Friday, August 8, 2014

Tips on Writing Dialogue

Written by Levin Menekse
I feel like you can fake a lot of things when making movies/television. Illogical plot points can be salvaged by stupendously awesome visuals, subpar writing could be transfigured into powerful scenes through tour-de-force acting by Michael C. Hall and entire TV Shows can be built on just attractive people sniping at each other with witty banter and nothing else.

But you cannot salvage bad acting. Your movie could be the best looking, best written movie in the universe but if the audience doesn't believe your main character is an actual person, you've lost the battle. And the scary thing is ANYONE can spot bad acting. You'd need to be a trained professional to explain why the X camera move on the climactic sequence of Transformers didn't work, but my mom can watch one scene from the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction and figure out that Mr. Lautner doesn't have the "Acting Chops."

This image is displayed under the article: "The Twilight star's breakout role takes on the full gamut of human emotion, including traumatic displeasure at wearing a shirt."
I mean, seriously, there is an entire reddit thread about this phenomenon.

And now you're saying "Why the hell are you going on and on about bad acting? I thought this was going to be about dialogue!" Well, here is my point: Dialogue is a very similar Red Flag on the page. You can tell if someone is a writer or not simply by reading their dialogue. I don't know why exactly, but I probably read 200+ scripts for various studios and I could always, always, tell whether if I should keep reading or not simply by reading the first line of dialogue.

The Tricky Art of Writing Movie Dialogue

Movie dialogue isn't "real-life" dialogue. I bet you've seldom given an inspirational monologue or a triumphant speech, but those things happen by the dozen in every movie. You know how they say, movies are life without the boring parts cut out? Yeah, that includes %98 percent of the shit we say.

Sean likes to say "Movie dialogue is how people would speak if we had the chance to think about it a few seconds before the words left our mouths" and I completely agree with that. Adding onto that, here's something I realized recently: Watch how people talk in documentaries. In documentaries, people try to come off as smart, so they do actually think for a few seconds before they speak. Documentaries also tend to cut out the "boring" parts of the conversations, so you can figure out which parts of your scenes you should focus on.

Make sure your characters sound different from one another. Listen to people around you to nail down their character voices. On surface level, pay attention to their speech affectations -- who uses big words, who uses cockney slang and who uses both.

"I don't give a toss about your ignominious hair, you dippy muppet! Now, fetch me some delectable bangers!" 
Then, on a deeper level, pay attention to how people's interests/life views influence their speech. For example, I am much more likely to reference a video game than last night's football game. If a waiter drops a tray three times during the night, I'm not going to be like: "Hey, that waiter is like the linebacker from USC who wasn't able to hold onto the ball at all!" because I would have no idea what the fuck that means.

Also, something really important: Subtext. Subtext is what people are really saying when they're speaking. I'll give you an example from a movie I've watched the other day. This is a scene from Out of the Furnace which is an okay movie with great performances. All you need to know is that two characters were a couple once upon a time but that changed when he went to prison because of a terrible accident. She couldn't bring herself to see him in prison and broke up with him. Now he's out and she's in a relationship with someone else. This is the scene where he asks her to come back to him. Check it out here.

Now, this scene works wonderfully, for me anyway, because of the subtext. When she announces her pregnancy, Christian Bale doesn't huff and puff and act disappointed. He says "That's wonderful news!" with a broken smile. She replies: "Is it?" despite herself. What he really means is: "I know this means we're never going to be together but I'm glad you're happy." What she really means is: "I don't know if I made a terrible mistake by leaving you." Now imagine if those two lines were the actual dialogue. All of a sudden, something is lost, no? Also, what are the actors supposed to do with those lines? Their job is to bring to life what is between the lines. Give them that depth and they will be thankful.

And here are two big Red Flags you should avoid while you're writing dialogue:

The Crazy Exposition Dump - This usually occurs in crazy complicated science fiction movies with complicated worlds/rules. Either, the rules of the world are utterly labyrinthine and the author has to lay it all out before we embark on our fantastic voyage or the author created such a complicated world and wrote himself/herself into such a corner that watching the last twenty minutes are almost like reading a text book as everything is explained to you. For example, remember this guy?

"I prepared for this scene by reading the Phone Book over and over again."
Mr. Architect bored and disappointed an entire generation of movie-goers. What was supposed to be a 2001 Space Odyssey-ish revelation became a parody of itself. It was unclear, unemotional and visually boring. Trust me, if the original Matrix ended with this fella spouting gibberish, there would have been no second one. But "Hey!" you say, "The first Matrix had PLENTY of exposition! Morpheus basically explains the entire thing to Neo, that's the first half of the movie!"

Well, my dear friend, you are right, but what the first Matrix has is GOOD exposition. When Morpheus explains to Neo the reality of his situation, we're in a surreal, white room. It's visually striking, it upends Neo's world and it's extremely clear. ("The world you lived in all your life was merely a computer program designed to keep your mind enslaved.") Similarly, when Morpheus walks Neo through the crowded city and explains to him that anyone who is not unplugged can turn into an Agent at any second, the scene is visually dynamic -- The Woman in Red, the jarring Pause when she morphs into Agent Smith all of a sudden -- and what is being told is extremely clear. Check it out here.

So, when you need to dump exposition, do so with style. Make it visually awesome. Make it clear. Make it emotional. Bury it into a heated argument. Hell, make a funny situation out of it. Also, if you have to have exposition, have it in places where it would naturally occur. String theory isn't a casual conversation topic between strangers in a bus stop, but it's a natural conversation topic during the theoretical physic department's annual dinner party.

Pro-Tip: Notice how exposition works in real life. Keep your antenna's up for instances where you're in a situation where either you or somebody else is delivering information in an organic manner. You're going to be surprised how many times old friends come together and say: "Do you remember that time when..."

Scenes where people Talk and Talk and Talk: This is a funny thing because the writers of these scenes aren't necessarily writing "bad dialogue", but they are writing bad stories.

You know the saying "Kill your babies"? On a macro level, it means pruning your structure so that there are no tangential characters/unnecessary beats. On a micro level, it means shortening your scenes to their essentials and throwing out the rest. Something that almost all beginner writers do is write a line of dialogue SO AWESOME and SO INSIGHTFUL that they will fight tooth and nail to keep that in there even if this line of dialogue has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

Dialogue is only a piece of a Scene. A scene is a piece of a sequence. A sequence is a piece of an act. An act is a piece of your story. Story is what you're striving towards, what you're trying to make good. Story is what's important. Don't lose sight of that. Kill your babies for the larger story if need be.

If you can cut a line of dialogue and nothing changes, then you should probably cut that line of dialogue.

Unless your dialogue is absolutely, positively, indelibly brilliant.
Alright, well, hopefully you got something out of all this, even if it was a chuckle or two. Thanks for reading!

Levin Menekse


Unknown said...

Thank you for share this informative post.

Author Guy said...

I'm an author, not a scriptwriter, but my entire output these last three years has been a rewrite of three seasons of a TV show in fanfiction, and some days I feel like a scriptwriter.
I often write great long scenes of smooth prose and flowing dialog, just to get a feel for what the characters are really doing/talking about, which I then delete and keep just the last line.
Finding that one sentence that conveys a world of meaning is such a pleasure, but you can't make it happen on demand.
"Hey Casey, you're looking all Grim and Reaper this morning."
"Ah, Finding Nemo," she said, nodding. "The Fight Club version."