Creating An Unforgettable Screenplay, Part 5: Dialog
by Christine Autrand Mitchell
There are two parts to a script when you boil away the meat from the bone: there’s action – the visual description of the scene - and then there’s dialog.
However, there are films that are entirely, or nearly, devoid of dialog – The Triplets of Belleville comes to mind in the latter category and I’ve seen many an award winning shorts without dialog as well. A film without action, however, would be seen as an incomplete script, for it will not give the filmmaker any guidance as to artistic vision from the screenwriter (some directors might actually appreciate this). Besides, an all-dialog film may feel more like an infomercial rather than an artistic expression (which I consider film to be).
Returning from my philosophical detour, let’s talk about dialog. So often a screenplay with a good concept, good hooks and solid overall story arc will fall flat on its face because the dialog… well, it sucks. Without good dialog, your script won’t make the grade (i.e.: no one will want to read it, buy it, or watch it). There’s limited space in a script, so make sure your words are absolutely necessary.
I’ve boiled the most common issues into eight major categories. Raise your hands if you’ve heard this applied to your writing or have read these in others’ writing. I’ll then go over them in detail and walk you through a myriad of ways to improve your dialog – and thereby, your entire script!
- Unrealistic – the dialog does not sound like real people talking (a basic and pervasive problem)
- Breaking character – as it implies, it’s dialog that is inconsistent with the character, sort of like he is occasionally possessed by a demon except it’s not a horror story
- Exposition – also known as “you know, Joe”
- Length – the dialog is too long or too short
- Style – especially in genres, it’s important to write dialog that fits what the audience expects
- Shortcuts – using them as a replacement for bad plot
- Subtext – missing it
- Underestimation – of your audience
First of all…
My first two simplest solutions to getting at better dialog is to do two things:
Get readers – and I mean impartial readers who will give you honest critiques about the good and bad aspects of your script, preferably not a relative unless they can be brutally honest, and never someone whose opinion you don’t respect. Remember that honest is better than patronizing; honesty my hurt a bit but will improve your script if you listen and are guided by it
Arrange a table read - Hearing your dialog aloud, even as a cold read, will quickly highlight most problems.
This can be something arranged in your home and you can also invite others to listen and give their feedback. Don’t forget to get the actors’ feedback as well.
How do you go about arranging a table read? If you know some actors, ask them – they love to be the first ones to create a character no one else has ever played. If you don’t, contact a local theater group or casting director for smaller markets; they can be great resources. If you can do neither, get some friends together, assign parts and invest in some fabulous alcohol and snacks. Remember to share your expectations of honest feedback from the start.
A table read will easily highlight (in a shocking way) this. For example, you’ll hear if someone’s name is used too often, because we usually don’t speak like this:
I’m so glad you came over, Jane. You know, Jane,
I was so mad, last night. God, Jane, I don’t know
what to do.
It will also point out flat or wooden dialog – if it’s bad, the best actor can’t dress it up. Also, it will uncover if your dialog goes nowhere in a scene, where it doesn’t further the story or plot in any way. Inversely, it will point out if you’ve begun something that doesn’t get wrapped up.
As a reminder, here the dialog just doesn’t sound like that character should be saying those words. This is most often because your character is not fully developed. What they’re saying doesn’t fit the character’s goals, the track of their metamorphosis, their archetype, their present emotional state or the scene itself. It attributes confusion, not only to your character, but to your reader and audience.
First, you need to clearly know where your character begins his journey and where it will end. Secondly, if you’ve left areas of your script you’re not certain about, whether plot or a dialog, or anything, meaning you’re not 100% sure of your story, this may also occur.
One way I can keep my characters consistent and true to themselves is to cast them – either with a real life person or an actor portraying that character, or, create a sketch or portrait. That way you will always know what they look like (she has blue eyes and not green), their physical quirks (he strokes his beard when he’s worried), and their speaking style (slight French accent with a lisp) and patterns (speaks only in incomplete sentences).
This is often marked by one character saying, “You know, Joe…” and then proceeds to explain some sort of event or plot twist. This is a screenplay, people, so the best way to get information across is to show it. Using dialog to pass on an important bit of information to the story should be used only if there’s no other way, sneak it in as an “oh, by the way” morsel, or use it in dialog in a clever and non-obvious way. Good luck – this ain’t easy!
Once you’ve had others read your script and have heard it, you will discover when someone is sharing too little or too much information – maybe too soon or too late; speaking too briefly which may seem curt; or when one character hogs the dialog (and not on purpose).
You may notice something called monologueing: when one character spews words while the other character listens… maybe. There’s a great scene in The Incredibles where Syndrome gets distracted by being allowed to monologue, and mentions it. And that’s what it does to the audience, it distracts them as the character becomes a talking head and we tune out, just like during a boring lecture. Another example is the perpetrator telling the victim the plan before the victim escapes.
Something a reader or listener will quickly pick up on is a character speaking in the wrong style. A period piece shouldn’t have current slang, a sci-fi story shouldn’t sound like Shakespeare wrote it (or maybe it could…), a rom-com has shorter blocks of dialog than a drama. In other words, you can’t break the rules we all expect, but you can innovate as long as you remain within the box. Then again, I’d love for you to prove me wrong.
You may have run into an issue of being unable to solve a problem in your writing and took a shortcut (that’s a bad word!).
If you introduce a new character so that a vital piece of information is passed onto the audience, don’t make it obvious and bring the character back a few times in useful and interesting ways.
Using expletives to replace ineloquence or a bad plot is not a good idea. Expletives are cultural and situation appropriate, but going overboard with them won’t be appreciated by a general audience. Be creative and find a way to say it well - you’re a writer.
Don’t rely on star power to deliver weak lines. Since you know that Brad Pitt or Helen Mirren (you can insert your own stars here) will be delivering your lines someday, you think that a not-so-solid scene will be overlooked because they will come out of mouths that can do so little wrong. This is a huge mistake. You must always do your best and deliver the best dialog you can. You may have predicted your casting incorrectly. Again, feedback will point out these areas. The script won’t easily get to your stars if it’s not well written – we all know the exceptions.
Subtext is the underlying meaning of your scene. It is grossly overlooked. What makes a good script good, is subtext. It’s not just “what you see is what you get” and the audience never has to fire off more than one neuron; subtext helps you underpin your main conflict, enforce character traits, highlight secondary or even deeper plot points, inject humor when it’s desperately needed, and the list is endless. For example, Lily may be talking about the growth rate of her friend’s tree but she’s actually discussing their stunted friendship.
Unless you’re going for the simple, one story arc, have a conversation-while-you-watch-the-movie-without-losing-any-information script, don’t underestimate your audience. They’re smart and, if it’s a good story that is told well, most audience members want to be challenged just a little, at least. Me? I like to be challenged a lot and not be able to figure out the plot-twist and ending from the preview. If you raise the bar for your audience, they will greatly appreciate it and be fulfilled by being surprised!
Some of these issues can dovetail with others, making the problem a bit more difficult to analyze and thereby solve, but it’s not impossible. I don’t think there’s anything a good rewrite (especially with good feedback or a good editor) can’t fix – no, really, I believe that.
Christine Autrand Mitchell was raised across four countries and splits her time between writing and filmmaking. She writes screenplays, fiction, non-fiction and plays, and is an editor and script analyst. She has credits as a Producer, Director and Casting Director, and heads Entandem Productions.