The 5 Commandments of Dialogue (Hint: Nothing To Do With Your Neighbor’s Wife)

By on April 16, 2015
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Show – don’t tell. We’ve heard it a thousand times, from every screenwriting professor to screenwriting hardback. But why do screenwriters STILL fail to follow that simple rule? We understand moving pictures are first and foremost pictures. But why are we so keen on dialogue, and why is it at any given cocktail party, when the conversation is running dry, no one sits and talks about the fancy colors and elaborate costumes in Wizard of Oz, but rather the famous words, “We aren’t in Kansas anymore…” It’s simple. We love dialogue. So we NEED it, but we NEED to learn how to use it.

1)        Be Economical: As writers, we are creative, right? So today’s challenge when writing your script is, practice saying a lot by saying very little. Rule of thumb: 1-2 sentences, max. Remember, novels can be reread over and over again. Not a movie. You have very little time to advance the story and develop the characters identity. So make your dialogue smart, crisp, and clean. Remember, if you can replace your dialogue with a picture (short description), DO IT!

2)        Subtext is our ONLY friend when writing Dialogue: Think about some of your favorite movies and their dialogue. Use Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino as examples. Their characters are sarcastic, speak metaphorically, say one thing but mean something else, and avoid saying what they “really” want to say. Some of the most brilliant actors will go through dialogue and take notes below the text, listing the inner goals and subtext of each character. Why? Because an actor’s job is to portray this character inside and out. It’s how she delivers her lines, not if she can memorize them. Audiences also love to debate and wonder what the character is “really” hinting at. On-the-nose dialogue is ALWAYS a failure.

3)        Please, No Chitchat. Have you ever seen a student film, where we and watch 2 characters sit at a coffee shop, just saying, “Hello, how are you?” Oh wait, that’s done in studio films, too. We are constantly bombarded with cliché office greetings. People don’t pay money to hear what they heard all day. They want fresh voices with charming comebacks. Amateur writers’ screenplays are riddled with chitchat. They fill pages full of it, giving them the illusion they can write 120 pages. But in retrospect, 10 pages in, the producer has already tossed the script. Point is :it’s time for your characters to GET TO THE POINT.

4)        Fresh Voices. I’m not going to get into the debate whether or not you can teach dialogue, but some screenwriters have the gift of gab, writing extraordinary dialogue. But… each character sounds the same. Yes, the dialogue is exciting and clever, but it’s hard to differentiate between each character. After the first 10 pages, I shouldn’t even have to read the “Character Heading”. I should know who’s speaking… if it’s done right. If your protagonist, who’s from New Jersey, is talking to a security guard from Mississippi, I don’t care how amusing the conversation is, if they don’t have an individual voice, it’s pointless! OK, so you don’t know anyone from Mississippi. Fair enough. How about assign a writing partner to take over that character? Maybe even buy a tape at the bookstore that teaches accents… don’t be ashamed, actors buy them all the time! Look, when I do screenplay coverage and I see this mistake, the first thing I think is, this writer does NOT know his character’s personality. So that’s an automatic PASS.

5)        KNOWING the rules and then BREAKING them. In “Cinematography” Film School 101 they teach you all the correct camera rules, for instance, “crossing the line”. But some of the best films HAVE crossed the line, like ‘Revolutionary Road’. But it’s not by accident. It’s justified, and it works exceptionally. You won’t learn dialogue overnight. Many writers actually write the whole script without dialogue; just action… or the dialogue in the first draft is basic, just so they can get the point across. So take your time on dialogue, and once you learn all the rules, I beg you to break them!

About Joe Screenwriter

I've been working in Hollywood at a major film studio for over 10 years. I've read thousands of scripts, run a screenplay coverage company and worked for a successful producer. I'm not a screenwriter, but I know good scripts from bad and have built up a cornucopia of knowledge.