Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Screenwriting Mistake #53: Meaningless words

When writing dialogue, it’s tempting to throw in a lot of stammers and hesitations to mimic how people talk in real life. You, um, really shouldn't, like, do that. Instead, just write the meaningful words that your characters must say in order to get their point across and advance the plot. This means that you should avoid using words such as “uh,” “um,” “well,” “so,” “er,” “like,” “anyway,” etc., in your dialogue because they just bog down your script with unnecessary filler. If your dialogue contains only the words that matter, the actors will fill them with life and emotion, including their own stammers and affectations. Imagine if someone were trying to write a conversation between Hugh Grant and Denholm Elliott in the way that they would actually deliver the lines. That one scene could fill the entire second act of your script. Just write the important words and leave that extra business to the actors.

Of course, the same exception applies to this rule as applies to every other rule in screenwriting: if it makes your story better, then put it in your script. If you need to use specific leading words in order to relay a character attribute that's important to your story, then you absolutely should do that. For example, if a character always pauses to think when someone asks him a question by saying, “Yes, I see,” before replying, then that’s not only a potentially interesting way to relay that information, but it’s also a fun character quirk for an actor to play around with. However, if you don’t have a specific reason like this for including meaningless words in your dialogue, then they don’t belong in your script.


  1. Phil, could you please write something to distinguish between INCITING INCIDENT and PLOT POINT 1. Please use examples from popular contemporary movies.

  2. Sure, Sandeep. The Inciting Incident is the first big catalyst that shakes up the protagonist's world, which takes place at about the 10% point of the script. Then there's another big catalyst at about the 17% point of the script, which is followed by Plot Point 1 at 25%. Plot Point 1 is the final catalyst that pushes the protagonist into beginning the pursuit of his external goal. For example, in "The Artist," the Inciting Incident is when George meets Peppy for the first time and they take that picture together. Plot Point 1 is when she gets a job in his new movie, then she gets fired, causing George to threaten the studio head to keep her in the movie. From this point forward, George's challenge will be to remain a successful movie actor after all of the new talking actors have begun to take over Hollywood, including Peppy. Hope that helps!