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The Dos and Don’ts of Dialogue

The Dos and Don’ts of Dialogue

Articles - Directing

For
as many conversations as we engage in and eavesdrop on every
day, it’s still not easy to duplicate that natural energy,
flow and realism in a screenplay.
In
this craft of “art imitating life” we forget that life is played
out in real time, whereas a feature length film is restricted
to a scant two hours. Conversations with our friends, lovers
and children which can meander endlessly until they finally
get to a point are the kiss of death when translated verbatim
to the screen.

Too
often someone who would be better suited to writing novels
or short stories tries to put words into the mouths of live
actors. It’s a dead giveaway that a writer doesn’t know what
s/he is doing when (1) the characters all talk exactly the
same way, (2) they talk more eloquently than normal people
or (3) they just talk way too much.By simply learning to be
a better listener, you can make your characters better conversationalists.
Here’s how:

The Seduction of Sound

Stand-up comics have long known that words
containing ‘g’s, ‘k’s, ‘p’s and ‘q’s are funnier than other
words, especially if they’re also coupled with repetition and
shuffled letters (i.e., bass ackwards). Romance novelists rely
heavily on words that begin with ‘sl’s, ‘sm’s, ‘wh’s and plenty
of ‘oo’s (literally and figuratively) in the middle. One needs
only to observe the lip/tongue action intrinsic to these combinations
to see why they’re so often used. Technical writers, on the
other hand, prefer multisyllabic words that favor ‘b’s, ‘d’s, ‘r’s
and Latin suffixes. There’s an off-putting hardness and complexity
to scientific dissertations because, well, quite frankly, they’re
not supposed to be easily understood by regular, workaday
people.

In concert with these common patterns is
the power of short-vowel versus long-vowel sounds. Consider
the difference, for example, between Indiana Jones retorting, “Now
you’re just getting nasty” and “Now you’re just getting mean.” Though
both of them ascribe inappropriate behavior to the enemy, the “á” tone
in the first one is harsher than the more soothing “ee” sound
in the second. Accordingly, which one packs more punch?

Never use a limp word when a stronger/sexier/funnier
one would be more potent. And don’t forget that the physical
order of lines not only impacts cadence, but weight. Compare: “My
mother was a hooker. You go with what you’ve got.” to “You
go with what you’ve got. My mother was a hooker.”

Timing is Everything

Have you ever noticed that villians communicate
more slowly and seductively than those who are trying to thwart
them? Their time clocks, after all, are completely different
from those of the protagonists; they have the luxury of maintaing
an adagio pace because, presumably, they are entirely
too smart to be caught and, thus, have an ample head start.
Meanwhile, the good guys are operating at a prestissimo speed
because their lives and western civilization depend on it.
This is reflected in shorter words, shorter lines and a lower
level of abstraction. Villains often embroider their speech
with allusions to classic literature and philosophy. Again,
it’s because they’ve had the free time to read up on all of
this while the hero was busy just trying to round up a posse.

Vocal variation and tempo can best be illustrated
with a home stereo system. If you happen to have one with a
bass and treble digital display, compare an evening “mellow
sounds” DJ to a caffeine turbo-charged one who hosts the morning
commute. Enlist friends to tape record one of your own scenes
and watch it being played back. Not only are you striving
for definitive pacing in the speech patterns of the characters,
but a melange of energy flow within the scenes themselves.

The Art of Crosstalk Chitchat

Dialogue is a dance in which both characters
are simultaneously trying to lead. What keeps the audience
fixated and alert is the fact that even what seems like casual
chitchat is an artful crosstalk in which (1) questions are
answered with other questions and (2) answers contain subtext
that fuel the fires of controversy. Skillful dialogue can also
be likened to a vigorous tennis game where the objective is
to keep the opponent off-balance by returning the ball as quickly
as one receives it.

As much as you want to keep your audience
on its toes, however, you don’t want to confuse them by incorporating
multiple ideas within one speech or scene. Let them absorb
whatever it is they’re supposed to learn in Conversation #1,
then move on to Conversation #2, much like a progressive dinner
allows the guests to savor and understand everything about
the appetizers before they move onto the next course. Just
as the sum of the entire meal addresses the central theme of
hunger, the sum of interaction among characters revolves around
the resolution of the story’s central question.

Not Without Purpose

Film dialogue serves four main functions:
to reveal character, to advance the plot, to explain the past
and to articulate feelings that can’t be conveyed visually.

