Writers: You don’t have to do this … but you probably should

It’s a simple enough line of dialogue: “You don’t have to do this.”

But it’s also one of the most common and, perhaps, overused lines of dialogue in today’s movies and TV shows as well. Listen for it, and you will hear it uttered more often than not.

The line exists for one reason only: It represents a decision point.

The main character has one last opportunity to consider his or her course of action. Do they take on the bad guy even though it puts them, their family, their career, etc., at risk? Do they choose the action even if it goes against every moral fiber of their being?

Of course, the character faced with the choice always does move ahead. If not, the movie or TV episode would fizzle on the spot. The goal would go unfulfilled, the viewer would leave unhappy.

It’s unfortunate, however, that so many screenplays telegraph this choice in such a way. It’s not very original in terms of writing, and it sounds cliched. But there it is, time and time again. It’s clearly an audible cue to the viewers that this is an important decision to be made. It is a moment that everything in the film has been building towards. In other words, the big payoff is at hand.

I’m not sure if this line of dialogue has its own chapter in the many how-to screenplay books out there, but it should. Your story, your screenplay, is nothing without it.

 

 

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