Thursday, January 07, 2010

Write a Short Screenplay in 2010: Lesson Two
Dialogue: what's the big deal?

Bad dialogue annoys.  Good dialogue scoots by undetected.  Why is that?  Because if the dialogue's spot-on, it simply becomes another production tool in the film.  Keep in mind that filmmaking is a collaborative business, and part of that collaboration is making sure as writers we're providing solid material for our actors and directors to work with.

So what makes good dialogue good?  Or bad dialogue not so good?  Maybe we should visit our ol' pal Clint for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on the subject:

The good - well, duh, it flows.  It's short.  Or if it's an actor's wet dream of a monologue (think Oscar nominations, baby!), then it has both heart and heat.  And no extraneous additives to slow it down.

The bad - it's easier to identify the dialogue that doesn't work.  Perhaps it limps off the tongue like a piece of undercooked bacon, extra smarmy or with not enough contractions.  Or it states things on the nose -- point blank.  Saying what you mean is not all it's cracked up to be in the dialogue business.  Hints and allegations are much more alluring.

The ugly - it just doesn't sound like a good fit for the character.  Perhaps it's Tom Bosley trying his best to impersonate a downeast accent in MURDER SHE WROTE, which just comes off cheesy since no one in Maine sounds like he does.  Or maybe it's Tom Cruise using an American accent to play a German spy.  (Okay, that faux pas I fault the casting director for.)

So what can you do to help your dialogue succeed?  Listen to conversations around you all the time.  As I tell my students, since I have a more than slight hearing problem, if I can overhear a conversation, it is definitely not private.  Listen to how people talk to each other when they're angry, when they're in love, when they're enamored, frightened, excited, bored, etc.   How you speak to your mother is different than how you speak with your pals, which again is different from how you speak to a cop who's pulled you over for a traffic violation.  And how do you speak to the telemarketers? Or to the cashier at the local mini mart? (Do you speak to the cashier?)

Keep that in mind as your characters interact with each other.  In DEAD POETS SOCIETY (yes, I'm reaching back a bit, but it's a great film and should be enjoyed and studied by all film enthusiasts) the fellows speak freely with each other, but are formal and stilted when speaking with adults.  Even the adults speak more freely with each other than with their students.

A few additional notes I've picked up along the way:

- Avoid introductions when possible, or at least be brief and clever with them.
- Avoid writin' in accents.  They're god dern annoyin' to try to read in dialogue.  Instead, tag your character with the accent you want to hear: JOSIAH SMITH (34) Southern from tip to toe, as evidenced in his syrupy, Georgian speech.
- Avoid hello's and good byes.  Ever notice how characters on TV and in film answer the phone with a statement or a question and hang up before the good bye?  We even tend to do it more in our hectic everyday pace, especially with the advent of caller id.  "You got my money?" is a much more intriguing way to answer the phone then "Hello?"
- Write with contractions.  And idioms.  Unless your character is foreign and a stranger to our speech patterns (in which case your character may mix up common phrases).
- Keep your dialogue short and succinct.  We do not normally speak to each other in term-paper lengths.
- Keep your characters LISTENING to each other.  That means they should answer the question or comment that just preceded...not the one that was posed three sentences ago.
- Avoid the little lead-in words such as like, hey, look, well.  Unless your character is a Valley girl, like does not like belong, ya know?  If the dialogue naturally calls for such a throw-away word, the actor will use it deftly.

Okay, that's enough for today.  What are you waiting for?  Time to do some eavesdropping....


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