Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tuesday Talkback: Dialogue

Okay, I've tried answering this email a number of times and I honestly don't know where to begin.  So I'm pushing it off on you guys.

Despina writes:

i hate to ask this question as i'm sure i'm revealing my freshman status as a screenwriter, but i have to ask... i am having serious problems with dialogue and character development and i have no idea why. i realize that sounds elementary and more experienced writers will scoff, but please keep the eye-rolling to a minimum and bear with me. i have always been a "scene" person - i think and conceptualize based on a single scene my brain conjures up based on a real life scenario or incident or music... and whether that scene is something pivotal, an action scene, or something seemingly simple and understated, i have that scene and try to create a story or plot to make that scene a reality. most of my scenes come from a vibe or feeling a piece of music creates (rock, opera, jazz, whatever) and i think "wow that would be a killer/cute/poignant scene in a movie." i'm essentially basing a movie off of what my idea of a great soundtrack would be. sound looney toon yet? i promise i'm not shallow.

it's come to a point in my life where i finally want to write this stuff down and see if i can knock out some screenplays based on those little scenes. needless to say, all those little scenes are sitting, lonely, in their own files on my desktop in hopes i eventually circle back and love on them. these little scenes have no real character development or dialogue, so i've yet to practice this or give anything or anyone a voice within these little scenes.

now that i've given the craft more study and thought, i'm trying a different approach. i found a logline and a 'call' to write a screenplay based off that logline. at first i brushed it off, but i had to go back because some exciting ideas unexpectedly came from it. so now i've just had two days in a row where i literally just threw up a multi-page story and rough plotline, breaking it up (as an outline) into scenes and acts with little pertinent bits of dialogue along the way (nothing really substantial, however). i understand writing as a craft with archs and subtext and whatnot, and i've been able to break these ideas down, but now that i have to put a voice and words to these characters' mouths... i'm blank. i'm holding myself to such lyrical gangsta levels of those i admire (Coen Bros, Wes Anderson, Tarantino) that i doubt myself completely in doing this.

i've read many of your blog posts and interviews and roundtables (i only just discovered your blog last night and have been obsessed for the last 24 hours) and i've been able to fully connect with what they're describing in their own ways of screenplay development, but i can't, for the life of me, find anything to grab onto regarding dialogue. should character development be one of the first things you do before going into the story? am i just ignorantly lacking the intellect to create good characters? why don't i have the capacity to give my characters dialogue? honest to goodness meaningful dialogue? should i go ahead and jump off of the screenwriting ledge?

i swear i'm not a dull creature... this just vexes me so. if you have any archived posts i've yet to discover or know of any good resources i'd be much obliged for the direction.

apologies for the long-windedness of this.

Dialogue is hard, and for me it's been the most-strongly self-taught aspect of the craft.  I feel like you need to just write, then say it out loud, then keep rewriting.  You're probably going to write a lot of bad dialogue before you write good dialogue.  Really it's something that comes with trial and error.  I'm not bad at identifying bad dialogue, and sometimes I can even offer suggestions on how to improve a scene.

But straight-up telling you how to write good dialogue? It's a more elusive lesson.  It's not that I haven't touched on dialogue before, but the full context of your question reads like you're really looking for the theory of writing good dialogue, and I confess I don't know if I have the capacity to give that broad of an answer.

What I will say is that you can't let this paralyze you.  Don't feel like your first-draft dialogue has to be brilliant.  Just get it on the page and give yourself something to work with.

What do you guys think?


  1. dialogue is easy. If you aren't naturally good at dialogue, STEAL IT! I've been mining the first seven seasons of The Simpsons for dialogue and funny tidbits for years.

    Also, mentally record everything around you. Go to a Waffle House, or dive bar and listen to people, and hang out with witty people, and steal their gags/lines/dialogue.

    Only three ways for good dialogue:
    Natural Talent
    Steal it
    Borrow it from friends

    You'll never come up with good dialogue locked in a room. You've also got to get in the head of each of your characters and think how they would react in any given situation and what they would say.

  2. I think you should start with writing dialogue like you and your friends speak to each other.

    Just reading that question was interesting. You have an intelligence in your words. Run with that.

    Don't be afraid. Just go for it.

  3. One thing to try could be to start off with having your characters just be 'on the nose' - have them say exactly what needs to be said in order to progress each scene, and nothing more. Just hammer that stuff out to get the scenes written.

    Leave it a day, come back and read through it. You'll have an instinctual feeling that the words aren't 'right' - that the characters are talking like robots, no emotion, no layers, no subtlety.

    So start tweaking their dialogue. Not all at once, just a little bit at a time here and there. Gradually you'll start to recycle all that plain dialogue and start replacing it with something more interesting.

    Think of the speech affectations of people you know - or even people you overheard out on the street, in the shops, wherever. Pauses, inflections, contractions, phrases, all of that. Give the major characters in each scene a few of those and then rework their dialogue accordingly.

    Look at Tarantino - his characters often go off into long, rambling monologues with only passing relevance to what's going on, just because QT as a person does that so it finds its way into his scripts. Wes Anderson likes the Euro-cinema style off-topic meandering and never saying what he means. The Coens split their characters into idiots and sane people trapped in a world surrounded by idiots to split the two up. Guarantee you in all three cases, they picked those dialogue traits up from the world around them - they didn't just spontaneously appear, fully formed in their minds while writing for the first few times.

    So start with basic, then find ways to make it more interesting for YOU to read. Absorb the voices around you and let them inspire your characters.

  4. Learning how to craft effective and (we hope) quotable dialogue mirrors how we first learn to speak. We mimic and copy those around us. Senator Tankerbell may be an enemy of the arts (Mr. Show shout out), but he's absolutely right. We don't burst out of the womb crying Shakespeare. If you can't produce that brilliant original thought, parrot it until you find your own voice.

    An exercise I often enjoy is researching the types of movies or music or books or poetry or influential art that would have been available to my main characters during their formative years. What was swirling through their young minds? We are sponges dripping with the water of our adolescence. Whether we want to admit it or not. Find those lyrical beats and weave them into the unique rhythms of your characters.

    It's also valuable to note that people do not always say exactly what they mean, or they lack the emotional capacity to do so when the right words would have been most effective in aiding their situation. We lie, we hold things in when we should speak up, or we have outbursts when silence would have saved us.

    Any advice on dialogue will be frustratingly broad because the nuances for every scene, sequence and situation are different...and your characters should be different. No greater crime than having a story full of characters who seem to share the same brain: the writer's.

    - "am I just ignorantly lacking the intellect to create good characters?"

    That sort of self-doubt (regardless if the intention was to sound humble or humorous) needs to vanish from your vocabulary. Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the story you've outlined, find connections to personalities you know or have known, and enjoy the process of putting the puzzle together!

    Any advice on this subject is extremely broad because some movies are extremely cinematic and require sparse dialogue. Often it's what is NOT said that carries the most weight. However, there are other films that lean so heavily on the dialogue (and rightfully so) that they would crumble without their monologues

  5. I'm echoing that to write true to life dialog you have to be around people and situations, either observing, or taking part--or even reading about behavior. That's where inspiration comes from. Once you've been around a certain number of situations then you can start to extrapolate how situations/dialog would play out in fictional situations based on the dynamics you've observed in real life humans.

    If you overhear a conversation at a bar and you find an exchange particularly funny or insightful try to remember the responses, the body language, and whatever else you can about the interaction. This can really help you later on, when you're working from that inspiration, to write other interactions that person may have. You're creating a profile to work from... a sort of psychological algorithm that's going to help you develop the character and the way s/he speaks or acts toward people in general. Generally speaking, writing relatable characters (even if they're dicks) that maintain consistency in personality--including growth--throughout is more important than some hilarious zinger that's crowbarred into some dialog. At least to start, anyway.

