On Language in Scripts – Scenes and Narrative (Part 3)


Only tell the reader what is being seen.

When describing people, places and situations never tell the reader something that can’t be seen by a person sitting in the theater watching the movie unfold.  Resist the urge to explain or provide exposition.  Do not give us backstory or the inner monologue of any character. Do not describe how someone is feeling.  Sure, there exceptions.  Some writers get away with it, but unless you have perfected this kind of unique style, avoid it at all costs.

Write what you see.

When you’re writing your script.  Take a moment to pause.  Closes your eyes.  Imagine the scene.  What are you seeing?  What are you looking at?  Describe that!  Tell us only what we can see in that moment.  Be brief.  Use clear, easily understood language.  Don’t use words that call attention to themselves.  Test your description by reading it aloud.  How does it sound?  Is it easy to say?  Is it clear and understandable?

Write what you hear.

When writing dialogue, do the same.  Before you start writing the words your characters will say, pause.  Imagine the scene.  Imagine the characters living in that scene.  How do they sound?  How do they speak?  What are they saying? Do you know how it sounds?  Try to capture that!

After you’ve put the dialogue down on paper, read it aloud. If you have actor friends, ask them to read it aloud for you.  If you don’t, ask non-actor to friends to help you out.  If you can’t have others read it to you, read it yourself.  If you can, record yourself and listen to it after.

No matter how good your ear might be, what we hear in our heads while writing dialogue is not the way others will interpret and express that dialogue.  Even you, will state your words differently aloud when you have to actually move your lips, teeth and tongue than you will when you hear them in your brain.  The great thing about reading dialogue aloud is that the duds be obvious the moment you hear them spoken aloud.

Compress your dialogue.

Dialogue can always be shorter.  It’s our nature as writers to love words and want to use them.  But as a screenwriter, your job is not to use words for their own sakes but to use them as tools for actors to find the emotions behind the words.

After you’ve written for a while, you begin to recognize the value in brevity.  Whenever possible, shorten your dialogue. Tighten it up. Leave room for your actors to play the emotions behind those words.

Fight the urge to let the audience in on what a character is feeling or thinking by having them say those things. Instead, find a way to lay bare those feelings and thoughts in the subtext of a line. This will allow your characters – and the actors who portray them — to say much more with less and to draw us in to their emotional experiences.

Once you’ve determined what your characters need to say and why, allow them to do the talking.  Especially in your early drafts.  Let them talk, let them express themselves.  Listen to how they speak and what they have to say.  Then pare them back to the essential messages they want to share and the unique ways they want to tell us this information.  That is what makes dialogue sing.

What are you tricks for finding a character’s voice?  How do you discover the ways your characters communicate?  Do you hear it first or imagine it before you write it down?



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