Saving Your Breath

The Nature of Movie Dialogue ☛

For many years I’ve been puzzling over the nature of movie dialogue and how it works. Anyone who’s ever tried to write a screenplay will tell you that dialogue is deceptively difficult to get right. If they think it’s easy, they probably haven’t yet heard actors struggling through their leaden lines. With dialogue, less is almost always more, and any other picture editor will back me up on that. I’ve rarely worked on a feature, either as editor or assistant, where less than 10% of the dialogue has not hit the cutting room floor. Usually much more. But why do screenwriters overwrite? Why have audiences grown to love tight-lipped heroes? How does dialogue work?

To be fair what sounds in the rushes like overwritten dialogue is very often evidence not of the writer’s failings, so much as evidence of the actor’s success. A really good actor can say with a look what a lesser actor would need dialogue to convey. These redundant lines are impossible to predict, even if the screenwriter were to know in advance that their words would be spoken by the likes of Anthony Hopkins. While you can write ‘looks’ into a script, a written look can’t express all the complex emotions of which an actor is capable, unless you get into “behind his steely gaze, his eyes register pity, mixed perhaps with a moment of guilt, then resolve”. Writing action like that will guarantee that your script will never reach the inbox of an actor capable of performing that direction. Besides, Sir Anthony needed to understand the emotions of his character; for him the line is a springboard: it needs to be in the script, even if it doesn’t need to end up in the final cut.

“The Artist”: silence in the Golden Age

But why this preference for unspoken moments over dialogue-driven exchanges? Part of it is to do with film’s competitiveness with other forms. Theatre, television and radio drama are all very dialogue dependent; even the most high-end TV drama will average more lines per minute than most feature films. In a cinema you have an audience of willing captives who aren’t eating their dinner, nipping off to make a cup of tea or otherwise easily drawn away from looking at the screen (okay, it depends which cinema you go to), and because of this the filmmaker can rely on greater concentration on the visuals. Besides, movies were born dumb. The talkies only came about after directors had already learned the neat trick of communicating through images, looks and body language. As we saw with the popular and critical success of The Artist, film still secretly aspires to the purity of its voiceless childhood. Crucially, however, a well-performed look is always more powerful than a well-delivered line because we believe a look: how often do people give themselves away with their eyes? Dialogue can so easily be a lie (I’ve written more about this in my article on Behaviour).

It may sound like movies don’t really need dialogue at all, but that’s not entirely true. We live in an age where audiences are used to a level of naturalism which dictates that characters should communicate in a way we recognize from real life. The less dialogue there is, the more heightened and operatic the film feels – not necessarily a bad thing, just look at the movies of Sergio Leone. Conversely, over-lapping or muttered dialogue with broken sentences brings the movie closer to our experience of the world.

However, the belief held, consciously or unconsciously, by many less experienced writers that dialogue is there primarily for naturalism (combined with the need to communicate plot information) leads to bad dialogue. Anyone who’s ever script edited will have heard a writer defend a line by saying “but that’s what the character would say”. Whether a character would say that line in a real situation is beside the point. The reply so often is: “Yes, but do we need them to say it?” Movie dialogue is never truly naturalistic; it is there to provide the illusion of naturalism.

In fact movie dialogue should avoid true naturalism at all costs. Ever heard a recording of a real-life conversation? In reality people talk around a subject; they repeat themselves needlessly; they get distracted and start talking about something else; they get interrupted and lose their thread; they can be wandering, verbose and incoherent. We tolerate, often enjoy, this relaxed form of dialogue in our everyday lives. Many business meetings last at least an hour, despite being little more than a ‘hello’. Meet a friend for drinks or dinner and you may be chatting for three hours or more, often without saying more than a sentence or two that has any dramatic or emotional weight.  Let’s face it, we like to chat. But most films last less than two hours. In order for screenwriters to cover any dramatic ground at all, a style of dialogue developed that  distills natural speech right down. Any line in a film script is usually the most efficient way of communicating that meaning, within the idiom of the character. It might well be a phrase people would speak in reality, but in reality they’d take five minutes to build up to thinking of that phrase, and then maybe repeat the process. Movie dialogue is much more efficient. Very often you can take the first draft of a script, or an inexperienced writer’s work and just cut out every other pair of lines. It doesn’t always work, but often creates a tighter and more interesting scene, where things are either left unsaid or are implicitly understood between the characters.

What’s interesting is that we accept this stylization so unquestioningly that most of us forget that it’s anything other than natural. This is because it allows the narrative to flow freely, and we’re always happy to embrace any stylization that allows us to skip the bits where nothing interesting is happening. Incidentally, the same principal makes jump cuts work – you cut between the moments of significant action, and lose the boring stuff in the middle.

Humphrey Bogart, caught the moment before delivering a wry riposte

While movie dialogue needs to be condensed, it doesn’t always need to be naturalistic. From the early talkies, where dialogue often reflected the style of its source material – be it a high-society stage play or a hard-boiled novel – audiences were happy to accept characters not speaking the way people do in the real world. As long as the dialogue was somehow better than reality, that was alright – it could be wittier, grander, more poetic, smarter. The movie characters played by Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn and Groucho Marx were given lines we wish we could be fast enough and wry enough to come up with in reality. This was literally superhuman dialogue.

