SPECS & THE CITY: Monologues and ‘Jaws’

Brad Johnson is a screenwriter promoting the mantra “Read scripts, watch movies, and write pages.” Brad also works as a script consultant for writers of all levels to develop and grow their screenwriting toolbox. Follow Brad on Twitter @RWWFilm.

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Though every screenwriting guru out there has their own set of “rules,” the hard and fast truth is that the only true rule (other than don’t mess with the margins or font size) is to tell a good story. And there may be no place the need for this kind of flexibility is more easily observed than in your character’s dialogue. Most of the time, you want to try and keep any dialogue to three lines or less. The reasons are simple. You want to keep the pace of the story moving, and you want the dialogue to sound natural – real conversation are full of short, choppy sentences with lots of back and forth between the parties involved – and you want a quick and easy flow between the dialogue and the actions that surround them.

That being said, sometimes one of your characters will need to stand up and take center stage. They need to stake a claim in the story, and make some central truth known. Sometimes it’s explaining their motivations (Jessup’s “You can’t handle the truth” speech from A Few Good Men); other times it’s to reveal the inner workings of the world of your story (Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix); and sometimes it’s to help the audience piece all of the clues together that your character has used to solve the puzzle (the end of any episode of Sherlock).

We call them monologues, and they can be the most powerful moment in your script or, if executed poorly, the reason a reader throws your script in the trash and moves on to the next one. And what better way to illustrate the power of a well-done monologue than to take a look at one the most iconic ones in film history.

Let’s take a look at…

Monologues and JAWS

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Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws

As the scene begins, Quint, Brody, and Hooper are below decks during their first night at sea after heading out to catch the killer shark that has been terrorizing Amity Island. These three very different men grow closer as they begin sharing war stories and showing off their scars, but the spotlight quickly shifts to Robert Shaw’s Quint when he delivers the following monologue:

Quint’s Indianapolis speech is iconic. We all know it. Most of us can probably quote it. But the interesting thing about the monologue from a story perspective is how many different ways in which this speech informs the narrative.  By the time Quint is done talking, the audience (as well as Brody and Hooper) realize that Quint is a true authority on this topic – he’s not just the blustery old sea dog we took him to be, he establishes himself as the defacto leader of their excursion – Hooper’s attempts to establish himself as the alpha dog are effectively ended by this monologue, and everyone is brought crashing back to reality regarding the true danger of what they’re facing.

Another point this scene highlights is how important character choice is in terms of making your monologue work. Any speech this long needs to feel like it belongs, not just within the overall narrative arc, but to the character that’s actually saying the words. Take this same monologue, but have it come out of Hooper’s mouth instead of Quint, and it feels forced – contrived; the tone of the words, and the message of the monologue, don’t mesh with the character.

Does your script have a monologue in it? Ask yourself, does it serve the story as well as Quint’s Indianapolis speech does? Is it coming from the right character in your story? In other words, is it necessary?

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For more help with dialogue, check out our On Demand webinar,
How to Write Sparkling Dialogue: Advanced Techniques to Make Your Script Shine

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