Make Every Word Count

August 6, 2007 at 9:29 am | Posted in Jessica, movies, storytelling, writing | 2 Comments

In Friday’s blog post, Meg mentioned how much she loves this week’s blog topic – dialogue. My book-length fiction has had plenty of dialogue in it but it hasn’t been until now, when I have broached the idea of writing my first screenplay, that I have considered the weight and measure that each word of dialogue has to carry.

With an average of 120 pages per script, screenwriters must employ an economy of words to execute their ideas . . . and do so in a way that is memorable for their audience. What we say matters.

Absolutely every word must count. And the best phrases stay with their audience, in some cases so much so that the string of words becomes part of our everyday speech.

    “If you build it, he will come.”(1)

To help me frame my thoughts, I consulted Bob Mayer’s The Novel Writer’s Toolkit and its section on dialogue.

    Dialogue can reveal a great amount of information about your characters.
    “Well, I believe in the soul, the c—, the p—-, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”(2)

    Dialogue can reveal motivations…
    “Show me the money!”(3)

    You have to consider whether what a person says is the truth.
    “That guy is tense. Tension is a killer. I used to be in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois. The baritone was this guy named Kip Diskin, big fat guy, I mean, like, orca fat. He was so stressed in the morning…”(4)

    Make sure the voice of each character is consistent.
    “My Momma always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna’ get.'”(5)

    Dialogue also advances the plot.
    “I’m gonna’ make him an offer he can’t refuse.”(6)

    It can sharpen the conflict between characters.
    “You can’t handle the truth!”(7)

    Dialogue can give expository information.
    “The Master of the Revels despises us all for vagrants and peddlers of bombast. But my father, James Burbage, had the first license to make a company of players from Her Majesty, and he drew from poets the literature of the age. We must show them that we are men of parts. Will Shakespeare has a play. I have a theatre. The Curtain is yours.”(8)

Each of these movie quotations used just the right words to convey intended meaning, and in a way that resonated with audiences. To have that kind of effect on consumers just goes to show the power of word choice.

Wishing you all a great writing week – go out and make every word count!

    “Hasta la vista, baby.”(9) “May the force be with you.”(10)


(1) Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams (2) Kevin Costner as Crash Davis in Bull Durham (3) Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire (4) Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kent in Usual Suspects (5) Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump (6) Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather (7) Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men (8) Martin Clunes as Richard Burbage in Shakespeare in Love (9) Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator in Termintaor 2 (10) Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars.



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  1. […] October 22, 2007 at 8:47 am | In Jessica, tool kit, writing | A few weeks ago we wrote on dialog and I used Bob Mayer’s The Novel Writer’s Tool Kit to help frame my discussion. Well, […]

  2. […] 28, 2008 at 7:56 am | In Jessica, format, movies, writing | A while back I posted an entry on making every word count. The entry more or less referred to screenwriting and it offered more commentary than it did […]

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