In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Last time while we were explaining what a good scene is all about, we touched on dialogue as well. Here let’s concentrate on dialogue alone.
As you may already know, a dialogue is the last element you add to your screenplay. You prepare the story, characters, step outline and treatment for a long time. In all of the steps you work on, while you deal with structure and story/character development, your characters still don’t know “how to speak.” Ideally, you know what your scenes are all about when you add some dialogue to them.
This just tells us that dialogue is an extension of the main scene event, an extension of the main conflict and action – just another way of expression.
But, even though dialogue comes last in the process of creation, a lot of times it is the first tool of communicating with your audience. In the beginning, was the word. The dialogue says a lot about your characters and your story, about your style, the energy of your film and your ideas, your philosophy and the way you perceive the world and want the audience to perceive it. Great dialogue is memorable and it carries a code to what your film is all about.
It should be truthful to your characters, their age and education, to a situation, location and historical time frame, it should be appropriate to the relationship (a mother and daughter probably speak differently than a brother and sister, for example, or lovers…). It is also very important to say that even though dialogue should resemble real-life speech, it is not a real-life speech. As James Scott Bell, writes in his book How to write dazzling dialogue:
“Dialogue is a stylized speech for which the author through the characters has a purpose.”
Also, dialogue very much depends on genre. We can believe that characters in a drama speak a lot (because they need to express their emotions), but we would never believe characters that would speak a lot in a western, for example.
Dramaturgy of dialogue
In order for authors to write purposeful dialogues, their characters have to have a purpose, while delivering that dialogue. Dialogue is an extension of action in films. If characters say something, they want to achieve something with what they say, whether they are aware of it or not. No words are empty words in films.
But this is just the first layer. Let’s say someone wants their lover to propose to them. But they don’t want to say, “please propose to me” – why? Humans don’t function that way. They want to want what they want on their own – they want to be free and to have a choice. That’s why communication and relationships are not so easy. We all have different choices, different needs, wounds, points of view, but at the same time, we can’t live alone. Because relationships are not easy, but they are also beautiful and necessary and everything that matters, we make stories about how to negotiate those relationships.
The person who wants her lover to propose on her is probably afraid to say what she wants– she might think that she will lose her lover by being so direct, but she is also afraid that he might not love her enough. That creates a conflict inside of her that distorts what she will say.
She might say that their friends are getting married, that they are even pregnant. Her lover might reply that they are boring. So – what is the next step then? Maybe she will say that she is thinking about going abroad alone for some time, with the expectation that her lover might be afraid of losing her. But instead, he says – that’s good, you need that, go.
Characters are often not able to see or speak the truth and even though they are confronted with it, they would rather avoid it, either on purpose or not.
They are also projecting their emotions more times than not, (for example, when someone is afraid of losing his/her job so he or she suggest to someone else to be quiet and not to speak his mind). There are a lot of misunderstandings. People can talk about different things even if they are actually talking about the same thing.
Because communication between our own mind, heart and body is not straightforward – the way we communicate with others is also not straightforward.
And as a result, dialogue usually behaves like a cat around hot porridge; it is a mixture of what characters want, what they are afraid of, and what they feel (that also can be a result of what they have experienced in the past a.k.a. their back story).
Good dialogue is always somewhere in between. Good writers create a space somewhere in the middle, where the audience can feel the essence of that character and the essence is usually the combination of all of the above mentioned.
Good dialogue shows the inner and outer conflict at the same time. Good dialogue draws from subtext.
But also, when the time is right – characters should be able to speak their truth. That usually happens towards the last act turning point when the gap is closing, and with truth, characters are able to end the conflict.
Three things you need to know before your characters enter a scene:
Or you can MAKE AN INTERVIEW WITH ALL OF YOUR CHARACTERS, ONE BY ONE, BEFORE THEY ENTER THE SCENE.
Imagine they are in front of the door they have to open. Ask him/her:
What do you want now? (Your plan, agenda, purpose? What do you want to happen in this scene – what will make you satisfied?)
What’s the problem? (Why can’t you just have it? Who wants the opposite?
What are you afraid of?)
What do you feel? (Why? What are you going to do about it?)
KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT THEY WANT OR WISH FOR AND THEIR FEAR AND THEIR REAL FEELINGS.
CREATE IN BETWEEN THEIR WISH AND THEIR FEAR – INVENT THE NEW SPACE.
WORKSHOP YOUR DIALOGUE.
Working Title: She builds houses
What’s your name and how old are you?
My name is Elene and I am 16. I work at the local store.
Ok Elene, why are you in front of that door?
I want to go to college. I was working hard without ever telling my father about it and now I am going to tell him that I’ve saved some money, and I want him to let me go and help me with some more money. I want to learn to build houses.
Do you think he is going to say yes?
My father wants me to stay at home because he needs help with the land and after my brother died, he has counted on me. I think he will think I am a huge disappointment because I am not grateful for what he has done for me.
What has he done for you?
Four summers ago, a fire burnt the barn and both my brother and I were inside… and my father could not save both of us – he decided to save me…
–I love my father, I loved my brother… but I need to do what my heart is telling me is right to do. I want to help my father rebuild the barn, but he doesn’t understand that.
What do you feel?
I feel anxious, angry, afraid and most of all guilty. Sometimes my father gets really angry and he starts doing crazy things.
After my brother died he started drinking more heavily.
And where is your mother?
My mother never says a thing about anything, sometimes she just sits there and with her broken eyes, she just stares into empty space. I guess she’s afraid, lost… or she loved my brother more… he was her first child… sometimes she says that she never really wanted a girl.
Why is that?
She didn’t want a girl to struggle in this world as she struggled without ever saying what she wants. And my father will probably say that school is not for girls.
Ok… And what’s your plan?
To go no matter what.
Now, let’s see what we can do about this random story – what kind of a situation can we have to serve this story? What dialogue would you invent for this scene? While knowing all that we know, maybe even we heard some of it, when Elene was speaking with her friend who also works at the store. Now have in mind that the scene going to be much better if the characters say something entirely different than in the interview. And where is this difference coming from? From fear; Elene is afraid of speaking to her father while she was not afraid of speaking to someone she doesn’t have a close connection to.
For example, as soon as Elene enters the room, the father wants her to help him with something. While her mom is sitting silently in the corner, her father is trying to find some hidden bottle, he is standing on a step-ladder, but she wants to speak with him.
Elene: Would you listen to me?
Father says: Did you hide it from me? What else have you hidden?
And she says: I don’t want you to drink anymore.
Father says: I will do whatever I damn well please in my house.
Elene: The house is falling apart. And Mom is tired.
Father: Your mother is my concern.
She finally says: Why did you save me? Why?
Her mom silently from the corner of the room: I’ll give you some money.
Father: What money? ...You think I didn't want to leave?
He becomes angry. And at that point, he falls from the ladder…
For now, her dream is postponed… Let’s even say that she gives all of her money to save her father who is now in the hospital…
This scene can be longer, but you get the point.
Good dialogue is never really expected, it is the best if the character is surprised as well, with the situation and with what he or she says… (in comparison with what they planned to say) – but it is driven by emotions. The dialogue is driven by their fears and wishes.
To conclude, in order to write or analyze a good scene with good dialogue, you have to know (and feel) following elements:
Behind the scene – ‘Screenwriter’s job’
1. Meaning of the scene
2. Character’s wish/agenda
3. Conflict/problem/opposition forces/fear
4. Emotional reason/past or background story
5. Opening standpoint- closing standpoint: emotional change
6. Style (genre)
What we actually see and hear - ‘Character’s job’
1. Fractals: action vs. reaction