Dialogue: Words and Pictures


Words and Pictures…

Film is a visual medium.  Some people say that a great movie shouldn’t need dialogue to convey the story; the visual imagery should be enough.  But that isn’t true.  For starters, the visuals come with sound that enhance, expand and explain what is being seen on the screen.  Dialogue does the same thing for the characters that you have created.  What sound is to the visual images, dialogue is to your characters – it enhances, expands and explains who they are, why they do what they do and what they want from their choices.

The Inner Workings

Dialogue is how a writer takes his or her reader/viewer inside the mind of the characters.  But unlike sound that is often specific and clear, dialogue is best when it is oblique and subject to interpretation.  Sometimes, for dramatic effect, you want the dialogue to say exactly what the character is thinking.  More often than not, you don’t.  The best dialogue enhances the audiences understanding of a character by having that character say something indirect that informs the meaning with unexpected surprise.

Make it a “Repeat Moment.”

Memorable dialogue is often brief and succinct.  It has a certain musicality to it.  It’s easy to repeat.  It distills the emotions of a moment to the core essence, and it expresses the idea it in a way that surprises us.

Lines like that are “Repeat Moments.”  They are the moments in a film that a viewer identifies with so strongly that s/he wants to repeat that moment and tell it to his or her friends later.

When a line stands out as a “Repeat Moment” it usually has certain elements.  First, it surprises us by stating a familiar idea in a unexpected way.  Second, it expresses a character’s attitude which informs our understanding of that character and makes us identify with him or her.  And third, it contains a certain irony within the line.  Either it contradicts our understanding of the character who says the line or it reframes our understanding of who or what the line is talking about.  Either way, these elements take a simple statement and turn it into a line that conveys much more meaning than it would seem to contain on first blush.

Context matters

Everyone can quote Repeatable Moment lines.  When you look at them out of context, you notice that most of them are very basic statements expressing simple ideas that usually means the opposite of the literal words when you put them into the context in which they were said:

Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry” – “Go ahead, make my day.”
Schwarzenneger in “The Terminator” — “I’ll be back.”
Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire” – “You had me at hello.”

Tools in a Toolbox

Writer often want to think of their dialogue as poetry.  It’s not.  I might be poetic, but it is a tool used to advance a character through a story and in the process the audience’s understanding of that character.  When writing for the screen, it is important to remember that while dialogue is essential.  Film is a visual medium.  Dialogue should be used as sparingly as possible for maximum effect.

Advance the Story

The main goal of dialogue is to move the story forward by informing the audience about events that have occurred, alerting them to events that are going to occur and explaining why events are happening in the moment.  It should reflect the immediate needs of the circumstance at hand.  And it inform our understanding of the intentions that each character plans to achieve in a scene.  In other words, dialogue tells the audience where the story is going.  It tells the audience what the characters plan to do and how they hope to achieve their goals.

Reveal Character

How a character says something is as important as what he or she says.  The word choice, the rhythms of the sentences, the nature of the thoughts inform the audience to the background, upbringing, personality, thought process and emotional state of a character.  This combination of word choices define “the voice” of a character.  The words and sentences a character chooses show the audience who that character is.  The same applies to what the character does not say.  Silences and elisions reveal character as much as what is said.

No two people speak exactly alike.  Everyone has had unique and discreet experiences that have shaped and informed their thought process.  The way a person speaks should be unique to that person.  If you can’t tell the difference between your characters when your dialogue is read aloud then you have not done your job as a writer.

Real Talk, Not Spoken Words

The goal of dialogue is not to replicate how people speak.  The goal is verisimilitude.  To seem real and sound real, dialogue must be carefully crafted and honed to each specific character.

How do you create realistic sounding dialogue?  When writing dialogue, which do you look at first, the character or the situation?




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