Dave Trottier discusses seven dialogue errors readers of this blog never make.
1) OBVIOUS EXPOSITION
This often happens when writers tell us backstory or plot. Consider the following:
Husband: “Darling, how long have we been married now?”
Wife: “Silly, it’s been 20 years. Remember Hawaii—the North Shore?”
Husband: “Oh yeah, that little honeymoon cottage.”
When your characters seem to be speaking more to the audience than to each other, you are being obvious. When two characters tell each other things they both already know, that’s almost always obvious exposition. Allow exposition to emerge naturally in the context of the story; don’t force anything.
If you have to reveal a lot of vital exposition, such as the rules of a technological world, do it during something spectacular on screen.
A single exclamation point is plenty. In Shawshank Redemption, the warden approaches Andy who is in solitary confinement. He tells Andy that the man who could prove his innocence is dead. Andy tells the warden to have H&R Block do his taxes; he’s done.
Then, in the screenplay, the warden yells at Andy; but in the movie, the warden’s speech is whispered with intensity. The movie version is more effective.
Most writers have a tendency to exaggerate character emotions. I remember recently explaining to a writer that five of her characters sobbed at various times in the script. That’s overwriting. Sometimes, trying to control emotion has more impact than actually expressing emotion. Embrace the power of silence to convey inner turmoil
3) DERIVATIVE DIALOGUE
Avoid clichés and lines we’ve heard in other movies. An occasional allusion to another movie or literary work can be effective, but That means you can’t use “We’re not in Kansas anymore”.
4) UNORIGINAL SPEECHES
When a character’s speeches could be delivered by any character in the screenplay, you have a problem. Consider typical, ordinary, expected lines that virtually anyone could have said and that have little originality.
In addition, when your characters speak far too often in complete sentences, they are likely saying your words rather than their words. Giving your characters their own voices will strengthen your voice as a writer.
5) EVERYDAY PLEASANTRIES
Save them for everyday, not the screen.
Bill: “How are you?”
Bill: “How’s the dog these days?”
Sue: “Getting along great.”
Boring. Avoid chit-chat, unless it is original and interesting.
On rare occasions, there can be a dramatic purpose for such talk. Recall the scene in Fatal Attraction when the Michael Douglas character walks into his home and sees his wife talking to his lover. At this point, his wife does not know about his affair. Then, his wife makes formal introductions.
Dan (Michael Douglas): “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
Alex (Glenn Close): “…Oh, we’ve definitely met.”
This is one of the rare instances where chit-chat is dramatic and suspenseful due to its subtext.
6) NO ROOM FOR SUBTEXT
This is the antithesis of obvious writing,
Try having your characters beat around the bush, imply their meaning, speak metaphorically, say one thing by saying something else, or use the double entendre.
7) UNNECESSARY REPETITION
Repeating a particular phrase or line can be effective, as with “Here’s looking at you, Kid” in Casablanca. One instance sets up the next.
This kind of repetition that seldom works dramatically is repeating information the audience already heard a couple of scenes ago. It creates a sense of stasis, and the story feels like it’s dragging.
This also includes overused profanity. Is the character’s lexicon really that limited, or hasn’t the writer spent enough time getting to know them?