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This week's question: 

How do you write good dialogue?

Cheers! Thurman from Australia


This week's Answer: 

A 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 “twice”?  And 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 future.) 

Let me refer to the last word of the sentence that describes “dialogue”:  “people.”  You can call them “your characters.”  But the emphasis is on them and not just their words.  The 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 definitely) subconscious.  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 individual personality.  (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.  Wait.  What if you’re one of those writers who likes oatmeal or grits?  Better 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 “dialogue.”)  Back to that “razor’s edge” allusion.  (Don’t worry:  I’m not going to go into some kind of “shaving” allegory.  Although, 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 screenwriter.  And, 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 dialogue:  1) 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 explaining).  Explaining 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 words.  So, you speak them first.  (Although the pay won’t be as good.)

DcH


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