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'Dialogue = Purpose' by Scott Myers

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    Scott Myers

    Core V: Dialogue, my next 1-week online screenwriting class, begins Monday, September 30.

    As an exclusive bonus for The Black Board community, I will be posting Lecture 1 from that class this week.

    Today, Lecture 1, Part 1

    Dialogue = Purpose

    In the story universe of a screenplay, characters convey who they are and what they are feeling in two ways: action and dialogue. Since movies are primarily a visual medium, a screenwriter’s instinct must be to approach any scene thinking action first, dialogue second. In this regard, the old adage is tested, tried, and true: “Show it, don’t say it.”

    What then of dialogue? Consider the words of William Goldman, arguably the dean of contemporary American screenwriters, creator of such notable screenplays as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride:

    “It’s a terrible thing for a writer to admit, but in terms of screenwriting, dialogue really doesn’t matter as much as in plays and books — because you have the camera.”

    Since movies “have the camera,” does that really mean dialogue “doesn’t matter as much” in a screenplay? In one way of looking at it, the fact that there are limits on how much [or little] a screenwriter may rely on dialogue means our choices of when to use and how to handle this narrative element are critically important. In other words, we have to exercise greater care whenever we choose to write dialogue over action.

    Thus we start with this acknowledgement: In a screenplay, dialogue is not conversation. It is communication. Communication with a purpose. This leads us to the Fifth Essential Principle of Screenwriting:

    Dialogue = Purpose

    We can look at dialogue as purpose in these four ways:

    1. Dialogue conveys exposition.
    2. Dialogue reveals a character’s inner life.
    3. Dialogue distinguishes one character from another.
    4. Dialogue moves the plot forward.

    If you have never taken an online class with me, this is a great opportunity. To learn more, go here: Core V: Dialogue at Screenwriting Master Class.


    What do you think are keys to writing good dialogue?

    Come back tomorrow for Part 2: Dialogue as Purpose in The Social Network.

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    • This topic was modified 1 year, 7 months ago by  Scott Myers.

    John Connor

    It’s interesting to contrast Goldman’s “Dialogue doesn’t matter as much, because we have the camera” against readers’ demands for White Space. This is where the real balancing act comes in, I guess: you don’t want to overwrite dialogue, but you can’t underwrite it either. And if readers skip through scene description, it could be possible for subtleties to get lost … but you also don’t want to be ham-handed, having characters comment on things for no reason other than to (doubly) draw attention to them.

    Man, you could chase yourself down a never-ending rabbit-hole thinking about this stuff…



    Scott Myers

    John, to me screenwriting is a lot like golf. You learn all this stuff, but when you step up to strike the ball, you clear your mind of it all, and feel your way through the swing.

    So white space, lean scene description, don’t overwrite dialogue, subtext, and on and on and on, all important to know and ingest. But I find when writing scenes, I clear my mind of that stuff as much as possible and try to ‘be here now’ with the characters in the scene.

    BTW for me, this is yet another reason to read movie scripts. There is a Gestalt type of learning that can happen where after reading lots and lots of scripts, you just sort of ‘get it,’ you have a feel for pace and balance and white space, etc.

    But everyone is different, there is no single path, so ultimately it’s up to each writer to find their way. Sites like GITS and The Black Board are a great way to expose writers to lots of ideas, takes, and approaches which – hopefully – feeds the writer’s creative growth, spurring them to be able to find their path that much more quickly.


    Mark Walker

    I agree with John, about getting the balance of white right, and making sure that all your dialogue serves a purpose, without being on the nose….it isn’t easy, but it amazing how much you can take out of your first draft when you start editing and realise how much conversation is superfluous….and how you can show a lot of what you start to with dialogue in scene description and action.

    But I do think that dialogue is very important regardless of whether we are talking about books or screenplays….sometimes it is THE most important and effective way of getting a message across….Luke finds out who his father is, Gittes learns the truth….how effective would those scenes have been without the dialogue….would we, as an audience, have shivered as much if Luke had found his birth certificate on a dead Wookiie?


    John Connor

    Scott – I like your golf analogy. It’s true that, as much as all these theoretical ideas are fascinating, and important to learn, when I sit down to write a scene all I’m thinking about is the story. Analysis like this is for between drafts, I think, when I can ‘stand outside’ the script a bit more.

    Mark – Oh God, now I’m picturing a version of Star Wars with Luke as a noir detective. After making out with Leia a bit, he discovers the truth and starts slapping himself. “She’s my sister!” Slap. “My lover!” Slap. “She’s my sister AND my lover!” Han comes and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Forget it Luke… it’s Tattooine.” Credits roll. Awesome. **scurries off, sends email to Disney**


    Scott Myers

    @John: Per your last, have you ever seen the parody “George Lucas in Love”? Wonderful! Go to the end and you’ll see the relevance per your point to Mark.


    Shaula Evans

    A little “George Lucas in Love” trivia for you both: in the film, Princess Leia is played by my second cousin Lisa Jakub.


    Scott Myers

    @Shaula: You mean this Lisa Jakub. Has she gotten out of the business? Lives in Virginia with hubby and dogs.


    Shaula Evans

    Yes, the very same. And yes, she’s completely out of the business now, reinvented very successfully as a civilian. (She might be more inclined to say: “This Lisa Jakub“.)


    Mark Walker

    Ha, that was great, thanks for the link Scott!

    “Hey George, check out my new duck…….”



    These are really powerful tips Scott   Thank You.

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