did a great job of rendering the film or TV show as image (whatever that means)
- The actors delivered the lines in ways that connected with the audience (for whatever reason)
- You loved the story, characters, filmmaking (also for whatever reason!)
So let me say it again: great dialogue is NOT *just* about what is literally on the page. So much of it is about DELIVERY, it’s not wise to put your eggs in *that* basket alone.
But here is what you CAN do
But if you love dialogue, by all means by my guest and work hard at it. Contrary to popular belief, I actually love (good) dialogue. All of my favourite screenwriters – and novelists, now you mention it – write fantastic dialogue that connects with me and makes me invest in the characters and the story.
But this is just it: great dialogue does not exist in a vacuum and this is the primary mistake spec screenwriters make. You cannot focus on dialogue alone.
Great dialogue does what ALL great craft elements do, which is:
- Push the story forward
- Reveal character
On this basis then, great dialogue comes only FROM great characters and great story plotting … So dialogue comes AFTER these two things, not before. This is why I always recommend Bang2writers work on dialogue LAST.
So, when you’re going over your screenplay next, ask yourself:
- Do I need ALL of this dialogue? (Tip: if you have dialogue exchanges of over half a page for ‘ordinary’ scenes or 3 pages for ‘extraordinary’ scenes, you probably don’t)
- Can we SEE who this character is? (Tip: An ounce of behaviour is worth a pound of words!)
- Can we SEE how this story is progressing? (Tip: Scene description is scene ACTION!)
- Are my scenes static? (Tip: if you have characters ‘entering/exiting’ and ‘pausing’, ‘walking across rooms’, ‘sitting’, ‘folding arms’ etc in order to break up your dialogue, they probably are)
- Am I telling the story VISUALLY? (Tip: remember, SCREENplay, not screenPLAY)