12 INT DIALOGUE NIGHT
YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?
Dialogue & the search for syllables to shoot at the unknown
“I wrote the script of Patton. I had this very bizarre opening where he stands up in front of an American flag and gives this speech. Ultimately, I was fired.” - Francis Ford Coppola
Most young screenwriters I meet have an almost obsessional aversion to dialogue. Some will even go to the extreme of avoiding it altogether, and if asked why, a not uncommon reply might be something like: “better silent than cheesy”, as if those were the only choices.
A good deal of the dialogue I read in most of the scripts that come my way is invariably tortured, artificial and frequently unnecessary. But this doesn’t mean that dialogue per se is something better left out of your screenplay. Rather than avoiding it, a more constructive and potentially more creative response would be to ask the question: what must one do in order to write dramatic speech that sounds natural and at the same time multiplies the dramatic values of the action?
Dramatic dialogue is NOT like every day speech, no matter how realistic the best of it may sound. The writer, Paddy Chayevsky, who composed some of the most realistic and memorable film dialogue ever written was fond of pointing out that the task of the screenwriter is not to slavishly copy spoken speech, but to write it down in such a way as to make us believe this is way people actually speak. Effective dramatic dialogue almost never presents language in the way that it is actually used. If that were the case, all a screenwriter would have to do is carry round a tape recorder and faithfully transcribe everything he recorded into notebooks to be mined later.
The Australian film editor, Bill Russo, and I often spoke about the editing that is writing and the writing that is editing. They really are much closer to each other that they are to any other of the disciplines associated with film-making, apart from, perhaps, music.
Scripted dialogue is edited speech, and the operative word here is EDITED. The stammering, the pauses, the "uhs," and “ahs” and "likes" that many people stick in front of or between their words, the pauses in which a speaker searches the right word or strives to exact the specific emphasis, or merely the interval or intervals in which one quietly struggles to figure out what they're going to say next, seldom appear in the text of the majority of screenplays that I read, as if such hearing was to be reserved for the directors and the actors.
When it comes to dialogue, less is usually more. This is not to say that there is never a place for monologue, but one must develop a feeling and a nose for monologue, which means one must cultivate a sensitivity to the “hidden dialogicality” (Bahktin’s phrase) of that form of address. Imagine, for example, two men – soldiers, perhaps – meeting one another prior to setting out on a dangerous mission. Imagine a dialogue between of two men in which the statements of the second speaker are omitted, but in such a way that the general sense of a dialogue is not lost. The second speaker is present but he doesn’t actually use any words. Nevertheless, owing to what we see in his demeanor and know about him from past actions and interactions, we sense the deep traces left by his unspoken words, simultaneously perceiving their determining influence on all present and visible words of the first speaker. In other words, though only one of the characters is actually speaking, we sense a conversation. And it is a conversation of the most intense kind, for each and every word uttered by the first character is responsive in every way to the invisible speaker, and points to something outside itself, beyond its own limits, to the unspoken words of that character.
Now imagine this kind of dialogic going on amongst ALL of the characters, with all of their various voices and silences, as they collaborate in the dynamic interplay that is the constructing or finding a dramatic screenplay. Writer, characters, audience and tribes, all inter-actiing and speaking to one another in a kind of extravagant form of block play. Remember the sorts of dialogues one indulged in as a child? For children, understanding comes when they actively respond through external social speech, such as engaging in a dialogue with an adult, or in private speech by assuming the role of two or more characters and talking aloud, or through inner speech by responding internally to what has been said. As with children, so too with effective screenwriters. As I have said many times, the most impotant part of the worl screenplay is “play”.
It is not uncommon to hear a child talking to him/herself whilst in the story-world creation of doll or block playing. In the act of constructing a double-deck bridge, for example, you might hear a child say: "It goes up here" as he places a block on the top of his structure. But Bahktin's notion of hidden dialogicality accounts for understanding and dialogue not just in block play, but also in screenwriting. When the screenwriter plays with the story, he is engaging in a set of ongoing relationships and dialogues, inner and outer, with the other participants in the story process, namely the characters, the audience and the tribe.
