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Table of Contents

TALKING ABOUT DIALOGUE


FOUR WAYS TO WRITE
BAD DIALOGUE
BAD EXPOSITION
TWO LEVELS OF EXPOSITION
WHAT IS DIALOGUE?
I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN
FIRST HAND
LEVELS OF EXPERIENCE
REALISTIC DIALOGUE?
CONFUSION
SUBTEXT
WORDS AND PICTURES
FORTY DIALOGUE TIPS
1) DIALOGUE IS CHARACTER
2) ATTITUDE
3) BACKGROUND
4) SENTENCE STRUCTURE
5) FAVORITE WORDS
6) VOCABULARY
7) SEE & SAY RULE
8) DANCING AROUND THE SUBJECT
9) SAY THE OPPOSITE
10) EXPLODE CLICHES
11) GO FOR THE DETAIL
12) BE ZIPPY
13) BANTER
14) WORD COUNT
15) HOOK WORDS TO CONNECT DIALOGUE
16) ECHO LINES
17) NEXUS WORDS
18) BUMPER STICKER
19) INCONGRUOUS
20) WEIRD WORLD VIEW
21) REMOVE WORDS
22) SYMBOLIC DIALOGUE
23) NEVER HEARD THAT ONE
24) ANTI-DIALOGUE?
25) CONTRAST BETWEEN CHARACTERS
26) CONTRAST IN LOCATIONS
27) UNDERSTATEMENT
28) HUMOR
29) SHORTEST DISTANCE BETWEEN POINTS
30) STINGER IN THE TAIL
31) CONFLICT IN DIALOGUE
32) THREE LINE RULE
33) SPEECHES
34) INTERRUPTIONS
35) PREWRITING, WRITING, REWRITING
36) THE LIFE OF WRYLIES
37) ACCENTS
38) DOES IT PLAY?
39) MY FAVORITE CUSSWORD
40) THESE THREE
41) MOST IMPORTANT TIP:
NOTORIOUS
PSYCHO
YOU CAN COUNT ON ME
AWKWARD PAUSES
CONFLICT
SUBTEXT
SITUATIONS
MISUNDERSTANDINGS
LATE STARTS
BRINGING UP BANTER
BRINGING UP BABY
HIS GIRL FRIDAY
BONUS MATERIALS
JARGON AND SLANG
LAME CONFESSIONS
PROMPTER EXPOSITION
BUMPER STICKER DIALOGUE
ACTOR PROOFING YOUR DIALOGUE
LOOSENING UP
LATE START
VOICE OVER
MORE ON SUBTEXT
SUSPENSE? JUST ADD A WEAPON!
FOREIGN TONGUES
AFTERWARD
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
THE BLUE BOOK SERIES
SCRIPT SECRETS
BLUE BOOK #10
DIALOGUE SECRETS
by
William C. Martell
FIRST STRIKE PRODUCTIONS
DIALOGUE SECRETS
New Revised Edition
ISBN:
Copyright 2002, 2011 by William C. Martell
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
or by any means, electronic, mechanical, or telepathic, including photocopying, recording, or
any information and retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the Writer,
except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
First Strike Productions
11012 Ventura Blvd #103
Studio City, CA 91604
http://www.ScriptSecrets.Net
TALKING ABOUT DIALOGUE
What makes good dialogue? Why does some dialogue flow smoothly like an Olympic swimmer
crossing the finish line, while other dialogue sputters and coughs like my Uncle Bernie running to
catch a bus? Why are some lines memorable, and others instantly forgettable? Can writing good
dialogue be learned, or is it something you are born with? If we must be born writers to master
dialogue, what's the scoop on reincarnation? And how can I return as Steve Zaillian or the Coen
Brothers?