    Start with one of your scenes and profile the main character. Like pretend that they're real and you have to tell one of your real friends about them. Their hopes, fears, dreams, funniest thing they've ever said, are they the oldest in the family, what do they do for a living and what's the worst thing that's ever happened to them; more or less create a (not so) brief psychological profile.

    It's like when I call my mom... I know how the conversation's going to go, I know what she'll ask about, the tone she'll use, her responses etc and most importantly I know--based on her background and upbringing--why she'll respond the way she will. I could pretty much write a "scene" with my mother doing pretty much anything and come very close to what she'd say and how she'd react... the jokes she'd use etc. There are probably millions of mothers who would act the same--which makes her easy to relate to. You ever had a friend you had to give bad news to? You tell someone else about it and they respond "Oh shit, I know how he's gonna react when he hears that!"

    Once you start looking at your characters as more than just a snapshot (a scene) and really understand them you'll be able to start taking that single-scene dialog you like and then applying your "algorithm" to other scenes.

  6. You've just had two very inspiring and productive days, in which you conceived of an entire story and roughly carved out its plot - and you're complaining? Dialogue is the icing on the cake - unless, as Monster Zero said above, it's germane to the plot. As for characters, they're not invented. Unless they're machines, they're born.

    Actually, the way you create characters will say a lot about your philosophy and politics. Do you ascribe to the 'Great Man' theory of history, in which a series of protagonists 'rise to the occasion' to steer the course of humankind? Or do you favor the 'hundred monkey' theory in which a new idea or skill becomes 'reality' after spreading among a finite number of ordinary people (an ensemble cast)? Are people victims of circumstance, reflections of their age, society, class, and gender? Or are their lives supernaturally driven, predetermined by fate?

    How much control do you think an individual can have over events? If a lot, you must live in a 'character-driven' universe. But I take it that you are more plot-driven, which is good in Hollywood. It used to be that the only way a truly character-driven film got made was if an A-list actor demanded it as a vehicle to show his or her 'range'. Right now, there seems to be a resurgent interest in character, possibly because of the economy, visual spectacle being just too expensive to produce.

    If you are truly dedicated and work your characters long enough, you won't have to give them dialogue. No joke, they will talk to you. On the other hand, if you don't want to put in the time with your characters, then do the opposite. Think of which actors and actresses you would like to see in your film, and write the characters specifically for them.

  7. I think write out your scenes and any dialogue you can come up with (on the nose or not). If you get stuck, put a placeholder and go back to it. Do that until you get to Fade Out. Then you go back to real writing which is rewriting and filling in the blanks.

    I've found the best places to mine dialogue is YouTube, Twitter and Reddit. Any place where people communicate in an informal way is a goldmine. Study what people say, how they say, why, the subtext, etc.

    Lastly, read lots of scripts everything from Tarantino/Sorkin/Chayefsky to amateur stuff.

  8. Most of these suggestions already offered are definitely good ones. This is what really helps me in my writing:

    - Don't overuse exposition. You can tell your story without using your characters to "tell your story". Unfortunately, many scripts that I read have characters telling each other things that they would already know, or things that don't naturally come up in the conversation, just because the writer wants to make sure the audience knows something. Don't do that.

    - Watch your favorite films, specifically the ones with dialogue you love, and then read the scripts for them. It helps you to understand a little more about pacing, and creates a more solid connection between what you watch and what you type.

    - Just read a lot of scripts, in general. A great community for this is labs.triggerstreet.com - it's a community for screenwriters that is very welcoming, will allow you to submit your finished screenplays for member review, and that will give you screenplays to read and review. I've learned a lot just from reading other's work, seeing what didn't work, what did, and learning from it.

    - Create fully formed characters. Completely flesh them out. Know them inside and out: what would they dream about, what would catch their eye walking through Walmart, what do they fear, what their relationship with their mother like, etc. Create a list of things you notice, think about, do, etc. in a day and then design what your character would do, say, and think instead. Having fully formed characters will help a ton with your dialogue.

    Best of luck!