Certainly, most great films have at least a few if not many memorable sentences or speeches – "You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am," and “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” are synonymous with the films they are from. But what really makes them memorable is the context in which the words are uttered. In both of these cases, the lines are funded with an emotional charge that comes not only from the words but also from the visuals and the reactions of the other character’s operating within the scene.
Consider Johnny Depp's characterization of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (screenplay by Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies and Alex Cox), for example. He is given to long, rambling speeches, but there is always something going on in the background, even if it is an hallucination. The dialogue plays off the images, alternating between comic and harrowing but reinforcing the impact for both.
Making dialogue conversational and believable resides in the small details, in the ability to hear what doesn’t need saying. In the wisdom to speak the word that evokes what can never be said. It involves rhythm and having an ear for tone, timbre and pitch.
Characters have their own, identifiable rhythms. If one knows them well enough, one feels their identity in the rhythms they make – both bodily and verbally. Training the ear and the body to listen and respond to the way people speak – on a bus, in a pub, at a party, in the act of making love – is useful so long as one trains the ear and the physical vehicles to listen and not take notes.
Nevertheless, a writer worth his or her salt will always be listening for good dialogue, to the intrinsic music and rhythm of the character that is speaking. And don't be afraid to edit and re-edit and re-edit if a section of dialogue isn't working. Go away from it and come back to it later. Sometimes one hears the right phrase in the faintest speech, like one sometimes sees the faintest star by catching it in the corner of one’s eye. Most good dialogue comes when one is NOT sitting in front of a computer. Go for a stroll; take the story, not the dog, for a walk.
If you’re going to give up “square writing” you must also be alert to every possibility of every character’s internal contradictions. Develop an instinct for grasping the multiple and oft-times hidden meanings that lurk beneath the surface of the characters’ public quests and private fears. Don’t bother making up lists. Get to know them, inside and out, watch them like you’d watch a prospective lover, confess something to them, expect them to confess something to you.
The ability to hear and appreciate subtext is instrumental to the conception and presentation of emotionally sound and compelling dialogue, which – if it is to be potent – is never that obvious. Ham-fisted subtext is not an oxymoron but it is moronic. It’ll set your audience to laughing and you to tears. Don’t curry favor with, or indulge the desires of, the three bastard muses. Sentimentality, propaganda and pornography (or scatological discourse) are ultimately of little use to you unless you’re first love is advertising.
Subtext – when effective – invites the audience to become participants in the creation of the story and in that participation to feel an intimacy with the characters that renders them fully present.
At the end of Rushmore (written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson), while Jason Schwartzman as Max and Olivia Williams as Miss Cross dance, they have the following exchange:
Max: Yeah, it went okay. At least nobody got hurt.
Miss Cross: Except you.
Max: No, I didn't get hurt that bad.
During the play, which serves as the climax of the movie, Max is injured physically. Of course, with subtext, the audience understands his reference to emotional pain. This understanding forges an emotional connection between the audience and the character that would not be there without the engagement offered by the “reading” of the subtext.
There is usually a through-line (the spine, or driving force) that applies both to stories and to characters. The impetus to action, the pursuit of salvation or justice or love – which propels story and character along from one action to the next. But within every obsession or compulsion are many angels and many demons, and there is really no credible way of getting to either unless one does so obliquely, through what is NOT said and NOT show, but implied in context and subtext. Most screenwriters would do well to remember David Trottier’s advice in The Screenwriters’ Bible: "Let your characters keep their secrets as long as they can."
Another thing to remember is that dialogue is written to be spoken. Always read dialogue out loud. Read it back, have others (preferably in a workshop with other writers or actors) read it aloud as well. Listen to the rhythms, the tone, the syntax – FEEL it bodily – the way the words come off the tongue, the facial gestures that accompany the words, the breath – all of these are clues to the veracity of the music that is dramatic speech.
