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Is Dialogue Really That Important?

by Cameron Cubbison on May 20, 2014

Norma Desmond may not have thought that dialogue was all that important...lovably bitter wretch that she was...but she was wrong. Dialogue is one of the absolute most important elements in a screenplay, for myriad reasons. I would imagine most writers know this without a doubt, but then again, as a career reader, I have to point out that the majority of scripts that come across my desk (or really, my iPad screen) would have benefited from a vigorous dialogue polish.

Great dialogue won't automatically make your script golden, but awful or even weak dialogue will almost certainly get your script tossed (read: shitcanned) immediately by most readers. When you submit your script to a screenwriting contest, hosting or coverage service, producer, manager, agent, an "industry professional" or your cousin Jimbo's best friend's neighbor's former college roommate who is a lit coordinator at Paradigm, the odds are they are going to skim your first action paragraph and go straight to the dialogue. Why? Because reading a screenplay...particularly when you have a never-ending stack of material that you have promised a Rolodex of hopefuls you would find time to exactly like speed dating: you're looking for the quickest indicator as to whether or not there might be a future there.

Dialogue is the fastest and most overt indicator of a writer's voice and craft. When we look back on our favorite movies, the first thing we think of are the moments we love. A great look, a great line, a great reveal. In all of our favorite movies, there are a handful of lines we can recite by heart...lines that make us smile and crystallize the emotional experience of the narrative. That's why you have to nail dialogue right off the bat if you want to make a good first impression and trap the reader.

By the way, that's exactly the kind of mindset you have to have. Your job as a writer is to trap the reader, because believe me, they are already trying to make their escape before they read the first line. This isn't because readers are holier-than-thou louses (although to be fair, some of them are and any reader can have a bad day); it's simply because there are too many scripts to read and not enough time in the day. That's always the way. So know this, take it to heart and use your voice as a writer to trap the reader. Because if you can do that, you're in. Hook a reader and they'll instantly go from wary gatekeeper to full-blown advocate.  Readers want to be trapped, they're looking to be hooked, because it happens so rarely. When it does happen, it's like a drug. It's still that way for me.

What's the key to great dialogue? In my book, there are three:

1. Dialogue has to sound natural. It can't sound stilted and forced, nor can it sound like you're trying transparently to be slick and cool and badass and singular (unless you're Quentin Tarantino, in which case you can inexplicably build a zeitgeist-y career and develop rabid followers worldwide that will pay hundreds of dollars just to hear a glorified table read of your first draft).

2. Dialogue can't be obviously expositional and on-the-nose. Yes, we often need to use dialogue to reveal character backstories and reveal crucial plot points and bits of context, but the last thing you want to do is write a Harry the Explainer scene in which all the narrative momentum stops so that the characters can talk talk talkity talk about what happened to them as a child that has scarred them in the here and now, or discuss how they are feeling at this very moment, or tell each other secrets. Doing that makes the reader aware that they are being told a designed story and pulls them out of the natural flow of the narrative. The goal should be to reveal this information subtextually...via what is not said rather than what is said...or at least to hide the exposition by giving the characters some physical bit of business to do or some entertaining context that distracts the reader/viewer from the fact that they are nakedly being told crucial plot information.

Click here for a great example of how to do exactly that.

3. Dialogue should be character-specific. That's a note I give all the time as a reader: all of the characters sound exactly the same. If all of your characters sound the same, your narrative world won't feel textured and diverse. It won't feel real, and that will prevent a reader from fully investing in the story. Ideally, every principal character in your script should be identifiable solely by what they say. After meeting the characters, the reader should be able to cover up the character headings in all of the dialogue blocks and still be able to tell who is talking. Every character should sound different. They should have different vocabularies and mannerisms and surface personalities.

Here's a personal example. Last year I agreed to write a feature for a producer based on a premise he had hatched. It was a paycheck job for me, but I thought I would be able to fake an emotional connection to the core premise enough that I would be able to crank the thing out and be done with it. In a contractual rewrite I was asked to enhance the presence of one of the key characters, to beef up the character's role in the story. Having reached a wall and having lost any semblance of enthusiasm for the project, I just started assigning some of the lines from another character to the one I was tasked with expanding. I just cut and pasted the lines from one character to another, and sometimes I flip-flopped what they were saying to each other.

If you can do that, that's bad. That's very bad. If you can just blindly reassign dialogue from one character to another without having to make any alteration to make the lines sound more like them, it means that you haven't connected with your characters enough to make them divergent and distinctive. As I continued my rewrite, I struggled every single time it came for me to have this one character speak. I could never figure out what he should say. And it's because I hadn't done the work and hadn't truly dug down and found a connection to that character and defined who that character was. You have to know exactly who your characters are, who they were, were they came from, and what journey you are taking them on--physically, emotionally and thematically--before you can truly write for them.

The exciting thing is that if you do the work and find your characters, writing dialogue for them will be a breeze. You won't even think about it. It'll be like muscle memory. You'll just know exactly what they are meant to say in every single scene and situation, down to every single word. Writing never gets more enjoyable or exhilarating than when you feel like the characters are speaking through you.

It's not always easy to get there, but if you can find your characters and truly know them, you can make their dialogue wholly singular. And if you can do that, your chances of hooking the reader are genuinely good. You still have to nail everything else--structure, plot points, character arcs & catharsis--but having dialogue that is natural, character-specific and not on-the-nose/expositional will buy you the time and safety cushion you need to ensure that a reader absorbs the entirety of your script.

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