Friday, 7 January 2011

Dialogue: less is more

Let's talk dialogue. Because it's one of the least important aspects of a script. Yep, least important, way behind structure, plot, character, action, audience etc. (Note the honest in keeping with my award thingy)

Everyone knows that one of the biggest issues with "aspiring" writers is that they overwrite, especially dialogue. This is also the case with first draft scripts - my first drafts are always riddled with unnecessary, expositional dialogue. But, in later drafts, you have to accept that less is more.

With dialogue, it's not about what's said, but about what's not said. Subtext. Which is better:

"Please shoot that woman, giving me an excuse to put a bullet in your brainpan."


"Go ahead....make my day!"

And which is shorter?

There are two films that I think nail the "less is more" dialogue rule. The first is Wall-E.

The poor little dude can hardly say anything anyway, but all his emotions are done through actions (such as watching TV and making substitute skyscrapers) and through the way he says things. "Eeeeeeva?" he wails, desperately. So simple. So subtle. So emotional. It just works. So if you haven't watched Wall-E before, go away and give it a viewing. If you have, watch it again and make a note of how much is actually said by the two main characters.

The second film is Conan the Barbarian. It is, hands-down, one of the best written movies around. Conan isn't a talker. He's a do-er. He acts (usually with a heavy broadsword). One of his lines is actually "Enough talk!" before hurling his sword into someone's chest.

Conan, the protagonist, doesn't say a word until 23 minutes into the film. 23 minutes! And it's this:

Slave-driver: Conan, what is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.

For the next seven minutes, the only word even uttered by Conan is "Crom!" (which, to those who don't know, is the equivalent of "God!")

Conan's last word is spoken at the 01:44 mark. It's a prayer to Crom, which pretty much says "Give us a hand. If not, fuck you!" That's his last bit of dialogue. The film finishes a the 02:01 mark. Let me grab my calculator (I ain't too good at the ol' mathematics). That's 16 minutes without a single word from our hero. What does Conan do in that time? He acts. He fights off the advancing hordes, travels to Thulsa Doom's castle, nearly fails his mission, then hacks off Doom's head and sets the place on fire.

Now toddle off and watch Conan the Barbarian (give Conan the Destroyer a miss - it's rubbish). Come back when you've done that.

Back? Good.

Anyway, what I'm saying is - less is a hell of a lot more. Compare Raiders of the Lost Ark with the fourth (crappy) Indiana Jones movie. Compare the dialogue and how much there is. I'll bet good money that if a film uses less dialogue, it's simply better.

Dialogue is important, but it's not the be all and end all. Choose your words wisely and sparsely. If you can do it in two words, don't do it in four.


1) Go through your script and cut every single section of dialogue down by half. If you have 10 words, cut it to five.

2) Rewrite one, dialogue-heavy, scene cutting all dialogue. Not a single word. Do it all with actions. It might not be possible, so instead do the same thing, just cutting all dialogue from your protagonist.

Thoughts? Any other films that nail the "less is more" dialogue rule?

Stay shiny, folks - happy writing!


Adaddinsane said...

Tony Jordan's advice is: keep cutting dialogue until the speech no longer means what you originally intended.

This may mean cutting it all.

Anonymous said...

hi mate, my have you been busy... I fell off the horse but I am once again back on it and looking to make 2011 my year.. Keep an eye on Have Pen Will Travel it is going to get better and better, trust me. Short stories, poems, reviews and general life all in one place. Hope you are well and writing is still easy.

Taranaich said...

The lack of dialogue in Conan the Barbarian is as much pragmatism as it is choice. Originally, Arnold was going to narrate the film, but Arnold's accent was still extremely thick back in the day, and so Mako was made the narrator instead.

I will say the lack of dialogue means that the visual style of the film is highlighted. Beautiful movie. Just a shame it had so little to do with Howard, who was a veritable poet.

One of his lines is actually "Enough talk!" before hurling his sword into someone's chest.

That was Conan the Destroyer.