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Archive for the Category "Dialogue"

Parentheticals: Always Before Dialogue – Not After Apr 15

Quick Tip

Never end a dialogue block with a parenthetical.

I’ve been seeing this kind of thing a lot lately in the amateur scripts I’ve been reading:

DEMON

You think that puny gun can kill me?

(laughs)

If you need to indicate an action that follows a block of dialogue, then just write it as an action line following the dialogue. For example:

DEMON

You think that puny gun can kill me?

Demon laughs.

Note: The first example would have been okay if there were another line of dialogue after the parenthetical (also known as a “wryly”). For example:

DEMON

You think that puny gun can kill me?

(laughs)

Shit, you might be right.

For more juicy insight on this absolutely fascinating topic (not really), please check out my 10 rules for using parentheticals.

Quick Screenwriting Tip: Don’t depend on one line of dialogue Oct 21

Quick Screenwriting TipQuick Screenwriting Tip:

The comprehension of a scene or scene sequence should never depend solely on a single line of dialogue.

I’m still surprised by how often I see this mistake, in both scripts and movies. If something significant needs to be revealed in dialogue, that significant detail needs to be reinforced with some banter, or an action. In most cases, multiple times.

If not, the audience might miss it, and be left in the dark later as to how a character knew something, or why a character did something, or to the payoff of a key moment.

Example of how to do it right

In The Shawshank Redemption (SPOILER ALERT), written and directed by Frank Darabont, imagine if Andy (Tim Robbins) had simply said to Red (Morgan Freeman), “Tell you where I’d go. Zihuatanejo.” — and just left it at that. We’d probably be left scratching our heads at the end when Red shows up on the beach.

No, instead Red repeats the location (Zihuatanejo) back to Andy. On top of that, Andy has the following dialogue:

ANDY

Mexico. Little place right on the Pacific. You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory. That’s where I’d like to finish out my life, Red. A warm place with no memory. Open a little hotel right on the beach. Buy some worthless old boat and fix it up like new. Take my guests out charter fishing.

(beat)

You know, a place like that, I’d need a man who can get things.

Red stares at Andy, laughs.

It’s an important point, with a huge payoff later, so the dialogue reinforces it in the audience’s mind.

And when Red retrieves the package that Andy’s left for him, we are again reminded of the destination reveal:

ANDY (V.O.)

Dear Red. If you’re reading this, you’ve gotten out. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don’t you?

Never rely on one line of dialogue alone for the audience’s understanding or enjoyment of a key section of your movie.


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Quick Screenwriting Tip: Redundant Parentheticals Apr 28

Quick Screenwriting Tip

If a parenthetical provides obvious information, it should be removed.

Example of UNNECESSARY parenthetical usage — (angrily):

JAKE

(angrily)

I’m going to kill ALL of you!

We know Jake is angry because of what he says and how he says it. The parenthetical is redundant and slows down the read.

Have you eliminated all of the unnecessary parentheticals in your script?


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Show Don’t Tell: The Revenge! Dec 18

Preamble

In a previous post, I discussed some of the concepts and examples behind the expression, “Show don’t tell.”

A picture says a thousand words — imagine how many words motion-pictures say. That’s why it’s a well-regarded rule to follow when writing your scenes.

But one should also be cautious of following rules blindly.

Adherence to the rule

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a screenwriters group in L.A. that is hosted by a local screenwriting guru. The guru, who I actually respect very much, was discussing Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (Amazon | IMDB). He made an offhand comment about how the script made some Hollywood Company’s “Wall of Shame.”

Apparently they have some type of algorithm which plots common script problems or something, and because it broke so many rules, it received an abysmal grade. Anyway, the guru was in sync with their assessment and remarked that the scene with the watch was terrible.

Never one to worry about looking stupid, I interrupted him with a question. Here’s how our conversation went:

TREVOR

I’m sorry, what exactly is wrong with the scene with the watch? It’s one of my favorite scenes.

