That's right, Joe Montana. Hall of Fame quarterback and four time Super Bowl Champion. What can Joe Montana teach a screenwriter about good dialogue? Well, nothing directly. But bear with me.
In January 1987, Joe Montana, guest host of NBC's Saturday Night Live, appeared as the titular character in a sketch titled “Honest Stu.” The sketch involved two budding lovers, Dan & Leslie (played by cast members Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks) who are interrupted by Dan's roommate Stu (Montana). The humor of the sketch comes from a running series of voiceovers following every dialogue in which we hear what the character is really thinking when they speak. What follows is perhaps the world's most perfect illustration of the use subtext – and what happens when a writer fails to do so.
(Note: I went to great lengths to find a video clip of the actual sketch, but all I could locate is the following transcript. If anyone does know where a clip can be found, please contact me.)
[Dan and Leslie sit together on the couch in Dan's living room.]
Dan: You know, Leslie, I could talk to you for days.
Dan's Thoughts: Gee, I'd like to jump her bones.
Leslie: Same here. You know, I haven't even noticed the time?
Leslie's Thoughts: Gee, I wish he'd jump my bones.
Dan: [ checking his watch ] Whoa! I didn't realize how late it was. You know, you're welcome to spend the night here. - In the living room.
Dan's Thoughts: If she says yes, I'm home-free!
Leslie: Gee, you know.. I really shouldn't..
Leslie's Thoughts: I don't want to seem too trampy.
Dan: Well.. suit yourself.
Leslie: Okay, I will! [ laughs ]
[ the sound of a car pulling up can be heard outside ]
Dan: Oh, great. That's my roommate, Stu.
Dan's Thoughts: Dammit! What a time for him to show up!
Leslie: Terrific! I'd love to meet him!
Leslie's Thoughts: Oh, no.. he's going to ruin everything.
Dan: I think you'll really like Stu. He's absolutely the most sincere, genuine straightforward person you'll ever want to meet. A real honest guy.
Dan's Thoughts: What a jerk he is!
Leslie: He sounds really nice.
Leslie's Thoughts: God, he sounds boring!
Dan: Oh, here he is. Hey, Stu, come on in!
Stu: [ surprised there's company ] Oh! I hope I'm not disturbing you.
Stu's Thoughts: I hope I'm not disturbing them.
Dan: Not at all.
Dan's Thoughts: God, he's going to scare her away.
Dan: Uh, Stu, this is Leslie. Leslie, Stu.
Stu: [ shaking her hand ] Hi. I'm very glad to meet you.
Stu's Thoughts: I'm very glad to meet her.
Leslie: Well, it's nice to meet you.
Leslie's Thoughts: God, this guy's a stiff!
Dan: Leslie was gonna sleep in the living room. Unless thats a problem for you? In which case, she could sleep in my room, and I could sleep on the floor.
Dan's Thoughts: Come on, you idiot! Help me out!
Leslie: You know, maybe it would be better if I stayed in Dan's room, because we don't want to inconvenience you.
Stu: Hey, it's fine with me if you stay in the living room. It won't bother me at all.
Stu's Thoughts: It's fine with me if she stays in the living room. It doesn't bother me at all.
Dan: Thanks a lot, Stu.
Dan's Thoughts: Yeah, thanks a lot, jerk!
Leslie: You know, you are so sweet.
Leslie's Thoughts: Boy, is this guy lame!
Dan: Well, listen, Stu, I think Leslie and I are gonna stay up a while and talk, so I guess we'll.. uh.. see you tomorrow.
Stu: Great! See you tomorrow!
Stu's Thoughts: Great! I'll see them tomorrow!
[ Stu heads upstairs ]
Leslie: Uh.. listen, we'll talk quietly, so as not to disturb you, okay?
Stu: Oh, you won't disturb me. I'll be in my room masturbating.
Stu's Thoughts: They won't disturb me. I'll be masturbating.
[ Stu retreats upstairs ]
What the heck is the deal with this Stu guy? Is he some brain-dead dope incapable of having a real thought? Is is so mentally incompetent that he can't pick up simple social cues? He has the mind of a child. He even speaks out loud things that anyone would have enough sense to be discreet about. If you met Stu in real life, he would probably be the dullest, least interesting person you have ever met. Fake, perhaps even creepy. He is a cardboard cut out with nothing behind it.
And yet despite all this, I again and again find scripts in which the writers choose to make their characters just like Stu. These characters literally speak whatever it is they think, and they never do anything that cannot be taken for anything but face value. And just like Stu, these characters turn out to be flat, dull, and unnatural.
What we're talking about is LITERAL DIALOGUE vs. dialogue filled with SUBTEXT.
Subtext is the buried meaning beneath people's words. It springs from what your characters really want, from the goals they are trying to achieve and from their emotional need. The problem is that many beginning writers forget to bury their subtexts. They leave them right on the surface as “text”, not subtext. People often mislabel this kind of bad dialogue as “on the nose.” But on the nose means to be too direct and to-the-point. “Literal” means to say exactly what you mean- there is no other meaning beyond the words themselves. Leaving your subtext on the surface creates a story whose artificiality shines through to the audience like a beacon. It is as simplistic as a children's storybook and incredibly fake. Writing this way not only creates terribly empty dialogue, but creates terribly empty characters.
One of the most common criticisms heard from script readers is that the characters are “flat.” But what does “flat” mean? The descriptor “flat” is just a sensory description of how theses characters make the reader instinctively feel, just like the terms like “dull” or “uneven.” In an attempt to fix the problem, the writer often tries to add “depth” to the characters by doing things such as adding more expository background on the character, or try to “round them out” by giving the character some superficial character traits – stretch out their personality, add quirks, give them a wacky pet. But that isn't what “flat” means. A character feels flat when there is nothing going on underneath the surface of their words and actions.
Like Dan and Leslie, people in real life almost never say exactly what they mean. They talk around issues. They keep things hidden. They have wants and needs underneath the surface, but they have enough sense to know that they're not going to achieve them by bluntly blurting them out. Instead, they resort to words and deeds that are indirect -even contradictory- to what they really want, gently nudging the interaction bit by bit to their goal.
No one ever talks just for the sake of just talking. No natural speech is really literal. Behind everything someone says is some sort of motivation that pushed them to speak. People can make small talk because they feel uncomfortable sitting in silence. People can voice their opinions because it makes them feel good about themselves, or possibly they have a hidden interest in the topic. A person might suggest where to eat or sit because they have hidden reasons against sitting somewhere else, or it maybe they feel like they are in petty competition with the other characters and must get their way.
Here is your safeguard to defend against boring, literal, Stu-like characters in your script. With every scene, ask your self “What does my character WANT in this scene?” then, ask “given what I know about my character, the current social/dramatic situation my character finds themselves in, and the other characters he/she must interact with, what pragmatic strategy would my character use to get that goal?” The subtext is what they want and why. The text is how they choose to do it.