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Three dialogue clunkers we’re better off without

December 26th, 2016 donnahoke

Having seen an unusual number of readings lately, I’ve noticed things that are not quite bad habits, because they’re deliberate, not automatic, but that are detrimental nonetheless. Maybe the best word is indulgences, things perceived as necessary, even clever, but that—at least for me—have the opposite effect, which is almost always making the playwright too present, dragging down dialogue, or pushing the viewer away if only for a second. These are not quite the same as #retirethisline, but more like conventions that should be retired.


It would be presumptuous of me to say you can never do these things, but if called out in a workshop, be prepared to have a solid defense ready.


1)  Acknowledgment phrases in excess. I debated before adding the “in excess” because I’m not sure acknowledgment phrases ever add anything to dialogue except time. I’m talking about things like “Sounds good,” “I’ll go get that for you,” even “good-bye” when hanging up a telephone (watch television; nobody ever says good-bye and nobody ever notices; it’s an aural trick that keeps things moving). I once read a script where the protagonist suggested an idea, and the next seven lines of dialogue were the other characters reacting to it: “Yeah,” “Yes, let’s,” “Sounds good,” etc. We of course say these things in life, but in theater, they’re dialogue sandbags because they don’t convey information, move the scene along, or carry intention. If you notice them in your scene, cut them and see how briskly your script reads.

Image result for saying goodbye on phone images


2) The Seinfeld observation.  Playwrights are observers of the human condition; as such, we notice things about the way it changes, how behavior evolves, how people react in certain situations. These observations are great fodder for plays if they’re dramatized. For example, we know how people tend to behave in elevators—keeping as much space as possible, not making eye contact.

Reaction GIF: whoa, Jerry Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer, Wayne Knight, Seinfeld


Imagine one of your characters says, “Isn’t it interesting how we don’t make eye contact in elevators?” (“Isn’t it interesting” and “It’s so funny how” are both red light indicators that the Seinfeld observation is coming.) Awful! And if you’re thinking it’s only awful because everybody knows this already, think again; it’s awful because it suddenly suggests the presence of the playwright; it’s the playwright observing, not the character. There’s no way for an actor to say that line without it sounding like exactly what it is.


Consider instead something like this bit, where Richard is telling his friends about an elevator encounter he’s desperate to interpret as meaningful:


Maybe she’s just visiting her new boyfriend.


Uh-uh. We made eye contact.


Nobody makes eye contact in an elevator.


That’s what I’m talkin’ about! If we’d had a little longer—


This exchange dramatizes the observation, gives it context, and allows the audience to nod in recognition; perhaps when Richard says they made eye contact, the audience is already thinking “Nobody does that,” and feel validated when Peter voices what they’re already thinking. This example is particularly illustrative precisely because elevator behavior has already been the subject of so much Seinfeld-like comedy; with a fresh observation, the dramatization might need to go a little further to deliver the same audience epiphany, but the end results is the same: showing, not telling.


3) Punchline orphan. Before opening a scene with a punchline was a total cliché, I get why it was used: it establishes a character’s charm, it makes us feel as if we’ve dropped into a scene that’s been going on a while, and, hopefully, even though we haven’t been told the joke, the punchline gets a laugh. But even with all that, I’ve never loved it, precisely because of its too-clever approach, and the very literal idea that we haven’t been let in on the joke. And with its cliché status—now that I’ve brought this up, you’ll start rolling your eyes at its ubiquity—there’s even less of an excuse to use it. There are so many better ways to start a scene!

Image result for i don't get the joke images


Those are my observations from a recent round of readings; isn’t it funny how going to readings makes you notice dialogue clunkers? Got any to add?


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2 Comments on “Three dialogue clunkers we’re better off without”

  1. 1 Catherine Castellani said at 5:30 pm on December 26th, 2016:

    “Remember when…”
    “Do you remember…”
    “Remember how s/he always…”
    “I remember how we used to…”

    If there is ANY OTHER WAY, do that instead.

  2. 2 donnahoke said at 12:49 am on December 27th, 2016:

    That was totally covered in #retirethisline: That usually results in a whole clunker of a scene lol.

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