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The Dialogue Pass

Tweak + Polish Tip No. 5

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Remember this infographic that circulated a few years ago?

It summarizes the issues one script reader cataloged in the 300 screenplays he was assigned to cover.

You might notice that several of the notes on this list relate specifically to dialogue:

  • “The dialogue is cheesy, pulpy, action movie clichés.”
  • “Dialogue is stilted and unnecessarily verbose.”
  • “The characters are indistinguishable from each other.” (This note refers to other aspects of characterization as well, but largely dialogue.)
  • And even, “The script makes a reference but not a joke.”

Although this chart may be old news, the screenplay issues it highlights are eternal. But it’s no surprise that readers pay attention to the dialogue in a screenplay, right?

When people (like producers) are reading in a hurry, they may gloss over the description and read only the dialogue. (I’m not saying it’s right, but I’ve seen it happen.) Great dialogue can make your screenplay stand out, and make it memorable.

Knowing that, I think we can agree that a dialogue pass is a good idea.

What is a dialogue pass?

A “dialogue pass” is simply a dedicated rewrite or polish pass in which you focus on just the dialogue. There are no rules to this – how much or how little work you do on the dialogue in this pass will depend on what you’re starting with and where you’re trying to go. You know, the specific needs of this particular draft and project.

If you want your dialogue passes to have maximum impact, you can also plan to do a separate pass for each character. That way you can really immerse yourself in one character at a time and get specific about their point of view, objectives, and traits.

Like with all of our Tweak & Polish tips, a dialogue pass comes later in the process. After you’ve done the brainstorming, the planning, the outlining, the writing, and even the rewriting to fix big issues. (Because there’s little point in fixing dialogue if the scene is going to be cut or extensively rewritten.)

What kinds of things can you address in a dialogue pass? The possibilities are endless, but let’s look at a few of the big targets.

The three basic functions of dialogue

First, the basics. This is what you’re aiming for with your dialogue on a fundamental level. The big things dialogue should accomplish:

  • Dialogue should move the story. Think of dialogue as a type of action. Characters say things to further their objectives, big and small.
  • Dialogue should reveal character. It can show us who the character is, and what they think and feel about themselves, the world, etc.
  • Dialogue also shows us the relationship dynamics between characters, and relationships affect both plot and character arcs.

There’s overlap between these functions, for sure, but it’s useful to think about each one so you can be more deliberate about addressing them with the dialogue in your script.

What can you fix in a dialogue pass?

Remember the infographic we started with? We can fix all of those common reader notes in a dialogue pass:

  • Revisit and refine dialogue that may be “first pass” quality – maybe it gets the point across, but it’s cliché, obvious, boring, or too on the nose.
  • Smooth and streamline dialogue so it’s not “stilted and unnecessarily verbose.”
  • Distinguish between characters so they don’t all sound alike, giving the characters a bit more character and perhaps making the roles more interesting or appealing.

And more!

Specific dialogue issues might fall under the umbrella of those notes, but I’ll point out 10 of the most common ones anyway. (It helps to know what to look out for, right?) In no particular order:

  1. Repetitive / redundant dialogue (unless you’re doing it deliberately for effect)
  2. Character inconsistency
  3. Characters that all sound alike (and perhaps all sound like the writer)
  4. Dialogue that doesn’t fit the time/place/world of the story
  5. “Q&A” dialogue (unless it’s deliberate, but usually it’s a result of the writer’s needs, not the character’s)
  6. Too much small talk (unless that’s deliberate)
  7. Too formal (unless that’s deliberate… I think you get the point here)
  8. Info dumps
  9. Unearned dialogue
  10. Dialogue that lacks subtext

This isn’t meant to imply that you must dedicate a separate dialogue pass for each of these issues. They’re things to familiarize yourself with so you can identify and address them when they happen.

The best lines come to you later

Yep – I know you’ve been there too: you think of the perfect thing to say to someone… minutes, hours, or days too late? After the heat of the moment has passed, when you’ve left the building, are in the car on the way home, or laying in bed replaying the whole thing in your head.

So annoying in real life, but when you’re writing a screenplay? No one has to know how long it took you to come up with that brilliant, witty, character-specific, layered, emotional dialogue.

Remember that a dialogue pass is something you’ll do later in the process, after you have the heavy lifting in place. And you can do several dialogue passes, each paying attention to one specific character, or perhaps one specific dialogue issue you’ve noticed in your writing.

Looking for the other Tweak + Polish tips? Here they are:

  1. Cut Redundant Dialogue
  2. Don’t Summarize, Dramatize
  3. Write for Continuity
  4. Digestible Sentences

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe