GOD DARNIT, MR. LAMARR, YOU USE YOUR TONGUE PRETTIER THAN A TWENTY DOLLAR WHORE: some reflections on how to write effective dialog


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The problem with writing an essay on how to write dialog is that who hasn’t written an essay on how to write dialog? You’ve read millions of them and I have to be honest, I can’t guarantee that you’ll discover anything here that you haven’t read somewhere else or already know.
But still, I think, for whatever reason, it’s time for me to codify my thoughts on the subject, putting it all in one place. Yes, it might be repetitive, what I have to say, but sometimes it still can be useful to have it all in one location.
Now, before I jump in, I first want to make one general observation about dialog in movies. I know that people say that film is a visual medium. You hear it over and over and over again. So often now that you’re never quite sure if the person believes it or understands what it means or whether he’s just repeating the mantra of the day.
You can often tell who these people are: if they look at a couple of pages of a screenplay that has almost solid dialog and, without even reading it, say there’s too much talking? They’re one of the mantra people; avoid them.
So, to all that I say, bull…whatever. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the people who further the idea of films being a visual medium are directors who can’t write dialog.

 

Yes, there is a visual component to film, but there is also a just as important aural component to it as well. If film were just a visual medium, we’d all be making silent films (rather than them being an occasional gimmick, like in The Artist; I mean, yeah, it’s a ton of fun, but you also leave it realizing just why we don’t make movies like that anymore).

 

And, c’mon, the only reason why silent films were, well, silent, was because the technology didn’t exist then. In fact, silent films were not, well, really silent because live music was played when they were shown and in some theaters live sound effects were added by people.

 

And there was dialog. It was on intertitles. And you didn’t use as much dialog then, because cutting to intertitles can really slow down the rhythm and forward momentum of the movie. (I once saw a revival of Metropolis in which the intertitles were removed and redone as subtitles, which was extremely effective and made me wish all silent films would be redone that way.)

 

For me, film is an outgrowth of a combination of various art forms. At its core, it is a combination of theater and photography and both components are equally necessary. I think it’s ridiculously obvious that film needs sound, not just in effects and music, but in dialog. There are simply some things that aren’t communicated as well visually just as there are some things that aren’t communicated as well aurally.

 

So don’t be ashamed of writing dialog or wanting to include it in your screenplay. If you want your characters to talk, let them talk as much as they want, let them talk as much as you feel your screenplay needs it, and don’t let naysayers naysay your way out of it.

 

The goal is to find the right balance between sound, including dialog, and visual and know when one is best used over the other. You want all the tools of writing a screenplay to be available. Don’t cut any of them off, don’t downplay one over the other, don’t belittle any of these tools that are there. Use them all. The more you have, the richer your screenplay can be.

 

Second, I want to make a second general observation about writing dialog. This is more a personal belief. I can’t confirm it. It just seems to be true in my particular case.

 

I believe that if you can “hear” conversations in your mind, “hear” people talking to each other, “listen” to characters talking to each other, as well as recreate conversations and rewrite interactions you’ve had with people in your mind without much trouble, I believe you will be ahead of the game.

 

I do this all the time. While sitting at coffee at Starbucks; while grocery shopping; while working out; while doing laundry. There are moments when, while walking down the street, I wonder whether the faces I feel I’m making are registering with those I pass.

 

There are some people who are more visual in their thoughts. There are others who are more aural in their thoughts. One is not superior to the other, but I do believe the second group will find it easier to write dialog.

 

So on to my tips for writing dialog:

 

  1. Read plays. Not screenplays, but plays. I think this is the most important thing you can do in order to write better dialog. And the reason for this is that is just about what all plays are: dialog. It’s people talking, to each other, each with their own particular style and way of speaking. It’s people able to keep a plot going and create conflict through dialog alone. And it’s written by writers who can create three dimensional, vibrant and unique characters almost through dialog alone.

 

This is not to say that you should write your screenplays the same way that playwrights write their plays. This is also not to say you shouldn’t—movies like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Long Day’s Journey Into Night are very effective and powerful films. But you will probably find that writing a screenplay exactly like a play is usually not the best approach.

 

But in writing dialog, you simply can’t beat plays.

 

So immerse yourself in them and think about what makes some plays better than others when it comes to dialog. Think about how these lines of dialog differentiates that character from the others, while those lines do it for the others. Try to figure out how dialog alone can create fully defined characters.

