Dialogue Prompts are a Device of the Devil

Dialogue prompts are a device of the Devil —

Okay maybe that is hyperbole. It’s unlikely dialogue prompts are big in antisocial alternative religion ceremonies. Also I hear the Devil is a smooth talker probably he does not make dialogue mistakes. But I see a lot of this. So —

Let’s talk dialogue prompts.

Dialogue prompts are unnecessary questions asked by characters requesting a single piece of information in a non-confrontational situation. They’re questions that don’t need to be asked. Characters are like people. Characcters in non-confrontational situations will volunteer information. A LOT. No prompting required.

But.

Unnecessary dialogue prompts show up in dialogue in scripts I read all the time. And they slow dialogue. And make dialogue feel wooden. And unatural. And in extreme cases? Turn dialogue into ping pong back and forth sing song exchanges that don’t work.

Unnecessary dialogue prompts look like this (I’m putting a parenthetical “prompting” in here to be really obvious):

Prompts work in police procedurals. Question answer sessions in police procedurals are usually two antagonistic characters across a table from each other. One wants answers. The other doesn’t want to give answers. There’s tension. There’s pushback. There’s mistrust. There are demands. Blow ups. Lies. Tension!

The prompts have purpose and push back and tension in a police procedural back and forth question answer session.

In a conflict free discussion like the one between Mary and Betty up there about hitting a hamburger bistro with Mom?

No conflict. No tension. No push back. Ahhh!

Do not do those prompts. Those prompts kill a dialogue exchange and turn it into a wooden question answer ping pong exchange faster than your cat will knock that TV remote off your counter.

Look at that exchange without the prompts:


That’s it. No prompts. And it totally works. Because —

Characters volunteer information. All the time. They don’t need prompts. They will just spill info. Get it out there in one go.

Don’t load a conflict free conversation down with singsong back and forth ping pong prompt exchanges.

That WILL kill dialogue.

Screenwriter and author Max Adams

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Max Adams is an author and award winning screenwriter. She has written for Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures, Tri-Star Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, Universal Pictures – and a couple others to remain unnamed because no one around here wants to get black listed. Max is a former volunteer AFI Alumni reader and WGAw online mentor, has appeared as a speaker at AMPAS, USC, and Film Arts Foundation, is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at University of Utah, is the author of The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide AND The New Screenwriter’s Survival Guide, is the founder of two international online screenwriting workshops, and has the dubious distinction of having been dubbed “Red Hot Adams” by Daily Variety for selling three pitches over a holiday weekend – which made her agents cry. [In a good way.] She answers now to both “Max” and “Red Hot” in crowds and dog parks.

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