Probably the most frequent novice screenwriter sin is dead-on dialogue. Like many writers, I knowingly and purposely fill my first drafts with on-the-nose dialogue. This gets my character's thoughts on paper and makes for a very long, babbling screenplay. No biggie. Later, when I have a holistic finished draft and an almost effortless knowledge of each character, I go back with a weedeater and then try to add subtext, humor, and dialogue that reveals as much about who the character is as it does about what the character is saying. But, first I have to know what my character is saying before I can change the way he says it.
That probably sounds familiar. On-the-nose = bad. Okie doke.
Ya know why so many screenwriters have trouble with this? Ya know WHY they write no-brainer dead-on dialogue and then look at you like you're speaking Klingon when you call them on it? Ya know why reasonably intelligent people can write an entire page of dialogue that amounts to nothing more than an excruciating exchange of polite or not-so-polite greetings and still retort "it goes to character development" when you suggest they cut it?
Know why it's so hard? Do ya? Well, I don't. But I have a theory. It's a bit abstract so stay with me on this.
Screenwriting does require dead-on dialogue now and then along with the indirect, cryptic and cat and mouse dialogue that has to sound as natural as commenting on the weather. Maybe newbie screenwriters need time to pick up on this (goodness knows, I did!) but somebody who's been writing screenplays for a number of years ought to have this down by now. Many don't.
Claiming that people are evolving into increasingly self absorbed and highly educated illiterates is an oxymoron, but that's my theory. We are a society that wants instant everything and I think, to some degree, the instant mentality has spilled into our speech. We want instant communication without the burden of communicating. I talk. You listen and digest what I'm saying. You talk. I listen and digest what you are saying. Simple. But too time consuming.
The ability to relate to each other through meaningful dialogue is decomposing beneath a heap of iPods, instant messages, and video games. Why read books when we can watch a movie or play Halo 2? Why have meaningful conversation over the dinner table when we can watch South Park? Why meet with somebody in person if you can just send a short message to their Blackberry? Don't pick up the phone, just IM me!
I'm not opposed to any of this technology, really, but somebody once told me that the most important word in the English language is 'relationships'. These gadgets seem to absolve us from the obligation to master communication and any two dollar shrink will tell you that most relationships that break down can point an accusing finger at failure to communicate.
Screenwriters must understand how people communicate in order to write characters that communicate with each other and write a story that communicates to the audience.
Over the weekend, I had a discussion with an aspiring screenwriter who, by all indications, is an intelligent guy with a good education and a reasonably firm grasp on reality. But he can't communicate. How can he write a screenplay if he, himself, cannot communicate?
Metaphorically, here's how this played out --
HIM: The babysitter is forcing me to eat tomatoes.
ME: The babysitter is enforcing your mom's rules.
HIM: Mom is not the one forcing me to eat them.
ME: But the babysitter didn't make the rules.
HIM: He's the one making me eat tomatoes.
ME: Your mom is the one making you eat tomatoes.
HIM: You're an idiot.
ME: Enjoy your tomatoes.