Magic Bullet: Dialogue

Today we will continue the Magic Bullet series (the first being an article on action lines) with another aspect of a script that – if you can master it – will give you a studio worthy piece of material.

2 dimensional character

Only your dialogue can flesh this guy out into a three-dimensional character

As we all know, the name of the game is to write a script so good that anyone who reads it says “this guy/gal’s got it!” Many times, the dialogue in a script can be the one thing that makes people want to champion your work. The best example being Juno, which got accepted into the Sundance Screenwriter’s program and later turned into a movie based on the strength (and arguably the originality) of the dialogue.

The action lines were serviceable, and the story was fine, but the dialogue – whoa. When the Sundance list hit agent and manager’s inboxes and Juno first started getting passed around, you would have thought no one in Hollywood had ever read great dialogue until Diablo Cody slapped them upside the head with it. Looking back, it was absolutely ridiculous the hyperbole being thrown around – but at the end of the day, her voice was so strong and the dialogue so interesting, and yes, full of subtext, that dialogue alone landed her a big career.

So what are the different aspects you need to integrate into your dialogue to make it pop? First, let’s touch on some basics:

1. Too Much Dialogue

A script is not a play – your goal is NOT to have dialogue that looks like a bunch of monologues. Try to keep 95% of your dialogue to 3 lines or less on the page. Clever dialogue is found in quick back and forth exchanges, not prose-y speeches. Think about one of the best screenwriters known for his dialogue – Aaron Sorkin. Have you ever watched a scene from The West Wing? Here’s an example. Now, it’s not perfect by any stretch, but it illustrates the point that if you keep it snappy, it keeps it moving. And a fast moving script, like a fast moving story, is entertaining and – sometimes – it can move so fast that you don’t have time to realize whether it’s great quality or not. You just know you’re entertained. So, use it to your advantage. Keep the dialogue short, quick back and forths, and you’ll reveal plot and character just as quickly.

sports night

Another great show gone before it was done bein' awesome

Now, a side point I want to make about this, and what Sorkin does so well in one of my other favorite shows, Sports Night, is he uses quick back and forths to set up a brilliant monologue. You don’t get a whole bunch of monologues during the course of one show, but you get one that really sticks you in the gut. And THAT is how you use a monologue like a pro. Here is one of my favorite scenes in the entire series. It’s not perfect, and the first season of Sports Night was just getting some footing and the laugh track was horrible, but it should illustrate my point:

2. Lack of Subtext

We’ve all heard the word. We know what it means. And yet it is the most common reason for bad dialogue. The absolute number one mark of an amateur is dialogue that lacks subtext. Subtext is when a character says something and we (the reader or audience) can tell or know that there is something behind the words of what is being said. For example, let’s take a protagonist we know is hurting from a break up, and he runs into his ex on the street:

EX-GIRLFRIEND

The weather’s pretty nice today.

PROTAGONIST

Seems kind of cold to me.

Now, it’s not the world’s best writing. But you get my example. We, the reader, know there’s something behind the protagonist’s words. He’s making a dig at his ex, and referencing their break-up – all while on the surface talking about the weather. That’s subtext.

When it comes to dialogue and subtext, never ever have a character come out and say what he is thinking or feeling. Brilliant characters have us discover/uncover what’s going on inside their heads by their actions, or how they dance around important topics when they’re talking – not how they address them head on.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about in a script by Allan Loeb called Only Living Boy in New York:

The Only Living Boys in New York

The Only Living Boys in New York

Now, say what you will about Loeb’s produced movies, but his scripts are excellent reads – and this script, along with Things We Lost in the Fire were low concept indie scripts that got him big writing assignments and truly launched his career. This script in particular has long been on lists of “the best unproduced scripts,” and has been in development for awhile. Now, onto what you should notice from the script…

