Creative Scriptwriting and Copywriting

Three great lines and no bad ones

In scriptwriting on February 22, 2010 at 2:30 am

Screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo) has a golden rule.

More than three great lines in a screenplay, he says, is the sign of a writer falling in love with his or her own writing. “Great lines” rarely drop from our mouths in real life.

So, indulge yourself a couple of times – three if you must – with your very best clever-clever, literary fizzbombs. But that’s that. Everything else should be plain and simple: functional dialogue that doesn’t interfere with the telling of your story.

I think it makes sense, especially in the kind of dramas Schrader writes. (I’d hate them to take the zingers out of Glee, for instance, but that weight of wise-cracks in anything less bubblegum will only take you out of the moment.)

And there’s another reason why attention-grabbing lines can get in the way.

I don’t much bother with Facebook. For me, it’s less about social interaction and more about Bejewelled Blitz (540,000 high score – beat that!)

But an early-morning Facebook post from a friend looked a bit cold and bare on the screen. It read, “Chris is feeling a bit depressed at the moment.”

Naturally, the man within me needed to draw the whole “depression” thing very quickly to a close, and so the writer within me started chewing over a reply that might raise a small smile. (Don’t for a minute think I spent hours thinking through wise-cracking ideas when I should have been working, though. That would be ridiculous…)

Anyway, by lunchtime, I had narrowed it down to a trio of feebly smart-arsed possibilities:

1) Weak football banter, along the lines of: “Has the end-of-season sale at the Coventry City store finished already?”

2) Cheap sexual banter: maybe, “Don’t worry. Apparently, you can now buy Ci4lis and Vi4gr4 online for sweet de4lz”.

Or 3) Lame musical banter: “Noah and the Whale have a new album out?”

Now, I don’t believe for a moment these were quite what Paul Schrader had in mind when he spoke about “great lines” (in fact, if your scriptwriting features anything close to any of the above as its three great lines, then you are beyond the help of this blog), but they do share the sort of knowing ba-da-boom that you can sometimes mistake as wit after a long morning on Facebook.

Luckily, before I had a chance to post any of them, a female friend beat me to it with a reply that was as unselfconscious as it was brief.

In four short words, she not only showed a feminine empathy that made my blokey bonding look singularly dumb and crass, but also drew out what was, once we got to hear it, a really great story that any of my three would-be zingers could have killed stone dead.

Proof that plain simple dialogue beats fancy-pants lines ninety-nine times out of a hundred.

Those four words in full:

“What’s the matter, Chris?”

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