Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Opening a dialogue…


As I promised in my previous post, Back To Basics, I’m going to be taking a look at methods of constructing great dialogue. This may be as much a learning experience for me as for you guys; although I’ve been told I wrote strong, believable dialogue, it’s always come naturally to me. I don’t mean that as a boast, either. Some people find writing beautiful-yet-economical descriptive easy, some find getting pacing right is their forté, I have a strange aptitude for dialogue. So in this post, I’m going to try to tell you all how I do something that I’ve never really thought about. I’ll also hit Google towards the end and see what tips I can find from the pros.

Yes, I'm being ironic

I keep getting e-mails from WordPress telling me to use pictures. So here's one.

I guess the best, most simple advice I can give you on writing dialogue also serves as solid advice for life in general. First and foremost: Listen.

Listen to the people around you. If you’re writing a script about teenagers, go find some teenagers and hang out with them. Obviously, you’re not necessarily going to have slumber parties – I hope – but try volunteering to do youth work. It’ll be both spiritually and creatively rewarding. Likewise, if you’re writing about the elderly, try an old people’s home.

For more technical dialogue, find people who’ve lived the life and talk to them, interview them. If your protagonist is an ex-Marine, go find some ex-Marines to talk to. If they’re a doctor, see if your GP will meet you (off the clock) to advise you. Most people are only too happy to help. And if they aren’t, a credit will usually bring them around.

Never stop listening to the people around you. How do they express themselves? How do different nationalities, cultures and generations phrase things? All of these things will bring your characters to life, but you can’t do any of them without opening your ears!

Another thing that comes up often in screenwriting is word economy, especially in your description. But did you know that it can be a useful tool with dialogue, too? The rate at which you give the audience information can make or break a script.

Cut any and all meaningless dialogue. Greetings, unless they’re conveying subtext, are useless. Nobody asks each other how they are on TV unless it’s supposed to be awkward or they’re dying. Don’t have your characters constantly gossip mindlessly – you aren’t writing for The Hills. Or if you are, you shouldn’t be reading this blog. Screenwriting talent is not a requirement for writers on that show, so long as you can write endless streams of nothing.

Avoid massive amounts of expository dialogue unless absolutely necessary. For a good example of what’s ordinarily considered wrong (tough works in context), check this out:

In the film, it works because it’s meant to be brilliant, utterly unnecessary exposition for comic effect. If you did this in the middle of a drama, it would seem completely out-of-place for all the wrong reasons.

The final piece of advice is probably the oldest int he book, though you should note that it applies much more in film than TV: Don’t have a character say something you can show. Or, as it’s usually phrased, “show, don’t tell.”

As an extreme example, consider this: I can have a long monologue where the character tells the audience that he and his buddy Jack were traipsing through the jungle. It was hot, humid, they were carrying a massive weight on their backs. Jack had been shot in the legs, it was dark. They’d lost their platoon and then the Vietcong appeared, surrounding them.

Or, I can write this:

INT. JUNGLE – FLASHBACK – NIGHT

BOBBY and JACK stumble through the jungle, weighed down by equipment and sweating from the heat. Jack has a pronounced limp, blood pours from a gunshot wound in his thigh. In the distance, GUNSHOTS can be heard. As they enter a clearing, Vietcong soldiers appear, surrounding them.

BOBBY
Oh, shit.

So, that’s it for my advice on dialogue. It’s not the most advanced breakdown of the art of dialogue I can provide, but it should give you an idea of what you need. But let’s see if I can find those quotes from experts…

What the professionals say:

“The real secret is to remember that people will do everything they can to protect themselves from hurt or betrayal or embarrassment. So no one wants to let anyone but their closest friends know what they’re really feeling. Therefore we use humor, cynicism, and other defense mechanisms to protect our feelings. Truly put yourself into the beingness of your characters and write from their point-of-view, rather than have them spout things you want them to say. Characters will then surprise you – say things you didn’t expect or do things you didn’t expect them to do. This is when characters really come alive.”

Glenn Benest (as interviewed by Jeffrey Berman)

“…imagine watching your scene, but in a foreign language with the subtitles turned off. What does the talking feel like? What’s the emotion behind the words? Who’s in control? There’s a classic drama exercise in which actors have to stage a scene speaking only faux-Chinese. That’s what you’re looking for at this stage. Not the words, but the texture.”

John August

“Remember when you first met your in-laws? You were most likely trying to project an image of being friendly and respectful, right? In order to get their approval. Or how about when you first met the banker handling your mortgage? Truthful. Serious. Grown up. In order to get the loan. We all have an agenda and when we converse, we get to use our words to paint the picture of ourselves we want others to see. So do your characters.”

Julie Gray

“Great dialogue does not come from having a good ear for dialogue. It does not come from having some innate gift or talent for writing dialogue. It comes from this: knowing your characters so well that you know what they will say and how they will say it when faced with specific people, situations or events.”

Rob Tobin

“Your characters are part of the mis-en-scene. The same can be said for their dialogue which must be true to the mis-en-scene, and reflect the character’s reactions and thoughts. Unless for some special artistic or creative purpose, your dialogue should always engage your character within the mis-en-scene, moving the character forward.”

Michael Daniels

“Dialogue should be as short, or crisp, as possible. The standard dialogue line is three inches long. Three of those lines is about as long as will play well. When it is longer, it needs to be focused, broken up, or polished. “

Dorian Scott Cole

“While your narration will (and probably should) be written in grammatically complete sentences, your dialogue will not (and probably should not) always be so. The reason for this: People don’t always speak in complete sentences.”

Robert Piluso

So there you go; some advice from me, some advice from the pros. If you want more, you can click the links in the names to go to the full articles I lifted those quotes from, or hit Google yourself. See what you can find. If it’s good, why not drop it in the comments section for everyone else to read?

That’s all from me for now. Until next time…

Kx

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September 2, 2011 - Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , ,

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