Give your characters something to do. Always. Long dialogue without action essentially means you are filming talking heads, which is profoundly anti-cinematic. It’s a simple rule but still too many newbies ignore it.
It’s called MOVIES, remember?
This is a really easy check. Flick through your script, checking for pages with only dialogue.
See that continuous skinny column in the middle?
So you have no action/description on the page. It means the reader will imagine just two (or more) talking heads.
If you’re not Woody Allen, Tarantino or Kevin Smith, your newbie script will end up in the bin, no matter how funny it is.
If the dialogue is broken up with description, what does the description show us? Is it facial expressions? Chances are you are writing melodrama. If this is the case, perhaps you should write for television instead. It’s still not ideal there but surely more widely accepted.
Most description breaking up dialogue should ideally show us action. Only through action can you give us solid subtext.
The opposite of the talking heads is the montage with repetitive action, equally without subtext.
If you happen to have both in your script, i.e. a montage, or a series of shots with action near a long scene of dialogue, the solution may be around the corner. Just see if you can combine some of the action into the dialogue scene. If the action is either in contradiction with the dialogue or it has a meaning in its own right separate from what’s being discussed – you are on the right track for a powerful scene.
If the subtextual meaning of the action is in conflict with the meaning of the spoken words, the action carries the real meaning of the scene.
Talking about conflict, the character of Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile has it all. Internally and externally.
Check out this scene and ask yourself “How many things does this poor dude have on his mind?” All that can be conveyed with the action during dialogue.
Jimmy’s working under the hood of the Lincoln. The Future’s kickin’ back in the front seat. They hear LYNYRD SKNYRD’s “Sweet Home Alabama” drift out of the mobile home.
Yo you shoulda seen this girl, Future. She was, -- I mean. Shit. She’s perfect, yo.
Perfect? Perfect got a name?
Jimmy shrugs, puts up the hood on his hooded sweatshirt. It’s getting cold.
They hear Greg inside the trailer start singing along with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Who the fuck is that?
That dude Greg Minor’s practically livin’ with my mom, yo. Met at Bingo up in Windsor. Neither of them ever win.
We went to school with ‘im right?
Look at everything that’s happening or communicated in this scene:
- Jimmy is fixing his car (his only means of transport to his job).
- He is getting cold.
- He’s got his eye on a girl (but doesn’t know her name).
- Music in the background remind him (and us) Greg Minor’s in the trailer.
- Greg is staying with his mother (and he met him at Bingo).
- His mother and Greg are gamblers, who never win.
- Worst of all, Jimmy and Greg went to school together.
All this is communicated with action playing during the course of the dialogue.
What does the audience now want to know?
Will Jimmy eventually fix his car, leave the trailer park and get the girl?
If you found this tip useful, check out the Screenplay Checklist, an A-Z of commonly made mistakes by aspiring screenwriters.
Check this 12p. list of errors and annoyances to perfect your spec screenplay.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.