William Goldman says: "Dialogue is one of the *least* important parts of any script" in "Which
Lie Did I Tell?" - and he's right! Dialogue is the first thing that gets changed, the first thing that gets
cut, and the part of your script that probably won't make it to the screen. I've had scripts produced
where only one line of my dialogue ended up in the finished film... between rewrites and actors
improvising and directors and producers and everyone else involved in making a movie it's a miracle
any line makes it to the screen intact! When a waitress meets the screenwriter protagonist of In A
Lonely Place she says, I used to think that actors made up their own lines, and he replies, When
they get to be big stars, they usually do.
And a script with great dialogue and no story fails on a basic level.
But bad dialogue makes your characters look bad. If your characters look bad, your story will
look bad. Who wants to listen to a story about a boring character? Or one who talks in cliches? Or
one who talks like a robot or a moron? Dialogue taps directly into the character. Dialogue
*represents* the character. Even though dialogue may be the least important part of your screenplay,
it's what those silly studio readers will notice first. We want to make a great first impression, and
give them no reason to say "no" to our screenplay. We want our screenplays to have amazing
dialogue... even if none of it ever ends up on screen.
Also, bad dialogue is easy to spot. It may strain the brain of a studio reader to point out exactly
what's wrong with the structure of a script or a weak visual element or characters that do not ring
true, but pretty easy to find a "clunker line" and include it in their coverage. Whatever we do, let's not
make it EASY for them to reject our scripts!
Though some films have been made without a single line of dialogue ("The Thief" with Ray
Milland in 1952) and others have been successful with very little dialogue ("Road Warrior",
"Vertigo", large portions of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, etc.), the modern screenplay is
usually about a 50/50 split of dialogue and actions... We need both halves of our scripts to be
successful!
In previous Blue Books I have used one film as a primary example, but this one will use three
different films, each as an example of a different style. We'll look at "Notorious" for talking around
the subject, "Psycho" for intersecting monologue, Bringing Up Baby for banter and then look at
the Oscar nominee "You Can Count On Me", which can teach us a variety of lessons. We'll look at
ways to remove exposition, create emotion, use subtext, and write dialogue that fits a specific
character. This Blue Book began as an article called Ten Dialogue Tips, and was expanded to 21
Dialogue Tips for the paper version... Now for the Kindle & Nook versions, it's *40* Dialogue Tips
and some of the original sections have been expanded with new examples and some new material
was written plus some Script Tips have been updated and added as Bonus Material. I can't
reincarnate you into Steve Zaillian or the Coen Brothers, but I can give you the tools to use along with
your own creativity to improve your dialogue and make those characters of yours sound great on the
page.
Ready for our first lesson?
FOUR WAYS TO WRITE
Its 4am and I am dreaming that I am late for a meeting with Christopher Nolan and I havent
studied the material Im supposed to pitch him, and I am also suddenly naked, and when the traffic
clears my car falls off a cliff, when the phone rings. Wakes me up. Who the heck would be calling me
at this hour? My best friend who needs bail money? Some ex-girlfriend with paternity results? Elliot
from the Raindance Film Fest who has forgotten that Im in a different time zone? My mother making
sure Ive eaten my vegetables? That Moviefone Guy? How many words do you think it will take me
to figure out who it is? How many words does it take you to figure out who is on the phone? Different
people have different voices, and we easily recognize those voices even though they have been
broken down and turned into electrical impulses and beamed to a satellite or through a fiber-optic
cable and then reassembled by that mechanical device in your hand. Its a miracle!
But people read that darned script of mine and think that all of the characters sound the same. Why
is it easier to recognize a voice from the other side of the world, than the voices of people we
created?
Unless your name is David Mamet or Woody Allen, having all of your characters sound alike is a
serious problem in a screenplay. Though a talented actor may be able to take a generic line of
dialogue and make it sound distinctive, in order to get your dialogue into the mouths of those talented
actors, it needs to be filled with character while on the page. There are only two ways we can learn
about characters in a screenplay - from what they do and what they say - words and deeds. A reader
should be able to cover the character names and still know exactly who is speaking - just as you know
who is talking to you on the phone even though you can not see their face.
