The 7 Deadly Dialogue Sins

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If you like Dave Trottier’s dialogue advice, you might also enjoy The Writers Store article on scriptwriting.

After decades in the biz, these are the dialogue errors I see over and over again:

1. Obvious exposition.

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Husband: “Darling, how long have we been married now?”

Wife: “Silly, it’s been 20 years.  Remember Hawaii—the North Shore?”

Husband: “Oh yeah, that little honeymoon cottage.”

When your characters seem to be speaking more to the audience than to each other, you are being obvious.  When two characters tell each other things they both already know, that’s almost always “obvious exposition.”  Allow exposition to emerge naturally in the context of the story; don’t force anything.

2. Exaggeration. 

I recently read a script where every single character used the f-bomb in most of their speeches.  It gave me the impression that the screenwriter lacked imagination and/or did not understand his characters enough to know how they talked and/or was exaggerating the emotions of the characters to compensate for weak motivation or story context.

Oh, and by the way, just one exclamation point is plenty; and you may not need the one.  In Shawshank Redemption, the warden approaches Andy who is in solitary confinement.  He tells Andy that the man who could prove his innocence is dead.  Andy tells the warden to have H&R Block do his taxes; he’s done.  Then, in the screenplay, the warden yells at Andy; but in the movie, the warden’s speech is whispered with intensity.  The movie version is more effective.

Most writers have a tendency to exaggerate character emotions.  I remember recently explaining to a writer that five of her characters sobbed at various times in the script.  That’s overwriting. Sometimes, trying to control emotion has more impact than actually expressing emotion.

3. Derivative dialogue.

Avoid clichés and lines we’ve heard in other movies.  An occasional allusion to another movie or literary work can be effective, but I’ve already heard “We’re not in Kansas anymore” at least a hundred times (or so it seems).

4. Everyday pleasantries.

Sue: “Hi!”

Bill: “How are you?”

Sue: “Fine.”

Bill: “How’s the dog these days?”

Sue: “Getting along great.”

Boring.  Avoid chit-chat, unless it is original and interesting.  (See #7 below.)

On rare occasions, there can be a dramatic purpose for such talk.  Recall the scene in Fatal Attraction when the Michael Douglas character walks into his home and sees his wife talking to his lover.  At this point,his wife does not know about his affair.  Then, his wife makes formal introductions.

Dan (Michael Douglas): “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Alex (Glenn Close):  “…Oh, we’ve definitely met.”

This is one of the rare instances where chit-chat is dramatic and suspenseful.

5. Unnecessary repetition.

Repeating a particular phrase or line can be effective, as with “Here’s looking at you, Kid” in Casablanca.  One instance sets up the next.

The kind of repetition that seldom works dramatically is repeating information the audience already heard a couple of scenes ago.  It creates a sense of stasis, and the story feels like it’s dragging.

6. No room for subtext.

This is obvious writing, but in a different sense than with #1 above.  Here we have characters saying precisely what they are thinking or feeling.  In other words, the subtext is stated rather than implied.

Generally, you’re best off having characters beat around the bush, imply their meaning, speak metaphorically, say one thing by saying something else, or use the double entendre.

No, you don’t need room for subtext in every single speech.

7. Unoriginal speeches.

This is similar to #3, but it has a different dimension.  When a character’s speeches could be delivered by any character in the screenplay, you have a problem.  I am referring to typical, ordinary, expected lines that virtually anyone could have said and that have little originality.

In addition, when you characters speak far too often in complete sentences, they are likely saying your words rather than their words.  Giving your characters their own voices will strengthen your voice as a writer.

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8 thoughts on “The 7 Deadly Dialogue Sins

  1. Dave TrottierDave Trottier

    Thanks for the comments, fellow writers. Leona, I like what you say about unique characters, and certainly a characters should have his or her own individual way of speaking. And certainly it’s possible, Ted, for a character or two to say exactly what he/she thinks with complete sentences throughout; but if all do that, then we are probably hearing the writer’s voice and not the characters’ voices. By the way, Ted, I love your comment about cliches–I love cliches used in an original way or with a new twist. You make thoughtful points. And Nate, you’re probably thinking about the “Kansas” line as used in Avatar, and I would agree that it was not a creative use of a cliche. Keep writing, my friends.

  2. Leona Heraty

    Thanks Dave for the excellent tips on dialog, which I’m going to keep nearby and refer to often. I’m starting to read more screenplays, to see how superb movies have wonderful, realistic dialog and characters who are distinct, with their own interesting, unique voices. As you know, it requires a lot of hard work to create interesting characters, but these characters are in the best, most memorable movies that we all love! 🙂

  3. Ted Cabarga

    Most people seem to hate it, but the fact is that many people, including me and my friends, (and most likely Dave Trottier) speak in whole, elaborate, and mostly grammatical sentences with which we express exactly what we mean. But when I write that way I invariably get the response, “people don’t talk like that.” I say, poppycock! I speak that way all the time! If our characters don’t sound like tough, grunting, monosyllabic, streetwise morons, we are accused of being “on the nose.”

  4. Ted Cabarga

    I think that phrases or words that become famous from a given movie are at first repeatable, then, too much overused for a self-respecting writer to use, and finally they become so common, such as “We’re not in Kansas anymore” that they are again commonly useable, because they are more effective than the old expression, and thus supplant it. “See you later, alligator,” “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” “Duh,”
    “a failure to communicate,” “No way, Jose,” “We don’t need no stinking (whatever)” are all phrases that fit into the category of ” now so basic a part of the culture that they are now respectable enough to use. BUT, they have to be appropriate to the character whose mouth you put them in.

  5. TimB

    Dr. Format’s book “The Screenwriter’s Bible” is a key tool for anyone who is serious about writing screenplays. I have it and use it frequently.

    Keep up the good work, Dave. Thanks for the tips on dialogue.