Anyone can write what we call dialogue, but writing good dialogue is no easy task. It takes time and practice to develop a quality ear. But it sits at the heart of screenwriting.
In a screenplay, dialogue is conversation, but conversation in everyday life is definitely not dialogue. Real talk is boring. If you read a transcription of a real conversation - even if the subject matter is controversial and full of passionate opinions - it’s completely absurd. This real talk is disjointed, long winded, redundant, unfocused, and often just too much information.
Alfred Hitchcock put is this way when explaining a good story was “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Dialogue is no different.
So in writing good dialogue, it’s never about capturing truth or reality: how we really talk. Realistic dialogue only gives a flavor of reality. It is artful deception. That isn’t to say that the screenwriter doesn’t write dialogue that reads like real speech. Not at all. It must feel and sound believable, but the irony is that believable dialogue doesn’t exist in real talk.
Good screenplay dialogue has a rhythm, and therefore is easily spoken. It’s compressed and moves rapidly, like a ball in a ping-pong match. The verbal exchanges move back and forth between characters, shifting power from one side to the other, until somebody scores the point. Screenplay dialogue must be full of conflict, lots of it. And rarely do characters say exactly what they mean: dialogue is all about subtext.
Done properly, good dialogue will move your story forward and flesh out your characters, and in this section, you will learn to use some simple rules and tips as well as avoid common pitfalls to give a believable and distinct voice to your great characters.
Subtext is what a character is really saying between the lines, and it is revealed by a character's actions and reactions.
The beginning screenwriter often uses dialogue as a crutch, thinking it is his best friend. Sure, most characters do have dialogue, but remember that action reveals character. SHOW us the emotion, the situation, the tension, etc. Don’t tell it.
In their book The Tools of Screenwriting, David Howard and Edward Mabley illustrate ten things the screenwriter must accomplish when writing dialogue:
Citizen Kane (1941) - Charles Foster Kane's speech to executives on the Inquirer’s success.
Kane (Orson Welles): "Six years ago, I looked at a picture of the world's greatest newspaper men. I felt like a kid in front of a candy store. Well, tonight, six years later, I got my candy -- all of it. Welcome, gentlemen, to the Inquirer! Make up an extra copy of that picture and send it to the Chronicle, will you please? It will make you all happy to learn that our circulation this morning was the greatest in New York, 684,000."
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