No one is listening in to your characters’ dialogue

I learned this watching “The Wire.”

It’s a mistake I sometimes make in my work, and I bet you do too. I just did it with something I’m writing, so I thought I’d share my error with you.

In the scene I’m working on, I have a character supervising the loading of crates of toys on a truck, bound for New York. I cringe, putting this on line for all to see, but hey, it’s educational, right? The First draft read like this.

ELEGANT MAN
My toys. Leaving home for New York, then hitting the road.

In “The Wire,” when two drug dealers make a drug deal, they are people living their (sordid and not to be admired!) lives, not actors playing for a camera. They have NO IDEA that someone (you) is floating above them like an angel, watching their every move. They are drug dealers, and when drug dealers talk to drug dealers, they don’t explain stuff for people who are not there.

They don’t say…

STRINGER BELL
Hey man, I need fifteen kilos of heroin. That’s two point two pounds per kilo, you know.

They say (but way better!)…

STRINGER BELL
Hey man, I need fifteen keys of H.

Stringer and his business associate do not give a tinker’s damn if you understand what they are talking about, because you are not there. They are drug dealers, talking to drug dealers. They will not explain stuff to someone else, because there IS no one else. They will use words that they know, that you do not. Tough luck for you.

So, in my little script, I changed the offending line from…

ELEGANT MAN
My toys. Leaving home for New York, then hitting the road.

to…

ELEGANT MAN
My little babies. Leaving home for New York, then hitting the road.

Since the factory workers were putting boxes of toys in trucks, it was clear what was going on, so why explain it for the audience that’s not there?

3 Comments

Filed under Bad Writing, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting

3 responses to “No one is listening in to your characters’ dialogue

  1. Melody Lopez

    People tell me all the time I need to clarify my tactical speak (stuff related to my sniper taking a shot) and I smile politely, take the note and think to myself “I don’t care that you don’t know what that means”..cause I know that if I do my homework and pitch to the right producer… they’ll know- cause not only have they read it before- but they’ve likely made movies with similar language.

  2. “My little babies. Leaving home for New York, then hitting the road.”

    Okay, I have no idea of the context, but I still can’t see why the elegant man would speak this line. It doesn’t sound natural. Again he is merely telling us what is going on, albeit it in a more fanciful way, and the intended audience still appears to be, well, the audience. Is it necessary for him to say anything at all? Couldn’t you simply show that the toys are going to New York somehow, without his extra commentary? Apologies if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick.

    But I love the concept of the hovering angel, and the idea that characters should have no inkling that we are listening to their conversations. Brilliant!

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Hard to judge anything without the whole scene, that’s for sure. I’m going to look at it again, though, based on your thoughts.

      Glad you like the hovering angel image. Worked for me. Once you think about it, and you see dialogue that was written for the reader, it makes a lot of sense. Far less “explaino” will worm its way into your script.

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