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Notes from a Screenreader: Rethinking Dialogue

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Photo via Go Into the Story.

Dialogue is a necessary evil, according to legendary director Fred Zinnemann, and writers of spec scripts should print that out and tack it up over their monitors.

It is the polar opposite of telling your story visually. So why do you need it at all? As director Kelly Reichardt famously said in this article: "The lies are in the dialogue, the truth is in the visuals.“

Dialogue has a purpose. It’s there to create a layer of meaning entirely separate from the action.

  • Don’t tell it if we can see it. If it’s happening, and we can see it, no one needs to describe it in dialogue. Lots of explanatory dialogue means you haven’t thought of a way to put that information into illustrative action.
  • Less information, information later. It’s a problem with spec scripts—the telling first, then showing. This turns up in conversations about what’s going to happen next. Get rid of them entirely. We don’t want to live every moment twice.
  • Fall in love with subtext. Characters doing is better than characters talking. But they have to talk sometimes, and on those occasions, it’s best to make a party out of it. Lean in to the characters’ voices. Create conflict in those conversations by giving characters different agendas. If they don’t have conflicting agendas, there is no evidence that their conversation belongs in the script.

Exposition in dialogue can easily break the back of your script. If your story absolutely cannot be told visually, it’s probably not a screenplay at all.

ANNIE LABARBA

Annie is a screenwriter, story consultant, and reader for major screenplay competitions.

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