But how do you write dialogue like that?
There are four basic methods for creating dialogue, and you will use a combination of *all four*
for your screenplay. If you find yourself only using one or two of these basic methods, that may be the
problem with your dialogue. Everything in screenwriting and any other creative endeavor is both
right brain and left brain - both creativity and reasoning. If you only use the creative aspects of
your mind, there is no quality control. If you only use the reasoning part of your mind, the results may
be technically perfect but dull. We need to use both parts of the brain, and all four of the basic
dialogue creation methods.
CHARACTER CHANNELING: When people ask me how I write dialogue, I usually quip that I
hear these voices in my head and I have to type as fast as I can to keep up with them. That makes me
sound crazy, but that is how I write dialogue when I am in the zone - I am kind of channeling all of
the characters like some sort of a medium and I hear their voices in my head. To do this you have to
really know the characters all of the characters and what words and phrases they use and what
their reactions would be to some other character's dialogue. Talk about split personalities!
Sometimes I have three or four people talking in my head! I am just taking dictation.
NOTE CARDS: Every once in a while I say something clever... and I write it down quickly
before I forget it! Over the years I have collected a bunch of clever lines and good dialogue
exchanges and those zingers you had thought of long after the argument ended. All of these note cards
are in a file, so that I can take them out and flip through them if I get stumped on a line... or just to use
if I remember that good line later. On my Droid Gunner screenplay written in 9 days I had all of
the note cards on my desk and used a bunch of clever lines from them. When you are writing against
the clock it sometimes helps to have some clever lines pre-written. At the premiere of that film,
everyone thought the dialogue was fast and funny and clever... when only some of it was written on
the spot, and many of the best lines were things that I had been collecting over a few years on the
cards. When you come up with a great line or dialogue exchange write it down!
WORKING IT OUT: Probably the most common method of writing dialogue is just to work it
out while you are writing. If character A says this, what would character B say in response? There
are various degrees of working it out from just going line by line to doing some sort of dialogue
outline (what is the conversation about and how does it go off course and then come back to the
point?) to just roughing it out and then coming back to fix it later. This is the writing part of writing
the work. It isn't glamorous, isn't usually easy, but it's why what we do to get paid (hopefully). We
stare at the blank screen and curse the cursor and then press the keys and make the words appear.
Some days it is easier than others. Some days it is close to impossible. But one character says
something and then we try to figure how the other character would naturally respond and then try to
figure out the most interesting way for them to say that. This is shifting between right brain and left
brain, often with a bad clutch. Though there are times when it flows, most of the time it's going to be
some form of that four letter word we all hate: work. But we would rather do this than dig ditches or
perform brain surgery, so in that strange twisted way we enjoy the work.
REWRITING: No matter how the words get on the page, they are still in a rough draft form and
we will need to rewrite them. We may be channeling characters and one character manages to bleed
through into the other. We may come up with an amazingly clever line... and realize that character
would never say it. And if we just worked it out, the dialogue may need even more work. One of the
fallacies many new writers have is that professional writers are some form of perfection and they just
come up with golden dialogue without any work or any rewriting. Um, not true. Dialogue is often raw
in the first draft, and doesn't really come alive until the rewrite. Sure, there are some clever lines
there but much of the dialogue will still be indistinct and not the best it can be. Those pro writers
who have that amazing dialogue probably did a lot of rewriting to get it that way. Don't think your
dialogue has to be brilliant in your first draft, and don't believe that once you have written a first draft
your dialogue doesn't need any work.
The tools and techniques in this Blue Book are designed to be used in all four of these basic
methods. You may throw some of the techniques into your subconscious toolbox and put them to work
when channeling characters, you may also use the techniques to come up with some clever lines for
use later, or be rewriting a patch of dialogue and use some of the techniques to make perfunctory
dialogue into something interesting... and no matter what you do, all of these techniques will come
back when you are revising your dialogue. Rewriting is analytical *and* creative you look at some
line or exchange and figure out how it could work better, then use your creativity to improve it. It's
not unusual for me to be tweaking dialogue one more time before sending it off to a producer.
