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Why is Dialogue So Hard To Get Right?

 

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by Naomi in screenwriting
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“Dialogue needs work.”

It’s one of the most maddening notes a screenwriter can get, right?

How can any of us not know how to write dialogue well? Most of us spend at least part of our days talking. Shouldn’t writing dialogue for our characters come naturally?

Maybe. But movie dialogue is, of course, different than real life conversation. It’s tighter, sharper, more focused, more entertaining. All this and — at its best — sounds believable. Almost like real life. But better.

Some writers attempt to hit that target by packing their dialogue with jokes, or snappy banter, or dramatic speeches. And all of this may be great writing – but if dialogue isn’t also serving its purpose, none of the rest of it matters.

Believe it or not, snappy dialogue that’s only snappy isn’t effective. Without a purpose underpinning the dialogue, no matter how you dress it up your reader and audience will still get bored.

What is the purpose of dialogue?

Effective dialogue is designed and orchestrated to accomplish several things simultaneously. As Craig Mazin says:

“When people talk about “tight” writing, this is what they mean. Everything’s beautifully interlaced. The elements are affecting each other and looping back around. … Dialogue doesn’t have to be sparkling in and of itself. It just has to be properly chosen in order to achieve the harmony you need in your purposeful scene.”

So the first step in knowing how to write dialogue, is knowing what it must do.

Dialogue – good dialogue – serves a story in three main areas:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Relationships

Could that third one be part of #2? Sure. But we have a lot to cover, so let’s treat it separately. Today we’ll talk about how dialogue serves plot and character.
Next week we’ll talk about how dialogue serves relationships.

Dialogue serves the plot

Each scene in a movie has a purpose, and the dialogue helps accomplish that purpose. A scene must change something otherwise it has no purpose in the story.

Craig Mazin again:

“At least one of these states — an internal state, an interpersonal state, an external state — at least one of them must be different at the end of my scene. Or this scene is not a scene. And it doesn’t belong in my movie.”

So each scene in some way causes a change in knowledge or circumstance. The dialogue in the scene contributes to that change. When we’re talking about plot, that change primarily comes either through exposition, or through progress in relation to the story goal.

Exposition

Robert McKee defines exposition this way:

“Exposition is a term of art that names the fictional facts of setting, history, and character that readers and audiences need to absorb at some point so they can follow the story and involve themselves in its outcome. At some point, every vital fictional fact must find its way into the story, timed to arrive at the most effective moment, loaded to deliver a critical insight.”

So exposition is necessary to help the reader or audience understand the story. Where writers often get into trouble is delivering information inelegantly. Too much at a time, for instance, aka the “info dump”. Or when information is dropped into a scene without feeling motivated.

Progress

How a scene moves the protagonist closer to or further from his or her story goal is most often thought of as the point of a scene. Characters take action to achieve their goals – that’s what moves the plot.

But we’ve been told to “show don’t tell” so often that writers forget that dialogue is a form of action too.

McKee again:

“When a character speaks, she acts verbally as opposed to physically, and each of her through-speech actions moves the scene she’s in from one beat to the next, while at the same time, it dynamically propels her closer to (positive) or further from (negative) the satisfaction of her core desire.”

Characters say things strategically to accomplish their goals. In that way, dialogue is action.

Dialogue serves character

Every line of dialogue is an expression of character. What characters say and how they say it reveals what kind of people they are, how they think and feel, their internal worlds.

As Eric Heisserer says:

“We have a responsibility as writers to know what the characters are feeling AND how they both hide and express it in the same moment. … In our writing, what our characters say is not the truth, but it’s a map to the truth.”

Good dialogue also helps make each character distinct from the others.

So identifying the defining the characteristics that will be expressed is key. Here’s a hack to help you tackle this part of the process:

Write up a profile for each character. I don’t mean one of those long, boring, backstory-driven bios. I’m talking a 3×5 notecard that lists the character’s defining traits, whether that’s their worldview, two or three specific adjectives to describe their personality, a quote that represents their main strategy for surviving in life, their most valued virtue or vice; whatever handful of things make up the core of that character.

Then, have that notecard in front of you as you re-write the dialogue for each character, taking them one at a time.

When you write dialogue for more than one character at a time (what we do for at least the first several passes on a scene, right?), you’re thinking about the dialogue as a conversation, and as a way to convey what you need to in the scene. But if you take one character’s sides at a time, you can focus on how they’re saying what they’re saying.

You wouldn’t be able to use this approach too early in the scene-writing process. But at this point we’re talking about working on a script that’s basically all there, and just needs to be given a boost, taken to the next level.


Have you ever found yourself in one of those conversations – you know the kind, less dialogue and more monologue, maybe at a party – where you’re just nodding politely while thinking to yourself – “Why are you telling me this?!

Don’t be that guy at the party. Dialogue needs purpose.

Why is dialogue so hard to get right? Because it’s tasked with doing so many things at once. Effective dialogue results from the purpose of the scene, while simultaneously feeling as though it results from the character speaking it.

Taking the time to think about what your dialogue needs to accomplish will help you write dialogue that’s effective – that gives your audience purpose, meaning, and entertainment.

>> And come back next week to talk about relationships. Your characters’ relationships, that is.

 

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

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