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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:

Sometimes a spec screenplay will include ALL of the above. Supersadface.

The Truth

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.

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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.

What Next?

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)

Good luck!

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One Response to DANGER: Why Dialogue Is Killing Your Screenplay

  1. Joel says:

    It might just be me, but sometimes I find the opposite (lack of dialogue) can be just as frustrating when it’s not justified. Don’t get me wrong, I love good films that use minimal dialogue. (Drive, Ida, The Assassin, Days of Heaven…. That’s my jam) But when a film uses no dialogue for the sake of using no dialogue it drives me up the wall. It tends to be an issue with student films or short films in general, but even a great film like “All is Lost” had moments when the main character would be given a curve ball (one of many) and he would remain completely silent. I would think to myself, “An F-bomb or something would be a perfectly acceptable response.”

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