What is the most important element of dialogue in screenplays?
Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.
Here we feature the Film Courage video Biggest Mistake Screenwriters Make With Dialogue by Karl Iglesias that details two of the most important elements of cinematic dialogue.
Iglesias was a story analyst for actor-producer Edward James Olmos and later worked as a development executive for an independent production company. He is also the author of the acclaimed screenwriting book The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters.
Make Sure You Know What Every Character Wants in the Scene
“Scenes with dialogue are about a character’s intention… everything a character says is matched to what that desire is. So anything that doesn’t belong to that doesn’t fit.”
He goes on to say that the best habit a screenwriter can have when examining their dialogue is to ask themselves — for every line of dialogue within the script — “Why is that character saying this?”
If it’s for purely expositional purposes, a majority of the time that dialogue isn’t needed.
“When you know what that character wants, every single line of dialogue is a strategy for that character to get what they want. And if that dialogue is not that, then you rewrite the line until it fits that.”
Not all exposition is bad though.
“There are ways to make sure the exposition in your dialogue matches the objective.”
Iglesias used the example of a character that is accused of murder but didn’t commit the crime. When he’s being questioned by the detective, he can say that he was at the movie theater when the murder was committed. That’s technically exposition, but it matches the objective of the character saying what they need to say to be exonerated for the murder. The exposition matches the objective.
When you know what the character in the scene wants, you need to make sure that everything they say matches that objective.
That is the single most important element to cinematic dialogue.
Click below to watch the full video for further explanation and examples!
And become a member of TSL 360 to enjoy the LARGEST screenwriting education content library, featuring masterclasses, deep-dive interviews, and lectures from Academy Award-winning screenwriters, TV show-runners, producers, literary managers, agents, studio executives, and leading educators – all in one place.