Don’t Write Generic Dialogue. Speak to the specific complaint.

I hate generic stuff, moments that show something basic: the kid loves his mom! The cop works at a precinct! The couple is fighting! Any hack could write that, and it’s the screenplay’s job to show off what’s special about your writing style. You want to sell people on the idea of you.

Here’s a very generic scene:

A HUSBAND and WIFE are fighting.

HUSBAND: You’re driving me crazy!
WIFE: You’re driving me crazy!
HUSBAND: You’re crazy!
WIFE: You’re crazy!

Okay, I get it. Their marriage sucks, but I don’t know anything about the characters. It’s just a bland fight. When I read scenes like this, I’m reminded of something an improv teacher once taught me: scenes should speak to a specific complaint.

That’s a fancy way of saying that dialogue should specifically highlight WHY things are happening. If someone says “I love you,” do they say it everyday or does they want something today? If a husband and wife are fighting, who’s fault is it?

The characters become more clear if a scene becomes more specific:

HUSBAND: You’ve been snapping at me all day, and I’m sick of it!
WIFE: Get a fucking job! I’m sick of carrying you. I should have married John.
HUSBAND: Fuck John. Let him deal with your shit. I’m sick of you hitting on any guy with a six pack!
WIFE: You’re one to talk! You’d fuck mud if you thought it would wiggle!

This is a little on the nose, but at least we know a little more about the two lovebirds. If we wanted to further refine it, we’d have to think about what we’re trying to say about these people and the best way to manifest that broader truth in a few specific lines.

By making dialogue more specific, you get to show off your chops and you make your characters more distinct.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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