Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

4 Common Dialogue Problems in a Script

Screenplays are meant to be taut, precise, almost effortless reads. But there are common dialogue problems that muddy a screenplay’s purity, leaving your reader trudging through page after page of gobbledygook. Luckily these issues are easy to spot during a rewrite. Take a read through four common dialogue problems that you can probably find (and fix) right now.

1. Fluffy Dialogue

We recently wrapped the SoCreate “Get Writing” One-Page Screenplay Competition, and the results are fascinating. Where some writers complained that “it’s simply impossible” to fit a properly formatted scene on a single page in a traditional screenplay, others succeeded with flying colors. The successes removed the fluff.

For example, there’s no reason for this …

Script Snippet

Kimber

Johnny, I don't know about the hair. The color, the odd bob ... you're starting to look like Jonathan Brandis in Ladybugs.

Johnny

I know you're unsure about it, but it's the style right now. It makes me feel good about myself. I don't care what others think about it because it's my favorite haircut ever.

When you can write this …

Script Snippet

Johnny flips his hair, admiring herself in the hallway mirror. Kimber is unsure.

Kimber

You're starting to look like Jonathan Brandis in Ladybugs.

Johnny

Come on ... I love it!

See how much stronger that interaction becomes without the overwritten dialogue? Screenwriters often forget how much dialogue is implied, not spoken.

2. Writing What Should Be Subtext

Sometimes writers blatantly state subtext in dialogue. Subtext should not be stated. See what I did there? For example:

Script Snippet

Little Sammy

Dad, DAD! I gotta go to the bathroom now! Or else we're gonna have an emergency!

Little Sammy didn’t have to say much of anything to let his dad know that they had a time sensitive problem on their hands. This would have been better:

Script Snippet

Little Sammy tugs on dad's shirt, squirming and eyeing the bathroom.

Little Sammy

Dad, DAD!

Show, don’t tell.

3. Using Complete Sentences

Grammarians beware: a screenplay is no place for you. Dialogue is a true representation of how we speak to each other. It’s not formal, unless your character is formal. Are you using too many complete sentences in your screenplay? Try reading the lines aloud with a friend, and revise based on how those lines would be spoken in real life. Shake out that stiffness!

For example:

Script Snippet

Gary

Do you know why there's a controversy?

Jamie

I heard there's a disagreement between the agents and the writers.

Instead:

Script Snippet

Gary

What's the problem?

Jamie

Agents and writers ... you know how it goes.

4. Too Much Actor Direction

Wrylies, parentheticals, actor direction … there are several ways to refer to the line of text under character’s name, wrapped in parentheses, often indicating action to be paired with the forthcoming dialogue in a traditional screenplay. Many times, these wrylies are necessary, but closely examine your use of them to avoid going overboard. Does the action really accompany the speech? Then use a wryly. If not, consider writing it as action description. Too many wrylies can sour the reading experience.

Script Snippet

Mobo

(screams and points to Adedyo's shoulder)

Creature!

Adedayo

(flicks bug from his shoulder)

Just a young grasshopper.

Mobo

Won't it bite?

The parentheses are overkill and make the dialogue hard to digest. Instead, try:

Script Snippet

Mobo jumps backward, gesturing Adedayo's shoulder.

Mobo

Creature!

Adedayo

(flicks bug from his shoulder)

Ah it's just a young grasshopper.

Mobo

Won't it bite?

The latter example is much easier to read and implies enough through dialogue, rendering wrylies futile.

Just like that, you can make over a screenplay with a few simple snips. So, watch out words! This screenwriter has a rewrite coming for you.

Happy screenwriting,

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