Most screenwriting books and teachers put their effort into story and structure. And rightly so. Story is the heart of the beast. But what if you have a fantastic story and terrible, wooden dialogue? My next two posts aim to give you some tools for understanding and crafting great dialogue. To start, I’m tackling the most important and least understood facet of dialogue: diction.
What is diction?
Simply explained, diction is how someone speaks. Like a fingerprint, everyone has unique diction. Here are three obvious examples.
“Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was thirty-five years ago…”
“I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”
“I’m not saying I invented the turtleneck, but I was the first person to realize its potential as a tactical garment. The tactical turtleneck! The… tactleneck.”
The answers are, of course, the always rambling and frequently incoherent 45th President of the United States, Shakespeare (specifically Hamlet), and Sterling Archer.
You’re never going to confuse Trump for Shakespeare or Shakespeare for Archer, but what are the components of diction? How do you give your characters unique, memorable voices? How do you complete a logical syllogism? Read on.
Syntax is the structure of sentences. Long? Short? Proper? Inquisitive? Rambling? Take our fearless (clueless?) leader, for example. He generally speaks in rambling, vocabulary-challenged, run-on sentences. The first part of his quote has no subject (Who went to Wharton? Who was a good student?), is repetitive (Went to Wharton…went there, went there), and quickly jumps into a non-sequitur (Are we talking about Wharton or nuclear power?).
Hamlet, too, is a bit long-winded, but he does form a complete thought with subjects, verbs, objects, and the whole English 101 tool-kit. He’s speaking about one thing the whole time: his depression (buck up emo boy!) and how the entire world seems like a “foul and pestilent” collection of vapors.
Archer is a bit long winded, too, but only has one compound sentence. Then he has a sentence fragment, and for the final punch line, one word. His entire quotation is a setup for one joke. He also starts from a defensive position (“I’m not saying I invented the turtleneck”)—a place Archer frequently finds himself—and turns his misfortune into an opportunity—“The… tackleneck.”
An English teacher would probably yell at you if you wrote anything like any of these “characters.” That’s not the point. A character’s syntax doesn’t need to be “proper” or “correct,” but it does need to be consistent. As you analyze the sentence structure of real people or well-written characters, you’ll pick up on the unique things that create their individual syntax.
Now syntax can get tricky. When people are excited or angry, for example, they tend to speak in shorter sentences. A character giving a formal presentation will sound different than the same character drinking with her girlfriends at happy hour. But these differences show the depth of the character and your writing ability. Your job, as a writer, is to be sure that your character can encompass both voices.
Trump, of course, has “the best words.” An English professor may have an “exhaustive vocabulary.” A foreigner may have, “How do you say, limited talking options?” The point is, their word choice defines their character. Their background, level of education, job (think technical lingo), and age all affect word choice.
In the quotes I provided, Hamlet and Archer both make up words. Hamlet, who uses the phrases “pestilent congregation” and “ sterile promontory” struggles to describe the heavens, inventing the rather grand, but superfluous adjective “majestical.” Archer, however, invents a cheeky portmanteau for tactical and turtleneck: “tacktleneck.” Reeking of consumerism and brand identity, it’s in a decidedly different category than “majestical,” but totally in line with Archer’s character.
Word choice is pretty simple. Pull out the ol’ thesaurus to find just the right word for the occasion. And don’t limit yourself to nouns! Stephen King hates adverbs. Want a character to sound like Stephen King? Never give them an adverb. Use action verbs instead of “is.” “Is” is the most boring verb in English, yet most people will say, “I am running late.” Shankar, an aloof supervisor in my script Out of Time, would say, “I will not arrive on time.” He also refuses to contract words. “Can’t” won’t ever come out of his mouth.
Idioms are the specific phrases and constructions unique to your character. What are the things that your character would say that no one else would even think of?
In the narrowest sense, this can include catchphrases: “Did I do that?” “Phrasing!” “Winter is coming.” “Wubba lubba dub dub!”
But idioms are not restricted to specific phrases. The Brain, from Pinky and the Brain, had a handful of classic catchphrases, notably, “The same thing we do every night, Pinky, try to take over the world,” and “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Pinky’s responses, however, varied wildly. “I think so, Brain, but Zero Mostel times anything will still give you Zero Mostel.” “I think so, Brain, but wouldn’t anything lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?” “I think so, Brain, but then it would be Snow White and the Seven Samurai…” Although the specifics change, the shtick, taken as a whole, is part of Pinky and the Brain’s idiom.
In a broader sense, idioms are about style. Woody Allen and the late Don Rickles are both great comics with decidedly different styles. Woody Allen’s humor is always self deprecating. “Most of the time I don’t have much fun. The rest of the time I don’t have any fun at all.” Don Rickles, however, was always going after the other guy. “Who picks your clothes – Stevie Wonder?”
Trump is always talking about himself. Hamlet is full of angst and woe. He’s educated and playful, but one can never be sure if he’s serious. (One of the biggest questions about Hamlet to this day is whether he was actually crazy or merely pretending to be crazy.) Archer is also educated and playful. But he’s been educated in tactical weaponry not Greek mythology. His playfulness, which leans heavily on the sexual side, lacks Hamlet’s archaic language and moral ponderings.
Your characters, too, must present themselves in a particular way. Samwell Tarly, from Game of Thrones, can barely stutter through introducing himself. Danaerys Targaryen, however, has no issue going through that whole “Mother of Dragons…Breaker of Chains…” spiel. Darth Vader does not tell jokes. Kimmy Schmidt from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt will never let you down. Everybody has their own style, their own linguistic toolbox to fall on that defines them as a person.
Accents certainly define a person’s background. They can be a great source of comedy or drama.
“I’m French. Why do you think I have this outrageous accent?”
If you remember Jaguar’s 2015 Superbowl commercial, “All the villains are played by Brits. Maybe [they] just sound right.” And Frank Underwood from House of Cards has that down home, aw shucks, drawl that creeps into his voice whenever he’s speaking to the press. But it’s noticeably absent when he turns the screws on an uncooperative congressman. He drops the accent to chilling effect.
Don’t overdo accents in your writing! In Angela’s Ashes, the world’s most depressingly hilarious memoir, Frank McCourt perfects writing the accent. You’re not Frank McCourt. Don’t be a fecking eejit and overdo it. Your script may benefit from a “lobstah” or “verevolf” here or there, but frankly it’s difficult and annoying “readin’ lang passages ay text in some a bampot brogue.” Furthermore, word choices (howdy vs. hello, car park vs. parking lot, danke vs. thank you) will suggest an accent without getting overbearing.
Diction is more than a party trick. Smalls instigates the climax of The Sandlot (and reconfirms his general cluelessness) by mistaking Babe Ruth for “Some lady named Ruth.” Lieutenant MacDonald is killed in The Great Escape when he says “Thank you” in English to the Gestapo agent. Although only specifically addressed at the end, The Artist, a silent film, was about George Valentin’s inability to overcome his accent. And, of course, My Fair Lady is an entire musical about diction.
Diction may not play a critical part in your story, but it will help you craft unique, memorable characters. Character is defined by action, but choosing to speak is an action that cannot be undone. So when you give dialogue to your characters, pull out the old thesaurus and choose your words carefully… or wisely… or discreetly… or
Whatever’s right for their own particular idiom.
P.S. In case you missed that last reference, here’s the whole clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s 6:20 in.