Thoughts from the Non-Pro Screenwriter – In Praise of Indulgent Dialogue
There is much bullshit written about dialogue. I do not intend to add to the pile but it may be unavoidable.
I know there is much bullshit written about dialogue because I have read most of it. And in that bullshit – the occasional pearl. Very occasional.
— To avoid any confusion, a quick definition – I’m going to use dialogue to mean anything that a character says in your script. Anything – including monologues, asides, voiceover, narration, blah de blah. Keep it neat and simple – if a character is saying it, we’re calling it dialogue. —
Film is a visual medium. Fair enough. I’ve made several dialogue-free films (two for your viewing pleasure, here and here) and my latest short begins with almost 7 minutes of dialogue-free wondrousness. I’m a big fan of purely visual storytelling, but I also like what dialogue can do – and I’ve noticed that all too often dialogue gets a slap from the screenwriting manuals – as if it’s some sort of necessary evil, and films would be much better if only dialogue were… avoidable.
This is plainly horseshit.
Forget the rules when it comes to dialogue, or you’ll be swamped as soon as you try to write anything – ‘Good dialogue should advance the plot’, ‘it should reveal character’, ‘it should X,Y,Z’… Really, you only need two things – plotting, and fun. Particularly in the early drafts. Plan your script properly, and then when you get stuck in to your dialogue you can get back to what should be the driving force for any writer – the fun of using language to communicate.
There’s probably a thousand and one things you need your dialogue to do as your script plods along. That’s your business. There are all sorts of reasons your characters are speaking in each scene. That’s their business. Just don’t make it painful for me to listen to.
If your plotting is up to scratch, then you’ll know why the characters are where they are in each scene. You’ll know what happens to them next. What they do to get there. Where they really wanted to be – and a thousand other details. Great. If you know this, then you know why they’re speaking. Simple.
If you’ve plotted the whole damn thing out in any sort of detail you know enough to put words in the mouths of the characters. It doesn’t matter if your dialogue reads like a set of Ikea instructions at this point – you’re just using it to get them from A to B and keep the cogs of the plot turning.
So far, so uncontentious – and if you stop here you’ve got a pretty functional script…
But alongside this you’ve got to have a little fun.
Too much dialogue can be a bad thing. So can too little. Too much or too little of anything doesn’t tend to be good. How much is too much? You’ll have to walk that tightrope yourself – it’s your script. But if you just follow the rules and formulae, your dialogue will do exactly what it needs to do.
And nothing more.
It will not sing. It will not lift the spirits. It will not burn itself into the minds of a generation of cinema-goers. Good dialogue does all the things that screenwriting manuals can analyse and quantify, AND it does so much more. It plays with language. It takes pleasure in exploring the myriad wonderful ways words can move back and forth between people.
For every film masterpiece that is frugal with its dialogue, there’s another that luxuriates in it.
A script without some kind of verbal indulgence is going to struggle to capture an audience’s heart. That sort of script is often a machine – mechanical and efficient… but dead. It’s like a fitness-freak who counts every calorie and doesn’t go near anything remotely delicious.
Indulgent dialogue can make your script unhealthy. And that’s fine – you can always take it down the gym at some point. Until then, get stuck in and fill your boots every once in a while. If you give free rein to your characters, their verbal outpourings are more likely to be diarrhoea than rocket fuel, but every once in a while there will be something that sets the page alight – and those are the moments audiences love. In the strictest, most by-the-book terms they might not even be necessary to propel your script forward, but in human terms they’re those little moments where something intangible and wonderful happens and a connection is made.
Don’t just take my word for it. Look at Shakespeare. He’s got a pretty good reputation, as dramatists go. Actors love him, directors love him. Audiences can go either way, but in general he’s in good standing.
Two key things that are immediately obvious from a little Shakespeare bed-time reading:
1) Careful plotting does wonders for your dialogue.
2) It’s fine to indulge your love of language by putting words in a character’s mouth even when the plot doesn’t strictly demand it.
I’d always rather read/watch something where I know a writer has taken risks and gone out on a limb with something that they weren’t sure about – exploring their tastes, giving vent to their instincts. That’s the only way to get a film with some humanity in it. At its worst it might not always work… it might have scenes or moments that didn’t quite gel…
But it’ll also have that little spark that’ll make me go back to it, again and again.
And at its best? Well, a masterpiece, naturally…..