A great actor once explained to me how he saw his job.
"The goal of good acting," he told me, "is to make bad dialogue unnecessary."
Which sort of makes sense. A good actor makes the moment clear with his or her face and body and tone. A good actor fills in a scene with richness and life, so that the dialogue doesn't have to be so pointed and on-the-nose.
A lot of what writers put into the first draft of a script is declarative bad writing - people announcing how they're feeling, characters delivering really bald exposition - and they do this because before a script gets produced, it first gets read, and read quickly. And often the reader needs a little help to get the scene.
I know a writer for whom every piece of dialogue seemed angry, until he gave most of his characters a declarative, unambiguous nugget to say.
"Hey," most of his characters say in most of his scripts at some point, "Don't misunderstand me. I'm not angry."
So then when studio executives and directors would wonder about all of that free-floating anger in his work, he could point to that explicit piece of dialogue and say, "See? They're not angry." And then later, when the script was sold and about to go into production, he'd comb through the pages and remove all of that bad, wooden dialogue.
You can do that in the movies, where everything is planned and scripted. You can fix dialogue, make it funnier or sharper. You can tailor it to any actor.
In real life, where I unfortunately spend most of my time, that's impossible. Often, I'm left groping for the right words, and for a humiliatingly large percentage of the time, I'm convinced that my life would be a lot better if only I could hire a good actor to play me.
Once - and this is going to get personal, so apologies - I went to the wedding of an old college fling. Well, not just a fling - it was little more serious than that (okay, a lot more serious than that). And our relationship went well past college, off and on. Mostly off. (But on, too.) And - okay, here's where it gets humiliating - our first romantic moment together, back in college in the late 1980s, was at a party. A lot of things were memorable about that night, but for some reason, one of the things we both remembered was that our first kiss was accompanied by the song Purple Rain by Prince.
I'll pause here while you snort derisively and judge me.
All done? Okay, then.
And what surprised me, years later at the wedding, was just how depressed I was. For all the obvious reasons I'm not going to bother going into - passage of time, the one who got away, regrets, loneliness. Do I really have to spell it out? - but also because, even though we were both well out of college and our time together was in the foggy past, it was still weird and aching to realise that it was well and truly over. Not just the romance, but the time of your life when things happen at parties while Prince is singing Purple Rain.
So I lurked around the reception, feeling old and sorry for myself, and wondering just how I was going to make a dignified exit.
And then the wedding band started playing, of all things, Purple Rain - do I have to pause again for you to snort and judge? - and because by then I had spent a few years working in Hollywood, I knew this was a perfect time to leave.
But I also knew that what I really needed was a good piece of dialogue.
"You're not leaving?" she asked, as I made my preliminary farewells.
"Yeah," I said, and pointed to the band playing Purple Rain. We both heard the song, and we both registered the moment.
"This is where I came in," I said, and gave her a kiss on the cheek and made my exit.
Probably, of course, that would be considered bad dialogue if a character said it in a movie. A little cheesy. A little too forced.
But in real life, where we're not always such good actors, it seemed to fit. And that's the great thing about bad dialogue. You have to take it out in scripts. But in life, it does the trick.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood