This is an excerpt from my upcoming book on writing ‘Get writing; A beginner’s guide from Idea to First Draft. There are more excerpts on writing in a guide I give out for free! Subscribe to my email list to get it delivered to your inbox!
In my years as a script editor I have come to the conclusion that amateur writers love ‘over’ writing. If it’s not overwritten description, it is overwritten dialogue, where the writer has the character telling us exactly what s/he is feeling, the character reveals it all through dialogue. If you are writing a novel you can get away with some of that, but for the medium we are discussing, you need to ‘show NOT tell.’ You need to give the audience room to join the dots and not just spill to them everything through dialogue. Below a few qualities of great dialogue that will guide you.
QUALITIES OF GREAT DIALOGUE
- Has purpose- From our definition of story, story is simply someone wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it. Same principle applies to your dialogue. Who wants what from your dialogue? How do they go about getting what they want using dialogue or not? Human beings are hard to understand and we rarely say what exactly we mean, we rarely say what we are feeling, we sugar coat things, we use other words to try express what we are really feeling. The same applies to film and TV, so use dialogue to propel the emotions at play. When used together, dialogue and action can work in great harmony e.g if a husband asks his wife, how are you? Wife replies ‘I’m fine.’ But her body language says the complete opposite then this dialogue has purpose in this scene.
When you give your dialogue purpose, it helps you focus better and avoid ‘on the nose’ dialogue.
- Moves the story forward: Dialogue needs to give us important information that moves the story forward. To do this effectively, the dialogue needs to be packed with elements of emotion that get the audience invested as the story moves forward. Example, if we say the dialogue needs to move the story forward, so girl comes and tells her mother that father wants to see you, then mother tenses. Girl starts going back, mother stops her, did he say why he wanted to see me? Girl throws mother a confused look, shakes her head then heads off. Mother stands pensive clearly conflicted on if to go or not. Already we the audience are glued to see the next scene, the dialogue was only four words from daughter ‘father wants to see you.’ The words moved the story forward and also foreshadowed what’s to come. We obviously expect tension when mum and dad meet and that grabs us emotionally.
- Evokes emotions: Off the back of the point above. Great dialogue needs to evoke some emotion in us. Continuing with the example above of the reaction of the mother when her daughter tells her ‘father wants to see you’. Depending on where your audience are emotionally, they might perhaps even pick a side and start rooting for the mother, hating the father who makes her this miserable and so forth. Your aim as a writer should be to touch your audience emotions and get them invested in this journey you are taking your characters through.
- Sounds real: Dialogue needs to sound as real as can be, minus the stutters, the uhm, aah etc that we usually say out loud as we think and talk at the same time. You need to make sure your dialogue has some rhythm, I find this mistake in beginner scripts where I see a chunk of dialogue followed by another chunk and another chunk. That is not representative of life. In real life, some people speak more than others, we know for a fact that very few men can outdo women when it comes to talking. So vary the length of sentences and number of words between characters as they go back and forth in their dialogue to create an almost melodic piece. It takes lots of practice to achieve this. I believe by reading this book you are taking your career seriously and will keep practising.
- Different character, different dialogue: We all speak differently, we use different choices of words, arranged differently and so forth. One mistake I’ve seen in some scripts I’ve edited is that one could easily swap character name and put another character in that place speaking the same dialogue and you wouldn’t be able to notice the difference. This is wrong. As a writer, it is your responsibility to ensure the characters you create are as dynamic as can be, and one of the ways is by their choice of words. Some writers believe that the actors will take on the characters and own them, bringing them alive and bringing out their diversity, but unless you write the characters down with their diversity on the page, it won’t come out. These sound like small things but they are really a big deal when you watch it on the screen, after all, the camera is the dreaded CT- Scan machine and will see through all those weaknesses.
- Tells the relationship between characters: Great dialogue should show us the obvious, the obvious being the relationship between characters as they interact. Example, a couple that has been married 20 years will interact differently from a couple that is newly married. A father and daughter interaction will play out differently from the same man (father) interacting with his side dish (mistress) who would be his daughter’s age.
- Should be true to the characters previous moment: If I lose my job then get home and I have to tell my spouse, much as I want to stay upbeat and lie that everything is fine, something will give. There are times in scripts you find writers forgetting the characters previous moment and so when we see the character the next time, they are not in the same headspace we left them in and hence the audience who were in the emotional headspace of the character feel lost and confused. Some writers argue that everything cannot be shown on screen hence the jump cut (having other things playing off screen) Jump cuts are a necessity, but emotional jump cuts are a no no. You have to resolve the emotions you set up on screen.
- Matches the genre: This goes without saying, if you’re writing a comedy, your dialogue should be witty etc. If writing a thriller, your dialogue should denote mystery, tension and all emotions that come with thrilling.
- Shows doesn’t tell: Since we are in the visual medium, great dialogue shows us the action instead of telling us. Example, when a character brings the other character a glass of water then says. ‘Here’s your water’ Isn’t that a repeat? They could simply hand the glass over or place it on the table without repeating the words that follow the action that we’ve already seen. If you show it, don’t tell us about it.
- Starts late, leaves early: You should ideally start your dialogue in the middle of its action. As long as we know the characters previous moments then we don’t need the greetings, and how is the weather today information. Dive right into the action. And when your character has hit the nail home with their punch line or dialogue, don’t stay there, cut to the next scene. This way, your dialogue stays sharp, to the point and moves faster.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book on writing ‘Get writing; A beginner’s guide from Idea to First Draft. There are more excerpts on writing in a guide I give out for free. Subscribe to my email list to get it delivered to your inbox!
Happy writing and Happy Creating!