A friend once told me that every conversation that takes place in a screenplay should be an argument. It’s advice he heard from a writing teacher, and I think it’s basically sound. I’d replace the concept of an argument with the more general notion of tension. It doesn’t have to be direct confrontation, but there should be something at stake beyond the exchange of words.
The key to tension is subtext. In my limited experience rewriting for a director interested in on of my scripts, that is one thing he has emphasized: strip all your dialog of all explanation and description. After all, that’s what the director and actors will add visually and through the sound and the way that they deliver the lines. What should be left is only the subtext. And that subtext should be laid on a foundation of tension.
Here’s a scene from my latest script where I feel like I get it right:
EXT. ROADSIDE OVERLOOK
Coyle and Lilly sit at a picnic table with a view of the ocean. They share a sack lunch. It would be a lovely spot in season, but now there is gray skies and drizzle. They are hunched under their rain slickers. Lilly looks dejected.
Your girlfriend going to pick you up?
How do you know about that?
It’s not serious.
I know what it is.
Can we talk about something else?
What else is there?
Coyle can’t answer. They eat.
You want me to walk you home?
Better not. Sally doesn’t like you.
I won’t say what I think of her.
She’s a good person.
So you want to stay with her then?
Coyle stares at her, chewing. Lilly looks at the water.
Because if that’s what you want, I’d like to know. I’m working hard trying to make things right.
She’s a good person. She’s not Mom. She’s not you.
Coyle looks at her long and hard. She risks a quick glance into his eyes. He nods.
I better get going.
She crumples up her paper lunch bag. She picks up her board and wetsuit. She nods at her father and then begins walking along the highway toward town. The wind kicks up.
I love you, Lilly.
The wind is strong and she either doesn’t hear or she doesn’t care to respond.
I feel that is a scene where the tension is palpable. Here is the context: Coyle is the father, Lilly is the daughter in foster care. Sally is her foster mom. Coyle’s trying to get her back. But he’s also sleeping around (the girlfriend mentioned at the beginning), carousing, drinking, getting dragged into an unsolved murder case and generally doing a lot of things that will make it harder to get Lilly back. Lilly knows this. Knowing the context of the scene makes a lot of the dialog more clear, but I also think that context shows up as tension and subtext in the actual exchange. You don’t need that context. As a beginning writer, I found that I was continuously adding too much context in the form of description and explanation. Now I struggle to strip things down to the bone. I think this particular script is loaded with good tension and subtext. We’ll see when I send it to contests if it does as well as my other scripts.
One other note about adding tension to dialog. You have to be careful. While it’s always a good idea to ratchet up the tension on the page, you also have to learn when to turn this sensor off. When you wake up obscenely early in the morning like I do, the world you’re building inside your head is blurred with the one in which you actually live. It’s never a good idea to add tension and subtext to your daily conversations. Sometimes I’ll be sitting with my wife or daughter and chatting and that little voice in my head will remind me that I should be adding tension to the conversation. And I’ll say something that pisses them off. Not a good idea.