When Less is More.
Updated: Apr 9
New screenwriters often believe that a screenplay is solely about dialogue, I’ve frequently heard new screenwriters revering great lines of dialogue as evidence that a screenplay is brilliant, and indeed there are some lines of dialogue that have become part of the collective human psyche.
‘…You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?
Well then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? Are you
talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here.
Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?…’
(The immortal words of Travis Bickle played by Robert De’Niro in Taxi Driver. Directed by Martin Scorsese and co-written by Paul Schrader & Martin Scorsese 1976.)
Crafting good dialogue however is a relatively small part of the overall task of crafting a great screenplay and I’d posit that what makes any particular line of dialogue powerful is not the intrinsic power of the words in the dialogue in and of themselves, but those words combined with the world, characters and themes in which that dialogue is uttered. In other words, it’s the story context that the screenwriter has crafted that lends the dialogue real power, and therein lies the real craft of the screenwriter.
If everything the audience needs to understand about your film is carried in the dialogue of the characters you might as well shoot your film with the lens cap on because you haven’t written a screenplay, you’ve written a radio play. This isn’t to decry the radio play, I’m a man of a certain age, I listen to Radio 4. It’s more a question of knowing the medium you’re working in and enabling your reader and future audience to actively engage in your screenplay rather than being passively spoon fed the entire story in dialogue. There is no point in filming moving images if they don’t advance the audiences understanding of character, the story or the theme. A good film is a dance between what we see and what we hear. You may have heard the phrase show don’t tell applied to screenwriting. Showing your audience an event or action requires them to think and feel their way through your screenplay, to question and interpret what they're being shown whereas if they are simply told something in dialogue you’ve created very little space for their active engagement, and the consequence? Your screenplay and subsequently your film will be made up of scenes that are boring and forgettable.
I’m sure you’ve watched films where the dialogue is laughable because characters tell other characters important information about the story or other characters, or signpost what is likely to happen, it feels artificial, we can feel the presence of the writer and in that moment the suspension of disbelief… the essential magic that makes great narrative fiction films so captivating is lost. Screenwriters call this kind of dialogue overly expositional. That isn’t to say you can’t have characters explaining, telling or describing. If you do have them doing this, you need to think carefully about what is appropriate for them to explain, tell or describe, and, if there is a necessity for them to explain, tell or describe it needs to be in keeping with their character and it needs to be done with a lightness of touch.
Think about the nature of real spoken communication. It’s often interesting because there are gaps. Gaps between what is said and what we understand, or gaps between what is said and what is meant, or gaps between what is said and the truth. Take this real life scenario, I’m sure you’ve experienced it; you chance upon a friend on the street you stop to talk and you ask how she is. She smiles and tells you that life’s great, and despite the smiles and the words you know that something is wrong, but you don’t want to pry so you maintain the charade that you believe what she is telling you, but there it is, a gap between what is said and what we actually understand. Creating these gaps in your rendering of dialogue enables your readers (and ultimately your film’s audience) to participate in your film, because the meaning isn’t on the surface it’s in the subtext.
Dialogue is a sophisticated and complex entity and I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Too much of the wrong type and your film will feel obvious and artificial, too little and your film could be enigmatic to the point of being confusing; there’s a line to walk (which incidentally is different for every character and every screenplay) but get it right and your film will be all the better for your efforts. To learn more about crafting the right kind of dialogue, join me on my beginners to intermediate part-time screenwriting course Film Writing Fundamentals, the next one starts on Thursday 16th January 2020 from 6.45pm - 8.45pm and runs every Thursday for 12 weeks. For more information please get in touch.
Thanks for reading,
Your friendly neighbourhood scriptologist.