Screenwriting 101 — Some Thoughts on Dialogue

Yesterday’s discussion of Le Trou led to some worthwhile questions about the nature and purpose of dialogue in movies. So as long as folks have questions about dialogue, I thought I would offer some thoughts of mine and we could have a, um, I don’t know, some kind of thing where we talk back and forth about it.

Here’s what I know:

1. I used to write plays. In a play, dialogue is everything. Almost nothing else matters. This fact was proven to me when I would try to put action into a play. I found that anything I wrote in a stage direction, unless it was indicated in dialogue as well, simply did not happen. No one ever pays any attention to stage directions. Seriously. I could write in a stage direction “He points a gun at her,” and unless I included a line where she says “Don’t point that gun at me!” nobody would ever point a gun at anybody.

(This goes for scene description as well. I once wrote a play that took place in “an empty room.” I showed up on the first day of rehearsal to find a set that looked like the set for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The set designer took “an empty room” to mean a room with tables and chairs and a sofa and a nice rug on the floor and nice pictures on the wall and a cunning ceiling lamp. So in addition to writing the action of the play into the dialogue, I took to writing the set description into the dialogue as well. “I can’t believe how empty this room is! There isn’t a stick of furniture in it!” and so forth.)

In a play, you can have scenes that go on for hours, characters talking about ideas, on and on, and as long as the dialogue is interesting you can sustain an audience’s interest. Try that in a movie and the studio reader won’t get past page five.

2. Conversely to plays, I discovered, to my dismay, that dialogue is the least important aspect of a screenplay. I say “to my dismay” because, as a playwright, I found I had a felicitous talent for dialogue, a talent developed to the point where I could have plays skate by for 90 minutes or more without a decent story, and this talent would simply not sustain me in writing screenplays. No, to write screenplays I had to learn structure, and structure, I found, was a completely different animal to dialogue or scenework.

(This is, incidentally, why writers who do a dialogue polish on a screenplay often do not get credit — because the WGA knows that dialogue is the least important reason why a screenplay works or not.)

A reader yesterday brought up a scene from The Wire, where instead of having the characters blather on about a bunch of stuff the audience doesn’t care about, the writer simply had them say the word “fuck” and its variants for the entire scene. That sounds like a good idea for a scene to me, and I’m here to tell you that the scene probably would have worked just as well if the characters had been barking like dogs instead of saying the word “fuck.” You can watch foreign movies without subtitles and generally figure out what’s going on. That is one reason why Hollywood movies are so wildly successful overseas — who needs to understand what the people are saying in Star Wars?

Think about the Shakespeare productions you’ve seen. All right, now think about the good Shakespeare productions you’ve seen. If you’re like me, you spend the first ten minutes of the play thinking “Oh shit, I have no idea what they’re saying! I’m a moron! How am I going to make it through this play?” and then, after the shock wears off, you find that you can understand what they’re saying, even though the poetry is dense and the play is about things that happened a long time ago to people wearing doublets. The reason this happens is, if you are seeing a decently-directed production with relatively intelligent actors, the character’s intent will become clear even if you can’t really understand what the actors are saying. One character wants something from another character, the other character is giving in or not giving in, complications come along, the broad outlines of the story become clear, and (as Shakespeare is an excellent dramatist) we stay and watch because we want to know how it will turn out. And I promise you that the effect was very much the same in Shakespeare’s time.

In a screenplay, the thing you’re striving to do is write a silent movie, a story told only in moving pictures. Now then, we live in a very verbal time, people yakking all over the place ceaselessly, so in general, if you write a scene where a bunch of people are doing something and they don’t say anything to each other, it’s probably going to feel untrue. So you do have to put some dialogue in or else your screenplay will look pretentious and “arty” (believe me, you do not want a studio executive to say your screenplay is “arty”).

(Not to harp on it, but There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men are excellent examples of screenwriting — it’s almost a shock when a character goes ahead and speaks. And even then they don’t say much that’s important. The characters in No Country threaten and intimidate, say “yep” or “nope,” and that’s about it. Daniel Plainview in Blood speaks rarely and almost everything he does say is a lie designed to extract money from someone.)

