Scripts are almost completely made up of dialogue - and yet explaining why certain words work well in an actor’s mouth, and why some don’t, is notoriously hard.
It’s often easier to pin down why a line of dialogue doesn’t work. One easy reason is exposition. A trap that new writers, particularly those writing fantasy and sci-fi, can fall into is to have their characters over-explain everything, from their actions, to their motivations, to how their world works and why - even though most people wouldn’t do this in real life.
It’s easy to understand why this is a common pitfall; if you’re plunging the viewer into a world where everything is unfamiliar, then it’s hard to bring them along with you if you think they’ll be lost.
But dialogue, counterintuitively, is not the best way to bring people along. The best scripts show the characters conveying things by doing, rather than over-explaining. Dialogue really flourishes when it’s written with restraint and used as a tool that underscores the intent behind the characters’ actions - in other words, ‘show, don’t tell.’
One of the best examples is Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal.’ Two of the main characters, Jerry and Emma, open the play by talking about their long-term affair, without talking about it. When we get our first hint of it, the dialogue is laden with repressed emotion.
Jerry: Ned’s five, isn’t he?
Emma: You remember.
Jerry: Well, I would remember that.
This could easily have been over-written. See below for how this piece of dialogue could have been rendered by a less-skilled writer.
Jerry: Ned’s five, isn’t he?
Emma: I’m surprised you remember. He wasn’t exactly planned, and I thought you might have suppressed the shock of thinking for a moment that he might be yours.
Jerry: Well, how could I forget? You were having sex with your husband again while I was in America. For half a second, I thought I might be a father again.
Compare the two. In the first, the dialogue is so restrained that the weight of past memories almost bursts through the words. Not only do we immediately start to make inferences, piquing our interest in the characters’ lives, but we get the sense of how repressed and uptight they are. They are used to secrecy, which makes their set-up ideal for a play about lies and deception.
In the second, we are told so much that we start to get bored. There’s no nuance, and we don’t get to learn much about who the characters are through their speech patterns. In a play like this, less is more.
Another example is the recent ITV comedy-drama ‘Maternal,’ which follows the antics of three women in the NHS as they return to work after maternity leave. One of the show’s most powerful and enraging moments is when we see surgeon Catherine applying for a promotion. In a montage sequence that switches back and forth between a golf course and Catherine’s more manic existence, we realise immediately why her male colleague, Jack, will get the promotion.
The subtext, not the text, is clear: he has the time to hob-nob with the boss while she has to juggle work and motherhood. There’s no rant about the patriarchy or the glass ceiling from Catherine; there doesn’t need to be. It’s more powerful to let the viewer draw their conclusions when they see the characters live as they probably would in real life. A rant or a speech would feel clunky and over-the-top, making the viewer feel lectured to rather than letting them feel surprise, shock or horror - and thereby stopping them from forging an emotional connection with the characters. If dialogue can’t elicit any emotion other than boredom, then it’s doomed.
Another way to make dialogue work might seem basic, but it’s often ignored: grammar. I regularly read scripts that haven’t been fully proof-read or where the dialogue has been carelessly written. For example, using a comma where a full stop should be can make dialogue less fluent and natural, robbing us of a character’s voice and causing us to believe in them less. See below.
Jack: Come with me now, it’ll be alright.
Compare this to:
Jack: Come with me now. It’ll be alright.
The second example clearly packs more of a punch. The moral of the story: punctuation matters!
This all sounds easier said than done. It’s often hard for writers to tell when their dialogue isn’t working. Many people don’t even know the best way to begin a scene, and to crucially set the tone for their characters’ speech patterns that will give their dialogue fluency and flare.
If you’re that person, then a good way in is to take a bit of advice from celebrated ‘West Wing’ writer Aaron Sorkin: imagine that you’re walking in on a conversation. What’s being said? That will tell you, and the viewer, what kind of world you’re in, and how people talk. Here are some examples of first lines that I just came up with. Use this method to try writing your own.
‘I said I would be there.’
‘Not today. Please, not today.’
‘You need rules and boundaries. Without that, you have nothing.’
‘Who are you, and where am I?’
Or, go into a busy place and listen to the people around you. What can you hear? Could that be the first line of your scene - and maybe, our way into your world?
Owen and Maddy have some thoughts about scripts and stories and put them here. It's what SW thinks about things.
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