First, it’s obvious that Thomas is hopelessly and totally in love with Mimi from the get go, and if you read the entire story the art gallery scene not only does a fantastic job setting up the whole movie, but it sets up the theme brilliantly as well.  Notice how the characters dance around the elephant in the room for as long as possible – and then BAM! Thomas is forced to bring the elephant into play (that they slept together). Even when Thomas is laying out on the table, he’s not really laying it out on the table. We know he’s hopelessly and deeply in love with her – but does he ever say it? NO. And we can tell from Mimi’s opening line and subsequent dialogue that she knows he’s hopelessly in love with her – but she never addresses it head on. She uses the critique of the art piece they are looking at to circumvent actually having to SAY what she’s really thinking. This scene is full of all kinds of other subtext, but you get the drift.

3. Characters All Sounding the Same

Now, common culprit that keeps writers from making their work studio quality material is characters that sound exactly alike. Remember, each character in your script is a living, breathing, thinking person with different wants, needs, and point of view from the others.

A good exercise to fleshing out characters is to figure out what each character’s super objective is. It sounds like a hokey term, but in essence you figure out what a character truly wants in life (not necessarily in the story). These are the big things, the ones in our very core – to love, to be loved, to be powerful, to be respected, etc.

Once you figure that out, realize that this is JUST to determine their core character – how they approach every situation and character they encounter during the course of your story. It’s the foundation, and while it’s certainly the most important layer, there are more layers: the style, and the details.

A character’s style is not about their fashion, but about how, knowing their core, they approach life and other people. Things like humor, vanity, selfishness, selflessness, etc. You can think of a character’s style as a collection of their coping and defense mechanisms. How they get by on their day to day life.

The original magic bullet

Oh c'mon. You were thinkin' it when you saw the headline. I'm just obliging.

The details are how, knowing their core and their style, what little actions they take frequently. For instance, if he drinks a lot, or is always fixing his hair or keeps a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve – even though he never actually smokes.  Each person has their own unique tics – and as they say the devil is in the details. Well, the character is right there with El Diablo (call back!) as well.

So to finish up what you need to notice about the Only Living Boy in New York script, between the character’s roundabout way of parsing out information, their distinct voices from each other (stemming from different wants), and the dialogue feeding into the theme – each of those individually are subtext, but the fact that all three are present clues the reader in that the writer is a professional.

4. Word Pictures / Visuals Within the Dialogue

As you know, great action lines have visuals that pop and succinct word pictures. Things that when we read it, we can quickly and easily see it in our minds. It’s the difference between:

A. The notebook gets passed over the table

B. The bulging notebook slides across the table

When talking about action lines, it’s obvious why and how to integrate word pictures. But what about dialogue?

Well, obviously if a character is speaking ABOUT something, if they can say it in a visual fashion, the audience will be able to quick and easier see (and depending on how good you are) and feel it in their own heads. Here is another example from Sports Night (I’m a Sports Night machine, I know).

Notice how he describes how his brother was a genius (‘the kit he built…”), notice “you deserved better in my hands” (which is a nice use of a metaphorical word picture), notice how we can see in our heads what must have happened that fateful night he ran a red light. THIS is visual dialogue.

5. Leaving the Obvious Out

I’m not going to get too deep into this, as it’s pretty self explanatory and most of you are already doing this well. Basically, another aspect of great dialogue is about leaving the obvious out. This does go hand in hand with subtext, but it comes at it from a different angle. On its most basic level, it’s when we as an audience are expecting a character to say something… and then they dont. Maybe they give a look, or say something else, or don’t say anything at all, but we get it anyway. An easy example would be if we’re in a romantic scene, and we are expecting the Protagonist to finally(!) say “I love you.” But instead, he looks deep in her (or his) eyes and:

PROTAGONIST

I want you to know-

LOVE INTEREST

I know. You too.

They kiss deeply.

So, that’s leaving the obvious out. An extension of that is (drum roll….)

6. Changing the Obvious Up

This one is pretty self explanatory, but it’s about taking the audience expectations and turning them on it’s head. For instance, if a female protagonist were to ask a male protagonist for his hand in marriage. While it’s the 21st century, this hasn’t been done too often in movies or TV yet, so it’s unexpected.

