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Screen & Stage
Scriptspeak: Writing Dialogue
By J. R. Kambak
February, 2007, 12:50

Dialogue is vital logic, carrying the action further; enhancing audience experience.
Writers over the years have learned tricks that effectively convey character and emotion, techniques to prop up shaky conversation, fill in holes, and make second-rate dialogue serviceable without a lot of effort. But these are the very cinematic clichés to avoid.

First thing you need to ask yourself is: Are the characters' voices consistent with the characters? For some scriptwriters, they can find their character's voice just by "tuning in" to the persona, writing the dialogue in a stream of consciousness. But for the rest of us it boils down to a lot of rewrites.

You can't point out why SHE is so cold toward her husband or that it's because HE is womanizing on the side. And the audience won't know because your dialogue is a two-fer; your characters are speaking in two different trains of thought when they are supposed to be in a conversation. The problem is you aren't putting the right words in their mouths, because you aren't feeling the emotions of the situation and, as tempting as it is, you can't inject an explanation.

HE

(astonished)

You can't be serious.

In a screenplay, dialogue is a vital part of the author's logic, carrying the action one step further; showing, not telling for audience experience. Think about the above example. There are many ways to be astonished, angry, relieved, overjoyed. The way your characters act and react is what makes them the way they are. So, you want to show how HE is astonished, through dialogue or a beat, and possibly you want to rewrite the line because it's too formal. Here's an example with a revised dialogue of HE.

HE

(sharp)

I don't believe you.

Every word you write is an integral part of the storytelling - evocative words, action verbs, nouns that entice the audience visually and emotionally - conveying a strong sense of movement and action, all in the present tense. One of my most trusted tools to accomplish this is a thesaurus. In fact, I've downloaded CleverKeys, which allows me to look up words while I'm writing on my PC. I highlight a word and hit CTRL + L. Bingo! I get an HTML page of related words, antonyms, dictionary, encyclopaedia, and web resources all at my fingertips while online. I am able to nail down exactly what I want to say, keeping my writing juices flowing.

SHE

(fervid)

I have evidence.

The other trap is "ping-ponging" your dialogue in direct address. SHE carries the action forward, having a new revelation. Is SHE telling the truth or baiting him to confess? You could give him away by inserting a beat - that subtle moment of indifference in plotting his answer, causing him to stall, the assumed trait of a cheat and a liar.

What I have been describing here is the "story hearth" as defined by American Film Institute's Dona Cooper who narrows it down to five mental processes:

  • Resistance
  • Orientation
  • Expanding from landmark
  • Assessing the effort

Continuous decision making that result in four emotional needs:

  • Need for new information
  • Need to bond
  • Need for conflict resolution
  • Need for completion

The other thing to keep in mind is that the parenthetical notation should be treated the same way as if you were writing dialogue in a novel. Overuse - for example, too many adverbs - will brand you as an amateur, because well-intentioned attempts at variety will draw attention away from the dialogue. You want your audience to pay attention to your dialogue, not your techniques. So, instead of describing her emotions with "fervid" you can place a visual attribution.

She trembles, holding back a flood of tears masked by
the burn-in-hell hate in her eyes.

SHE

I have evidence.

The key moments for your dialogue are usually at the starting point, the pivotal moment of change, and the climatic result. These key moments incorporate one or more of the following:

  • Internal change
  • Interpersonal change or character arc
  • Societal change including social norms
  • Situational change from events beyond the character's control
  • Inability to change - the heart wrenching dilemma for a character unable to make their life better

There are three basics of dialogue that keep you grounded in the dramatic equation: characters need to have distinctive voices; dialogue needs to reflect the story genre; and be concise. Below are some dialogue style definitions with explanations in reference to example movies.

Transparent: The focus is on everyday conversation. The script of Spanglish, written and directed by James L.. Brooks, tackles the cross-cultural issue of over coming the language barrier in a social strata conflict of a Mexican emigrant maid struggling to find a better life while employed by an affluent, but troubled household. This script exposes our most intimate taboos through painful but redeeming human honesty.

Theatrical: This is more stylized and calls attention to the individual characters. In Kramer Vs. Kramer, based on the novel by Avery Corman and adapted to script by Robert Benton, Dustin Hoffman, having just gone through a divorce himself, rewrote some of his dialogue to reflect his own personal experience. Hoffman turned down screenplay credit.

Streamlined: This style reinforces the difference between the character and ordinary people, so I'm reaching into the classic's vault. Without a doubt Frank Capra is the master of this dialogue genre. Meet John Doe written by Richard Connell, Robert Presnell, and Robert Riskin, was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar in 1941. You have to give Barbara Stanwyck kudos for her pistol tongue delivery of Capra's signature crisp dialogue - as streamlined as it gets.

One last piece of advice: Give yourself time to read through some scripts, watch the movie while you read, and listen to DVD writer's commentaries to get a feel for how it translates into cinema. And remember, action always speaks louder than words.
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J.R. Kambak is a regular IN contributor and award-nominated screen-playwright, award-winning videographer, and former corporate communications/media relations executive. Contact J.R. Kambak for more information and resources: zentoro@fastmail.co.uk


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