But before we can write our great dialogue, we need to get rid of the...
BAD DIALOGUE
What do you do if your script has bad dialogue? You've scolded it: "Bad dialogue! Bad!" You've
tried punishing it, but it still won't go on the paper. Is there obedience school for dialogue? A way to
train your dialogue to obey it's master?
Eliminating bad dialogue won't result in brilliant dialogue - no one will confuse your characters
for Oscar Wilde or Dorothy Parker - but at least you'll end up with characters engaged in more
realistic human conversation. Most of the dialogue in your screenplay probably won't be witty and
clever - it will be characters talking to each other the way real people do... real people in movies,
that is. We want our dialogue to make our characters seem real to the reader.
BAD EXPOSITION
The culprit behind most bad dialogue is exposition. Webster's Dictionary defines exposition as
"writing or speech that explains or gives information." That sounds like a good thing, right? Good
writing *should* be giving the reader information. But bad exposition is when the dialogue is
*obviously* giving information. It's a block of information trying to masquerade as dialogue, and the
reader can easily see behind the mask.
A character would never say: "My name is Max and I've become a loner since my wife and son
died. I don't trust anyone, but underneath that I still have traces of hope for humanity." Who says things
like that? I call that "spill the beans" dialogue - where a character gives some key piece of
information that they would never in their life tell anybody. It's pure exposition! In Road Warrior
(Mad Max 2) Max hardly says anything, let alone explaining who he is and why he acts this way.
The story and actions do most of the work, and the dialogue ends up the icing on the cake.
A movie is sound and picture and for the first 30-35 years there wasn't any sound at all! Though
most movies had title cards with *limited* dialogue, some films like The Last Laugh had no
dialogue at all. And that doesn't mean characters doing pantomime, it means a story that is told
through the natural actions of the characters. We examine this deeper in the Visual Storytelling Blue
Book, but one of the main culprits in bad dialogue is using the dialogue to do all of the heavy lifting
and ignoring the picture part of the moving picture. Though every screenplay is unique, the average
screenplay will be about an even split between dialogue and action (which is what you call that
element some people wrongly refer to as description or stage direction). And in that 50/50 split, those
little lines you may use to break up the dialogue (He sips his coffee) don't count! Those are basically
part of the dialogue, not an action. Action is not car chases and explosions, it's just people doing
something instead of standing there talking. Giving a hug, walking away from an argument, doing all
of those things we do every day that isn't flapping our lips. When the action isn't doing fair share of
the work, often bad exposition takes its place... and ruins everything!
There are at least five different kinds of bad exposition:
1) Characters who tell us what we've just seen. This is pure redundancy and violates the "See
& Say Rule" (coming soon). If we see it, we don't need to say it. If we see Joe fall in a mud puddle
before meeting Ken, there's no reason for Joe to tell Ken what happened. We were there - we saw it!
The scene should start *after* the explanation (or you may chose to never have Joe explain it to Ken
at all). If you show a crime, we don't need to hear witnesses recounting what happened at the trial...
unless what they say is different than what we saw. If we've seen it, there's no reason for anyone to
talk about it. The solution to this kind of exposition is just cut the talk and get into the scene *after*
they've explained the last scene.
2) Plot catch up, aka "retroactive plotting". When a character has to tell us critical information
to bring the audience up to speed on the story. This can never be good dialogue, because it's
*statements*. There is no conflict, no back-and-forth to it. It's *telling us* rather than *showing us*
this information. The reason for this is often that the story is being made up as you go along, no
outline, no plan. There isn't any ground work for what happens next, so it has to be explained in order
for it to make sense. The solution to this kind of exposition is to plan ahead. Set up the story elements
*before* they happen rather than *after* they happen. Get the cart *behind* the horse. Then there's no
reason for one character to explain to another how we got to this point - we experienced it! We were
there! We saw it happen! Remove explanations of "missing scenes" and replace them with the actual
scenes. Let us *experience* those scenes so that you don't have to tell us about them.
