Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Four Functions of Dialogue

Although a person’s character is defined by what they do and not what they say, how and what they choose to speak usually indicates a great deal about themselves, especially in relation to writing for the stage or screen. While you could muse and contemplate the ‘invisible qualities’ that make up a good story, dialogue in a screenplay is the most identifiable form of the process and arguably the most important aspect of how your characters and plot will be judged.

When pushed or bored, readers and execs will speed-read your carefully worded prose and neat narrative description in favour of getting to the meat of your scene: what the characters are saying. The dialogue will invariably become representative of the plot and character development, and will take on the responsibility of making your story funny, dramatic, quirky, interesting and engaging. No pressure then.

Writing good dialogue is a hard task. A lot of bad scripts make the error of regurgitating familiar lines from TV and other films, or trying to copy Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet (sometimes combined). It’s usually easily evident if the writer doesn’t know their characters very well if they start to talk in dodgy Americanisms when it’s a drama set in a UK tax office.

And UK writers attempting an American story usually fall into the trap of repeating commonly heard slang and phrases or un-researched technical terms (cops, attorneys) without giving the characters their own voice or point-of-view. In addition, some writers will attempt lengthy and quirky monologues but unless you’ve got the talent and humour of someone like Tarantino, this is probably best avoided. Even he can mess it up: when David Carradine began his ‘superhero’ spiel towards the end of Kill Bill 2, I was like ‘enough already! Get to the fight.’

Basically, dialogue in your script carries four main functions: exposition, characterisation, subtext and humour.

Exposition: to convey to the audience the key information of the plot and characters (“How long have you worked here Tom?”). Exposition is present in every film and is wholly necessary in the storytelling process. The problem with exposition is that it should be invisible and in most scripts, the writer will take the easy option of getting the information across (see example above).

McKee has good advice regarding this problem: “make your exposition ammunition”. This means that the characters use the information that they know about themselves in order to hurt or amuse or confront each other. Script readers hate bad exposition. It’s like someone farting in a lift. It’s awkward, unsettling and it reeks.

Characterisation: to give characters their own voice and point-of-view. How someone speaks usually says something about what they think of themselves and how they would like to be perceived by others. Let’s take a perfectly plain piece of dialogue - “Hello. How are you?” - and give it to three different characters: Bart Simpson, Joey Tribiani and Dracula.

Bart would probably characterise the greeting with something like: “Hey, how’s it hanging man?” as it’s true to his cheeky personality. Joey may switch it to his inexplicably winsome chat up line: “Hey, how you doing?” while Dracula may unintentionally ham it up a little with: “Greetings…” before chowing down on your neck. Too many characters in too many bad scripts speak with the same voice. There’s no discernible distinction between who or what is being said.

Subtext: because quite often what is being said has an alternative emotional meaning. A man and woman’s pleasantries at breakfast (“how did you sleep?” “pass the toast” “coffee?”) can take on a whole different meaning if the audience is aware they’ve spent the whole night arguing and it’s the end of their relationship. Subtext is most effective when the audience is in tune with what’s going on and understand the character dynamics.

Some say that every scene should have its subtext but that doesn’t mean that every line of dialogue has to have a hugely significant emotional underbelly. Scenes have their own separate purpose and your giraffe scene at the zoo may be just a little bit of comic relief where any attempt at subtext or something more significant would be inappropriate.

Humour: no matter how dour or depressing life gets, there’s always room for a little humour. A script without some amusing aspects of dialogue is a dull and draining read. Humour adds dimension and humane qualities to a character, and helps the audience connect with them and the story a bit more.

A ‘drama’ doesn’t mean it has to be a serious and po-faced examination of the human condition. Give us something to smile about. And if it’s a comedy, you’d better make sure there’s something to laugh at.

There are probably many sub-groups and considerations to add to these four main functions but a post about ‘dialogue’ seemed like the natural succession to the previous article about characters vs plot. Dialogue is the audience’s way in to understand and appreciate the characters, and how to assimilate the key aspects of your story. ‘Having a good ear for dialogue’ is indeed a gift but one that can be honed and developed by careful observation and understanding of people’s discourse and behaviour.

