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how to guide by Andrew Lowes | 2001

How To Scriptwrite - Part 2 - Characterisation & Structure

A script comprises two main elements - dialogue (what your characters say) and action (what your characters do). The key to writing a good script is learning how to use both of these elements effectively.

Writing good dialogue is about more then just writing memorable or witty lines. I would contend that it is equally important that the dialogue builds and shapes characterisation. That doesn’t mean that memorable or witty lines don’t have their place. Without them you’re writing is in danger of ending up rather dull and lifeless.

So how do you write good dialogue? Unfortunately, as with all of these things there is no magic answer. But there are a few good tricks that writers can arm themselves with.

Stop, Look and Listen

One really good tip is just to listen to people. Listen to the way that conversations work in real life and how people actually use words when they speak. You don’t want to make your characters sound like they are making speeches. Scripted exchanges can often seem a bit forced and unrealistic. People don’t talk at each other they talk to each other. By taking notice of how the real world works you can help yourself to overcome that. Public transport is great for eavesdropping on other people. Pubs are another good source of inspiration. Don’t make it too obvious that you’re paying attention to what people are saying or you’re liable to get into trouble. "I’m researching for a script" isn’t an excuse that most people are sympathetic with.

Bear in mind not to go too far in copying how people actually talk, as alas we’re a nation of very sloppy speakers. You just want a hint of reality not the whole pepper pot.

Another good habit to get into is to read your scripts aloud. It is all very easy to sit at a desk and write stuff that sounds good in your head but if an actor cannot say it aloud then the line is no good. Always bear in mind that a script is intended to be performed. As Harrison Ford is reputed to have said to George Lucas on receipt of the script for Star Wars, "You can type this shit George, but you sure can’t say it".

One thing that some people find a problem is keeping a consistent speech pattern for each of their characters. Some people find that by picturing a particular actor suitable for each different character they can then use that actors' speech patterns in their writing. This technique doesn’t work for everybody but some may find it useful.

Words and Pictures

Another pitfall to avoid is the curse of too much dialogue. Bear in mind that film is a visual medium and therefore it is sometimes better to use action rather then dialogue. Scenes consisting of nothing more then people talking to each other are going to be grindingly boring to watch unless they also contain some sort of action that drives the narrative. It sounds obvious but I’ve seen a number of scripts over the years that have consisted of nothing more then page after page of endless dialogue. Sometimes it is better to show rather then tell. Balancing the amount of dialogue and action is crucial to the success of your script.

It’s Character Building

Good characterisation simply means that the characters you create all have individual personalities and don’t seem flat and two-dimensional. Many films are plagued with bad characterisation particularly when it comes to some of the incidental characters. Good characterisation is one of those things that you don’t tend to notice because it flows naturally from the script. Bad characterisation, on the other hand, sticks out like a sore thumb.

The first thing to consider is "do I need all my characters?" Combining some of the incidental characters together means that they are given more to do. It also means that the audience isn’t constantly bombarded with an endless stream of different faces on screen. Remember that a confused audience is often also a bored audience.

A lot of characterisation comes from how the characters interact with each other. Take this exchange from Jaws between Ellen Brody and her husband, Martin. Ellen is telling another character, Matt Hooper, about Martin’s fear of the water.

Int. The Brody House. Night.


(To Hooper) Martin hates boats. Martin hates water. Martin sits in his car when we go on the ferry to the mainland. I guess it’s a childhood thing. (To Martin) There’s a clinical name for it isn’t there? I forget…


(Interrupting) Drowning.

This small exchange instantly tells us a wealth of information about the characters. It tells us both about their background and about their relationship to each other. Yet it does it in a way that is naturalistic and plausible. You can believe in these characters. Similarly in a later sequence, Hooper takes Martin out in his boat.

Ext. Hooper’s boat. Night.


Who pays for all this stuff? The government? The institute? This stuff costs a lot of money.


Well, I er... I paid for most of this myself actually.


    Are you kidding?




    Are you rich?




    Yeah? How much?


Personally? Or the whole family?

Again the interplay between the two characters is naturalistic and we learn a lot about Matt Hooper and his background. However it isn’t forced down our throats or shoehorned in. The real secret is to learn to be subtle. One way to breathe life into your characters is to write a character history for them. If you have a good understanding of their personal history as you write, then that will hopefully come across more clearly on the page. Beware of what are sometimes called "rubber ducky moments" where a hitherto nasty character is shown to have a nice side by showing them playing with a rubber duck in the bath.

Using Sub-texts

Sub-texts are the underlying messages playing through a scene. Used effectively they are another way of giving your characters (and therefore your scripts) more depth.

Let’s have a look at some examples;

In "When Harry met Sally", the two main characters spend much of the film arguing about whether men and women can be friends with sex getting in the way.

Sub-text — They fancy the pants off each other.

In "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom", the two main characters spend most of the film just arguing.

Sub-text — They fancy the pants off each other.

In "To Have and To Have Not", the two main characters don’t really argue. They do talk about whistling though.

Sub-text — They fancy the pants off each other.

You can clearly see how deeply most Hollywood films use sub-texts. There are exceptions though. The sub-text in "Interview With The Vampire" can be seen as a fear of Aids for example. The film "Safe" is on the surface a film about a woman who is allergic to pollution. The sub-text is about consumerism and loss of individuality. In most cases if a sub-text is used properly it shouldn’t reach out and grab the audience by the throat. As I keep emphasising, subtlety is the key.

Next time: Script layout

Screenwriting Part 5 - WRITING SHORT FILMS

Screenwriting Part 4 - WRITING FOR LOW BUDGET

Screenwriting Part 3 - LAYOUT


Screenwriting Part 1 - STRUCTURE

Film Insurance - Do you need it?

How to transfer tape and digital video to film

How to register a limited company for £31. A seven step guide.

How to make your short film eligable for the Academy Awards

An introduction to the role of Company Secretary

Company Secretary Guide - Part 2


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