Lastly, we have one of Sorkin’s (and mine) favorites:

7. Call Backs

When a character references something that was said earlier, either by themselves or another character, it’s a call back. Sorkin’s work is full of this, as is Mamet’s and others. It’s usually used as a way to inject humor, but it can definitely be used for dramatic effect as well. In the Sports Night clip earlier, Dana said “You’re ruining my show” when she walked into Dan’s office, and then again when she left. That’s a call back.

Now, here’s a script that features call backs, changing the obvious up, leaving the obvious out, and a whole host of other things we’ve highlighted in this article. Ready, here we go:

Now, this scene is about Ben going home with his girlfriend to meet her family. It’s the type of scene we’ve seen many times before, usually played for comedy. Except these pages takes the Meet the Parents set up and turns it into a subtle, beautiful, realistic situation. My favorite moment in these pages is when Ben does a call back to Olivia’s “I did the math.” That moment is brilliant because not only is it a nice call back for the audience, but the fact that Ben uses it makes this little girl he’s trying to befriend totally go all-in to Ben’s camp. The part where we realize the father is going to accept him when he gives him the glove his father gave him leaves out the obvious – he doesn’t actually tell Ben he likes him or that he is glad he’s his daughter’s boyfriend. He doesn’t have to because of the ACTION he took. Instead, he just says “welcome to the family” – but that line has so much more meaning BECAUSE he didnt come out and praise Ben. How this scene plays out really speaks to “changing the obvious” as we’ve seen this set up before so many times – played for broad comedy – that it’s refreshing to see it played softly.

I’m not saying these are perfect pages (it’s from a rough draft of one of my favorite writer’s passion projects), but they do a great job illustrating the last three points I wanted to make.

As always, feel free to email me your questions at michael@scriptawish.com

Look out for an article I wrote for the print edition of Script magazine in the March/April 2011 issue – it’s got more information you might find useful.

Good luck and happy writing!

Today’s inspiration for a mega four quadrant movie.

18 thoughts on “Magic Bullet: Dialogue

  1. Halcyon Serenade

    @Sherri:
    Seems someone has the hang of subtext.

    Thank you, Michael, for these wonderful articles. While I’m just toying around with scripting, advice like this is always very helpful, both for imoroving on what I could do better and reinforcing what I’m doing well.
    Thanks again!

  2. Jackie Devereaux

    Where have you been all my life? Thanks for such terrific advice. I feel like I’m learning critical screenwriting techniques from you in just these few articles. Wow! And thanks again. I’m your newest, biggest fan!

  3. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris Post author

    @Ed

    I agree completely that his back and forth pacing cuts down on the individuality of each character. Especially when taken on a scene by scene basis this is glaring. But I think if you read his scripts, and re-watch entire episodes rather than just a scenes, his version of characterization and individuality is very subtle and much more below the surface than most – but it’s there. It’s more about the little touches that add up to one character being different than the next, rather than an obvious “this person talks like this”, and “that person talks like that” characterization that’s present in other writer’s scripts.

    And here again, it also depends on what show or movie you’re talking about, as some are better than others.

    What Sorkin does really well is he takes the PACE of how people talk as a variable for characterization and throws it out the window. He forces you to glean the little details to understand character.

    Now, whether that’s good writing or lazy writing, intentional or unintentional, I dont know.

    Great comment, Ed! It certainly brings up something about his writing that I don’t often think about.

  4. Ed Brand

    Aaron Sorkin is an unrivaled master of dialogue that pops. But he achieves his famous back-and-forth pacing at the expense of his characters’ individuality. The end result is an entire cast that, effectively, speaks in one voice.

  5. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    Barry,
    Thank you very much for your comment! You are right, I should have added that call backs are most effective when used sparingly – for the exact reasons you talk about. You are right on the money with that observation!

