Good dialogue in your screenwriting is subjective, but bad dialogue is obvious. Ouch!
What Film Genre?
Movie dialogue must capture the mood of your genre. It you’re writing a comedy, say something funny. If you’re writing a horror film, say something scary. Do this from page 1 in your screenplay. Sure there can be moments of levity in a heavy drama movie or a scary moment in a comedy, but the backbone should be determined early on.
If I’m on page 5 and your comedy hasn’t made me chuckle yet, I’m not reading page 6. If you wrote a thriller or horror and I’m not wondering what’s going to happen next or I don’t have the feeling I’m about to jump in my chair, your dialogue isn’t setting the right tone. If you are writing an emotional drama and I don’t connect with any of your characters by page 10, I’m out. Sayonara baby!
When Does Dialogue Go Bad?
Your movie dialogue doesn’t sound like something you (or anyone) would actually say. The best dialogue doesn’t feel like dialogue at all. It feels like a conversation. It should flow naturally.
Remember that dialogue isn’t speech. Dialogue is a stylized form of speech.
There is nothing worse than reading the same dialogue over and over again for 100 pages. Sometimes it’s just the repetition of one phrase or word. Some screenwriters repeat the theme of their stories or exposition to really make their point.
This one is self-explanatory. If someone reads your dialogue and can’t figure out why it’s there, you have a problem Houston. Don’t ramble on. Don’t over-explain. Don’t go off on irrelevant tangents.
This is exposition disguised as dialogue. This generally works in court room dramas or police interrogation scenes. Where were you on the night of the thirteenth? Do you know this person? You know what I’m talking about?
This occurs when there is a dry verbal exchange between characters. It only progresses the plot and nothing else. It doesn’t show or create any emotion, tension or conflict. At the very least, dialogue should entertain us.
Add some pizazz to your dialogue that reveals something about your character. Imagine you’re really angry at someone and want to cuss them. Think carefully about one word that would accurately express your outrage.
Complete this sentence: YOU ARE A __________________.
Characters say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say. Their dialogue is “on the nose”, unlayered and direct. Sometimes the way something is said or its context outranks the words actually spoken.
Here are some dialogue hacks to add a new lease of life to your screenplay:
This is the nuclear option and antithesis of subtlety. There is full on sparring. Emotions are running high, words unfiltered, maximum impact. Boom!
A masterful way of not tacking a sensitive topic. Sometimes it can be a slight diversion, while other times it can be changing the subject.
This is sometimes called a bookended dialogue. Two characters start talking about one subject and digress. Then they return to the original topic to close out the scene.
Sometimes this is a tactic to avoid telling the truth or saying what you really think. Alternatively, it can mean that a character is not worthy of a response.
This is one of my favorites. It occurs when the words spoken don’t reflect the reality of a situation. Examples might include the CEO claiming that the company has posted its best earnings ever as its stock price collapses.
This occurs when at least one character lacks the knowledge of a situation during a conversation. Looking at the previous example, imagine if the CEO was telling his stakeholders how great profits were when the accountant has just filed for bankruptcy.
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