If you want not just to hook your audience but also keep them riveted throughout your screenplay, look no further than your tension and dialog. In my past 10 years as editor in chief of DLA Editors & Proofers , I have read countless screenplays that start with a bang and don’t even wait to the end to fizzle. Each time, the author would make the same mistakes: fail to hold the tension to keep the audience engaged in the screenplay and fail to keep the dialog poignant, relevant and organic.
In this article, I will describe the ways I commonly see the tension and dialog failing in screenplays, along with ways to address them. Once you’ve gone back over your screenplay to check the tension and dialog, I recommend hiring a professional screenplay editor to edit and critique your screenplay, and identify the further improvements to make to engage not just your audience, but also prospective producers and agents.
What Exactly Do You Mean by “Tension”?
Tension is also known as conflict. It is the “What’s going to happen next?” question that not only gets your audience interested in your screenplay, but also drives them to want to see more.
Tension, or conflict, has two sides. It happens between two people, or characters, or between a person and his or her environment, and it happens in everyday life. In everyday life, tension is not always resolved. The opportunity for resolving it may pass, the conflict itself may expire, or the individual(s) involved may not know how to resolve it. It is this last form of conflict that keeps the tension alive and the one to strive for in your screenplay.
Why Not Resolve the Tension?
As soon as you resolve the tension in your screenplay, your audience will lose interest, unless you have replaced the tension with another one. Resolving the tension without introducing another one is what the audience expects at the end of the screenplay, so even if it is the beginning or middle of your screenplay, if you resolve your tension, the audience will expect there is nothing more to come from your screenplay, so that even if your screenplay continues, it will do so without your audience’s interest.
How to Build Tension—and Hold Onto It
The first step in building tension in your screenplay is to create a dilemma for your opening character. What are his or her moral, physical, intellectual or spiritual compromises? What external forces are pushing him or her past his or her moral, physical, intellectual or spiritual limits? What conflict does he or she have with another character?
As soon as you build tension in your screenplay, do not let it go. Dive into it. Flesh it out. Let your character(s) struggle through it. Remember: It is conflict that builds characters, and characters that build conflict. The last thing you want to do in your screenplay is resolve or abandon the conflict prematurely.
The Keys to Engaging Dialog—What to Avoid
In your dialog, avoid having a character state something explicitly for no purpose other than to deliver a point or piece of information to the audience of your screenplay. For example, don't have one character in your screenplay tell another character he likes his blue shirt unless it would be natural for him to do so. Similarly, don't have one character needlessly address another character in your screenplay by name. If it is natural for one character to address another character by name, then do so; otherwise, avoid it. Think about situations when it would be expected or normal for one person to use another person's name in everyday life.
The Keys to Engaging Dialog—Personality & Snooping in
Dialog is key to establishing who the characters are in your screenplay and conveying that to the audience. It is also what moves your screenplay’s plot forward. The key to engaging dialog in a screenplay is for the dialog to come across as if the audience is snooping in on a conversation. Even better would be if the dialog is witty or poignant without being self-conscious (i.e., without being aware that someone is listening).
At a minimum, your screenplay’s dialog should embody the characters' personality. It should be emblematic of them and a driving force in your screenplay.