3) "Let me tell you what I'm thinking/feeling." This is the worst kind of exposition. When a
script doesn't set up scenes that *show* how a character feels by creating a dramatic situation, you
have to get that information out in dialogue. It's the kind of dialogue that never works because it's not
dialogue - it's a character talking about himself. Some sort of internal monologue made external like
a crazy person talking about themselves on the street. The solution for this kind of exposition is to
come up with a scene that *shows* the character's feelings, or create a decision scene that illustrates
what they are thinking, or create a dramatic situation between characters where the feelings are
natural reactions and never have to be explained or even mentioned. Don't have a character "spill the
beans"!
4) Look, mom, research! Sometimes your script may take place in a technical or scientific
world, and you want to dazzle the audience with your extensive research... So you have two experts
in nanotechnology talking to each other - two characters who *know* the information telling each
other about it! This doesn't make any sense. It's a variation on, "You know your brother, John, the one
who is two years younger than you are? The one that I had that crush on in the fifth grade?" Nobody
says stuff like that! If both characters already know the information, the only person you're character
is talking to is the audience... The characters aren't supposed to know that the audience is out there!
In "Adventures In The Screen Trade" William Goldman suggests creating a "new guy" character
for situations like this - but that doesn't always work. Even if you have someone who knows the
information explaining to someone who doesn't, the person listening isn't going to care about the
details and is going to be eager to get to the important part. So you are still going to trim out all of that
wonderful research!
In my HBO World Premiere Movie "Grid Runners" I had an expert in cloning explaining the
process to the billionaire funding his research. Though I had read a stack of books and magazine
articles on cloning, I didn't want to bore the audience. The billionaire ("new guy") cuts off the
scientist after half a sentence of jargon with "In English!", and the scientist *quickly* explains the
process in lay terms. One reason why I did all of that research is so I could understand the process
enough to "translate it" into language the audience could understand.
The *best* way to deal with this type of exposition is to show the technical stuff in action and get
rid of the dialogue explaining how it works. We love to see how things work, so instead of having
someone explain it why not show us? That doesn't mean it has to be a silent scene, you can have
dialogue in any scene; but but instead of talking about how something works why not just demonstrate
it? The audience doesn't care about all of the research you did, so all of those great details you
discovered may never end up in the screenplay... and that's okay. It's not a technical manual, it's a
*story*! I know that I have a tendency to show off my research sometimes, when it really doesn't
matter. By the way, demonstration is the key to world building in science fiction and fantasy and
even historical stories. Instead of having characters explain the world to each other, just show us how
that world works and save the dialogue for something fun.
Set up any technical information as early as possible to avoid the double whammy of Exposition
#4 & #2. If you set up something in one scene and then pay it off in the very next scene it will look
like you are making up the story as you go along and that everything is fabricated instead of real.
If your story requires too much explaining, you may need to rethink your subject matter - it may be
"too inside" or "too internal" to make a good film. You can't expect an audience to know specific
technical information, and a movie isn't the place to teach them. That doesn't mean you can't bring the
audience into an interesting world and show them around, just that you can't quiz them on it later. You
can't *expect* an audience to learn technical information from your movie - so cut any lectures you
may have written! Any lecture that will put a college student to sleep will probably have the same
effect on an audience.
