The Art of Screen Dialogue

Working in layers ☛

A 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 business of making your character talk. There is.

Part of the challenge of writing really good dialogue lies in the many different layers there can and should be in a spoken exchange. This is one reason why most writers over-write on their first pass – they want to get their dialogue doing all that work, but they’ve not yet got it integrated. On a practical level, it makes sense to build dialogue up a layer at a time. Don’t imagine that Joss Wheedon just sits at his laptop and writes that stuff in a continuous, inspired flow. It’s like working with oil paints, you’ve got to build up the layers to get those luminous colours and fine lustre. So what layers am I talking about?

1. Information

The most basic task that dialogue has, and the one that hack screenwriters rarely get past, is delivering story information. Why does the character need to get to Grand Central Station by 12 noon? How does he know about the bomb? This is the donkeywork that dialogue is almost always given to do. It shouldn’t be doing this work: dialogue is worth more than that, and factual information is usually presented more tellingly through visuals. Sadly, despite being massively over-qualified, dialogue is very good at presenting certain sorts of information quickly, so usually gets stuck with much of that job.

Getting this plot information out of your system and down on the page can help you get through a comprehensible first pass of your story, but very much at the expense of good dialogue. No matter; you can go back and make it better by doing another pass that concentrates on…

2. Motivation & Strategy

The most important work that dialogue can do is to show us who the characters are through what they want. If your basic story structure is any good, all of your characters will have objectives and each scene will show those characters pursuing those objectives as best they can. We learn about the character by seeing how they go about achieving those goals, the strategies they use. Do they greet every problem with in-your-face aggression, like Tommy (Joe Pesci) in Goodfellas, hoping to scare people into submission? Do they believe that they’ll get what they need if they persuade everyone to like them, like David Brent in The Office?  Are they wary, and sit there silently soaking up information, like George Smiley in Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy; or do they love the sound of their own voice like Harry Lime in The Third Man? If you’ve done your homework and figured out what the character wants and how they usually go about getting it, writing the dialogue becomes a lot easier.

Tommy, making friends
Tommy in “Goodfellas”, making friends

But dialogue is rarely about one person doing all the talking, so what the other players bring to the scene is also important. Ideally, secondary characters should not always be susceptible to the protagonist’s favourite strategy. Pit a character who relies on their sparkling wit against a security guard with no sense of humour and the scene comes alive. Our hero has to switch to plan B and we get to know them better when we see their choice of second-string strategy.  For example, we learn a lot about a character who starts off by trying to charm, but then becomes threatening at the first sign of resistance. Suddenly we don’t like them so much.

We can even learn something about a character from how easy they find it to switch strategy. We tend to admire characters who are socially adept – they can read people quickly and change tack easily to get what they want; they turn on a dime. However, a character who finds it difficult to adopt more than one strategy, or changes strategy awkwardly, can often be the source of good comedy. I can give you a real world example. A  few years back, British talk-show host Jonathan Ross had Nicole Kidman on his show. For those who don’t know his style: Ross’s shtick sometimes relies on outrageous flirtation with attractive female guests. Whether Nicole Kidman missed that this was an act, or if it was an act for which she just didn’t care, wasn’t quite clear. Either way, the interview got off to a bad start. Where it turned from awkward into funny was when Jonathan Ross responded, not by dropping the flirtation, but by turning the volume up to 11. He clearly hoped that if he made it more obviously jokey, she’d get it and play along. The opposite happened and her discomfort turned quickly into affront. It was a classic of car-crash television.

Build in the characters’ strategies and you’ll find that what previously just felt like two people chatting for a bit, quickly and easily turns into a scene with a shape to it, where something’s really happening between the characters. This is enough for most writers, but some choose to go deeper.

3. Subtext

This can belong either to the character or the writer. The first is where a character deliberately drops hints that are meant to serve their agenda, without being direct or obvious. “I was supposed to be going to the ball tonight, but Frederick can’t take me” – clearly this is said by someone who wants the person they’re addressing to accompany them to the ball.

