Today, we will be looking at Dialogue.
One of the most fascinating things I fell in love with when writing my stories was the endless variety of conveying thoughts and ideas through the words of a character. The English language is truly beautiful and we can thank all the different cultures that contributed to it, including the Normans, Saxons and Vikings.
I love words. My characters would come out with lines like “to whom it may concern, rest assured ye gentlemen that in my capacity as warlord within the lands hither, I’d do my utmost in this most grave hour. Beyond the shires, I will indeed invoke the spirits of my ancestors, and thus ensure that before the sun sets, victory shall lie within our grasp!” Say what? Well, this story was based within a mythical, magical, medieval realm. All that “King Arthur” stuff is really groovy. In fact I read a great deal of books with dialogue like that. Then I looked at the dialogue in screenplays. Let’s just say it’s different. Now, don’t get me wrong; there’ll still be historical-based films where you’d get a smattering of that kind of dialogue; perhaps more in the past than you would get today, but even on a contemporary level, a character might come up with, “when I saw you across the room, I felt we were meant to be together”. Now that’s not too bad, but honestly, how many people would utter those words….sober? More to the point, if a guy said that, how many women would believe him?
There are two main differences I learned about dialogue. 1. Brevity.
If we take difference number 1, what could take five or six or more words in a book’s character dialogue, should take less in a script. Remember, the idea is to convey more action or visual aspects of a story and leave dialogue where possible to a minimum.
If we take number 2, we have to make it sound like ordinary, everyday conversation.
So if we pick up the first example of our warrior promising to help win a battle, a modern translation might look and sound like this. “For those interested, know this. As war leader, I will do my best and will also pray for victory today” See how much more realistic that sounds, even with the historical-type context of the story. It is therefore shorter, and more realistic. A more streetwise modern take on it, especially if the leader in question is a gang/drug leader would sound something like, “listen ya’ll. I’m the badass motherf….. round here, and their ass is ours!” Too strong? Maybe. Realistic? Hell yes. We don’t even need to make prayers.
If we pick up on our next example, when the guy falls for a girl, it could come across like this, “as soon as I saw you I knew it!” Those would be his words. Short and sweet, inviting the girl to respond, most likely with, “knew what?” And in the script, the character would simply smile a sweet smile and nod gently, as if to say, “yes you’re the one.” Though he won’t actually say it. See how much more powerful that is? More realistic.
Ultimately, how I learned to write good dialogue was to listen very carefully to what people say everyday, minus the swearing hopefully – unless called for in the context of character and situation – (and I’m assuming we are writing a contemporary story here) and then substitute that for my “writers’ dialogue” which tends to flow and be all flowery. Also when actions can convey dialogue instead, use it.
So here’s another example, just made up. In a story, the character approaches people on the street and says “I’m Captain Kramer of the special police branch, investigating the disappearance of Mrs Wood, a neighbour here.” In the script this becomes, the character simply flashed his badge and said, “Captain Kramer. Have you seen Mrs Wood?” See? Short, sweet and realistic.
Here is one more made up example. In the story, a girl is comforting a well-known street beggar who has lost his beloved dog. As a story the dialogue might be like this. “Listen Joe, I heard from Mac that your dog died. I’m really sorry; I know how much he meant to you. All those years together…and it was so sudden. I just can’t convey my sympathy enough…my thoughts are with you…anything I can do for you?” But in my script, I would simply write, the girl silently strolled towards him, wiping off a single tear and sat beside him. She reached out, held him by the hand, gazing at the photo of the dog. “So sad”. They sat together in silence for a long while, then she gave him a hug, and passed a card to him. “Sorry Joe, gotta go, call me anytime.” See the difference?
The other thing I learned to do was to emphasize the difference in characters by their dialogue. While I had always done this, it was brought sharply home to me while learning to write dialogue for the screen. Take this story-type example.
“Listen Jack, I told you that if you don’t study hard, you’ll end up like me – in a deadend job. I’ve told you dozens and dozens of times. You don’t get many opportunities in life, and this one is superb. Now you have three weeks until the finals, what are you going to do about it? Well? Do you really want to end up doing what I do?” “But Paul, your work is all right. I don’t see anything wrong with it. I’m happy just doing this. We all get along. Your friends are my friends. After all, you managed all right, didn’t you?”
What does this interaction tell you about the characters?
Now try this.
“Listen Jack, I done tell ya, you gonna wind up like me if you don’t grab that bull by the horns. Ain’t no big deal doing this I can tell ya. Ya want something better, ya wanna look better, talk better. Exams coming up soon. Ya gonna go for it or what?” “But Paul, your work is all right. I don’t see anything wrong with it. I’m happy just doing this. We all get along. Your friends are my friends. After all, you managed all right, didn’t you?”
Now what does this interaction tell you about the characters? Different backgrounds, perhaps? Now try this below.
1 “Now I done tell ya, I don’t like this food” 2 “I told you, I don’t like this food”
Who was speaking the first line, Jack or Paul? See the difference dialogue and the type of dialogue does for a character? Here’s another exercise.
- “I’d like to withdraw some money please, preferably in notes – maybe just a few coins”
- “I wanna take out some cash now. “
- “Hey bro, need to get out some dosh”
- “Listen asshold, I want money”
Tell me, who is the most educated one. Number 1, 2, 3 or 4? Who is the most impatient? And who sounds like a bank robber? Who sounds like a student? Again dialogue can tell us so much about a character, and also their mood.
It is understanding the importance of brevity, realism and reading the hidden characterisations within the words, types of words used and manner in which they are used.
That was lesson 12.
- My lesson 12
- Understanding the key differences between dialogue in book form and dialogue in scripts
- Using dialogue to convey the nature or class of character, their mood, and their differences in terms of speech patterns.In part 13 we shall consider my first film, The Aftermath, continuing the story of my creative film journey.