Signs of a Good Screenplay
The professional screenplay is minimal because it aims to seed a visual, nonliterary, organic, and experiential process. A well-written one,
- Includes no author’s thoughts, instructions, or comments.
- Uses few qualifying comments and adjectives (over-describing kills what the reader imagines).
- Leaves most behavior to the reader’s imagination and instead describes its effect (for example, “he looks nervous” instead of “he nervously runs a fore-finger round the inside of his collar and then flicks dust off his dark serge pants”).
- Gives minimal instruction unless a line or action would be unintelligible to actors without guidance.
- Contains no camera or editing instructions.
- Isn’t written on the nose (that is, over-explicitly). It leaves the reader, and eventually the audience, much interpretive work to do.
- Uses brief, evocative language whenever the body copy wants the reader to visualize.
Overwriting is dangerous because anything detailed conditions its readers (money sources, actors, crew) to anticipate particular, hard-edged results. The director is then locked into trying to fulfill a vision that disallows variables, including those that contribute positively. In addition, actors get important messages from how a script is written. The over-prescribed, closed screenplay tells them they must conform to minutely specified actions and mannerisms, while the open screenplay encourages an active process of search between the cast and their director.
The screenplay format itself is treacherous because its appearance and proportions suggest that films are built around dialogue. This may be true for soap opera, but it’s quite wrong for good screen drama, which aims to be visual and behavioral.
The best dialogue is verbal action because the speaker uses words to get something. It is pressure applied even as it seeks to deflect pressures the speaker is experiencing. Active and structurally indispensable to the scene, it is never verbal arabesque or an editorial explanation of what is visible. Least of all is it verbal padding.
The best way to assess dialogue is to read the lines aloud, listening to the sound of your own voice, and asking:
Is every word and every phrase in the character’s own vernacular?
What is this character trying to get or do by using these words?
Does the dialogue carry a compelling subtext (that is, a deeper underlying connotation)?
Is what it hides interesting?
Could it be made more subtextual (allusive and indirect) instead of “on the nose” (evident and obvious)?
Does it make the listener speculate or respond emotionally?
Is there a better balance of words or sounds?
Can it be briefer by even one syllable?
It’s a good practice to scan through the script reading one main character’s dialogue alone to see how consistently he or she is realized. It also helps you concentrate on the clues this person generates.
Excerpted from Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics, fourth edition. Copyright ©2008, Michael Rabiger. Published by Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.