Recently I’ve been asked to help screenwriters buff up their scene-writing skills and in particular those scenes in which characters and dialogue fail to inspire.
The critique comes back with things like “the dialogue is on the nose,” “the scene is flat,” or “all the characters talk the same.”
So how do you address these complaints?
First off, I always start with structure. One of the reasons we roll out our classes like we do — going from vetting the logline and working out the 15 Beats in the first workshop, moving to the 40 scenes of The Board in the second, and (coming soon) going to First Draft in our newest class — is to make sure all the scenes are necessary. If we aren’t moving the story forward, if we’ve somehow lost track of the “bouncing ball” that is your hero’s transformation, maybe it doesn’t belong at all?
But let’s say for the sake of argument that the scene is worthy, but just a little limp. Now what?
My approach is to see every scene as a “module of drama.” I like to say that every scene is a mini-story — complete with 15 Beats that show change. It’s true! Start watching scenes in your favorite films and see how the 15 Beats show up — including the All Is Lost that shows a “death” about three quarters of the way in. Like any story, the scene hero has to have a tangible goal; what is that? And who or what is countering the hero? Finding motive reveals where the white-hot light of conflict is. If you have scenes where characters are “talking about what they’re doing,” it’s time for a triage.
As to characters talking the same, man, I hate that. Part of my dilemma always with working on scripts with flat characters is: I can’t tell one character from another. And no, that’s not the reader’s fault; it’s yours. To make a character pop, who he is must be reflected in the way he talks. Ten different people can walk in a room and say “Hi!” ten different ways, but it’s all about revealing something about that character. If you’re not sure if you have this problem, try the Bad Dialogue Test: Cover up the names of characters speaking and see if you can tell who’s talking by the way he or she talks. It’s key.
Another strategy that has proven successful is the Script Read. Convinced that everything is in place in your script, invite friends over, assign parts to all, turn on the tape recorder, and have a “table read” of your script. What this reveals is often not only slow and confusing spots in your story, but characters that are dull saying dull things the actors have no fun reading. If this were a radio play, if all you had was dialogue to tell your story, how would you communicate character that goes beyond the visual? It’s how to find ways to indicate who each player is, just by the way they speak.
Finally, like everything else, it’s about finding inspiration, and applying it. Listen to the way friends and strangers speak. Keep a notebook of “interesting things overheard at Starbucks” that will reveal how oddly we speak sometimes, and how what we say is merely cover for what we really mean in the subtext of what we say! Put that insight to work in your script, making the character come alive — even if it’s someone we hate! I always find that the key to writing any story is to love ALL the characters, regardless of their deeds. By trying to understand them better, and making them enunciate who they are, flat scenes stand up strong.