Why does some screenplay dialogue sizzle while other lines end up like cold toast? Here’s one tip I picked up many years ago: check that you haven’t Full Metal Jacket - making screenplay dialogue sizzlestarted to play ping-pong!

The problem is the “di” in dialogue. If monologue is one person speaking alone, then screenplay dialogue (we reason) must be two people speaking. Right? Wrong. Or at least only partially right.

Most writers start writing dialogue like this:

Brian: I want to go to see that great movie.
Cathy: I don’t. I want to stay at home.
Brian: But they say it’s really good
Cathy: I don’t care. I’m tired.
Brian: Well, I’m not, and I’m fed up never going out.
Cathy: Well, go on your own then.
Brian: I might well do that.
Cathy: Go on, then…

And so on, and so on… OK, I admit it’s not the most riveting situation to start with, but the point is the predictability and the unvarying rhythm of it. A – B – A – B – A etc. Like ping-pong.

Stand away from that screenplay dialogue bat!

Why do people always have to answer each other so neatly? Do people always? Where’s the surprise? What’s usually interesting about dialogue is what’s not said, not what is. So let’s try some cutting. Try cutting Cathy’s first answer.

Brian: I want to go to see that great movie.
(Cathy drums her fingers on the table)
Brian: But they say it’s really good

Not Shakespeare, but a definite improvement. Let’s try a few more cuts.

Cathy: I don’t care. I’m tired.
(Brian turns and stares out of the window)
Cathy: Well, go on your own then.
Brian: I might well do that.
(Cathy bites her tongue)…

Dangling questions

Moving in the right direction. The next step might be to leave a question in the air. This can be very powerful, eg:

Spike: Did you touch that gun?
(Jared doesn’t answer)

The corollary, equally effective, is to answer a question that hasn’t been asked.

(Hannah throws the bag onto the table)
Prithi: I’ve never seen it before in my life.

Now your turn. Find or write a fresh passage of dialogue and check for ping-pong. If you find some, start cutting lines. How much can you say with a look or an action? How often can you leave a question dangling without an answer, or an answer before a question has been asked? Can you find other ways to vary the rhythms and pacing?

Search for examples of screenplay dialogue ping-pong – and more varied dialogue – in other people’s scripts, in films and on TV.

Tell me how it goes.