 

Some of the better modern playwrights for studying dialog include: Eugene O’Neill, George Bernard Shaw, August Strindberg, David Mamet, Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard, Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman, Kaufman and Hart, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill, Wendy Wasserstein, Horton Foote, Noel Coward, Tom Stoppard…I could go on.

 

What can also be interesting and kind of fun here is to get a few translations of the same play (like Chekhov) and compare how different translators handle the dialog.  You’ll quickly see why some work and some don’t.  This can be educational.

 

  1. I personally believe that what really gives a character vibrancy and individuality is the dialog. I don’t think action does this because usually most action can be done by people with multiple kinds of personalities (and, ha ha, I’m not talking Three Faces of Eve).

 

For example, see the difference between Sean Connery and Dennis Craig’s James Bond. Or a bit broader, Tony Shaloub’s Monk, Hugh Laurie’s House and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, who are all basically the same character. Or even broader still, the characters of Star Wars and Avatar, who are bland, flat and uninteresting, in comparison to the characters of Alien and Aliens, who are rich, vibrant and unique.

 

For me, each person has, almost like a fingerprint, their own personal way of speaking, and it’s often that way of speaking that gives them their reality.

 

And because of this, I believe that every character in order to be real and vibrant should have their own way of speaking, distinctive from all the other characters. And this can even be true for characters who have only one scene or even one line of dialog.

 

At the same time, of course, a character is not totally defined by his dialog. There is also a visual element to his personality, an element connected to the choices he makes, to the lifestyle he leads that is reflected in his clothing and where he lives, to some individualistic tics that only he has, etc., etc.

 

But as a reader for contests and in the past for a production company, as well as for my own consultation services, the one thing I look for is characters that are real and vibrant. Most of the time, if the characters aren’t real and vibrant, it doesn’t matter what the story is or what the visuals are. And one of the places where these qualities reveals itself is in the dialog.

 

To continue, there are several ways to do create vibrant and effective dialog, many of which you probably already know, ad nauseam:

 

  1. Cover up the names of your characters. Then read the dialog. If you can’t tell the difference between the characters just by reading the dialog, the characters will probably not come as alive as you may need them to.

 

So if all your characters sound alike, then you need to work on making them speak in their own unique way that reveals their personality.

 

  1. Take an innocuous line, something even as simple as “goodbye”, and write it out as each character would say it. (Would some say “TTFN”, would some say, “See you later”, would some say “Uh, yeah, okay, so, um, talk at you later, maybe, okay?”).

 

Then work your way up to longer lines, like “I’m just going down to the store for milk”. How would each of your characters say it: “So, yeah, I’m just going to, oh, head out here and pick up some milk” or “Fuck this shit. I’m getting some milk” or “I’m going to do get some milk. That sound good? Yeah, that sounds good”.

 

  1. Don’t be afraid of being arbitrary. For example, experiment and have a character that never says more than three words at a time. Or one who is really into sports and peppers their dialog with it (remember Bill Paxton in Aliens: Game over, man, game over). Or make them from Canada and have them finish every line with “eh”.

 

  1. If you are having trouble with the dialog in a screenplay you are writing, get some actors together and have them improvise the scene (Mike Leigh does this and he has some of the greatest dialog in movies). As you have them improvise, you might get ideas on how to individualize each character and how they speak.

 

  1. Always be aware of people speaking around you and notice how they are talking. Maybe record some conversations and just analyze what makes one person sound differently from another. Podcasts could be a very valuable way of doing this since these are unscripted.

 

When you run across people who have a very distinctive way of speaking, take note of that and why it’s so unique and interesting. In the same way, if someone says something striking, consider writing it down (I just used a line that I heard someone some twenty years ago).

 

  1. Hang out with the young. That is where the new and unique arises in dialog. Don’t fight their way of speaking, but embrace it and exploit it.

 

9. Write scenes that have nothing to do with the movie. Have your hero pick up his laundry, go to a fast food place, or work out at a gym. If you can make the character come alive there, in a scene that will not be included in the movie, he will probably come alive when he is put into a scene that is in the movie.

10. Think of an actor to play the role. This doesn’t mean that this actor is the only one who can play the part. But sometimes, when a character isn’t quite coming together, if you can see or hear a particular actor saying the lines, it’s amazing what effect that can have in bringing a reality to your characters.

11. Remember, there are no small parts, only one dimensional ones. So try and make characters that appear only to disappear as rich and vibrant as all the others. It’s not necessarily easy to do it in one scene or one line, but still, it’s amazing what can be done with very little.

