A Good Dialogue (Part 2)

Diction is the main component of dialogue, the building blocks if you will. But what are you building?

Lego Fail

(Seriously. What is that?) In part two of my post on dialogue, I’m going to cover some of dialogue’s broader structural challenges.

Originality

Your characters should all sound unique. In part, this is to separate them from the panoply of movie characters who ever have and ever will exist. But it’s also to give your own characters depth and clarity. I can’t tell you the number of scenes I’ve had to re-read because the characters all sound the same, and I couldn’t follow the dialogue. (Wait. Who said what, now?)

It’s not difficult to identify a line of dialogue from Yoda or R2-D2, but the majority of your characters will likely be human. They may even have similar socio-economic backgrounds and come from the same regions. So how do you make them sound different?

Even close friends don’t have the same parents. They don’t have the same siblings. They may have different tastes in food, music, or movies. They may be different ethnicities. All of these differences will affect their diction, which will in turn define them and shape their character. In Stranger Things, Finn, as the main character “everyman,” has the least noteworthy diction. Dustin has a lisp and is more likely to offer some comic relief, Lucas is notably more cautious than his friends, and El’s vocabulary is decidedly limited. The friends have similar backgrounds, ages and interests, but they are different characters with different diction. No matter how similar your characters are, they should always sound at least a little bit different.

Diction is the primary tool that will define your character’s voice. An easy exercise is to pick some common phrase (a reprimand, thank you, greeting, etc.) and figure out how each of your character’s would say it differently. (“Hello.” “Hi.” “Howdy.” “‘Sup.” “Good morning.” “Shut up. Where’s the coffee?”)

Realism

This one’s a little harder. Hamlet does not sound like anyone you’d meet on the street today, but hopefully he sounds like someone from sixteenth century England (or what someone from sixteenth century England thought someone from thirteenth century Denmark sounded like). You get some leeway for writing dialogue for characters from different times or places, but remember my admonition about accents. Don’t overdo it!

Assuming you’re writing a contemporary script or at least want contemporary audiences to understand it, you’ll want to capture contemporary diction. You can wander around with a tape recorder like Carol Solomon from In a World…, but you’ll find that “real” dialogue often doesn’t sound that good.

Another option is to pick a person, whether that’s a fictional character or an actual human that you know, and base your character’s diction on them. Would your mother actually say that? Would Michael Corleone? It’s a reasonable tool, but it, too, involves a lot of research and a strong understanding of your subject’s use of language.

The best thing you can do is read your dialogue out loud. Better yet, have some friends read it. Even better, have some actors read it. Does it flow? Does it make sense? Is it engaging? Does it sound authentic to the characters? If not, you’ve got some more work to do. And you may want to consider adding…

Motivation

Bad dialogue is often described as “wooden.” It lacks emotion (which may be the actor’s fault), but it also lacks motivation (which is completely the writer’s fault). Lines like “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine,” are boring! They don’t progress the plot. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls these lines “hi how are you I’m fine” lines. It really emphasizes the total waste of space and time that they are.

In this penultimate example of bad dialogue from The Room, Johnny buys some flowers (first 17 seconds).

That’s it. He doesn’t grow as a character. He doesn’t overcome any adversity. He doesn’t discover that his mild-mannered local florist is actually a sociopath. Despite the fact that the flower shop owner claims “You’re my favorite customer,” she doesn’t recognize him when he comes in. It doesn’t even feel like they’re speaking to each other. Now, perhaps in some brilliant way we mere mortals can’t fully understand, Tommy Wisseau is commenting on the superficiality and meaninglessness of relationships in a service economy where our existential aloneness is defined by endless “friendly” conversation. More likely, it’s just a terribly written scene.

The great Pulitzer Prize winning and Tony nominated writer David Mamet said, “People only speak to get something.” What does Johnny want from the florist? What does the florist want from Johnny? Sadly the answer seems to just be flowers. If Johnny fails to get flowers here, he can probably just go somewhere else. And the florist doesn’t seem to be hurting for business. Her bizarre dialogue attempts to impart some meaning into the scene, but ends up just confusing things. “You’re my favorite customer.” Who says that? Is she in love with him? Is she a serial killer? Is there some subplot I missed? The dialogue (in fact the scene as a whole) really isn’t necessary to the plot of the movie. The scene could have started at the end of the transaction (Johnny has just purchased flowers) or better yet, just showed Johnny arriving at the next location with flowers. The audience would assume he has purchased them. The dialogue doesn’t achieve anything.

