COLUMN D: Writing Dialogue - The Sweet Sixteen Rule

Drew Yanno explains the importance of writing dialogue that'll enhance your screenplay using his Sweet Sixteen Rule.
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In this post I want to continue our discussion about dialogue.

Writing dialogue is an art. An acquired one, in my view. Few writers are born with the talent, the ear or the innate ability to write great movie dialogue. It takes years of practice. Which means years of writing. More than one script. And more than one draft, as I preached in my last post.

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One of the problems I often see from new screenwriters is the over-writing of dialogue. Put another way, there’s simply too much of it. One of the principal functions of dialogue is to carry information. Beginners see this as the only function of dialogue.

I’ve seen numerous instances where the writer will have a character saying multiple ideas in the same dialogue exchange. Often they’ll ask and answer their own question. It’s clear that they’re trying to tell their story through dialogue, filling in back story or advancing the action in the most obvious and awkward manner.

When a reader doing coverage on your script picks it up, they will leaf through it to see if your description is short, three lines or less. However, they’ll also do the same with your dialogue. Just like when they see dense blocks of description, if they see multiple lines of dialogue, they’re going to peg you as a newbie.

I said before that “movie speak” is an exaggerated form of “real speak.” If you eavesdrop on conversations, you’ll see that people just don’t talk like that. In real life, we ask a question and wait for an answer. We offer an idea or thought or notion and another person responds in some manner to what we’ve just said. We don’t tell someone our life story when they ask us what we had for dinner last night.

To help you learn how to write great dialogue, watch a film written by someone like William Goldman or Susannah Grant or Scott Frank. What you’ll invariably find is that their dialogue is short. Often spoken in incomplete sentences. They won’t use proper grammar. Characters will often finish the thoughts of others. And, of course, they will never be “on-the-nose.”

I once read somewhere that after sixteen words, a listener begins to tune out the speaker. I wish I could remember the source of that quote, but I recall enough to know that it wasn’t a rule of screenwriting. Nevertheless, I think it’s a great one to employ when you write dialogue. Remember: screenwriting is saying the most in the fewest words. That includes your dialogue. If you live by that sixteen word standard, you’ll force yourself to use fewer words to make your story point. And that will get you noticed as a writer of good dialogue.

Now whenever I tell a beginning screenwriter about keeping their dialogue short, they almost always bring up the famous scene in Good Will Hunting where Will is being interviewed by the NSA and he goes on for about five minutes explaining why he doesn’t want to work there. Terrific scene, but it makes my point, not theirs. The scene is memorable because it runs against all other movie dialogue, even the dialogue in that film.

Want further proof? Google the most famous lines in movie history. Notice how short they are. Then go back and watch the films those lines come from and notice also how those lines come in an exchange and not some long solioquy. You may remember the NSA scene from Good Will Hunting, but undoubtedly the most quoted dialogue from the film begins with “Do you like apples?” Will then waits for the affirmative response and continues with, “Well, I got her number. How do you like them apples?” All together, fifteen words. Right in the sweet spot.

Obviously, sticking strictly to the sixteen word rule would be foolish. There may be times in your story when a character has to speak more than sixteen words in a single dialogue exchange. You may also create a character who speaks non-stop, not waiting to hear what others have to say. Fine. Go for it. Just don’t do it often. Not if you’re hoping someday to write one of those memorable movie lines.

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