This week's Answer:
monologue about dialogue
... Oh, sorry, Thurman.
Were you waiting for a reply?
Some kind of response? Something like the beginning
of a dialogue, the word “dialogue” incorporating the
word, “di,” which is a prefix of Greek origin, meaning
the word, “dialogue,” itself, meaning a conversation
between two or more people?
(I’m aware that you, Thurman, and I are unable to
carry on a dialogue -- and that this is, rather, is more
like a monologue -- because of your inability to
respond back to me now -- being that we’re not instantly
messaging or “chatting” or text-messaging or e-mailing
or communicating via many of the other electronic means
that keep us safe from the apparently dangerous and deadly
pastime of actually talking to somebody in person.
Which is one of the great things about screenplays:
we actually get to see people speaking to each
other in the same room or vicinity.
God help us if dialogue in movies and television is
replaced by quick-paced electronic transfers.
Can you imagine a whole movie that consists of
faxes, e-mails, cell-phone calls and the like? Come to think of it, just count all the minutes in a typical
film or television show that is involved with cell-phone
conversations—and, often, one-sided ones!
We’re definitely stretching that definition of
“dialogue,” which may need even more elasticity in the
Let me refer to the last word of the
sentence that describes “dialogue”:
You can call them “your characters.”
But the emphasis is on them and not just their
words of your characters must (drawing on a loose allusion
to an Oriental concept) emanate from the bubbling fountain
within the characters. The words of your characters must be authentic expressions
from the deepest part of them, conscious and (most
The words from your respective players in your
drama, comedy, mystery, thriller or any type of story must
continually reveal what they are wanting, feeling,
needing, desiring, demanding, fearing, hoping for, trying
to avoid, running from, etc. Notice that I mentioned the word, “reveal.”
“Reveal” does not necessarily mean, “say.”
Here’s a “real life” question
for you: Do
we normally come right out and tell others immediately how
we feel and exactly what we want?
(Game show filler music plays at an accelerated
pace and ends quickly.)
Sorry, time’s up.
The answer is... “No.”
No, we don’t.
Now, if I was the host in a game show scene you
were writing, and, let’s say, you were one of the
contestants that I just rushed, and didn’t allow to
answer, would you naturally say something like, “I’m
angry with you for rushing me and disappointed that I
didn’t get the answer”?
I doubt it. Instead,
you might utter something sarcastic such as “What is
this, the Indianapolis 500?”
Or you might be even more sarcastic and retort,
“Could you go a little faster next time?” Or anger
could take you over for a brief moment and you could
spout, “You’re out of your mind, Alex, you
perm-haired, uptight, know-it-all!” All of the previous possible responses embody the anger and
disappointment, but do so in unique and creative ways that
inform us about the contestant’s state of mind and
(And the writer’s absolutely deranged sense of
humor and warped perspective of life.
And the good stuff, too.)
There’s a “razor’s edge” that
a screenwriter must walk when it comes to writing
compellingly crisp dialogue (sounds a little like a
commercial for a breakfast cereal, doesn’t it?
Maybe we screen scribes would do well to write our
dialogue in the early hours as we crunch away on a
mouthful of muesli or cornflakes to come up with that
edgy, sharp, taut, and winning dialogue.
if you’re one of those writers who likes oatmeal or
scratch that idea. You
might end up with limp, bland, and lifeless colloquy (just
a fancy word for “dialogue” that story analysts and
script consultants use so they don’t always have to
repetitively and redundantly write the word
to that “razor’s edge” allusion.
(Don’t worry: I’m not going to go into some kind of “shaving”
a good screenwriter does do a great deal of it as he or
she fine-tunes and polishes his or her script.
And that could lead me into “auto mechanic” and
“furniture care” metaphors, so I better stop while
I’m ahead. If
that’s what I am.)
The razor’s edge concept refers to the tightrope
walk a skilled dialogist (don’t rush for your
dictionary; it’s a real word) must make as he or she
balances conversations in screenplays between the truly
realistic (and usually quite unexcitingly mundane)
everyday conversations most of us have and the poetic,
allegorical, perfectly-worded, poignant verbiage that no
one speaks in real life (unless that person happens to
speak dialogue that he or she has memorized from excellent
screenplays, or is purposely making up exacting dialogue
on the spot because he or she, in actuality is a secret
if that be the case, be prepared for a great deal of
vacant stares and slack jaws because nobody else will be
speaking like you and will, in fact, probably think that
you’ve gone a little off your rocker.)
Here’s some basic pointers for good
Let your characters speak instead of giving them words.
If you know them well and what they want, having
spent time with them (throwing afternoon tea parties for
your characters is a splendid way to become intimately
acquainted with them), then their words should easily pour
from them (or you as they speak through you).
2) Avoid allowing conversations to become
excessively expository (a fancy word for the quality of
in a film is deadly.
Let us, your audience, discover what’s happening
by showing us.
Normally, don’t have the characters tell
us (or each other). 3)
Let your characters’ words emanate from their
deep-seated desires and motivations.
4) Build your conversations by locating the tensions
and conflicts between your characters.
5) Look for ways to have your characters imply and
reveal their hidden agendas by their words.
6) A terrific technique is to speak your
characters’ lines out loud, allowing you to make
adjustments according to how the words actually sound. Remember: that
is your ultimate goal:
to have some “A” (or whatever other letter of
the alphabet you so choose) list actors and actresses (who
have probably been paid more than you -- you who
painstakingly toiled over every word) really speak your
you speak them first.
(Although the pay won’t be as good.)