This is one reason why the treatment is crucial. When you write your story out in prose form, revealing only the actions of the characters (“Luke lives on the desert planet of Tatooine. He hates it there. His uncle makes him work in the moisture fields,” etc) you begin to learn how unimportant dialogue is. If you get to a point in the treatment where the plot-point must and can only be made in dialogue (eg “No, I am your father,” for instance) then you know that that’s an important line that absolutely must be in the screenplay. There should be no more than five or six instances like this in your treatment — if your characters are talking so much that their speeches become the action of the narrative, your screenplay is going to be too talky.

(Incidentally, let’s take a look at that line, and the economy of that scene. VADER: Obi-wan never told you what happened to your father. LUKE: He told me enough. He told me you killed him! VADER: No, I am your father. The dialogue is plain, simple, straightforward, unadorned and even blunt. Our hero George Lucas is not always on the ball dialogue-wise, but this is very good movie dialogue.)

(Shakespeare, of course, also knew when to be flowery and when to cut to the chase. It doesn’t get any simpler than “To be or not to be.”)

If you do happen to have a gift for dialogue, it will serve you well, presuming you can use your gift to make characters say things that are brief, to the point, unadorned and revealing of character, in as few words as possible.

3. To every extent possible, characters should not tell each other how they feel. Any time a character tells another character how he or she feels, the audience is going to wonder “what the heck is he or she getting at?” Any time a character says “Here’s the truth of a matter:” what should follow the colon is anything other than the truth of the matter. Think of it: any time someone comes to you in your daily goings-about and says “Let me tell you something about myself” or “I have some feelings I want to share with you” or “The fact of the matter is…” you want to turn around and run in the opposite direction. Because the only reason someone would come up to you and offer you some kind of truth is because they want something from you.

And I’m sure I’ll think of more but this is enough for now.

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33 Responses to “Screenwriting 101 — Some Thoughts on Dialogue”
  1. black13 says:

    “Our hero George Lucas is not always on the ball dialogue-wise, but this is very good movie dialogue.”

    That might have had something to do with the fact that the screenplay wasn’t written by George Lucas, but by Leigh Brackett (and revised after her death by Lawrence Kasdan). He didn’t even direct it, that was Irvin Kirshner). Empire was probably the best of the bunch precisely because Lucas stepped back and hired people who actually knew what they were doing.

  2. teamwak says:

    An excellent read, thank you 🙂

    I wonder if you have seen the movie Yes with the excellent Joan Allen in it. They speak in nothing but iambic pentameter. I’ve not seen it myself, but thats certainly a novel approach to take with dialogue. I suppose that is thats movies gimic

  3. teamwak says:

    I actually saw my first ever professional production of Shakespeare on a date in september (a sign I’m growing up. We went to the theatre not the club lol)

    It was Henry V and I was blown away by it. I really was a little worried by the dialogue at first, but by the end, I was just rivitted by the whole performance (and the clever post-modern staging of it). Seeing the cast dressed as if for Desert Storm, and charging to the “Once more into the Breach” speach was amazing! I always knew I would love Shakespeare if I ever gave myself a chance to watch it properly!

    • Todd says:

      As far as Henry V goes, you don’t get a much better “first chance” at Shakespeare than Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 movie. I was the manager at the theater where it played in New York and would watch it every night. Terrific stuff.

  4. Nicely stated- I think you know I agree with you on this—but…
    I also feel that more and more Hollywood movies have become talking pictures (which is really an oxymoron or at least terribly incongruous)
    I think it’s probably a producer issue- (although I could easily make a case for it being Kevin Smith’s fault- or Quentin Tarantino’s for that matter)
    For now let’s stay with someone who doesn’t understand the action and makes a/the writer add a line like, “Look at my big gun, I’m gonna kill you with it.”
    Better yet, if they can’t get the writer to add the line – they will add a pop song (new or old) that describes exactly what is going on (externally or internally with the characters) and even go so far as to edit the picture to the song’s lyrics—or worse in the case of PTA’s use of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” in Magnolia which acted as an internal barometer for the movie itself and had the effect of taking you completely out of the movie at the same time…ugh…

    • black13 says:

      Keoma (one of those Italo westerns starring Franco Nero) did a very good job of this. Well, something similar, anyway. The songs in the movie served as a kind of narrator/internal monologue of the title character.

