A short homily on screenplay dialogue

Guest Blog from Jon Spira. Jon has written feature film scripts for Manga Live, Palm Pictures and a multitude of independent producers. He has taught the UK Film Council Screenwriting course since 2004. Anyone Can Play Guitar (directed by Jon Spira) was released in autumn last year.

Can we talk about dialogue for a minute, please? Dialogue is probably the most misunderstood element of screenwriting and, for me, a constant bugbear in the screenplays I regularly assess for Writers’ Workshop. The most common misconception is that because, when you look at a page of screenplay, the dialogue is the most prominent feature, that the screenplay itself hinges on it.

It really doesn’t.

Just look how successful the recent silent film ‘The Artist’ has been. That had story, drama, poignancy, humour and beauty – all without a single word of dialogue. Dialogue should be considered the cherry on the cake – not essential, but delicious. Before you come to writing dialogue, you should already have nailed every other level of your screenplay – you should have a solid theme, a strong story, believable characters, a sense of tone, style and genre and it should be well paced. You’d be surprised how effective it is to do all of this stuff first – by creating a dialogue-free treatment breaking down the film scene by scene – before you even think about dialogue.

The natural impulse in new screenwriters, however, is to start with the dialogue. To create pithy exchanges and heart-string-tugging soliloquies and then build the screenplay around that. It never works. Mainly because clever dialogue tends to read badly. It comes across as smug and pretentious  – which is fine if you have one smug or pretentious character – but it goes against what dialogue should really do. Dialogue should be a form of self-expression for your characters. There are very few situations in life where we actually talk pithily, more often we’re generally quite economic with words.

The most important thing is not for the writer to display their literary dexterity but for the characters to speak with distinct and appropriate voices. How do we do that? Well, we cast each role in our head before we start. This casting will have no use down the line, necessarily but it will give us a frame of reference to inform our choice of vocabulary, timbre, intelligence and verbosity. You can cast it with established actors or just use the speech patterns of somebody you know. It’s like doing an impersonation. It gives definition and texture to your screenplay instantly.

The most common complaint I have when reading a script is that every single character is speaking with the same ‘voice’ – and that voice is the author at their most pithy and show-offy. The result? Most scripts I read – be they romance or horror – read like a room full of Stephen Fry’s bickering with one another. If all of the character’s names were removed, the reader should still be able to identify which character is talking by their use of dialogue alone.

Less is more. Flashy dialogue is tedious. Give me the emotional honesty of your characters and it’ll impress me far more than a Blackadderesque insult, a Tarantinoesque breakdown of a pop culture phenomenon or an Alan Bennettesque exploration of daily minutiae.

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  • Shaun

    “The most common complaint I have when reading a script is that every single character is speaking with the same ‘voice’…” Use archetypes to solve that, of which there seem to be a standard set: http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

  • Harry

    Wot? A standard set?? Do humans come in a standard set these days? Of course they don’t! So your characters shouldn’t either.

  • griselda hamway

    Terrific advice and I’m not even trying to write a screenplay. But the point that everything else must be in place first before you add the dialogue makes perfect sense.

  • Stephanie

    Good advice! Absolutely. I have a Short screenplay which began life ‘dialogue free’ and doesn’t have much even now. I’m convinced that all the other elements you mention were the better for it. Incidentally, any advice as how to find a producer/director for (Short) screenplays would be much appreciated. I know I’m a bit slow off the mark here as this blog was last April, but have only just discovered it. Thanks.