Why Dialogue In Scripts Often Sucks (And How To Fix It)

In an article in Wired magazine, Dan Ariely mentions a study that shows online daters restrict themselves to safe topics, resulting in boring conversations. Hmm, that reminds me of a lot of movie dialogue, especially in scripts from newer writers.

When I bring this up in workshops, the usual reply is, “Yes, but that’s how people talk.” Maybe so, but if I want to hear normal (boring) conversations I’ll go sit at a Starbucks and eavesdrop. When I go to the movies, I want something better than ordinary life.

One solution: put your characters into situations outside of their normal comfort zone. Then they’ll talk in a more interesting way, too. For instance:

When there’s time pressure of some kind. I’m currently writing a script about a man who is dying. That makes him more willing to say things he normally wouldn’t say and it makes the people around him uncertain about what they should or shouldn’t say to him, which makes them blurt out some interesting things.

When they’re in an unfamiliar setting–the ‘fish out of water’ effect. When people aren’t sure what’s appropriate, often they do and say inappropriate things. Inappropriate is interesting.

When they’re trying too hard. Have you ever been around somebody who is trying too hard to sound hip or interesting? Rich dialogue possibilities.

When they have something to hide. Trying to keep a secret often leads to Freudian slips, lies that don’t match up and other disasters for the speaker.

Of course these work only when they’re consistent with the story you want to tell, but at least one of those fits just about any kind of story. Put your people under pressure and what they say and how they say it should get a lot more interesting.

(Jurgen Wolff’s screenwriting blog is at www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com, where you can sign up for his free monthly Brainstorm creativity e-bulletin. His most recent books are Your Creative Writing Masterclass and Your Writing Coach, both published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon and other booksellers.)



Jurgen Wolff is a writer, teacher, and creativity consultant. In the United States, he wrote for sitcoms including Benson and Family Ties. He wrote the feature film, The Real Howard Spitz, starring Kelsey Grammer and directed by Vadim Jean. He was a script doctor on the hit film, Mannequin and others starring Michael Caine, Walter Matthau, and Eddie Murphy. For Germany, he co-created the comedy series, Lukas, which ran for 65 episodes, and an original comedy series called Krista. He also wrote nine episodes of the series, Relic Hunter. He wrote two TV movies for the Olsen Twins, and several the German TV movies including, On Top of the Volcano, starring Maria Schrader and Sebastian Koch (2007). His play, Killing Mother, was produced at the Gorky Theatre in Berlin, and he’s also had plays produced in New York, Los Angeles, and London.

As a writing and creativity teacher, his courses include Beyond Brainstorming, Create Your Future, The Creative Breakthrough Workshop and the ground-breaking Script Coach Series developed exclusively for Raindance. He has presented his courses at the University of Southern California, the University of Barcelona, the Skyros Institute, many films schools, and groups and organisations including The Academy for Chief Executives, Egmont, Grundy-UFA, and Columbia-Tri-Star. For eight years he was a visiting lecturer for the Pilots Program in Sitges.

His books include Your Writing Coach and Your Creative Writing Masterclass (Nicholas Brealey Publishing), Creativity Now (Pearson), Do Something Different (Virgin Business Books), Successful Scriptwriting (Writers Digest Press), Top Secrets: Screenwriting (Lone Eagle Press), and Successful Sitcom Writing (St. Martin’s Press).

He has written for many publications including the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Broadcast Magazine, and he is the editor of Brainstorm, the creativity ebulletin.