JUST BECAUSE YOUR CHARACTER SAYS
SOMETHING DOESN’T MAKE IT DIALOGUE
Dialogue can be one of the most daunting aspects of writing for many screenwriters. It’s easy to become so obsessed with how an audience is perceiving your dialogue (is it believable, memorable, original, unique to our characters, realistic and compelling enough to captivate an audience) that you entirely forget to ask the most important questions:
What is dialogue? And what is it supposed to do in your screenplay?
I’m about to say something radical: just because your character SAYS something doesn’t make it dialogue.
Real dialogue, good dialogue (and the kind of dialogue you actually want in your screenplay) is distinguished from all the other stuff your character says by one simple quality…
Dialogue is just another way of getting what a character wants.
Your characters are just like you. When they talk, they’re doing it for a reason, whether they are conscious of that reason or not.
There’s no such thing as “just talk” in movies, or in life. And though that idea may seem counter-intuitive at first, think about a recent social situation where you were “just talking” and you’ll probably be surprised to realize how many hidden wants were happening just under the surface, things you were trying to get from the person you were talking to: approval, congratulations, laughs, sympathy, compassion, protection, encouragement, excitement, thrills, sex, status, a free drink, a friendly smile.
And guess what? The person you were “just talking” with had a similar symphony of wants playing in their mind, the whole time they were talking to you, adding complex, barely perceptible conflicts to the scene that infused it with a certain feeling, and a certain reality.
When dialogue gets separated from the wants that motivate it, it’s almost impossible to make it feel authentic.
The reason most writers have such a hard time writing dialogue is because what they’re really trying to write is not dialogue, but simply talk.
Rather than listening to the complex symphony of their character’s wants, writers find themselves obsessing over the characters individual words and the way they’ll be perceived by an audience.
When you write dialogue in this way, there’s no drive or structure to it. Your dialogue isn’t actually doing anything. And more importantly, it’s not reflecting anything in the real world. That means the burden falls upon you, as the writer, to turn in the perfect virtuoso performance, in order to pass off a false product as a real one. And even if you succeed, unless you have a marvelous gift, you’re going to have to work your butt off for every word.
It’s like attending a concert at Carnegie Hall and listening only to a single violin. No matter how well executed the performance may be, it can’t help but sound a little tinny and false when divorced from the broader context of the symphony.
And heaven forbid a single chord be misplayed or a mistake be made in this context. Rather than being absorbed, or providing an interesting complement to the larger sound-scape, it suddenly becomes an object of fixation for the writer, cutting them off from their creative impulses and from their natural talents.
Once you learn that your characters are using their words to get something from another character, the character starts to do most of the heavy lifting for you.
Rather than fixating on the words of the character (and your fear of being judged for how you write them), you can instead allow yourself to tap into the complex symphony of your character’s desires, allowing yourself to play around with the different ways your character can use their words to get what they want, in ways that are unique to that character.
Now, when you first set out to write a scene, the words themselves no longer need to be perfect, because you’re building around the deeper intentions that drive them, following your instincts and listening to the instincts of your character, focusing on what the characters are doing with their words, rather than what they are saying.
As you then work into later drafts, it becomes much easier to hone and refine your dialogue, and to separate the lines you need (the ones that pursue a want in a way that’s unique to that character) from the ones you don’t.
Tap into the symphony, without micromanaging the conductor!
It’s important to remember that just like you, your character may not always be consciously aware of their wants. And if you get super literal about analyzing every want before you even start to write, you may find that it’s just as much of an impediment to your writing as not thinking about the want at all.
Instead, I’d encourage you to keep your characters’ big wants (or at least the ones they are consciously aware of in the scene) somewhere in the back of your mind. And then allow yourself to play, enjoying the different tactics they use as they attempt to achieve those wants, and allowing your subconscious impulses to guide you.
You can then work back into the dialogue you have written, eliminating dialogue that doesn’t relate to the character’s desire, and getting more specific with the dialogue that does.