      I need to see this movie again. I remember it as being very very good.

    • Todd says:

      That’s funny, I don’t see the “pop song summing up the emotional statement of the scene” so much now that I’ve stopped watching Nora Ephron’s movies. I see it all the time on TV though — whenever a show closes with a montage of characters relating to one another while a pop song plays, I want to scream.

      And you know I’m bound to disagree with you regarding Magnolia.

      • sboydtaylor says:

        No offense about Magnolia, but I usually like artistic/experimental films and it just didn’t strike me. I didn’t like anyone enough to care if the frogs smashed their windshields.

        I’d love to hear more about it, though. Every time I think about it, I keep thinking I must’ve missed something.

        • Todd says:

          The thing you’re missing is that the frogs drop out of the sky because they want to drink your milkshake. The San Fernando Valley, any native will tell you, is renowned for its wide selection of thick, creamy milkshakes — and obviously the frogs traveled a great distance — through the sky, no less — in order to get to one of those frosty dessert treats. Only to find that Daniel Plainview had drunk them all.

      • dougo says:

        I guess you didn’t see Juno?

      • faroffstar says:

        I don’t know, I think the show House M.D. does an alright job with it’s song choices for an ending show montage.

  5. ndgmtlcd says:

    “In a play, you can [have] scenes that go on for hours, characters talking about ideas, on and on, and as long as the dialogue is interesting you can sustain an audience’s interest.”

    I think that you have a special kind of audience in mind, dedicated playgoers who can stomach this kind of stuff. I love reading this kind of play. I adore reading GB Shaw’s plays, but I never go to see them. I know I’d walk out after ten minutes. In fact I usually walk out within ten minutes of any play like that, in the cases where I haven’t read the dialogue beforehand.

    I think that’s the reason why the set designer and/or producer will overload the stage with decors and tricks of all kinds, in a vain attempt to create an environment (which the playwright had never thought about) for a talky “idea” play.

    I remember going to a production of “Charbonneau et le chef” that was filled with tricks like a car coming on stage (to create a suitable entry for the prime minister of Quebec) and light tricks to have a “ghost” speak to bishop Charbonneau. The play was a hit with the general public, mostly because of the famous actors involved. Who remembers that it was an “idea” play about the struggle between left and right, big bosses and brave union leaders?

    I don’t have those problems with Moliere’s plays because he had a knack for anchoring the plays in reality, for making the ideas, the characters all at one with their environment, or at least some crucial parts of it, like chairs or a whip.

  6. popebuck1 says:

    You can’t give him credit for ruining the movie of “Talk Radio,” though – his big mistake there was letting Oliver Stone get his hands on it.

  7. curt_holman says:

    “In a play, dialogue is everything. Almost nothing else matters.”

    I write about theater as well as movies, and think that your observations for “#1” are absolutely hilarious. It’s just the kind of wit and insight that caught the attention of EW’s PopWatch!

  8. medox says:

    What do you think the perfect dialog/action ratio in a good comic would be? Or is there one?

    • Todd says:

      I haven’t done enough comics to be an expert, but of the few I’ve done I’d say the least dialogue possible the better, per panel.

      There was a great “Batman Black and White” story by Chip Kidd and Tony Millionaire where they did the whole thing in pictures with great grace and economy, then had one panel where the Penguin summed up the whole story with such great verbosity that there wasn’t even room left for his face in the panel.

  9. zornhau says:

    This is useful

    I’m going to friend you so I can track your entries. Don’t feel obligated to friend me back…

  10. Anonymous says:

    one of my favorite batman comics ever. I even have a copy if the script with notes…
    you may enjoy this;