Far too often, screenwriters write scenes that serve no other purpose than to provide information to the reader. This almost guarantees the scene will be ordinary, plain, and boring. If the weakest link defines the strength of a chain, a weak scene defines the strength of an entire screenplay.
To grab attention, every scene needs conflict. Conflict implies two characters where each character is trying to achieve a goal. That means:
- The two characters want the same goal but only one can get it such as marrying the same person.
- The two characters want different goals but the goal of one character will stop the other character from getting their goal.
- The two characters want the same goal but fight over how to achieve that goal.
Romance stories almost always involve a love triangle where two people fight over one person and only one can win. Action stories often have similar problems where the villain wants something (such as a nuclear bomb) while the hero wants to keep the villain from achieving that goal.
Sometimes two characters want completely different goals, but those goals get tangled up. In “Die Hard,” the hero just wants to get back with his wife while the villain wants to steal from a corporate vault. The problem is that the hero’s wife is being held hostage by the villain and the villain needs to keep the hero from fouling things up by holding the hero’s wife hostage.
An interesting variation is when two characters are actually on the same side but fighting each other for how they want to achieve the same desired goal. In “Erin Brockovich,” the hero (Erin Brockovich) and a lawyer are trying to work together. The conflict occurs when the lawyer treats Erin Brockovich like she’s an idiot, causing Erin Brockovich to fight back.
While physical conflict is easy to see, verbal conflict can be far more satisfying because of the back-and-forth nature of the verbal jousting. Such verbal sparring requires creativity in coloring what each character says.
A poor screenwriter might have characters speak on-the-nose dialogue, which means they state exactly what they mean. In “Erin Brockovich,” this could have occurred by having Erin Brockovich simply claim that she knows what she’s doing. Instead, Erin Brockovich sets up a challenge to the lawyer.
When the lawyer asks for phone numbers of different people, Erin Brockovich could have said she didn’t write them down because she memorized them. Instead, Erin Brockovich recites personal details about a person that shows she knows far more than simple written notes could have done.
After Erin Brockovich clearly demonstrates her research is detailed and complete, the lawyer tries to make up to her by saying, “Look, I think we got off on the wrong foot here.” That’s when Erin Brockovich responds, “That’s all you’ve got lady: two wrong feet in fucking ugly shoes.” Watch the exchange here:
The art of writing dialogue is to say something indirectly. Erin Brockovich could have simply said, “You’re an idiot,” but that direct statement would be dull, far less memorable, and reveal nothing about Erin Brockovich as a person. By telling her, “That’s all you’ve got lady: two wrong feet in fucking ugly shoes,” that reveals far more of Erin Brockovich’s personality while being memorable and colorful at the same time.
The lesson is to write your scenes with direct dialogue first, then go back and rewrite dialogue to be as indirect as possible to reveal personalities while being memorable. The best dialogue rarely says anything directly but says it indirectly in the most colorful, awe-inspiring manner possible, and that’s what will make your dialogue in any scene far more interesting to grab and hold someone’s attention from start to finish.