  9. Know your characters!

    I don't mean for you to write down everything you can think of about them, their history and food preferences and whatnot. I mean, know them like they're a real person. Like they're sitting in the room with you. Love them like they're your best friend or worst enemy.

    Actually, that's a great place to start: Use people you know. Steal from real life. You already know how your best friends would react in any situation. You know the rhythm and song of their voice and how they use words.

    People never, ever say what they really mean. At all costs, people avoid talking about the thing that they really want. Unless they're by themselves, or pushed so far that they're forced to SING about it.

    Actually, people only really speak when they're trying to get something from someone else. Dialogue is about conflict.

    In real life, people talk for no reason. Movies are not real life. Movies are either reflections of what makes life interesting, or projections of fantasy. Nobody wants to hear people sit around talking for no reason.

    That ISN'T to say that characters can't talk about 'nothing'. Tarantino is famous for having his characters talk about 'nothing'. But Tarantino is a genius, because even when his characters aren't talking about anything, they're fighting with each other. They're dueling. They're moving their stakes forward and raising the interest.

    NEVER use dialogue as exposition. The characters should never explain what is going on to the audience. They don't know that there's an audience to explain things TO. Characters don't reveal their intentions by explaining them to other characters. Characters reveal their intentions on accident. Intention escapes from them like a prisoner.

    Intention is revealed in how they walk, in how they stand, in how they sit, in how they look at other people. It's revealed in the things that they DON'T say. It's shrouded behind a question or a remark. A character's intention is their deepest secret, and they only reveal it when they've been pushed beyond the edge of reason.

    Remember, people only talk when they have to talk. When they HAVE to say something. Either because emotionally they feel compelled to talk, or because they are defending themselves, or because they really want something... but they only say what they think they need to say.

    Some characters think they need to ramble on forever, because they're insecure or frightened. People who are powerful don't speak very much because they are aware that they're projecting power without even saying a word.

    One more thing...
    The audience shouldn't have to figure out what the conflict is. The conflict between characters should be as clear as 2+2. Don't give them a puzzle to solve, but don't straight out give them the answer, either. Give them all the ingredients so that the solution or idea pops into their head immediately. Make them think they've figured it out, when really you just handed it to them.

    It's inception. Telling someone "don't think of the number 4" is the blunt stupid way to make them think "4". You have to give them 2+2 and then leave them alone.

    I didn't proof read this, so sorry if there's mistakes.

  10. I gotta echo a lot of what TBSR said and my fellow comment posters here. Just get the scene down on the page and re-write it later. My first drafts are fast, furious and total messes. Often coming in under 80 pages because instead of getting stuck writing scenes filled with "prefect" dialogue I just write things like, "I need you to put down that gun so I can get to the safe behind you." "That's not gonna happen." I do that just so I can move on. And as others have said, a great way to spice up your dialogue is via character bios/profiles. If your character is from Boston and is a huge Red Sox fan who's father used to take him to the games as a kid until his father was murdered by some gangsters, your dialogue will probably reflect some, if not all of this, from WHAT they talk about to HOW they talk about it. But one trick I sometimes use is to think of an actor or a character in another movie or TV show that I think my character is like and I write with their cadence. Sawyer from LOST, for example, had a southern drawl and gave everyone multiple nicknames. So if my character is similar to Sawyer, I would use similar tactics (i.e. drawl, nicknames). It will help you give your character a voice until you can create your own.

  11. JaneEspenson.Com remains a great archive of scriptwriting advice - a lot of it is TV-oriented, but there are tons of entries about joke construction and dialogue. A few entries:




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  13. Oh, all you have to do is hold Ctrl, press F7, and then Final Draft will fill in dialogue for you.

    You want to learn to write great dialogue. The first thing you're going to have to do is write some crappy dialogue. Then fix it.

    But who wants to do that when you can just e-mail a screenwriting blog and get the magical answer as to how to write.

  14. Dialogue is as much about creating setups and payoffs as much as it is simply a gift from the life you've led and the brain you've nurtured.

  15. I'm changing my answer. Here it is:

    Be concise.

