| Top Twenty Problem 20, Dialogue:
Length: Less Is More
Adapted from Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994, 1997, 1999, 2001, Dorian Scott Cole
One screenplay that I wrote, I thought I had done a really good job on dialogue. The dialogue flowed easily from me. The characters had a lot to say, and they said it very well. The first time that I heard the screenplay read aloud, the characters droned on and on and I wanted very badly for one thing to happen. I wanted my characters to just shut up. It was a very valuable lesson.
Too much dialogue, however good it is, does two things. It slows the action and loses the point. Playwright Samuel Beckett employed a very stylized but brilliant technique. The same words or motions would recur over and over until finally something would change. What stood out? Not the repetitive action, but the one that was different. The repetitive action only highlighted the different one.
In a crowd of fashion models, men and women all dressed in the same black suit, with one standing among them dressed in red, who stands out? Or when walking down a busy avenue full of pedestrians, with one waving a yellow flag, who stands out? The different one. The brain catches what is different. Much speaking and repetition don't make an impression. Highlighting does.
What did you notice in the above line? Did you count the periods? No, the exclamation point stands out. How do you highlight like that in a scene? You make something stand out from the rest. First stop writing. If you continue writing dialogue for another half page, then it becomes no different from the rest.
When someone pulls a gun, don't have someone make cool remarks and spring into action heroics. It's serious business. It's a major turning point. The person holding the gun feels life and death strongly about the issue and everything is going to change right then. Slow the action by pulling the gun slowly, hesitantly, from a hidden location, with sound from cocking the gun, and with reactions from the people on the receiving end. With resignation and terror, they freeze. One sits down, about to faint, and begins crying. The person holding the gun is frightened, uncertain, but going with the action he started, unable to turn back.
If pulling a gun is an every scene situation, there is no way to highlight the action because it is just more of the same. Less is more. If your characters are all robots manipulated by the writer, then drawing a gun will have no more impact than any of their other actions - repetition just grows monotonous. If you have drawn full characters and identify with them, you know how they're going to react. Make them react, not make speeches.
For example, how do you highlight a woman breaking up with her lover? With a telephone scene? In person after a long series of fights? Spilling it all in a pub? Try this: She is furiously clearing her room of his items. She pitches one after another into a waste basket, breaking them all. The last item she picks up is his picture. She stops, looks at it sentimentally, hugs it to her heart, tears flow, she kisses the picture and slowly, tenderly lets it slide into the trash. What is highlighted? Her true feelings about him. She loves him but he is out of her life. Would a page of heart wrenching dialogue have said it any more effectively? No, we probably would have lost the real point in a mad rush of heated threats that she may have never carried through. Less is more.
1) Think the action in your scene through visually. Could the characters get their point across without words? Sketch this in first, then add only the words that are needed.
2) What is the point that needs to come from the scene? Focus your dialogue on making that point, then stop writing.