Saturday, July 18, 2009


I just returned from giving a screenwriting seminar in Singapore with two fellow writers where we unfortunately ran out of time before we were able to delve into the topic of dialogue as deeply as I would have liked. So, though I hinted that I was going to cover polishing next, I’m going to put that off for a bit.

Writing good dialogue is difficult. Screenplay dialogue must sound natural, but it is not true-to-life. As an experiment sometime try recording an actual conversation and then transcribing it. Real life dialogue contains lots of hemming and hawing, false starts, half finished thoughts, clichés, digressions and repetition, which you mostly want to avoid in a screenplay. Movie dialogue is a kind of heightened reality where people speak cleverly and succinctly, though not formally.

You should think about dialogue as action. When a character says something they are trying to accomplish a goal. Actors call this a line’s intention. Intentions are phrased as active “to” verbs.

Consider the line of dialogue: “Well that’s a nice shirt.” Imagine how the character would deliver it with the intention “to seduce.” Now imagine how it would sound with the intention “to wound.” How about “to encourage” or “to dismiss”?

The difference between what a line says and its intention is called subtext. Subtext is what’s going on in the scene beneath the dialogue. When dialogue says what a character is thinking it's called on-the-nose. You want to avoid that. “I’m really angry that you came home late” is on-the-nose dialogue.

In real life people rarely say what they actually mean. The same thing should be true for your characters. Many scripts build to an emotional moment late in the script where the character finally reveals how they feel in a big confrontation. But up until that point they’ve kept their feelings hidden.

Actors use the term business to refer to something the character is doing in a scene that is not the action of the scene – for example, a mother chopping up a carrot while discussing colleges with her son. You can use the same idea to avoid on-the-nose dialogue. Give the characters something to talk about besides what’s really going on in the scene.

One exercise I sometimes do in my class is to have students write a page of dialogue between a husband and a wife who have just won $5000 in a raffle. The husband wants to buy a big screen TV and the wife wants to go on a vacation. I give each student a slip of paper with a separate backstory for the couple. In one case the wife suspects the husband is cheating on her. In another their youngest child has just gone off to college and the wife is feeling lonely. The discussion about the money is the text of the dialogue while the backstory becomes the subtext.

It’s hard to create rich subtext in a stand-alone scene because it relies on the audience knowing the characters and context for the scene. But in a feature you should be able to build more and more complex subtext to your scenes as the story builds up.

There’s an old saying in Hollywood that you should be able to black out the names of who’s speaking in a script and still be able to tell which piece of dialogue goes to which character. In other words, you want your characters to have unique “voices.”

Many things affect the way a character talks: their social class, intelligence, education, where they're from, their job, their level of confidence, their world perception. The more distinct your characters are, the more unique their voices will be.

Also consider how each of your characters uses language. Are they verbose or reticent? Do they use big vocabulary words? Slang? Are they more emotional or more analytical? Are they confident, forthright, deceitful, nervous, shy, mean, sarcastic, polite?

Let’s say you were writing about three friends who grew up together in a trailer park in Detroit and have turned to a life of crime. This is a challenge because these characters are going to be a lot alike in many ways. So let’s see how we can make them sound different.

Let’s say our first guy is the leader of the group. He’s confident. A man of few words. But when he speaks everyone listens. He speaks softly to command attention. And he’s always cool, always unflappable. He never reveals his emotions.

Our second guy is the trio’s clown. He’s always running off at the mouth, telling wild stories about his exploits that are mostly made up. He jokes around all the time and likes to pick on others, particularly the third guy.

Our third guy is smaller, weaker, less confident than the other two. He worships the first guy and is always seeking his approval. He’s not too bright and frequently misunderstands things. He’s usually hesitant to speak up because he’s afraid he’ll get laughed at. But when he’s scared he tends to talk nervously a mile a minute.

These three guys aren’t going to sound the same, are they? Try coming up with a voice for a fourth guy in the group that sounds different from the three I've laid out.

The thing is, when you sit down to write the dialogue of a scene you have to put a lot of the mechanics of technique aside and lose yourself in your characters. If you’ve thought through the way the characters speak ahead of time they are going to naturally start using different voices in your head. And if you’ve laid the groundwork for the subtext of the scene and given the characters verbal “business” you’ll naturally avoid on-the-nose dialogue.

The key to writing good dialogue is ultimately to create rich, distinct characters and put them in scenes of conflict. Then let your imagination go!

And also realize that your first draft dialogue probably won’t be all that good. That’s why we rewrite and polish (which I’ll cover soon, I promise).

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