When writers use subtext outside of the persona of the character, it is often to tell us things about the character not directly related to their prime objective. Sometimes we learn about the character’s attitudes from the language they use: maybe they casually use inappropriate racial slurs in conversation, suggesting that they’re not as enlightened as they might have seemed. Sometimes they’ll inadvertently say thing that reveal their backstory.

Miles in
Miles in “Sideways”: a different sort of Noir.

Subtext can even give us an insight into the character’s deeper motivation, why they feel the need to pursue their objective. Sometimes this will be in a scene that’s been written specifically to contain this subtext. Remember the scene in Sideways where Miles (Paul Giamatti) talks about why he’s so in love with Pinot Noir?

Click here to watch “Sideways” Pinot Noir scene

As he talks, we realise that he has unconsciously identified with the characteristics of the grape variety. While he may not be aware how much he’s revealing about himself, Maya (Virginia Madsen) seems to get it. She learns, as we do, why Miles struggles with relationships.

Where subtext is at its best, however, is with what’s left unsaid; the questions characters refuse to answer, or from which they deflect by a change of subject. These silences, draw us into the characters and challenge us to play detective and work out what’s going on inside their heads. Cinema, above all other forms of drama, excels at this form of subtext for one reason alone: we have the close-up. Watching someone refusing to answer a question is uniquely fascinating on the big screen because we can work hard to study their face for the answer.

Once all this is layered-in, the dialogue should be reading pretty well, but there is one last surface layer you can chose to add:

  1. Tone of voice

This can be used to add credibility to the character, most usually in the context of their social background. Speech patterns and word choice can reinforce characters’ class, education and geographical origin. Some writers also use it to add more specific individual characterization. An exercise writers are often encouraged to undertake is “cover up the character names and we should be able to tell which character is speaking from the dialogue alone”. This is bad advice, or at least advice ill-suited to screenwriting. You might well be able to identify the characters because the objective contained within the line: “Tell me the name of your source!” Okay, that’s clearly the interrogator; but the exercise is encouraging us to give the characters distinctive voices – maybe one is blunt and earthy, another fay and highfalutin’. Good cinematic dialogue tends to be too pared-down to support much of this sort of characterization and it often sounds fake and mannered when it’s written that way.

To illustrate the point, this video was posted on YouTube not long back. It is a cut-together of the common tropes / recycled dialogue of one of America’s best-respected screenwriters: Aaron Sorkin.

While it’s mildly embarrassing for Aaron, it inadvertently demonstrates that much of his dialogue is equally credible, no matter which of the characters is speaking the line. Little attempt has been made to individualize the characters by giving them quirks of speech. Instead Sorkin knows that a good line is a good line, and that a smart actor will be only to happy to make it their own.

The last stage of the process isn’t a layer, so much as a weeding out of redundant dialogue. Does this line of dialogue work to push the story forward or deepen our understanding of it? If not: show it the door. Most screenwriters over-write dialogue, at least at first. Nothing to be ashamed of. Develop an admiration for the scene without an ounce of fat on it, learn to love the white spaces on the page, and your dialogue will offer the actor and the audience more space for interpretation, more room to move.

This order of business may not be to everybody’s taste. Some might prefer to see the character intentions as the base coat and find room for any necessary exposition later. I think the most important thing is not to even attempt to get the dialogue right first pass: it’s not going to happen. Write the layers and you’ll see your scenes develop in richness and your characters start to shine.


Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012

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8 thoughts on “The Art of Screen Dialogue

  1. Re: the Aaron Sorkin massup – The Playwrite Alan Bennet used some phrases over and over again: “He/She had beautiful handwriting” and “ worn as an end of season goal mouth”

    As for giving the viewer vital information, Sorkin was a master of that. In one episopde of the West Wing, The President and his Chief of staff walk from the oval office to the new cheif lawyer’s office having a conversation about the meeting they are about to attend, and in 2.5 mins you find out everything you need to know about a new character that is about to be introduced into the drama and their relationships to him. He’s great writer.

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