Three lines or less. That’s the standard rule for dialogue in a screenplay, and for the most-part, it’s a good rule to follow. After all, we aren’t writing a play here. Screenplays are about a quick and easy flow to your words – of movement between actions and dialogue – of constantly increasing friction between your Antagonist and the forces working to keep them from their goal. If your dialogue is consistently breaking the “three lines or less” rule, chances are your lessening the impact of your script.
Because of this, screenwriters – and not just beginners – need to be very wary of using monologues. Badly executed or over-utilized monologues give your reader a quick reason to put your script down and move on to the next one. But, like with any rule, there are times when a monologue is not only acceptable, but also the best option for your story.
Let’s take a look at…
Monologues and GOOD WILL HUNTING
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Academy Award winning script tells the story of a math savant with a troubled past who lives on the wrong side and the therapist who wants to help him. It’s an engaging screenplay full of lively characters. It also breaks all kind of screenwriting “rules” – dialogue length being one of the most obvious.
Not only does GOOD WILL HUNTING include a monologue, it has TWO, one by Will early on in the bar where we become fully aware of just how intelligent he is, and one by Sean (played convincingly by Robin Williams’ beard).
That’s the one I’d like to focus on.
I was thinking about what you said to me
the other day, about my painting. I
stayed up half the night thinking about
it, and then something occurred to me, and
I fell into a deep peaceful sleep and
haven’t thought about you since. You
know what occurred to me?
You’re just a boy. You don’t have the
faintest idea what you’re talking about.
Why thank you.
You’ve never been out of Boston.
So if I asked you about art you could
give me the skinny on every art book
ever written…Michelangelo? You know a
lot about him I bet. Life’s work,
criticisms, political aspirations. But
you couldn’t tell me what it smells like
in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never
stood there and looked up at that
beautiful ceiling. And if I asked you
about women, I’m sure you could give me a
syllabus of your personal favorites, and
maybe you’ve been laid a few times too.
But you couldn’t tell me how it feels to
wake up next to a woman and be truly
happy. If I asked you about war, you
could refer me to a bevy of fictional
and non-fictional material, but you’ve
never been in one. You’ve never held
your best friend’s head in your lap and
watched him draw his last breath,
looking to you for help. And if I asked
you about love, I’d get a sonnet, but
you’ve never looked at a woman and been
truly vulnerable. Known that someone
could kill you with a look. That someone
could rescue you from grief. That God
had put an angel on Earth just for you.
And you wouldn’t know how it felt to be
her angel. To have the love be there for
her forever. Through anything, through
cancer. You wouldn’t know about sleeping
sitting up in a hospital room for two
months holding her hand and not leaving
because the doctors could see in your
eyes that the term “visiting hours”
didn’t apply to you. And you wouldn’t
know about real loss, because that only
occurs when you lose something you love
more than yourself, and you’ve never
dared to love anything that much. I look
at you, and I don’t see an intelligent,
confident man, I don’t see a peer, and I
don’t see my equal. I see a boy. Nobody
could possibly understand you, right
Will? Yet you presume to know so much
about me because of a painting you saw.
You must know everything about me.
You’re an orphan, right?
Will nods quietly.
Do you think I would presume to know the
first thing about who you are because I
read “Oliver Twist?” And I don’t but the
argument that you don’t want to be here,
because I think you like all the
attention you’re getting. Personally, I
don’t care. There’s nothing you can tell
me that I can’t read somewhere else.
unless we talk about your life. But you
won’t do that. Maybe you’re afraid of
what you might say.
It’s up to you.
And walks away.
Now THAT’S a monologue.
But it works. And it works because that long speech is the only way Sean could accomplish what he was trying to do in that scene. This becomes even clearer when you go back through the script and look at it in context with Will’s dialogue. When he’s dealing with people in positions of authority, the majority of his dialogue blocks are over five lines long. He’s a talker. He uses his intelligence and his words to overpower people and get what he wants – usually to be left alone.
The only way for Sean to combat that, is the launch into this tirade where he not only debunks every defense Will has used against him, but does so in a fashion which doesn’t give Will a chance to respond. If he can’t get a word to the contrary, then he can’t take over and regain control.
And that’s the point. Sean’s monologue works so well not just because it’s well written – but also because it works structurally within this particular story.
Keep that in mind when you’re writing, and the monologue can be a powerful tool in your arsenal.
So, what do you think? What other film monologues can you think of that are essential to be there in that form?
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