The Startup
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The Startup

Speak Your Piece: Crafting Dialogue for Beginning Screenwriters

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Tony: Ayanna, may I have your phone number? Ayanna: Sure, Tony. It’s (484) 555–5555. Sara: Do you want my phone number, too, Tony? Tony: No, Sara, I only want Ayanna’s phone number. (Author’s note: Don’t write your dialogue like this.)

Ah, dialogue. A stirring monologue or witty quip from even a mediocre film can embed itself as a cultural touchstone for years. And yet, beginning screenwriters often seem lost when it comes to dialogue, too often relying on filler lines and saying the “quiet part” (also known as subtext) out loud. Luckily, there are a few tried-and-true methods for livening up boring or frivolous dialogue.

Show, Don’t Tell

Thanks to my freshman English teacher, I’m pretty sure this piece of advice is permanently tattooed somewhere in the folds of my brain. While she surely meant for this wisdom to aid my fledgling argumentation skills in essays about Othello, in my current life I apply it most often and most obviously when screenwriting or analyzing other writers’ scripts.

All screenwriters need to recognize why “show-don’t-tell” is paramount in their chosen medium. To start, screenwriting is not a standalone art form, at least not in the way one might consider a poem or a novel to be. Screenwriting is a means of temporarily translating a story into a practical, accessible format, so that a number of people (crew, actors, well-moneyed producers) can work collaboratively to bring the story to visual life. In other words, a script is more of a map than a landscape painting. It’s not exactly beautiful, but it’s certainly interesting and helpful when the proper details are filled in.

A simple means of pushing yourself toward more visual storytelling is to reduce your reliance on dialogue to explicate your script’s narrative or plot. Too often beginning screenwriters feel the need to have their characters self-narrate and overexplain every action or choice they undertake. If you find yourself writing long exchanges of dialogue between characters (especially with few breaks for action or visual elements), it’s very possible that you are narrating a scene that should just be shown on screen. Go give that ‘delete’ key a workout.

Dialect

Some time ago, a script was submitted to me about a rocky marriage during the American Civil War. Predictably and reasonably, the script also included quite a few current & former slave characters. Now, in an ideal world, I shouldn’t have to say this, but because of this script (and many, many others like it), I feel I must: if you are basing your non-white or minority characters’ dialect on movies and television from a bygone era, you are almost certainly making a huge mistake. To do so is to elide (and even support) the long history of white-washing, ethnocentrism, minstrelsy, and prejudice in American cinema. Put away your copy of Gone with the Wind, and make your characters more than a paper-thin representation of old racial cliches. In essence, if you’re going to write about a real culture, learn something about it first from primary sources.

Additionally, it’s exceedingly obvious when a screenwriter is just making up a dialect as they go. I recently witnessed an attempt at a Barbadian patois that would make Rihanna herself snap all 9 of her Grammy awards in half. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the farthest thing from a dialect expert, but the human brain is quick to pick up on rhythms and patterns — two qualities that will surely be lacking if you’ve cobbled together a mishmash of slang and strange verb tenses. Again, referring to primary sources can assist you here.

A deep understanding of “real” dialects will also help those of you who write in the fantasy and/or science fiction genres. The same basic guidelines apply, even when you’re writing about the mythic empire of Calzonia on the planet PZ-1A. Your ragtag band of Calzonian freedom fighters should not all sound like your Uncle Ted, the insurance salesman from Ohio.

Differentiation

In the most exemplary scripts I’ve read, it’s often easy to tell which character is speaking even without looking at the character’s name. Less developed scripts often feature a cast of characters whose personalities can best be represented by a stack of swatch cards ranging from beige to taupe. One hundred pages of sameness will never be enough to differentiate between a gaggle of humdrum Jerrys, Jims, and Josephs.

Dialogue can be a powerful vehicle for character development. Think about the people closest to you in your real life. You’ve perhaps got a chatterbox friend, who shares their ideas loudly and often. Maybe you have a relative who keeps to themselves, but when they speak, people listen as if entranced. You yourself likely use slang or a specific dialect that helps you communicate quickly and effectively with people around you; maybe you even code-switch in your day-to-day life, shifting from casual to professional syntax and diction when the situation demands it.

Similarly, when a character speaks, they’re not just sharing information about the world; they’re sharing information about themselves. Beginning screenwriters (heck, all screenwriters) should examine their dialogue closely, taking note of when and where they manage to express something deeper about a character.

Imagine a character named Annalise: she’s a fresh college grad working a new job whose every other word is ‘please’ or ‘sorry.’ She even goes out of her way to be back-breakingly polite to her rude co-worker. When she finally can express herself without apologizing for her very existence — perhaps she shuts down the transgressive co-worker, sans sorry — there we have it: character development. In fact, it would be a true unicorn of a screenplay that has an imbalance in the quality of character and dialogue. An improvement in one area almost always has a positive impact on the other.

So there you have it: delete the excess expository dialogue, authenticate your use of dialect and slang, and give each of your characters a unique, identifiable voice. If you need a place to start, begin by reading your script out loud with a companion or two. An informal ‘table read’ might feel intimidating at first, but for screenplays, it’s a nonnegotiable part of the process.

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