The Heart and Soul of Screenwriting: Writing good dialogue and description
Writing dialogue and description is writing a screenplay. You can argue about format and tab margins and what to capitalize and what not. I won’t. Dialogue and description is where the experience of screenplay for your reader lives. We write screenplays to make movies. They are not literature. They are directions for people to make motion pictures. Our story is told in the dialogue and description, and by focusing on allowing them to work for your goals of production will illuminate where how your story goes.
We need balance between dialogue and description, and we need texture. Balance sounds like you need to make your screenplay half dialogue and half description. This is not entirely what I mean. Look at your screenplay and frame your analysis in terms of your story. Do you have too much dialogue? Does talking go on and on beyond what is needed to move the story along? Is your description thick page after page? I read screenplays that have both problems. Some scripts are naturally dialogue heavy, and others have little dialogue, and that’s fine. Simply examine where your dialogue, description or both, i.e. your writing, is ruling over story.
Texture refers to your placement of dialogue and description in your screenplay. I find screenplays with scenes of dialogue one after another after another. How does this play on the screen? Always be conscious of how your screenplay will look in a movie theatre. By making strong decisions about when we have dialogue and when we do not gives us greater control over our audience. We can impact mood and tension with proper texture in our scripts. Consider whether it’s appropriate to show scenes with no talking, to release tension, to increase it, to add laughs. By thinking about these technical issues of balance and texture, I often find a more original, layered, subtle story emerging in my rewriting.
One way to determine where your screenplay absolutely needs dialogue and where your screenplay absolutely needs description is to consider writing your script as a silent movie. Watch a movie like SUNRISE to see how a silent movie functions. How would your screenplay survive if you turned it into a silent movie? What does survive constitutes the heart of your script, and in turn, right-sizes your amount of dialogue and description. This process is extremely helpful in placing my moments.
After looking over how you’re pacing your dialogue and description, taking in how it is serving the story, now it’s time to evaluate and rewrite. The first words we meet in your screenplay generally begin the description of what will appear in the frame of the picture, the very first moments of your story.
I am a poet. I write good poetry. I derive great joy from expressing myself this way. But there is a place for it. And it’s not in a screenplay. A screenplay is not a place for you to hear yourself write. Your description can have wit and life and spirit, but it must not dazzle in and of itself. Great writers find themselves enjoying what they are putting down on page so much their story gets murky, watery and lost. Your description of what goes up on the screen should be clear, not pretty, beautiful only in its straightforwardness. This does require effort, and it does require cutting your best writing. Tell a story, and save your magical powers for the book or the lover.
No poems. Crystal clear. And description should be short. Let’s travel down the page, let’s feel a pace. Cut out everything, almost to a fault, until it’s just that: what is going on in the frame. When you think you’ve gone too far, you’re getting close.
And always remember to tell us nothing we could not see for ourselves in the theatre. Do not give us backstory or the inner monologue of any character. Do not describe how someone is feeling, avoid it. There are exceptions, but for me and you, there are none.
Describe what you can see presently, in brief, clear terms, with words that don’t brag. And then suddenly, your characters will speak.
What are they saying? Do you know how it sounds? Read it aloud. Always. If you can’t have others read it to you, which is best, read it yourself, which is second best, and worlds better than listening to it in your brain as you type it. There are duds everywhere, easily discovered when spoken.
Compress your dialogue. Shorten it up. Tighten. Do not record speech. This is supposedly art, not a transcription. By making yourself aware of the compression, you will rein in dialogue that covers the same ground, which happens in real life, and runs in circles, which happens in real life. Choose words like paint you would put on your last canvas. Cut your characters off. This helps in keeping their thoughts in their mind and not coming out of their mouths. Fight the urge to let the audience in on what a character is feeling or thinking by having them say those things. Practice laying those feelings and thoughts underneath the line. In practice, you find a feel for this, and in turn, your characters will say much more and draw us in.
In the end, after you have described what’s needed before someone says a word, make sure you let your characters indeed have their say. Let your characters talk a lot early in the drafts and they will tell you the story. They will tell you the miracles, and keep you well fed, and you will sorely miss them for all that when, at some point, you type finis.← Back to Articles