9 comments:

Wail Flower said...

Hi. Got sidelined on to your blog via a google-search. I think... my brain has obviously fried in the process of staring at the computer for a few too many hours. I've written lots of half-hour scripts, stories and various other things and am in the middle of trying to find out what to do next. Where to go? What to do? I think the internet is probably the worst place to start: so easy to end up at either the best place ever with the most helpful advice or the worst place ever, with the crappest advice in the world; my head is filled with mountains of stuff and nonsense. I may need a few days to assimilate it all... And just so you don't start to feel mis-represented, your blog is pretty helpful. Thanks.

shammois said...

Indirectly related to your last posting is another element of dialogue - not in it's make-up, but in it's arrival onscreen. Absolutely pivotal is delivery. If you've heard a good script badly acted (or good actors struggling with bad lines... to be fair there are probably more numerous, and humorous, examples of the latter) it can really make you wince. To hear a line like that's could be rich in nuance or ambiguity spat out in loud sarcasm makes the potentially funniest or most dramatic scenes plain boring. Sometimes the overacting is so preposterous it becomes entertaining (Gary Oldman springs to mind) but most often it's just a bit disappointing. Writers rarely have a say in the delivery of the lines they wrote, and this is both good (some writers make bad directors) and bad (because some directors make bad directors too).

shammois said...

Some writers also leave random words in their sentences

Ben said...

Great blog this. I've linked to it and commented on your post on my blog.

...are we “allowed” dialogue as beautiful or poetic or stylish, if it doesn’t reveal any humour, subtext, character or story? I think in a movie script probably not. And, truth be told, probably not often in theatre scripts either. However some times playwrights can get away with it.

I think we most often see it in a soliloquy. For instance, one can argue the “to be or not to be…” speech reveals nothing [it could maybe reveal a bit of character, but maybe not] yet it is still moving, interesting and perhaps beautiful/poetic.

So maybe can I argue for a fifth purpose in the language of dialogue? If it’s not humour, subtext, character or story but some how beautiful and moving, maybe that’s allowed as no matter how bad life gets there’s always room for something beautiful.

Danny Stack said...

Thanks Ben.

I had a link to your blog but then I lost it when I changed the template but it's back up there now.

I think there's room for dialogue that's interesting/moving/amusing/engaging/poetic but doesn't do anything for character or story. But I think it's important to not get carried away with that notion, as I read so many scripts that waffle on with no purpose or point to what the characters are saying, thus ruining the potential enjoyment of the story.

But absolutely, if a character has something interesting to say that's off-story, let them say it.

Anonymous said...

Hi all.

I have been wondering where on earth or internet can I find a idiot sheet of handy expression of dialogue: eg "Ah, Oi, err, humm etc
I have had real problems (apart from looking in books)finding a good example of common expressions which would be a start...nothing worst than an expression spelt wrong in a script!

simon: email: byron6_uk@yahoo.co.uk

Anonymous said...

Sorry to break the flow but can anyone tell me where I/we can get access to free script reading/readers? I have readers via Northern Film + Media but more views/opnions would be better.

Thanks in advance.

Danny Stack said...

You'd have to be more specific, Anon. There are some who will gladly read for free just for the experience but you'd have to put a shout out on Shooting People, or even this blog if you like, to say who you are (company or whatever) and what you need. You might get a response that way. I don't think there's any place that gives you 'access to free script readers', unless you want to upload your scripts for free review on sites like Trigger Street or Zoetrope.

JAIMIE said...

Been thinking a lot about dialogue recently as i think it's weak point of mine but been working hard on improving it. In my most recent script I realised at one point that one of my characters had started to come to life in the sense that at times I wasn't writing words for him to speak but he suddenly said the words for me to write. This produced some of the best and unexpected lines in my script.