COLUMN D: Writing Dialogue – The Sweet Sixteen Rule

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In this post I want to continue our discussion about dialogue.

sixteenWriting 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.

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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2 thoughts on “COLUMN D: Writing Dialogue – The Sweet Sixteen Rule

  1. jeffguenther

    I’m reminded of Moliere who, it is said, was once asked by a friend how his new play was coming. “Splendidly!” Moliere said, “All I have left to do is the dialogue.”

    But playwrights and screenwriters should never miss an opportunity to omit a line of dialogue altogether, replacing it with a smile, a gesture, violence, a stormy silence, or the total non-sequitur of a deflection (“How ’bout them Mariners?”)

  2. jdmoores79

    Great advice, obviously, though I’m by no means any seasoned or very experienced expert. I won third place in national competition for the 2nd draft of a short script which I first wrote in just over an hour. It had some flowery dialogue, but for the most part, it was mostly functional. Respectfully, though, I do have a little problem with the following assertion:

    ” 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.”

    In my experience, people DO go on and on, often about themselves and even the most trivial things. If the conversation is focused enough, there won’t be all that many questions. After all, it’s not an interview. Instead, people will mainly take turns making different points on a topic, reiterating or correcting the other person if they want to when it is their turn and instinctively choosing their words and tone to not only express or suggest an emotional perspective, but also to react to or even try and alter the other person’s tone and attitude. Most don’t use good grammar in real life, either, and many that aren’t naturally charismatic, eloquent, or comfortable with themselves tend to be at least a little redundant and to break up sentences and ideas woth non-word reactions such as, “um,” “ah,” “uh,” “hmm,” etc.

    Therefore, my limited perspective, at least, is that good movie dialogue is BELIEVABLE, but rarely realistic – especially if spoken in a casual social setting. Most of the realism, if it’s there, comes from the delivery rather than the words, themselves, which is the reason Marlon Brando used to say he preferred cue cards. As he said, people in real life don’t know what they’re going to say ahead of time, so the cue cards put him – as his character – in roughly the same situation, hopefully creating more honest reactions through speech and body language. Of course, the scripts, themselves, often change during production depending upon acting and directing styles as well as genre and more pragmatic considerations such as the time they have in which to complete one or more scenes. And though I realize that a lot of the scripts online are probably production drafts and, thus, automatically dissimilar to what a screenwriter’s script should look like, I notice that scripts by steadily working and/or famous writers in the industry tend to break a lot of the rules applied to newcomers, especially when it comes to the length of dialogue, descriptions, and even entire scripts.