  16. holy crap that was long-winded. sheesh. sorry 'bout that, but thank you for all the advice. i've really learned the value of brevity, i promise. also, the value of a re-read and re-write. oy!

    1. - "also, the value of a re-read and re-write."

      In most cases I spend more time editing and cutting redundancies in dialogue than i do actually writing it. It's a difficult discipline, especially in the rapid fire, SEND IT OUT NOW twitter culture. A strong command of editing will help tremendously.

  17. I would suggest reading plays, modern plays published in the last 50 years. Since plays are almost completely dialogue driven, it's easier to focus on the dialogue/characters than in screenplays. I would also encourage you to read only plays you've never heard of. I think that ensures the best chance of something catching you by surprise and really resonating with you. Good luck!

  18. Why don't you start with a sentence and go to an improv class with actors and describe to them what you want the scene to be about and see what they come up with?

  19. I agree with TBS. I usually just exercise what I call the cranium flush. Just write it. Then I will not stress about one particular part of dialogue or action, yet I keep going with the story. Then I will just let it fester, with this constant dialogue in my head or out loud. Many times saying it out loud is more than revealing. Then I will rewrite it. And again. It will come together. And plenty times I have written twenty pages only to use a three. Doesn't mean it wasn't worthy text, just it wasn't worthy of the story/character.

  20. Almost nothing you write is going to be good the first time it comes out of you. Accept this and embrace it, and keep working.

    Also, I didn't see this covered anywhere above, but everyone in your scene has something they want, which they are going to reveal to greater or lesser degree, depending on the tenor of the specific scene. (This may or may not overlap with what happens in the scene -- it can be a scene in which a body is discovered or the bank robbers plan their robbery -- but people will still have wants.) An armed gun man isn't going to be coy about the fact that he wants your money; a girl with a crush is going to do her best to hide that she wants desperately for him to kiss her.

    If your script were to ever go into production, the cast would go through it, figuring out what their characters want in each beat, and just as importantly, how that character is concealing that want or advocating for someone giving it to them, via spoken or unspoken measures. The crap version: The wife who's making her husband pancakes, because she wants him to clean the gutters this weekend. The teenager who's playing with his iPad because he doesn't want to listen to his parents argue.

    So if you're really stuck, look at the list of people in the scene, figure out who wants what, and starting with the one you know best, write the scene paying attention to that person's wants. Then go back and take another character's wants into account. Hopefully in time, this will become almost second nature, but that should get you onto the path.

    P.S. John August's website, and especially, his podcast, is an invaluable source of information on questions like these.

  21. My advice is to make two characters, both different, then put them in a scenario and think to yourself "what would they talk about?"

    More often than not with me, the characters immediately "start talking" in my head (like playing a scene from a movie from memory) and I just merely transcribe what they're saying.

    Another thing you can do is just write about what interests you. You have two different characters that are different. Like one is a vietnam vet and the other is a protestor of the war who shuns the vets, they're forced into a bus. What would these people say? Would the protestor immediately recognize the vet as a vet? Or would he strike up a friendly conversation at first? Then come to realize who he is and rain fire and brimstone? Then coming to terms how much of a jerk he's been and makes amends, realizing the vet is just a person brought into an unfortunately circumstance?

    See what I just did there? They can break the ice by talking about something YOU find interesting. More often than not, the audience will find it interesting too cause we can hear the passion of the topic being recited.

    I always look at Quentin Tarantino scripts, cause he's one of the raging kings of dialogue. Another is Aaron Sorkin. Read the way they write dialogue, they can take something perceived as random or mundane and make it riveting. The key reason I come to find why that works is because the discussion is usually building up to something BIG.

    Going back to the vet and protestor, you can have them talk about anything cause we the audience will know at some point....the protestor will realize the vet is a vet. If we present at least the vet as likable, then we'll fear for them getting sniffed out. You can use more extreme examples like a Nazi Officer and a Jewish transfer trying not to get found out.

    That's just my 2 cents though.

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