- Jacob Krueger (with permission) from WRITE YOUR SCREENPLAY
FOR MORE ABOUT DIALOGUE, HAVE A LOOK AT THIS DIALOGUE CHECK-LIST
Writing good dialogue comes from being able to hear voices in your head that aren't there - which in times past has been enough to get you burned at the stake or drowned at a dunking post, and which currently, if you admit to it in the wrong company, can get you a quiet room with rubber walls and all the free Thorazine you can swallow. Never let it be said that writing well is not without its risks. That said, I need to tell you that dialogue in a screenplay is NOT about two people talking to each other. That's what it is, but it isn't what it's about.
Dialogue is about demonstrating character through conflict, either internal or external.
Memorize that, because when you've memorized it, about half of your problems with dialogue will melt into oblivion. But dialogue is easier to do than to talk about doing.
The most dramatic, economical and effective dialogue comes out mouths of those characters with which we have the most intimate and emotional connection. There is no shortcut to the vital process of establishing viable and working relationships with those characters that are essential to the finding of the story that is trying to get itself told. In the final analysis it is a matter of listening, of tuning into the voices, to the sounds and speech rhythms of each of the characters, forsaking one's own voice and the literary niceties that are some times employed by those writers that have not yet relinquished the chauvinistic sway of their own voices to editorialise and to ruthlessly employ the dramatis personae to act according to the preconceptions and prejudices that the writer brings to the process.
After writing the first draft of your screenplay, it may prove both useful and instructive to review the dialogue that has been written, checking to see and hear that it has avoided some common pitfalls. Though there are exceptions to every rule, the following may serve as a general guide to re-writing the dialogue of your early drafts:
Avoid phonetic spelling. Dialogue of the following sort---"Ah reckon ah don' haff ta go dowan tuh th' rivuh tuhday, 'cawse we gots awl th' feeush we gwine need"---is often difficult to read, slows down the pace and frequently contribytes to the perception of the character as a cliche or stereotype. If dialect is essential, less is almost always more. Make it succinct and impressionistic rather than striving slavishly to reproduce exactly what you "hear" in your head, e.g.: "I won't go down t' the river today; we got all the fish we need." This is much more readable and still suggests a particular character
Avoid goofy tags. Avoid over-explaining the way in which dialogue is spoken. This often trespasses on the director's job and usually ignored anyway. It will only make you look like an inexperienced or bad writer if you employ copious parenthetical instructions, e.g. (with a sorrowful voice), (blusteringly), (chuckling as he speaks), etc. Frankly, most of the meaning - emotional and otherwise, of dialogue is conveyed by the context in which it exists. The best and most potent dialogue speaks for itself.
Keep to the conflict. If there is no conflict between the characters in a piece of dialogue, then the dialogue probably has no place in your story. Make sure that dialogue is the best option for expressing the conflict - sometimes silence or a telling action is much more powerful and to the point than a word or even a sentence.
Avoid heavy-handed exposition. There is nothing worse than listening to two characters talk about something they both know about. Never employ dialogue simply to tell your audience what you think they need to know, unless there is a very good reason (e,g.: comedic reason) for it. Make sure that the characters AREN'T saying things like: "Remember Joe?" "The guy we went to school with?" "yeah, who joined the police force." "Yeah, you were telling me he'd retired." "To that place in Mexico." Right. The one that was owned by the Spanish nurse' "That's the one." etc And make sure they have something interesting to say, something that moves the story forward. And that means conflict.
Don't let characters "speechify." What works in a Shakespearian monologue or soliloquy doesn't always work in a modern screenplay. Good, dramatic dialogue is about give and take, sharpened by the fact that each character is "fighting" for something, and also by the fact that their needs or agenda's are incompatible. Monologues usually occur at a point of high tension in a story, but not always. Some times a monologue can be used quite effectively to start a story, especially strong, character-driven stories like Patton, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now, for example.
Remember that people breathe while speaking. Read your dialogue out loud, in your normal, conversational tone of voice. If you run out of air part of the way through a sentence, rework it. Add punctuation, break it up, rip out the flowery stuff.
Avoid "talking heads." Have characters do something while they speak.