Friday, March 11, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #43: Predictable dialogue

I mentioned stilted dialogue in my last tip, but another problem that I see sometimes in dialogue is that it can be too predictable. When dialogue is predictable, it comes across as flat and boring, as if the character is just in the scene to help move things along instead of to stir things up. It’s easy to get into a rut of just writing down whatever words would be natural for your characters to say, but your screenplay will really stand out if you give some thought to what your characters could say that would bring new energy and even unpredictability to the scene.

One of the best examples of this kind of unpredictable and fascinating dialogue is from the movie “American Beauty.” Ricky, the drug-dealing neighbor boy, gets into a few fights with his extraordinarily creepy father, Colonel Frank Fits, just like you would expect between any teenage boy and his freakishly controlling father. When this happens, the audience would naturally expect Ricky to lash out at his father, yelling that he’s ruining his life or that he just doesn’t understand him or that he wishes he had never been born or some other clich├ęd drivel. But Alan Ball is a much better screenwriter than that, so every time Ricky and his dad get into a fight, Alan wrote down the exact opposite of what a typical teenage boy would say in that situation. The end result is a fascinating character with amazing dialogue.

For example, after the gay neighbors, Jim and Jim, drop by the Fits' house to introduce themselves, Frank bitches to his son about gay people having to rub their gayness in everyone’s faces. (Let’s see what kind of search results that gets me!) Ricky tries the expected response first by saying that their neighbors probably don’t feel like they have anything to be ashamed of. When his dad doesn’t buy that reply, Ricky does a complete 180 and says, “Forgive me sir, for speaking so bluntly, but those fags make me want to puke my fucking guts out.” He not only said the opposite of what you would expect an open-minded teenager to say, but he did so with such vehemence that it shut his dad down completely. No matter what you think about the words that Ricky said, there’s no doubt that it was both interesting and unexpected, which is a recipe for great dialogue.

The next time you’re having trouble making a character’s dialogue sound interesting, try writing the exact opposite of what you would expect that character to say instead. Chances are that will give you some ideas on how to make your scene, your character and your screenplay more interesting.

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