Screenplay dialogue is not like any other form of dialogue.
It is distinct from the literary dialogue of novels as there is no on-going narrator to interpret and condense the speeches and reveal the inner thoughts and memories of the characters.
There is a huge difference in words that are meant to be read off the page and words that are to be spoken.
Screenplay dialogue is written to be spoken.
Your characters engage in a conflict and dialogue is used to increase their struggle. It should be able to characterize, provide background, and forward the plot while remaining lively and full of tension.
Aaron Sorkin’s style of alternate rat-a-tat, walk-and-talk interchanges with florid speech making works for the same reason that Mamet’s own machine gun approach, with sentences that are incomplete or stepped on by the next speaker, works. It is the same reason that David Milch can get away with his very stylized and distinctive sentence structure where the order of the words seem completely out of whack.
The Pulse of Dialogue
There is a pulse to their language, a rhythmic meter in their dialogue. It is present in their short back and forth banter as well as their extended monologues.
This rhythmic pulse makes the dialogue easy to speak and hear. The fluid sound of the words can be clearly understood by a listener, because in addition to the tones and pitches, rhythmic clues help convey the message.
This kind of dialogue is so much easier to speak because it recognizes a natural rhythm and there are no unintentional tongue twisters.
Actors are aware of this pulse in the dialogue and seek it out. Many will take their scripts and mark the beats of their dialogue so as to capture its rhythm.
On a very fundamental level, the writing of speech in verse is not that different than writing dialogue for a screenplay.
This rhythmic pulse or meter is what is called iambic meter and is often used in prose.
The iambic meter is the use of a soft stressed syllable followed by a sharp stressed syllable, such as daDUM. A good example of an everyday word that acts as an iambic foot is toDAY.
Da DUM is the iambic meter at its most basic. There is something about it that pleases us. We align with it. The sound placates or stirs us in a very primal way.
An interesting bit of trivia is that most profane phrases satisfy this rhythm. Pick your favorite (because I’m not going to) and try it out.
Why is this?
daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM
It is the rhythm of a heartbeat? Is that not why we find comfort in it? Is that not why it comes to us so naturally. The heartbeat was man’s very first musical instrument.
When I find my dialogue becoming bumpy and unbalanced, I will use a metronome to find the beat. You will find metronome apps on both IPad and IPhone and Android.
It really isn’t as complicated as it may sound because it is a rhythm that is so natural and appealing to us that you know when it’s working, and if you are really honest with yourself, you will also know when it’s not.
In addition to the use of iambic meter the dialogue of Sorkin, Mamet and Milch use paired construction in many of their lines.
These are balanced sentences where one phrase is paired with another or even several others.
“We’re organ donors to the rich. The Red Sox took our kidneys and the Yankees took our heart.”
“Second prize’s a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”
“Mr. Hickok will lie between two brothers. One he likely killed, the other he killed for certain. And he’s been killed now, in turn.”
This form of balance or pairing can turn a basic unassuming line of dialogue and turn it into a classic. For example what sounds better?
“Make My Day!” or “Go ahead… make my day!”
“James Bond” or “Bond… James Bond.”
Do you now recognize the incredible power of Parallelism and Iambic Meter in creating screenplay dialogue? The combination is magical.
Here are a few of the more famous screenplay lines. Notice how Parallelism is used in each of them.
• “Make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
• “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody instead of a bum which is what I am.”
• “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
• “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
• “May the force be with you.”
• “E.T. phone home.”
• “If you build it, he will come”.
• “Say hello to my little friend.”
• “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
• “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
• “I feel the need, the need for speed.”
• “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
Spoken word poet Shane Koyczan does all of this with such amazing skill that it is breathtaking I would never expect any of you (or me) to rise to this level, but Shane truly reveals the beauty of spoken word.
Yes, it is poetry but listen carefully. His words and phrases, though profound, could easily be found within any conversation or discussion, yet what he does with those words and phrases is magical.
In the last column, I presented my logline for this project using my Kinetic Log Line Template and I told you that before sending it out, I wanted to get coverage. I also list the three things I look for in coverage.
I also mentioned that I was going to approach the marketing of this script a little differently than what is considered the ‘safe’ approach.
Adding committed attachments to the script before selling it can be tricky and most would suggest foolhardy, unless the attachment includes Jennifer Lawrence or someone of equal marketability.
In Sealed with a Kiss I had a loose attachment of the two female leads. I was managing as well at the time and these were two clients I had always envisioned in the roles.
Then the distributors got involved. I was told that one of the two leads would have to go to the distributor’s wife. What made this hopelessly complicated is that she was also a friend of mine, but she was absolutely wrong for either lead role. My answer to the problem was to offer her another role; rewrite it so that it was more expansive. That was acceptable.
On the next film, Now and Forever, I pretty much got the cast I wanted, but not the director. Again the distributor requested that his boyfriend appear in the film, and again, I am busily expanding a nothing role into something substantial.
What did I learn from these experiences? I learned that no matter how exacting the casting of the film appears to be, it isn’t. Producers and Distributors will bitch and demand a certain level of actor in the film (usually someone that the budget could never afford anyway), but the bottom-line is, there is wiggle room here.
The truth is that it is all about the script. That is what is moving this production forward. So if I know what I’m doing and am familiar with talent, which I am, I want to make my attachments before going into the market place.
Let’s be realistic, I am not talking about attaching my best friend or someone I have a crush on. The actors I want are accomplished and seasoned, have a level of exposure and most importantly are right for the roles.
Last week, I talked with the agent of one of the actors and the conversation went well. I will send out the script to her right after I have a review of the coverage reports. As long as there are no major problems, she will pass it on to the actor, with a first right of refusal agreement from me.
Gee Mr. McGregor, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. (Maggie Muggins)
I will be conducting an all day workshop on The Visual Mindscape of the Screenplay at The Writer’s Store on Saturday Dec. 14th. For more information and to registered at the reduced rate by Dec.6th, please go to The Writers Store site.
Get 5 Tips to Make Your Dialogue Writing Pop plus our FREE Download Dialogue Writing & Advice from the Pros
- 5 Tips to Make Your Dialogue Writing Pop
- What is a Story?: How to Write Dialogue That’s Meaningful
- Specs & The City: Show Don’t Tell and ‘Up’
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