5) Talking about it rather than doing it. Another thing leading to bad exposition is the lack of
conflict and drama. If you don't have the two characters in the scene that can create drama, you don't
really have a reason for characters to talk to each other... or a reason for the scene! Don't have Joe
and Tim talk about the big argument Joe had with Cathy, show us the argument! This is the easiest
kind of exposition to cure, yet I always see it in newbie's scripts. Don't have people talk about
something, have them do it! A major part of writing is making creative decisions deciding what you
are going to show and what remains in the off screen movie or on the cutting room floor. There may
be times when it is more dramatic to have two characters talk about a previous event than to show the
event but *usually* allowing the audience to experience the event is better than having two
characters yap about it. One of the side effects of having characters talk about things instead of do
them is that the screenplay is robbed of drama and excitement. If we have a choice between watching
Joe and Cathy have an argument or just hear about it later the *first hand* experience is going to be
more dramatic than any retelling will ever be... unless Morgan Freeman is doing a dramatic reading
version of the argument. Okay, that would just be kind of funny, so it still wouldn't be dramatic and
interesting.
Your Assignment: Search your current screenplay for these five types of bad exposition and
convert those scenes into actions or drama.
TWO LEVELS OF EXPOSITION
The first level of exposition is basic telling, not showing. The five types we've examined end up
being speeches instead of dialogue. One character *telling* something to another character, instead of
a conversation between two characters. Big steaming blocks of information dropped on the audience.
But there's another level of exposition that creeps up in actual dialogue and can turn it bad. You can
have two characters having a heated argument, and some of the lines might be expositional - telling
instead of showing.
If you have a character who says "I hate you", that may be exposition! They are telling what they
feel instead of using dialogue that *demonstrates* how they feel. This sort of exposition creates On
The Nose (OTN) dialogue - when people say things in the most obvious way possible. This kind of
exposition is all surface saying *exactly* what the character needs the audience to know and it
rungs false. It's information instead of drama and character. We want to dig past the obvious and find
the specific details and remove the exposition in order to create dialogue. We'll look at some ways
to bust this kind of exposition in an upcoming chapter.
Another problem is dialogue that is really just one character asking a leading question so that
another can dump some exposition on us. It *seems* like dialogue, it *looks* like dialogue but it's
not. You know Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers movies who jumps in to tell Austin and the
audience what happened, or explain how something works, or what Doctor Evil is up to? Well, Basil
has a cousin named Prompter Exposition.
The first rule of screenwriting is to create situations so that the audience can *experience* the
story through actions and dramatic scenes, rather than have someone tell you what happened. Create a
situation so that we can *experience* emotions, rather than have a character tell you how he feels.
Use dramatic conversation (built around a conflict) rather than a big steaming pile of exposition.
Create choices that demonstrate a character's thought process rather than have a character tell you
what he's thinking. We want our film to be an experience, not a lecture. If the purpose of one character
in a dialogue scene is mostly to prompt a patch of exposition from another character, you have a scene
that is designed to give us bad exposition.
The big problem is that the character ends up telling us what has already happened instead of just
allowing is to experience what happened while it was happening. We end up with a past tense movie
where the drama has already happened (offscreen) and we are left with one character telling another
what happened. No drama there - the conflict is already dead. The reason why screenplays are
written in present tense is that it's about what is happening *right now* - as we watch. Not what
happened earlier. Not a character telling you what he will do in the future. Movies are about *what's
happening now* - as we watch! So think twice before you have characters talk about what they've
done, instead show them actually doing it!
And beware of shrinks, friends, lawyers, phone conversations, police interrogations, people who
talk to themselves, court room scenes, voice over, priests in confessionals, dictating into a tape
recorder, and any other situation where Prompter Exposition might pop up to ask a leading question.
Movies tell stories through the actions of characters and dramatic dialogue (with a conflict).
Don't tell us what has happened, show us while it is happening.
Your Assignment: Read your screenplay - can you skip the dialogue and still understand the
character through their actions? Do you have any scenes where characters talk about what happened
earlier (if so, get rid of them)? Is your dialogue actually *dialogue* (two or more people talking)?
WHAT IS DIALOGUE?