Reaction

A dialogue involves two (or more) people. It’s important that characters react (verbally) to each other. When Darth Vader says, “I am your father,” how does Luke react? “That’s great, but can you give me a hand?” (Ha!) No! He says, “No. No, that’s not true. It’s impossible.” He’s in denial. It’s an organic, realistic reaction to learning that the man who just tried to kill you and may be committing war crimes across the galaxy is also your father. It is stage one on the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. It feels real because it’s based in reality.

Monologues don’t make good dialogue. When are the other characters supposed to respond to someone who won’t shut their gob? Will they be writing strongly worded letters of complaint after the screening? When one character says something that merits a response, it’s important that your characters respond to each other (visually, if not verbally) to keep the characters and audience engaged.

Exposition

While you want to avoid all of that pesky pontification, at some point, you’ve got to explain why Luke is shooting proton torpedoes down an exhaust chute or how John Hammond managed to clone dinosaurs. But how do you do that without boring your audience to tears?

First, minimize it! If it takes ten pages to explain the backstory, your plot is too complex! Even if you’ve created some mind-blowing fantasy world, you’re going to have to ground it in our reality. After all, you want humans (not hobbits) to watch it. Keep the critical fantasy elements and make everything else as realistic as possible. Then you have less explaining to do. (This is one of the reasons I think Game of Thrones is so successful. While Westeros is fake, the medieval detail feels wonderfully authentic. And true fans will know many of the plots and characters are based on actual history.)

Second, find a way to explain things organically. There’s the classic briefing room scene.

Jarhead Briefing

Then there’s the neophyte character: the intern, new recruit, or padawan. This guy always needs things explained to them! But it’s a natural part of the story. Whether your story takes place in a scifi universe or just a technical field like undersea exploration, the neophyte character serves as a go-between for the audience. They get to ask all of the stupid questions the audience cannot.

If all else fails, put the Pope in the pool. I explain that in more detail here. Remember, film is a visual medium. If you absolutely can’t get away from a page of exposition, give us something interesting to look at: floor charts, a power point, a time lapse of corn growing. Set your scene someplace visually interesting. Ever wonder why detectives are always interviewing people in strip clubs? It’s not for the buffet.

Subtext

You may have heard of dialogue being “on the nose.” This happens when characters say exactly what they’re thinking. In reality, people rarely say what they’re thinking. They measure their words carefully to cater to their audience and evoke a particular response. People also exhibit a lot of denial and avoidance. If they didn’t, we would have no need for self-help books and alcoholics anonymous.

To give a more concrete example, spouses in failing marriages dn’t argue about the fact that their marriages are failing. They argue about finances, the children, and taking the trash out because their marriage is failing. The nagging wife doesn’t say, “Trash night’s Tuesday, right?” because she can’t remember when the trash goes out. She says it to mean, “You forgot to take the trash out again. I caught you asleep at the wheel. You are a failure, and I could totally marry someone better.” That’s not what she says, but that’s what she means. Well written and acted dialogue will have the motivation behind the line. That’s subtext.

In this scene from Game of Thrones, Littlefinger sweetens up his nephew, the Lord of the Vale, with a gift.

Then he proceeds to threaten Lord Royce. But he never actually threatens Lord Royce. Nor does Lord Royce threaten him back, merely saying that a hypothetical man may “cross swords” with another hypothetical man. Yet everyone in the scene knows what’s really happening. The soldiers all reach for their swords and the Lord of the Vale suggests his favorite form of execution: the “moon door.” Littlefinger could have said, “You betrayed me, Lord Royce. Lord of the Vale, should we execute him?” But he doesn’t. That wouldn’t have any subtext, and it wouldn’t make a very good scene.

The movie Hot Rod hilariously flips subtext on it’s head, making Rod Kimble abundantly aware of his inner feelings, shortcomings and completely ridiculous goals. “One day I’ll punch you right in the face, and then you’ll respect me.” Great comedy, terrible subtext.

Craft

Ultimately, crafting great dialogue is an artistic endeavor. It involves a lot of listening, careful word choice, research, and revision. But it’s not a mystery. These last two posts are intended to give you the tools necessary to break down and analyze dialogue. Now if you hear something that is “wooden” or “on the nose,” you know what that means, and, more importantly, you can craft it into something beautiful.

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A Good Dialogue (Part 1)

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.

Hamlet_2592704c

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

 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.

Word Choice

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.

Idiom

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!”

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

 Accents certainly define a person’s background. They can be a great source of comedy or drama.

french knight“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.

So what?

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

eric idle

Whatever’s right for their own particular idiom.

P.S. I case you missed that last reference, here’s the whole clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s 7:30 in.