When other people read one of my stories, their response is almost always the same. “I can really picture it happening. It’s like watching a movie.”
I love hearing that. It is always my intention when I write. My dialog skills are my strength. I’m not bragging. I’m well aware that action sequences are my weakness. I constantly work on both.
When I watch a movie, I get wrapped up in the story. I study the characters—what they say and how they say it. I watch for mannerisms that clue the audience in to how the character feels. I notice things about the sets that tell me something about the characters—what they value, their income level, their hobbies, and so on.
I think about the movie, if it’s good, for several days afterward, dissecting and analyzing what made it meaningful for me. If it’s bad, I can usually pinpoint exactly what I didn’t like, and work out solutions pretty quickly. In cases like Howard the Duck from 1986, the solution was to try to block the film from my memory completely and find a good movie to fill that void.
Movies help improve my writing because they demand efficiency. There is neither time nor budget for fluff in film. Yes, I know movies have that “picture’s worth a thousand words” advantage, but not when it comes to dialog. That’s when you can tell if a screenwriter has talent or not.
Dialog’s purpose is to move the story forward and give you insight into each character. That’s all. It tells the things that are important to the story that are not visible to the audience. Movie dialog propels the story. It must, and as precisely as possible. Ramblings and incidental chats end up on the cutting room floor.
When I work on a story, I spend hours daydreaming myself through the plot, listening to the characters interact with each other in my head. I watch my own personal movie in my mind’s eye, paring down conversations to bare minimums. If it doesn’t move the story along, and at a quick pace, it gets cut. I only want just enough chatting in my stories to make my characters credible.
If one of my characters comments about the weather, you can be sure lightning is about to strike somewhere in their lives. If Miss Emily offers to show you her scrapbooks, it’s because one of them holds a clue to find the murderer. If the gossiping realtor tells you she knows where all the bodies are buried—she literally does.
If you get the chance, find a script from one of your favorite films and read it. They’re not always easy to find, and some that you can find are published “as released,” meaning that every word printed ended up in the movie. Try to find a screenplay that includes changes or scenes that didn’t make it into the final release.
When you read those parts, ask yourself why they didn’t make it. Were they just not pertinent? Did the writer or director find a better way to make the same point? Was the conversation repeated elsewhere?
When you write, or however you tell a story, ask yourself the same things. Is it important? Can I say it more effectively another way? Does this character always seem to say the same thing? If you need to, cut it! Rework it! Make it crystal clear. (Don’t think I’m preaching. I tell myself these same things over and over.)
I’ve read through scripts (or excerpts) of films like Chinatown, Network, Jaws, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and a few others. The dialog is tight. The portions not in the final cut were few, and mostly because of repetition. In a couple instances, scenes were deleted based on content and continuity. That’s also important in editing.
Movies adapted from books often get the same treatment. The screenwriter cuts through 400-plus pages of epic saga with a carving knife in order to put together 120 pages of attention-grabbing action. It’s a daunting job. Good screenwriters deserve more than just a little gold statuette of a naked man.
These days, publishers demand tight writing. Paper is not to be squandered on descriptions of purple sunsets and endless banter over silver tea trays. If your main characters talk, their words must be witty and lead somewhere.
Always think of your stories like movies, and ask yourself, “Would I pay nine bucks for two hours of this? Would anyone else?”
When you watch movies, pay attention to what you hear and see. What’s important? Good movies get right to the point. Good writing does, too.
That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema! Thanks for reading!