The truth is, exposition usually isn't dialogue at all. It's speeches. One character doing all of the
talking. Dialogue isn't one person talking and another person listening, it isn't two people taking turns
talking; it's a verbal battle! There is conflict. One person wants something from somebody else, and
they are fighting to get it.
According to Webster's, dialogue is "a conversation between two or more persons". The root
word of conversation is "converse" which means "contrary, opposite". So dialogue requires at least
two people who have opposing viewpoints. If two people agree with each other, they have nothing to
talk about. If one person is doing all of the talking, you've left the "di" out of dialogue and the "con"
out of conversation. Dialogue should bounce back and forth between two (or more) characters. If one
character talks for too long, it will lose its "bounce".
Every "bounce" slightly changes the direction of the conversation. If what one character says
doesn't change the direction of the conversation, they have no effect on the conversation... and no
purpose in the scene. You might as well be bouncing that conversation against a brick wall.
I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN
Another type of bad dialogue comes from "psychic characters". Because conversation changes
every time it bounces, neither participant can accurately predict what the other person will say. Each
character responds to what the other says... but not necessarily what the other person means. Since
realistic characters aren't psychic, they only have the words to go by... and they are likely to interpret
those words to mean what they what them to mean. Each character hears with their own point of view,
so realistic conversations are filled with misunderstandings. It's like that kid's game "telephone"
(Chinese Whispers in the U.K.) where you pass a phrase from person to person around the room
and note how it changes by the time reaches the last person. We don't hear what people say, we hear
what we think they said... filtered through what we want them to say.
In the heat of an argument, the potential for misunderstanding grows. People are so focused on
their anger that they can completely mishear a sentence. "I love you" may turn into "I loathe you",
"Your stupid job" may sound like "You're stupid" - the automatic response coming before the
sentence is even finished.
My "Unreasonable Force" script began with a line of dialogue from a Dirty Harry movie - I
wondered what would happen if a character took the line "Harry, you're a dinosaur' literally. "Are
you calling me some kind of reptile?" I thought it would be fun to keep things bouncing with "I'm
saying you're cold blooded --" which gets another literal response! Once I started this, I ended up
with pages of dialogue which twisted every cop movie cliche by taking the lines literally and
completely misunderstanding the meaning.
One element of how we hear things has to do with our "mental filing cabinet" - how does each of
your characters connect ideas? If you character files thoughts by image they will process the phrase
"brief case" differently than someone who files things by word sounds or by function or by how they
relate to the object described. If you hear "brief case" and your first thought is "a container for
underwear your response will be much different than a person whose first thought is: "My father
gave me a brief case when I graduated from college." The same words create a different thought, and
that influences how the character will respond. Knowing your characters is the most important step in
removing bad dialogue. Bad dialogue is what you need them to say - not what *they* would say. It's
*pushing* the plot of your screenplay instead of dialogue that *flows* with the plot. Bad dialogue!
Good dialogue goes on the paper.
Your Assignment: Look at each line of dialogue from the listener's point of view. How might
they misconstrue the meaning? What words have double meanings that might lead to confusion? How
might their attitude and background change the way they hear what the other person says? Characters
shouldn't respond the way you want them to, or the way the story needs them to, but the way their
history and attitude forces them to.
FIRST HAND
Which would you rather do:
A) Hang out at a party with Tom Cruise?
B) Have your best friend who hung out with Tom Cruise tell you all about it?
C) Watch a guy interviewed on Access Hollywood about hanging out with Tom Cruise?
D) Read a newspaper story about a party Tom Cruise was at?
We go to the movies to experience things. True, it's a vicarious experience, but that's a good thing
when you take into account that movies are usually about exciting things like car chases and shoot outs
and asteroids smashing into Earth and getting your heart broken big time. Fun for two hours, but no
one wants to live on a roller coaster. So movies are already "one level removed" from reality. We
won't actually get killed in the cross-fire during an on screen shoot out.