12. I will add a couple of observations of that bane of all screenwriters (and playwrights, believe it or not), and that is expository dialog. Exposition is almost invariably necessary at some point in a screenplay. It’s almost impossible to write a screenplay without it. There is going to come a time, nine times out of ten, when you just have to have people say something for little reason than the audience needs it to understand what is going on.

 

So don’t be embarrassed by it. Expository dialog, rather than a drag, can be a valuable tool and like all tools, you should have it at your fingertips to use. And even have fun with it.

 

Let me first define expository dialog: most people think that it’s dialog that is only there to give information to the audience. That’s basically true, but there is usually an added connotation: it’s dialog that feels like it’s there only to give information to the audience and for no other reason.

 

So here are some ways to make expository dialog more effective:

 

one of the situations where expository dialog sounds like expository dialog is when the information is discussed by people who know it already (imagine if the opening scene with Horatio and the guards was done with Hamlet and the guards)—so make sure that in these scenes one of the characters doesn’t have the information already;

also, a huge number of films use voice over (and there is nothing wrong with voice over—it’s been used from films as divergent as Double Indemnity to The Wild Child to Days of Heaven to The Age of Innocence);

connected to this, have a character address the audience (which is like voice over) as in Annie Hall, Mon Oncle d’Amerique and The Wolf of Wall Street.

.

 13.Finally, if you discover that you just don’t quite have the knack for strong and effective dialog, there is one solution that a huge number of writers have taken: find a writing partner who is good at dialog.

 

There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, studios use to have writers who often did nothing but write dialog (like Dorothy Parker) and foreign films will often have a credit that reads “dialog by”. And based on screenplays I read and movies I see, I wish more writers and filmmakers would consider this.

 

Finally, I want to make a final general observation about writing dialog. Your goal is not to necessarily write naturalistic or realistic dialog.

 

First, there is no such thing. Any film in which the dialog is an exact reproduction of real life would be incredibly boring. All dialog is stylized to some degree, even the “realistic” dialog of a David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino.

 

And what is realistic varies from generation to generation. The definition of realism as a style is only through comparison: Shakespeare is more realistic than the Greek playwrights; Restoration writers are more realistic than Shakespeare; George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill are more realistic than Restoration; and David Mamet and Woody Allen are more realistic than any of them (while Mamet is more realistic than Allen).

 

So you are not only looking to write dialog that makes your characters unique and vibrant, you are also looking for your own style, something that stands out, yet feels real within the context of the story and characters you are writing…something that is your very own. I’m not sure that many people can confuse the dialog of Tarantino, Allen and the Cohn Brothers.

 

I think the last bit of advice I will leave you with is that as you write and rewrite your dialog, hear it in your head. Let your instincts be your guide. If, in your head, it hits a false note, then there is probably something there that needs to be fixed. The more you can hear the dialog being spoken in your mind, the stronger your dialog will be.

 

And don’t worry about the strange looks you get from people as you walk down the street.

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4 Comments

  1. This article was great and appears to be a response to a recent comment I made about being cursed as a stage actor who loves dialogue and now has the burden of writing too much dialogue. Hears a question. I know how to deliver lines and when a long or short pause is needed. (My favorite director was consumed with quick pacing and hated pauses. Luckily film doesn’t have that problem.) Should I put in (pause) or …. in dialogue for readers who wouldn’t understand this? I currently just use the ….

  2. Thanks for reading and responding. In screenwriting you actually never say pause, you say (beat), Pause is for stage, beat is for film, but that’s just a technical issue. And it goes on its own line in dialog, not in the dialog itself. I would put in (beat) when you really feel it creates character or is necessary for the dialog or action to make sense. But I would be wary of telling actors how to say their lines. They’re going to ignore you anyway and interpret the lines as they feel their character is telling them to. And unless you are actually directing the film, you probably aren’t going to get anywhere near the actors. At the same time, play around with it. Use it and see if it works. It might work for your style of dialog. You might also check out how some of Mamet’s screenplays read as compared to his plays (since he uses a lot of pauses). I only use ellipses for telephone conversations or at the dialog when the other or something interrupts someone from completing a full sentence. When I wrote plays, I would overload with pauses, then as I rewrote, I noticed I would constantly remove more and more of them. If you are the director and feel that a paused filled delivery is what you want, then hire an actor who understands that or work with them on it. But as I said, if you are the writer, you won’t get anywhere near them.

So tell me what you think.

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