After decades in the biz, I see the same dialogue errors over and over again. Don’t make these mistakes.
by David Trottier
1. Obvious exposition.
Husband: “Darling, how long have we been married now?” Wife: “Silly, it’s been 20 years. Remember Hawaii—the North Shore?” Husband: “Oh yeah, that little honeymoon cottage.”
When your characters seem to be talking more to the audience than to each other, you are being obvious.
2. Derivative dialogue.
Avoid clichés and lines we’ve heard in other movies. An occasional allusion to another movie or literary work can be effective, but I’ve already heard “We’re not in Kansas anymore” at least a hundred times.
3. Everyday pleasantries.
Sue: “Hi!” Bill: “How are you?” Sue: “Fine.” Bill: “How’s the dog these days?” Sue: “Getting along great.”
On rare occasions, there can be a dramatic purpose for such talk. In Fatal Attraction, the Michael Douglas character walks into his home and sees his wife talking to his lover. His wife does not know about the affair. Then, his wife makes formal introductions. This is one of the rare instances where chit-chat is dramatic.
I’ve heard “We’re not in Kansas anymore” at least a hundred times.
4. Unnecessary repetition.
Repeating a particular phrase or line can be effective, as with “Here’s looking at you, Kid.” One instance sets up the next.
The kind of repetition that seldom works dramatically is repeating information the audience already heard a couple of scenes ago. It creates a sense of stasis, as if the story is dragging.
5. No room for subtext.
This is obvious writing, but in a different sense than with #1 above. Here we have characters saying precisely what they are thinking or feeling. In other words, the subtext is spoken rather than implied.
Generally, you’re best off having characters beat around the bush, imply their meaning, speak metaphorically, say one thing by saying something else, or use the double entendre.
I recently read a script where every single character used the f-bomb in half of their speeches. It gave me the impression that the screenwriter lacked imagination and/or had not characterized his characters and didn’t know how they talked and/or was exaggerating the emotions of the characters to compensate for a motivation or context that is weak.
Oh, and by the way, just one exclamation point is plenty, and you may not need one.
Most writers have a tendency to exaggerate character emotions. I remember recently explaining to a writer that five of her characters sobbed at various times in the script. That’s overwriting. Sometimes, trying to control emotion has more impact than actually expressing emotion.
Just one exclamation point is plenty!
7. Unoriginal speeches.
This is similar to #2, but has a different dimension. When character speeches could be delivered by any character in the screenplay, you have a problem. I am referring to typical, ordinary, expected lines that virtually anyone could have said and that have little originality.
Giving your characters their own voices will strengthen your voice as a writer.
David Trottier has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers break into the writing business.
He is an award-winning teacher and in-demand script consultant, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, and friendly host of keepwriting.com.
Photo Credits: Stock XChng, David Trottier