GURU

What happens in the scene?

TREVOR

Uhhh... Christopher Walken’s character tells the--

GURU

He does what?

TREVOR

He tells--

GURU

He what?

TREVOR

Oh, I get it. He’s breaking the “show don’t tell” rule.

Some rules can be broken

I don’t know about you, but when I encounter a scene in a movie that really works, I focus on why the scene works — not what rules, if any, it’s breaking.

The watch scene from Pulp Fiction is one such example. It may break the rule of “show don’t tell,” but I feel there are several reasons why the scene works brilliantly:

1. He’s Telling Us A Compelling Story

Humans communicate and learn via stories. Ever since Grog told the one about how he killed the mighty mammoth with his bare hands, humans have been enjoying well told tales. It’s in our DNA.

So sure,  a story is by definition telling us something and not showing us the event, but it’s something we’re hardwired to be receptive to — especially when it’s delivered by a raconteur like Christopher Walken.

2. We’re experiencing the story from the protagonist’s point of view

In the watch scene, Captain Koons (Walken) talks almost directly at us (the camera). We’re meeting that character for the first time — just like the protagonist is. Tarantino does a fabulous job of putting us in the young boy’s shoes — feeling what it would be like to have this strange man come into our living room and tell us such a crazy story.

3. The story is a punchline

We get to find out why Butch (Bruce Willis) freaks out over the watch, and we learn this new information in a very humorous way. So in actuality, this scene *is* showing us the importance of the watch.

What would the alternative have been? There’s nothing Butch could have said that would have come close to the poignancy of actually experiencing that moment with Captain Koons.

4. We DEFINITELY don’t want to see what happened to the watch

Grimy men in a Hanoi pit shoving hiding a watch… Probably better left to to the imagination.

Summary

What the guru failed to realize, in my opinion, was that sometimes there’s no substitute for a well told story. In the right hands it can make us laugh, horrify/thrill us, advance the plot and develop a character.

How less powerful would Jaws (Amazon | IMDB) have been without Quint’s monologue about the ill-fated USS Indianapolis?

Or what about when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) told Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) the story about Johnny Fontane in The Godfather (Amazon | IMDB): “My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.” It sets up the stakes and the world of the movie.

In another Tarantino classic, Reservoir Dogs (Amazon | IMDB), the telling of a story spanned several scenes and was used very effectively to reveal character and context.

While it’s important to follow the “show don’t tell” rule to eliminate expository scenes or on-the-nose dialogue, never lose sight of the goal — to entertain the audience. Sometimes that means knowing when to break the rules.

What’s your take? Do you have a favorite scene where a character is simply telling a story?


Category: Dialogue  | 6 Comments
Pop Quiz: Using Numbers in Your Dialogue Dec 17

Pop QuizTime for a pop quiz about using numbers in your dialogue.

Part 1 – Regular Numbers

Is the following usage correct?

MARK TWAIN

I can live for 2 months on a good compliment.

It’s actually incorrect. Numbers should always be spelled out, as follows:

MARK TWAIN

I can live for two months on a good compliment.

Part 2 – Times

How about this example? Is it correct?

BITCHY BOSS

You are going to bring me my coffee at precisely 8:45 A.M.  Is that clear?

Nope, that’s wrong too. All times need to be spelled out in dialogue. A correct version would be written as follows:

BITCHY BOSS

You are going to bring me my coffee at precisely eight forty-five A.M.  Is that clear?

Hey don’t get mad at me, I didn’t make up the rules. Actors don’t like to read numbers inside of dialogue. They can disrupt the visual flow of words and make the dialogue harder to memorize… or something like that.

The Exception – Years

In The Screenwriter’s Bible, Trottier says you can use numbers for years. So the following would be correct:

YOUNG GIRL

No, my brother is nineteen, not twenty. And my grandpa was born in 1920.

How’d you do on the quiz?


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