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.