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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Common Mistakes

I think one of the hardest things for a writer to do well, (this can be present company included), is often the mistake I see in amateur and professional work alike. It's the hollow line of dialogue. It's the one that reads with the intent of the writer and not the intent of the character.

Non-poetic, uninspired narrative is something a script can survive if the dialogue is great. Bad dialogue and you kill your script. And ten pages in the door will be closed by any prospective reader, and any future life for that story comes to an end. And it won't matter that your script is perfectly structured (which it will need to be as well, by the way, sorry, didn't I mention that?)

Sometimes dialogue error is subtle, the writer placing information in a line of dialogue that's important and you just get a sense that it's off, a certain line doesn't ring true. Sometimes it's laughable and the character is literally stating her exposition, background and need.

Subtle error:

Jane: Bob, why do you work here so late all the time?
Bob: People ask me fewer questions, Jane.

It's funny, because in the answer, he's telling her what he likes to avoid. It's subtle error - her flat out clumsy question. It's not that the information is wrong, it's just not the way a person talks. It's the way the writer needed to let you know Bob's hours - something that will obviously be important to the story. What's good? The implication in Bob's line - why doesn't he like being asked questions? Something we might learn...

Enormous error:

Jane: The Arthur Thomas Publishing Building. The largest publisher in the United States. Come on, Bob, let's take our manuscript inside and show them we're their next best seller!
Bob: Gee, think Arthur Thomas has an ego as big as the building he built for himself?

Do I have to point out why it's so bad? I've read lines like this. People don't state where they are. They don't state facts you'd find in an encyclopedia in natural dialogue, they don't state their intent and desire. And this happens more than you'd think.

So how do you write great dialogue?

Listen to how people talk. Short fragments. Half thoughts. Often in the moment. Usually started in the middle of a thought. And always with the implication of something other. What's the other? Usually what they want. What they got, or didn't get. What they're emotionally connected to. You have to write from your character's emotional center.


Lois: So where'd you go last night?
Stan: You said drinks. I had one.

See why that's great? Because I wrote it. Okay, aside from that. It implies so much with so little. They're friends. They're very different, one likes to party, one doesn't. A social butterfly, and a loner. And the implication about the evening - what happened to each of them? One split early, one had a late night. And will we find out? Do you want to know more about them?

Good writing pulls you in. Like a great photographer who knows how to frame a picture so we don't see everything. It's like a good game of poker. Don't show your hand right off, or you'll lose. Tease us. Don't give it all away right out of the gate.


Blogger The Moviequill said...

your example also implies a tad bit of tension and that is also good

Saturday, July 30, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Precisely! Unresolved tension is crucial, is key to every scene, is key to the overall feel of your story. It is the generator that makes a story a page turner. More on that soon.

Saturday, July 30, 2005  
Blogger CharlieDontSurf said...

If I'm ever in a dialogue rut I like to read a couple of scenes from a Lee Child novel...it always seems to get the flow going.

Sunday, July 31, 2005  
Blogger James Lincoln Warren said...

Excellent advice. Dialogue is just as important in prose, because it is the primary way two characters are shown relating to one another.

Your example is a form of what I like to called active exposition. Exposition, particularly character exposition, should be folded into the action rather than made nail-on-the-head. Because of what is implied rather than implicitly expressed in your example, it is good stroy-telling.

Another common mistake in dialogue is to make it too realistic. A character must have a specific voice, something the reader or an actor can sink his teeth into, and sadly, most real people rely so heavily on clichés and stock phrases that it's downright embarrassing. It makes it seem as if the writer has no imagination at all.

Sunday, July 31, 2005  

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