Dialogue: Overview

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Dialogue is the backbone of every movie. It needs to be believable.  It has to define a character without explicitly doing so.  It must advance the plot and be entertaining a well.

Good dialogue is no easy task.

Anyone can write what we call dialogue – the words that are spoken by a character.  The ability to write compelling, sharp, witting dialogue is a gift.  Some writers have a natural talent for it that makes them stand out.  For the rest of us, the craft of writing good dialogue can be learned.

An ear for dialogue. 

Defining good dialogue is a tricky endeavor.  It must be heard out loud.  It must be experienced within the context of a film.  When you’re typing out your script, how do you know if you’re dialogue has that magic ring to it?  The ability to hear your words in your head is what people mean by “an ear for dialogue.”  Like music, if you’ve got it, good for you.  If you don’t, you can learn to develop your ear.  It takes time and practice, but it is the heart and soul of screenwriting.

Dialogue is conversation; conversation is not dialogue.

In a screenplay, dialogue represents the conversation between the characters in that story.  It must feel real to the listener.  In order to achieve that effect, the conversations you write into your script are in no way like everyday conversations.

Real talk is boring. If you read a transcription of a real conversation – even if the subject matter is controversial and full of passionate opinions – it’s completely absurd.  Real talk is disjointed, long winded, redundant, unfocused, and often just too much information.

Alfred Hitchcock put it this way when explaining a good story was “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Dialogue is no different.

Writing good dialogue is about capturing truth not presenting reality. 

Good dialogue is not a presentation of how we really talk.  Good dialogue expresses the truth about a moment between two characters.  It needs to feel “real,” but realistic dialogue only gives a flavor of reality. It is artful deception.  Dialogue doesn’t read like real speech because it’s not. Dialogue must feel and sound believable.

Good screenplay dialogue has a rhythm.

Unlike natural speech, dialogue needs to be easily spoken.  Depending on the kind of scene in which it exists, it will have a rhythm and flow.  The ideas will be compressed and move rapidly, like a ball in a ping-pong match.  The verbal exchanges should move back and forth between characters, shifting power from one side to the other, until somebody scores. There must be conflict, lots of it, manipulations and maneuvers.  Done properly, good dialogue will move your story forward and flesh out your characters.

Rarely do characters say what they mean.

Good dialogue is much about what is not said as it is about what is said.  Good dialogue is all about subtext.   It’s about what is implied in a line, what the character really means, what secrets the audience shares with that character.

Between the lines.

Subtext is what a character is saying between the lines.  It is what a character really means with the words s/he says.  And it is revealed through a character’s actions and reactions.

If the text is the words we see on the page, the subtext is all the content underneath that is not announced explicitly by the characters but is understood by the reader or viewer as the movie unfolds.

Subtext is essential to storytelling.

Novelists have no boundaries.  They are free to go into any character’s point of view and share his or her inner thoughts, wants, or desires with the reader.  Playwrights have a harder time because they can’t just always bring the audience into the head of a particular character at any given time, but there are a tricks they can pull out of the bag.  The dramatist can always use the helpful aside: when all action on the stage stops so one character can address the audience directly to express his or her thoughts and/or motives.

This may work well in a play, but in a film it must be limited.  As a device it can used — every few minutes – record screech, background. action freezes, character looks directly into the camera, and explains – but only if that film allows for that kind of storytelling.

Beneath the spoken lines.

Subtext can be found not in the words but beneath the spoken lines. It is the information that an actor communicates through acting.  It can be conflict, anger, happiness, guilt, envy, pride and any emotion.  It shouldn’t be explained with dialogue. A character should never have to say, “Look at me! I’m having an emotion here!” The character just has it, projecting the emotion, thought, or motivation through action and indirection.

Actions speak louder than words.

It’s true.  Actions do speak louder than words.  What a character does on screen carries more weight with an audience and has more impact than what s/he says.  The key is to find a line that expresses the emotional truth of a moment in a unique and clever way that surprises an audience, easy grasp and is terse enough to be remembered.

We all have our own ways of creating these moments.  We think about our own experiences.  We imagine what people might say.  We eavesdrop on other people’s conversations for clever phrases.  We read books and magazine.  We watch movies and listen to songs.

What inspires you when you’re searching for a great piece of dialogue?  What do you do to ignite your imagination and find a character’s voice?


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