If your characters’ conversations aren’t
accomplishing one or more of the above, cut them out! Unlike
the rambling chatter we engage in every day with family and
friends, “screen talk” needs to have a good reason to be there.
Ideally, it should also serve more than just one purpose at
a time.

For instance, let’s say you have a protagonist
who admits, “I’ve been terrified of the water—even wading pools—ever
since I saw my cousin drown in the Hudson when I was a kid.” This
line: reveals that s/he is vulnerable; suggests that water
will make an unbidden appearance somewhere in this story and
force the protagonist to confront his/her fears; explains the
source of the fear, in addition to establishing familial and
geographical connections; and expresses what could otherwise
only be shown in a flashback.

Again, if a line does none of the above,
delete it!

Poetry in Motion

One of the things I’ve noticed in my work
as a coverage consultant is that younger writers have a harder
time mastering the art of cadence than writers of my own generation.
Why? Because the study of poetry in public schools has significantly
waned over the past 25 years. Anyone who has ever struggled
to rhyme just the right word to fit a specific meter is head
and shoulders above the “lyrically challenged” who are averse
to massaging their prose for flow and economy.

If a character’s monologue doesn’t trip smoothly
off the tongue, try to approach it as if it were a poem or
a song. Once you’ve crafted the syncopated version of what
you want to say, substitute selected words or phrases with
others that contain the same number of syllables. For example:

  • You told me it was just
    a lark
  • This complicated mess
  • And yet your car was double-parked
  • Outside that slut’s address.
  • VANESSA—You told me it
    was just a fling. You begged me to forgive. And then I see
    you—big as life—outside that slut’s address!

The Critical Dos and Don’ts of Dialogue

Be wary of the Party Syndrome. This is the
phenomenon whereby writers feel compelled to painstakingly
have their characters come into a room for the first time and
get introduced to everyone else who is already there. Unless
it actually is a party, or a meeting where such introductions
would be natural, find other ways to convey their identities
to your audience.

Avoid long monologues unless it’s pertinent
to the character or plot. If a character has something lengthy
to say, break it up with interruptions from his/her listeners
or bits of business/action. One of the analogies I like to
use in workshops relates to the selection process by which
people read magazine and newspaper articles. Are you more likely
to be attracted to one which is a series of short paragraphs,
or one which goes on and on without any discernible breaks?
Prospective producers read things the same way, preferring
the readability of bite-size dialogue chunks and lots of white
space.

Are your characters talking more to each
other or to the audience as a contrivance to “fill them in”?
Never let your characters explain things in explicit detail
to each other that, presumably, they each already know.

Speaking of realism, try to enlist an impromptu
cast to read your scenes out loud after you have written them.
This will reveal:

  • If your sentences are
    so long that the actors could not conceivably take a big
    enough breath to deliver them.
     
  • If you’ve used too many ‘s’s
    or combinations that make for outrageous tongue-twisters.
  • If you’ve accounted for
    the fact that most people speak in fragments, use slang and
    get interrupted.
  • If you’ve used words to
    convey what could be better communicated through body language
    and facial expressions.
  • If you’ve used phrases
    which look perfectly fine in print but which, if spoken out
    loud, would cast a different meaning. (i.e., “Running Bear
    will keep you safe” or “I’ve detected a life form on Uranus.”)

And finally, a word about dialects

Voracious reader that I am, there were quite
a few pages of Gone with the Wind that I opted to skip
when it first fell into my hands in high school. No, it wasn’t
because I wanted to see what Scarlett and Rhett would do next
(oh, alright, maybe it was partly because of that).
Nor was it because I already knew how the Civil War turned
out and thought all of the expositional battle scenes were
tedious.

The real reason is that I got vexed with
the phonetically illustrative Southern dialect because it slowed
the momentum, forcing me to concentrate on the pronunciation
of individual words instead of the flow of emotions being evoked.
That same vexation surfaced years later when I encountered
Diana Gabaldon’s Scottish time travel novels about the star-crossed
lovers, Jamie and Claire. Passionate as I am about Highland
history (I got married in a Scottish castle), the author’s
good intentions to capture the texture of a good brogue became
cumbersome when spread over too many pages.

Rather than slog down the pace by trying
to phonetically capture the pronunciation of foreign or regional
characters in your script, concentrate on their colloquial
expressions and speech patterns instead. Above all, be consistent
if you’re attempting a style of lingo that differs from the
one you were born with. Nothing looks worse than going from, “Yo,
Theo, whassup, bro?” on the first page to the same character
remarking three pages later, “I don’t believe we’ve been properly
introduced.” MM

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