  6. Barry J. Moskowitz

    Top-of-the-day, Michael! Your advice is straight-to-the-point and beautifully exemplified. In regard to writers who use call backs effectively, may I add a cautionary point-of-view. Mamet’s call backs, for example, tend to fall into predictable patterns of both references and staccato-like rhythms. That predictability – although essential to Mamet’s style – is too predictable, lulling the intelligent into “enough already!” Moreover, his screenplays are replete with “words, words, words.” Conversely, as you have both stated and implied, the professional screenwriter should “Try to keep 95% of your dialogue to three lines or less . . . .” In essence, then, movies are the realm of implication and subtlety as achieved through such devices as CLOSE-UPS, LAP DISSOLVE[-S], juxtaposition and the musical score which are integrated with: minimal dialogue, ironic wit, subtext and call backs – a collective complement to the aural experience of images and sounds. The theater is, in contrast, the world of pervasive dialogue, exaggerated gestures and histrionic expressions. To wit, the Bard instructs us how “to write a script so good”: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” [Hamlet, Act II, Scene II] Here’s to you, Michael Ferris – a man whose soul has wit!! Barry

  7. Kevin Oleary

    This is great advice. I’m currently going back through my script and eliminating stray dialogue and punching up the action lines.

    Thanks for the help.

  8. Trisha Hopkins

    Dear Michael,
    AT LONG LAST!!! Someone who likes dialogue – oh happy,happy day!
    As an aspiring screenwriter I am sick and tired of listening to really dull dialogue that is frankly not in the slightest bit entertaining.
    When you hear dialogue from writers like Joe Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Ernest Lehmann, the Epsteins(to name but a few) you realize how their dialogue crackles – it’s a joy to read on the page and hear on the screen – I often wonder if contemporary writers take the time to listen to any of the old movies.
    Writers in TV certainly seem to be on the ball in respect of great dialogue. You only have to watch an episode of 30 Rock, Will & Grace, Frazier – each one a fresh slice of bliss. And dare I say it …. the Gilmore Girls? I never ever thought that I would like this kind of show but the standard of writing is excellent.
    Sorry? Enough of my rant – thank you for your article Michael,I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    Trish
    (11,000 miles away!)

  9. Matt MacRae

    I want to thank you for showing links to examples of well written scripts and dialogue. This interactive aspect of the online version of your publication- fills a void that greatly benifits the aspiring screenwriter. As the cost of printing six pages of a screenplay to illustrate a point, is not cost effective. To the detriment of the intended porpose,a well written screenplay.

  10. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    Mannina,
    I truly appreciate your feedback. I confess that I wrote the article solely with the angle of writing for Hollywood studios, so I apologize for any cultural differences that don’t apply. I would like to add that while it may be snappy on the page, it doesn’t necessarily need to translate to snappy on screen. Really the name of the game is to make it a quick read, in order to make it easier and more likely that an industry (Hollywood) person will read and finish the whole script. As well, direct dialogue doesn’t necessarily dictate that there isn’t subtext.

    Sherri,
    Ha! Indeed, I am. 🙂

  11. Manina Lassen

    As a European writer I feel there are real cultural differences here.
    Those fast dialogues one gets to see more and more especially in US TV shows, get very often on peoples’ nerves on this side of the Atlantic.
    And dubbing, a common practice in many countries here, makes it worse and hard to digest.
    And with reference to the underlying “reality of life”: I remember how hard it was for me when I lived in New York, that most people seemed to do small talk all the time. All the meaning was hidden in subtext, and it took me a while to understand the rules of this game. I guess in many European countries we tend to be more direct, and our movies reflect this.
    Ohmygod! Perhaps I’ll never be able to write for Hollywood!

  12. Scott Xavier

    Thanks Michael
    as a writer 6000 miles away, your excellent article this crosses all boundaries. Perhaps you can also suggest how to stop ‘genius’ producers adding dialogue into your script?
    cheers
    Scott

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