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How Dialogue Fits Into Your Scene Work

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by Naomi in dialogue, screenwriting

You may have noticed that it’s very hard to have a conversation about dialogue specifically, without talking about scenes in general.

Dialogue is an important component of scene work, but if we’re not looking at dialogue within the context of the scene then we’re really missing out on a lot of what that dialogue is accomplishing.

As I mentioned last week: dialogue doesn’t “tell” the story. Meaning, if the dialogue is doing the heavy lifting to convey what’s going on then the script probably feels boring to the reader. Storytelling is less about “telling” via dialogue, and more about showing via dramatization, with dialogue being a component of that dramatization.

As a component of a larger dramatization, we get a lot of information from dialogue that isn’t in the text of the dialogue itself. If you want to write rich, affecting screenplays, it’ll help to get familiar with how the components work and what they can do so you can make the most of them.

In case you’re curious – we’re going to talk about subtext next week. But this week let’s get the lay of the land by talking about the purpose of a scene, and how dialogue contributes to accomplishing that purpose.

What is the purpose of a scene?

Each scene in a screenplay is meant to move the narrative forward. The point of any given scene moves the character along the story arc, and that usually looks like moving either closer to or further from his goal in some way. That movement might be through information provided to the character or to the audience or both, or it might be a plot event that either helps the character make progress or creates a setback.

When I’m working with students and clients, it’s often really helpful to think about the difference between what happens in a scene, and how it happens. In our favorite well-written movies it’s easy to be dazzled by how a scene plays out and forget to analyze the specifics of what the scene is doing. Well-written scenes are often so elegant with their plot and character development that if we’re not careful we might just overlook all that they’re accomplishing. A really good scene conveys all this plot and character information and when we’re watching for entertainment purposes we don’t consciously notice it because we’re so caught up in enjoying the ride.

As students of story, let’s make sure we look again with an analytical eye. A scene has a purpose in relation to the plot. The function of dialogue is to help the scene accomplish that purpose.

How does dialogue help accomplish a scene’s purpose?

So a scene has a “what” that it’s trying to accomplish (e.g. boy meets girl) and it has a “how” that it accomplishes it (e.g. they run into each other on the sidewalk and he spills orange juice all over her, making an embarrassing and possibly tabloid-worthy scene because she is the world’s biggest movie star).

Dramatization is the “how” that accomplishes the “what,” and dialogue is a component of dramatization.

Dialogue helps tell the story but it doesn’t tell us the story. In the Notting Hill scene I alluded to above, William doesn’t tell Anna he thinks she’s gorgeous and that he would like to date her even though he’s intimidated by her stardom.

No. He fumbles and stammers in awe of her. But because he’s a decent, courteous person (that’s central to his characterization), he also invites her to his nearby flat where she can clean up away from public view.

So how William speaks to Anna conveys what is happening. It helps dramatize the story and accomplish the purpose of this scene: he’s awkward and in awe of her, but he’s nice enough and perhaps so utterly “normal” as to be intriguing to her, the famous movie star, that she lowers her defenses, which starts the relationship ball rolling.

Dialogue in a scene helps convey what’s going on:

  • within a character,
  • between characters, and
  • in the plot.

Dialogue conveys information we need to know, but the challenge is doing it in a way that the dialogue itself isn’t directly stating it to the audience. When dialogue tells us the story directly, it sounds like unearned dialogue, on-the-nose dialogue, and info dumps.

Instead, we want dialogue that helps fulfill the point of the scene by dramatizing the information being offered.

(The real meaning of “show, don’t tell”.)

Case study: scenes and dialogue in Leave No Trace

Let’s take a look at the first 5 or so pages of Leave No Trace, written by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini. (Note: this is a shooting script, so just ignore the scene numbers.)

Here’s what the movie is about, from IMDB: “A father and his thirteen-year-old daughter are living an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland, Oregon when a small mistake derails their lives forever.”

In the pages linked above, we can see how each scene moves the plot through information or event. Since we’re looking at the first few pages of the script you might notice that the story goal hasn’t yet been created, so what the characters are pursuing here is more big-picture and stakes-focused. And these pages are doing a lot of establishing the characters, their situation, and the world of the story.

What kinds of things do we learn in these scenes? Here are a few you might notice:

  • We learn they’re not quite the norm. (Father and daughter collect scrap metal together, he quizzes her on the anatomy of a dead animal, they live in the forest – hiding there and they don’t want to be found.)
  • Dad doesn’t trust the outside world and has something going on internally that keeps him from sleeping easily at night.
  • Dad’s teaching daughter what she needs to know to live like this, away from society. (She “feathers the tinder sticks,” weeds the garden, forages, and finds edible mushrooms.)
  • Dad cares for daughter (“Need a second layer?”) and they have a special bond; they’re two against the world.

The dialogue in each scene helps accomplish its point. Specifically, if we’re paying attention to how the dialogue shows us what’s going on…

  • within a character,
  • between characters, and
  • in the plot,

… then we might notice how Will’s dialogue on page 2: “Someone probably hit him with their car. He came too close to town,” reveals his point of view on the world and his mistrust for it.

Or how his dialogue on page 3: “Need a second layer?” and his reaction to Tom’s “I don’t speak dog” conveys different facets of his care and affection for his daughter.

Or how the dialogue between them on page 5:

… conveys that, as much as he would like to, Dad might not have all the answers. And daughter Tom may already be starting to subconsciously realize it but also seems like she doesn’t want to make him feel bad. (This dynamic is essentially the core of the story, by the way.)

Make dialogue a piece of the big picture

When you’re examining whether dialogue is working or not, it’s important to take into account the bigger purpose it’s serving. Yes, there are plenty of surface tricks to tweak the presentation (which we’ll discuss soon). But if we don’t look beyond that, then we’re missing the point.

You can strengthen your scenes by thinking first about what each one is meant to convey, and then thinking about how dialogue can help accomplish that purpose. And remember that more dialogue isn’t always better – sometimes silence is powerful, or a special language like clicking and bird calls might convey what we need to know about a relationship.

I’ll be back next week to talk about subtext (is it what you think it is, really?) and some specific tips on how to avoid on-the-nose dialogue. That was the most-requested topic when I mentioned dialogue a few weeks ago and I can’t wait to get into it.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe