March 7

THINGS TO DO: (1) WRITE BETTER DIALOGUE

This is really part two to of the last post. It’s about “text” and “subtext”, only looked at in a very practical way. And it’s a kick in the pants to new writers. Listen, your dialogue stinks.

In my years as a reader (a/k/a story analyst), and even today when I’m asked to read scripts from inexperienced writers, 99 out of 100 scripts are awful to the point of being unmarketable in large part because the writer has no conception of what “dialogue” really is. While only a few writers can consistently write awesome, incredible, dialogue that raises the art form, every professional writer must write competent, engaging, interesting dialogue. Dialogue is inseparable from story – not something to add on later – but an integral part of the conception of the scenes and the story itself. If you’re having trouble writing quality dialogue in a scene, your troubles run deeper than dialogue.

So how can I help? Let’s start here: motion picture dialogue is not words characters say to move the story along. Rather, it is a string of verbal core emotional responses triggered by the stimuli of the scene including the previous dialogue of the scene filtered through each character’s strong and clear point of view. It is a verbal action….

Huh?

Try it this way. Beginning writers often tend to frame dialogue in terms of questions and answers or pure exposition (summaries of facts). For example:

  • INT. APARTMENT - EVENING
  • Anna enters and closes her umbrella. Bill is waiting.
  • BILL
  • Where were you?
  • ANNA
  • At the library.
  • BILL
  • Why?
  • ANNA
  • I needed a book.

This does little or nothing to involve the audience. They have nothing to add. Good dialogue, on the other hand, is based primarily upon the character’s emotional state. The emotional state is determined, in part, by the character’s “point of view.” (See the previous post.) Consider dialogue as a set of triggers, each causing an emotional response and a statement influenced by that response. Dialogue written in this way has many forms, question answered with question, statement followed by only tangentially related statement, and seeming non sequiturs, to name a few. This type of dialogue creates a strong narrative of the character’s emotions and thoughts without having to state any of them explicitly. The reader is engaged because she is forced to do the math and add the unsaid in order to follow. This kind of dialogue is infinitely more interesting and expresses character infinitely more powerfully.

Written in this way, the previous dialogue might read more like this:

  • INT. APARTMENT - EVENING
  • Anna enters and closes her umbrella. Bill is waiting.
  • BILL
  • Where were you?
  • ANNA
  • I thought you'd be busy.
  • Bill shifts uncomfortably.
  • ANNA
  • Is it okay to need a book once in a while?

This dialogue suggests many emotions. The audience has something to chew on. The reader/viewer is creating the emotion by figuring out why each line was said. The answer is not, “Because that is the logical response.” The answer is, “Because that is the logical response if you are feeling defensive” or “angry” or “distrustful”. The scene has “subtext.” The audience is involved.

Here’s a dialogue checklist:

1. Know the character’s strong and clear point of view. Do not state the point of view in the scene, but make sure to do the work to determine the character’s emotional state of mind. Good dialogue often takes a huge amount of work. This is what the work is – finding the emotional state of mind of the character.

2. No simple question and answer dialogue, no straight exposition (simple statements of facts). Lines must be based on the characters’ emotional responses to the stimuli of the scene, even lines that happen to convey information.

3. No chitchat. Work the dialogue until it is concise and powerful. Each line must advance the emotional journey of the story. First draft dialogue is always too long and too loose, even with experienced writers. Cut dialogue and intensify the emotion conveyed with each line – not melodrama, but emotion generated from the character’s point of view. (Melodrama is the use of stock emotions instead of creating emotional responses from core issues and core points of view. It is a lazy, inartful and usually ineffective way to build a story.)

Enough. Go write. I’ll do the same.




Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

Posted March 7, 2005 by TW in category "The Craft

9 COMMENTS :

  1. By Dave on

    Nice example. I’m always a little uncomfortable, though, with description like “bill shifts uncomfortably”. Is this significant action? Is this directing the actor on the page? I don’t know. I do see many, many scripts with far too much “stage business” chopping up the dialogue. Characters repeatedly move here and there, sit, stand, smoke, drink, and look out windows. It all makes me shift uncomfortably.

  2. By TW (Post author) on

    Dave –

    Too much stage direction can definitely be a problem, especially trivial action like “he sits,” “he stands,”, “she turns around.” But remember, you are selling a story – not shooting the picture. In this case, the action replaces dialogue and conveys the character’s emotional state. It’s a matter of personal style, but as long as the action keeps the narrative flow going and functions in the same way as the dialogue (e.g. is based upon the character’s strong and clear point of view and is an emotional response to the stimulus of the scene), you should be in good shape.

    BTW, nice blog (Dave’s blog is Man Bytes Hollywood).

  3. By Dave on

    Makes sense. And I’d rather bump into “he shifts uncomfortably” than the utterly useless “A beat,” which literally conveys . . . nothing.

    And thanks for visiting my blog!

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  5. By SuzieBee on

    Regarding stage business (NB: I do stage plays, not screenplays):

    I find it easier to write in as much standing up and turning round as I want in the first draft. I edit some of it out in the second draft. I’m the kind of person that’ll keep a lot of it in, but I’ll let the director know that I’m pretty flexible on it and if he/she thinks it’s wrong or unnecessary they can cut whatever they want.

  6. By Colonel Marksman on

    In your professionalism, you overcomplicated your thoughts. It’s more simple to say that dialogue is nothing like real-world speech. Dialogue is exact, to-the-point, and carries a purpose. In the books, people don’t stutter or come at a loss for words. They speak directly and fully, though maybe not necessarily grammatically correct.

    The main purpose of dialogue is to drive the story forward by introducing characters, thoughts, developing characters, or creating other points to be mentioned. If dialogue does none of the above, it should be revised or removed. Strong writing is tight writing, which means you must trim the excess.

    There, see? Summed up most everything you indented to say in two short paragraphs.

    I’m not sure whose manuscripts you read. I read stories on the Internet all the time, and while I do see some pointless dialogue on occasion, it isn’t as dreadful as 99%. What I see 99% of the time is poor and incorrect use of description.

  7. By Jon on

    Ok, so I have read a couple books and articles over dialogue and so far not one has addressed a Woody Allen-like style of dialogue. His dialogue is the farthest point from succint, no-excess, yet it still works, rather well in fact. So, Did his style work only because he had mastered the art of the interesting but the innane or is there something I’m missing?

  8. By Dowork on

    So does that make Quentin Tarantino inartful?

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