An established producer with extensive industry relationships, Wendy Kram is also the owner of LA FOR HIRE, one of the industry’s leading consulting companies helping screenwriters sell and get their projects into production. Follow Wendy on Twitter @wendyla4hire.
Great screenplay writing has dialogue that is authentic and filled with subtext as opposed to exposition. As harsh as it may sound, if you can kill exposition and follow this adage: "Show, don't tell!" — you will elevate your writing and accelerate your career tenfold. I cannot emphasize the importance of this golden rule more strongly. When it comes to reading and evaluating screenplays, expository dialogue is one of the biggest criticisms among industry professionals and one of the primary reasons screenplays get rejected.
To further emphasize this point, I was recently speaking with a film publicist friend whose husband is an Oscar winning cinematographer. My friend and her husband have worked with Hollywood’s biggest stars and directors. When I asked what she thought makes a great screenplay, the first words out of her mouth were “Scripts are just awful when writers try to tell you everything.”
Finding great dialogue among thousands of screenplays can be a rare commodity and if you can develop this skill, it will make you stand out and get you work.
My primary tip with respect to writing great dialogue is to avoid exposition at all costs, meaning don’t use dialogue to get your characters to directly state what they are feeling or thinking or to announce what actions they plan to take or have already taken. In fact, great dialogue can occur in the absence of words — allowing your characters silences and unspoken actions that take place between what they say. "Show, don’t tell” is a well-worn phrase that still shines like gold.
If you look at every Oscar-winning film from On the Waterfront to Million Dollar Baby, each one is filled with subtext and authenticity.
Let’s take a simple example of two different ways to write a scene — one that has tension and subtext and another that is written with exposition:
A nosy neighbor tells a wife she saw her husband with another woman at lunch. When the husband comes home from work, his wife gives him the cold shoulder. She’s afraid to tell him what she heard because she doesn’t want him to think she doesn’t trust him. So instead she asks, "How was your lunch today?" and continues to probe in indirect ways to see if she can catch him in a lie.
The above is an example that demonstrates subtext, where characters skirt around or say the opposite of what they’re thinking and feeling. When you can do this, you immediately create dramatic tension because we know, as in the scene above, that the wife is bothered but not coming out and saying it. Rather, she represses what's troubling her, so her feelings become an emotional time bomb, setting up audience anticipation as to when and how they might explode.
Expositional or “on-the-nose” writing would be for the wife to say something along the lines of “Patty told me she saw you with another woman at lunch. I think you're having an affair."
The difference between the two scenarios is that the second version is flat and doesn’t sound the way real people would speak in this situation. As opposed to having the wife spell out exactly what she's thinking and feeling, the dialogue that has subtext is a more truthful reflection of her emotions.
Because in real life, people rarely say exactly what they’re feeling. Real life is never neat and easy but rather, it’s challenging, clumsy and often messy. In real life, people misunderstand each other all the time because they bring their own private baggage and/or agendas to relationships. Sometimes we hold things in and repress our feelings so they come out in other ways that are not direct but passive-aggressive. If we've made a mistake, rather than admit our error, we might transfer the blame onto someone else. If someone tells us we've hurt them, we might become defensive rather than come out and say we're sorry.
We may skirt around an issue that makes us uncomfortable, change the subject if it’s a topic we don’t want to talk about, and sometimes a powerful urge to say something such as "I love you" or "I want to kiss you" is filled with an awkward silence. Moments like these engage the audience where we want to tell the hero or heroine, "Go ahead and say it!" When you spell everything out, you rob the audience of this engagement because there's nothing for our imaginations to fill in.
So why should our characters be any different than we are? They need to emulate and reflect us.
The reader — potential agent, executive, actor, director — has strong detectors when a character’s dialogue, actions and behavior don’t read as genuine. Authenticity has to do with capturing the human experience in a manner that feels natural and believable, understanding how human beings, husbands and wives, and people in general speak with each other. It means never going for the easy or obvious route or having your characters speak in platitudes.
Some excellent examples of great, naturalistic dialogue can be seen in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright with Annette Benning and Julianne Moore, Blue Valentine with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and the Amazon hit series Transparent with Jeffrey Tambor. Additional masters of writing great subtext are the playwright Harold Pinter, particularly in his play Old Times, as well as Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s creator. A good way to hone your dialogue skills can be to take a look at some of these, even if you’ve already seen them. Review them again, observe and absorb the way the characters speak and interact with each other, and sometimes avoid each other.
In doing so, you will automatically increase the level of authenticity in your writing, and when you do, it will resonate with Hollywood's decision-makers. Authenticity is one of the most important elements that can distinguish your writing, make executives and agents excited about your work and want to meet with you.
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12 Top Tips to Write a Screenplay That Gets Noticed by Agents and Production Companies