Over time movie dialogue has developed a greater pretense of naturalism. Some writers and directors have gone out of their way to try to perfect this illusion: Robert Altman favoured having characters talk over each other to mimic the messiness of everyday speech; David Mamet experimented with having characters interrupt each other mid-word and with artful use of repetition; and the Mumblecore movement is dedicated to producing dialogue with the lack of clarity of natural speech. Some of these experiments succeed in making the story feel more true to life; others frustrate the audience, which sometimes has to strain to make out what is being said. Others still only result in creating a different form of stylization that’s instantly recognizable as the writer/director’s voice and therefore ruining the attempt at realism.

Bitchiness elevated to a fine art in “The Draughtsman’s Contract”

An alternative approach, however, is to eschew naturalism and embrace the unreal. This can be seen in scripts that are simply homages to earlier styles, whether it be the Coens’ use of 40s whip-crack dialogue in Millers Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy or Peter Greenaway’s hyper-arch Restoration sniping in The Draughtsman’s Contract. The dialogue is either locating us in a genre, or is creating the feel of the period and its values, every bit as much as the costume and art direction. Aaron Sorkin naturally seems to write his own form of whip-crack dialogue, not out of a desire to harken back to an earlier era, but to express high-IQ characters in high-pressure worlds. By contrast, David Lynch films often feature dialogue that’s deliberately stilted, artfully artless, either to mimic bad daytime soaps or to take us into a dream-like world, sometimes both. You can even develop completely original modes of speech, dialogue that, while completely unlike everyday chat, takes the audience in to a different headspace. A special nod has to go to Hal Hartley here, whose house-style allowed his characters openly to discuss the themes of the story, and do it with a sideways wit that ensured that it never came across as preachy.

There is much more to say about the internal working of dialogue, the different strategies that writers can use to bring out character and serve the story — but that feels like another article in its own right. Meanwhile I urge all writers, directors and editors always to ask “do we really need this line?”

Edited by Dr. Sara Lodge.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012

7 Responses to “Saving Your Breath”
  1. Real-life dialog is amazing. I’ve done a lot of transcription work, listening to and typing out hours of real-life interviews from various walks of life — ghetto high school, professional sports, business people and others. When one actually listens to and analyzes all the words actually spoken, it becomes amazing that we communicate at all!

    Verbatim transcription reveals that there are rhythms and patterns that become predictable. In fact, many listeners are not listening to the words spoken, but rather to those rhythms and patterns and, of course, their own presumptions.

    I highly recommend transcription work to any writer. As you mentioned, when one listens to real dialog, it becomes apparent that it could never be incorporated verbatim into a movie. Condensing and mimicking the various patterns and affectations, such as precision, speed, repetition, vocabulary strength, urgency, etc., is what one hopes to achieve from good movie dialog. It also is key to creating a variety of unique characters (a common flaw of new writers is the inability to distinguish between their characters).

    In my opinion, when a writer listens to the distinctions and varieties, it gives the writer a good grasp of how to hone movie dialog.

    • dianaburaka says:

      It is so true that people often listen not the words of the dialogue, but to the rhythms and patterns and make their predictions! Great article and great comment!

  2. Tim Lane says:

    “But that’s what a character would say.” more often than not what the writer means is: “But that’s what the character would LIKE to say.” In life we rarely get to say what we want or phrase it like we’d like. Most of it stays in our heads or comes as an afterthought when it’s too late to utter. That, as writers, we can ‘fix’ this doesn’t mean we should or, as noted, the actors will.

    Nice article, Guy.

  3. Jack Holder says:

    For me, dialogue is an entity in and of itself. Two of my favorite writers – Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon – take almost completely different approaches to words. Sorkin writes as we want to talk, giving fantastic stats in a controlled frantic approach of back-and-forth between the characters. His episodes on The West Wing showed little to no action, and yet his audience still felt the suspense from nothing more than the words and the actors’ portrayals of the real-life consequences on screen. Conversely, Joss Whedon writes dialogue in a manner that people want to feel they should talk. The Avengers movie had several real-life conversations, but on the most part their words conveyed emotion, humor or the rhythm of the moment. Dialogue for The Avengers was supposed to be as legendary as the characters themselves.
    Dialogue has to perform on two aspects: reality and gravity. It has to seem real, to the point where people would agree. The phrase “If he would say it, does it need to remain unsaid?” Only works if it fits the moment. Still on the Avengers: “Take away your suit of armor, what have you got?” Does everyone know Tony Stark is going to come back with a fantastic abstract resume? Of course, but it needs to be said for the sake of his character, and that it’s so funny. More importantly, dialogue needs to reflect gravity in the moment. These words need to be felt, remembered, experienced again and again. They can’t just be descriptive, they need to provoke something within the audience. Good dialogue lets people know and feel at the exact same time.

    Thank you for letting me go through my tirade!

  4. clear braces says:

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    newest updates, so where can i do it please help out.

    • guyducker says:

      Certainly. Underneath my photo in the sidebar you will see a section marked “Follow this blog via email”; hopefully that should do the trick. Let me know if you still have problems.

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  1. […] month or two back I wrote a piece about the nature of screen dialogue, focusing on naturalism and style; back then I suggested that there was more to say about the […]

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