Here are some common dialogue faux pas that regularly come up for screenwriters. I’ve talked about the dos. Here are the do not dos.
These are overused expressions which have almost lost their meaning. Lines like “best thing since sliced bread” will surely raise your reader’s hackles or kill them with boredom. How can you freshen this line up? Best thing since heated toilet seats? Best thing since our wedding night? (wink wink) How about the cringeworthy “I woke up and it was all a dream”. A true master like Michel Gondry can turn this dream cliche into a cinematic delight.
NARROW/ OFFENSIVE CULTURAL REFERENCES
The Chinese man called Mr Wong who”wang the wong number”? Ethnic humour was barely funny in the seventies and eighties. This isn’t fashion. It won’t come back. Pop culture references can date badly too. Especially in the wrong age group. It’s acceptable for a surfer to say “filthy” (meaning wonderful) or the teenager who says “shut up” or “like”. Imagine if your grandmother said “Totally awesome”? I think not. So beware of dated or inappropriate cultural references. The term “thong” is a g-string in the USA, whereas in Australia it refers to “flip flops”. And as I go on “fit” means attractive in the UK and “totty” means lady. This would translate as a “sultry dame” in the south.
IDIOMS, COLLOQUIALISMS AND SLANG
While all these can add colour and texture to your dialogue; incorrect usage can be toxic to your dialogue. An idiom is a turn of phrase or figure of speech which doesn’t make sense to outsiders. Examples include “keep your on on” (meaning “calm down” in Australia) or to “pop ones clogs” (meaning to die in the UK). These are specific to regions and dialects.
Colloquialisms are less formal expressions such as “the bottom fell out of the stockmarket” or “the show tanked”.
Slang is the least formal of expressions and are often used by people in the know. Terms such as “weed” for marijuana or “brass” (means harlot in the UK and upper management in the USA).
ON THE NOSE DIALOGUE
“I have issues with women because my date stood me up at my valedictory dinner”. I sympathise with you buddy, but you are committing a major dialogue no no. This is worse than a dated idiom. Only children have the luxury of saying what they think, when they think it. Adults self-censor. Think of the intrigue you add to your dialogue if you chose “off the nose dialogue”? Think how this scene could be rewritten. The suited and booted jock drives to the prom along the scenic root. His buddy tells him to step on it, or they’ll be even later. The Jock responds “the later, the better”. His buddy replies “I thought you love Emma”. The jock responds “Treat ’em mean. Keep ’em keen”. Doesn’t that suggest some date trauma from long ago?
Nobody likes to see a stripper get naked in a quantum jump. We want to see her/him peel away the layers gradually. Get the metaphor? Consider “Darling, we’ve been married for over twenty years, have two beautiful children, a boy 11 and a girl 13 going on sixteen, we live in a lovely house, your accounting business is going well.. Why can’t we take a holiday abroad?” Try getting an actor say that clunky mess. You can amend it to “Business is going well. Why can’t we go abroad?” Everything else is redundant. A great trick for delivering essential exposition is to do so against the backdrop of stunning visuals such as a car chase, a natural disaster or a fight. Deliver it in nuggets if you must.
Some readers demand a cut if they see dialogue of more than three sentences, even if it’s your wedding vows. A picture tells a thousand words (see paragraph on cliches). Readers are your first layer of audience. Make life easy for them. Sometimes, no dialogue, or silence expresses something deeper than words.
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