First Draft: Subtext, Exposition and Other Tips for Great Dialogue

In partnership with Creative Screenwriting, we present “First Draft,” a series on everything to do with screenwriting. New articles, first published by Creative Screenwriting, are posted regularly.


Hollywood has a short attention span. Unlike writers—who sit and ponder, plotting out their next script, revising and revising a screenplay until their fingers are numb—the truth is that the people you need to impress with your script do not. So during your writing breaks, rather than looking yourself up on Google, why not take 10 minutes to learn the key elements for success when writing dialogue?

Subtext

Ben: “You can never ask me to stop drinking. You understand?”

Sera: “I do.”

– Leaving Las Vegas

I think this is one of my favorite lines in any movie. This quick, intense exchange of words holds invaluable subtext.

Ben’s line is on-the-nose and purposely done. We know he’s lost his wife, his son and his job. He has sold his belongings and methodically plans to kill himself in Vegas by use of the bottle. But when Sera says, “I do [understand],” does she?

The words “I do” are only a quick fix, an answer that clearly masks how she feels but can momentarily end this conversation. Sera is not concerned about his drinking habits. Ben, at least for the time being, serves as a selfish distraction from her prostitution life. Finally, after many years of sorrow, she’s found someone who is “worse off” than she is. So what is Sera really saying? She’s saying, “No, I do not understand, but who cares, as long as you stay.”

Subtext in dialogue is the only truth in a character’s speech. Subtext is the underlying meaning of the character’s “surface” dialogue, and it can only be achieved when the writer understands the real motivations of their characters.

Without subtext, your characters are dull. You will find, unfortunately, that the audience does not truly understand your characters, which will later force you to add too much exposition dialogue.

Elisabeth Shue as Sera and Nicolas Cage as Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas

Exposition

There is nothing I hate more than watching a TV pilot that shows a married couple sitting on the porch and listening to the husband saying, “Honey, you know we’ve been married for 25 years.” Of course she knows! But writers feel the need to add information that is not only organic, but also obvious.

How can a writer ensure that the audience knows the couple have been married for 25 years? It’s simple. In your action and description lines, highlight family photos with kids in their later teen years or a wedding photo that is well-worn and faded, with the couple looking dramatically younger.

And instead of having the couple cuddled hand in hand on the couch like a newlywed bride and groom, show them stretched out on the couch with a bucket of ice cream in between them.

Add subtle action and description rather than obvious dialogue. There is a time for exposition. For the most part, every film has expositional dialogue, but the best films take advantage of this at the beginning by communicating key information that the audience must have in order to fully understand the story.

Remember, it’s always better to show, not tell.

A realistic couple: Roseanne Bar as Roseanne Conner and John Goodman as Dan Conner in Roseanne

Generic Roles

It was always so embarrassing in film school when we held casting calls. It’s bad enough that we can’t pay the actors for their time and that the film will never be seen by an audience, but the fact that we brought these actors in to read one line for a front desk clerk at a hotel (“Thanks for staying with us; come back again”) makes it all the more egregious.

First, you must ask yourself if this scene is even needed. If it is, does there really need to be dialogue? Can’t the clerk just wave goodbye? Try giving the front desk clerk something interesting to say—something that gives the audience a clear understanding of the hotel’s charm, size or personality.

You can also use this opportunity to give insight into your protagonist’s personality by having the front desk clerk do something silly or even obnoxious. This will allow the audience to see how your protagonist reacts. But please, don’t waste an actor’s gas money just to read a generic line by a generic character.

More than just a hotel clerk: Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Speeches

It is said that dialogue should be a maximum of two to three lines. Having white space on a script is very important. But while real people don’t typically give long speeches, every great script should have one long and powerful speech. This should not be done at the beginning (unless it pushes the story forward), but at the end.

One of my favorite examples of a great speech is in Scent of a Women. The script is full of fabulous one-liners and memorable quotes, but one of the most stunning parts of the film happens when Colonel Frank Slade delivers his bombshell support for Charlie at the school. The impact of his speech is breathtaking, and the film wouldn’t have worked without it.

A great speech: Al Pacino as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade and Chris O’Donnell as Charlie Simms in Scent of a Woman

Silent Films

Think silent films are dead? What about 2011’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The Artist? We go to the movie to see moving images. If we want lengthy dialogue and text, we can read a book. (Now, I’ll admit I go to Tarantino’s films to hear his characters speak, but he’s an exception.)

Turn the volume off on your favorite movie. Watch it all the way through. Do you still understand the characters goals? Do you understand the theme and message the director is trying to capture and preach?

If the film was done right, this can be achieved. It’s not uncommon for writers to draft their script with only action and description first and later add the dialogue. I do not personally use this method, but many writers find it’s important to tell the story visually before they tell it verbally. Think about it.

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller in The Artist

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin and Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller in The Artist

Commanding a Voice

Over 75 percent of scripts that are never produced were rejected because of the lack of voice for each character. It’s 120 pages of a writer speaking in the same tone and voice, giving us a boring sermon. Screenplays that work owe much of their success to real voices that come from real characters.

Try this: Black out the character’s name in your entire script. Then go back in and re-read the screenplay. Can you differentiate between characters? Do you know who is speaking and to whom they are speaking? If not, you are setting yourself up for failure.

When I was a screenplay reader covering multiple scripts a day, I wanted to scroll through them as fast as I could. The most impressive and enjoyable ones were those in which I didn’t need to check and see who was speaking. I just knew.

Natural Dialogue: Julie Delpy as Celine and Ethan Hawke as Jesse in Before Sunset

Natural dialogue: Julie Delpy as Celine and Ethan Hawke as Jesse in Before Sunset

Voiceover

I love voiceovers and will continue to use them when needed. But when do voiceovers destroy a screenplay? There are many explanations of why and how this happens. When a writer, for whatever reason, can’t fix character development or plot holes, they tend to revert to voiceovers, which is a cop-out.

So before writing a voiceover, you need to ask yourself, “If my voiceovers are removed, will the story still make sense?” If so, consider taking them out. Think of a director who watches his film and comments on it to an audience while they watch it. The director is adding insight, bonuses and layers to the story—something the naked eye may not see.

Could Shawshank Redemption work without Morgan Freeman’s voiceovers? Yes, it could. But what the voiceovers provided was flair, personality and a sense of continuity. The film’s success was achieved by clever writing and by allowing the characters actions to dictate the story first. The voiceovers were just the icing on the cake.

Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as Red in The Shawshank Redemption

Conclusion: The Concept

Screenplays are bought on concept, not dialogue. So every writer should first focus on the overall concept of the script. When a writer has a compelling story to tell, the script is already halfway to selling.

But dialogue should not be overlooked. It can add a great break when a script has a lot of action. Dialogue sticks with us and is quoted by people for years and years. It can make us cry and laugh at the same time.

Just remember, if you create a story worth telling, characters that are memorable, and an ending that will blow an audience’s socks off, adding in the dialogue will come naturally. It will be a total breeze. MM

fbbanner-2-1This article originally appeared on the website Creative Screenwriting. Creative Screenwriting is “the best magazine for screenwriters” (the Los Angeles Times), publishing daily interviews and craft articles from the foremost writers in film and TV.

Jacob N. Stuart is an award­-winning screenwriter and founder of ScreenwritingStaffing.com, putting screenwriters in contact with industry professionals.

Feature image courtesy of MGM.

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