We are trying to give the audience an experience and the method we communicate information to
the audience is important. The more "first hand" the experience is, the more of the experience they
feel. We'd rather hang with Tom Cruise than read about the party in the newspaper.
LEVELS OF EXPERIENCE
Dialogue can either be a "first hand" experience or expositional. If you have two people arguing -
we're experiencing the argument "first hand". We're right there in the middle of it. Eye witnesses to
the event. That gives the audience an experience.
If we're doing expositional dialogue (one character telling another what happened), we're still
"second hand". We don't get the experience. So we need to make sure there is something else in that
scene that provides the "first hand" experience for the audience (the conflict in the scene).
In my MGM cop film "Victim Of Desire" I had two detectives listening to the Medical Examiner
give his report. Boring stuff. No conflict. No emotions. It's just exposition. We needed this
information, but I had to find a way to add conflict to the scene. So I added the victim's wife. Now the
scene takes place when the wife identifies the body. One of the detectives asks the M.E. for a
preliminary report - and the M.E. starts rattling off gory details... in front of the wife! The other
detective keeps trying to shut the M.E. up, but the first detective keeps asking questions (more gory
details). It turns into a low-key battle between the two detectives: one wants to hear the information
now, the other wants to shut the M.E. up until the wife has left the room. We *feel* for both the wife
and the second detective. We are emotionally involved in the scene... which is all exposition!
Every scene needs conflict - but exposition scenes *really* need conflict to work.
But the best "first hand" information method is to put us right in the middle of a situation *while it
is happening*. There's more impact in a scene where a man actually catches his wife in bed with his
best friend, than in a scene where he just finds evidence of it, or a scene where he hears about it (even
if the person telling him is the best friend or the wife). One is a visceral experience, the other is
removed - after the fact. Even if the wife and husband have a terrible shouting match... it's about an
event that we weren't there to experience. It's still second hand. If we are there... if we see it... we
react just like the protagonist. It has a strong effect on us. Because we are experiencing it first hand.
We were there - it happened to us, too!
We're trying to give the audience an experience. The biggest emotional impact we can create. To
do that we have to give them "first hand" experiences... not boring exposition. Let the audience be eye
witnesses as the events unfold. Give them an experience to remember!
REALISTIC DIALOGUE?
Nobody sets out to write stilted, contrived dialogue; yet were all been in some cinema wanting to
scream at the screen: Nobody talks like that! Maybe youve even wanted to scream that when
reading a friends script... or your own. So how do we create dialogue that sounds like something
people might actually say?
My first experiment was to go into the wilds of Burbank armed with tape recorder to collect
actual dialogue of indigenous human beings. After filling thirty minutes of tape with the conversations
of authentic teenagers and businesspeople, I returned to my lab to transcribe and study this real
dialogue. I discovered that I had thirty pages of pointless blathering. A meandering mess that wasnt
witty or interesting... and didnt make any sense. In the real world, people talk a lot but say nothing. I
dont really want to spend 90 minutes of screen time hoping that someone will say something
worthwhile.
My second experiment involved videotaping professional actors improvising dialogue. They
were given characters and a situation. After about 20 minutes of videotape, I learned that even
talented actors create dialogue that meanders around and serves no purpose. The added bonus was
amazing footage of actors *thinking* about what they should say next. Even when the actors seemed to
get in the groove, the results were mostly pointless talking that would end up on the cutting room
floor.
What I learned from these experiments is that no one really wants realistic dialogue in their film,
what they wants is dialogue that *appears* to be realistic, but really serves a story and character
purpose. Just as we create our story instead of filming every day life, we need to create our dialogue.
CONFUSION
Conversation is like a game of tennis, bouncing back and forth between the players. Each one
trying to score their point. Just like in tennis, every bounce of conversation slightly changes the
direction of the conversation. Realistic dialogue doesnt seem to be heading in a pre-determined
direction; its evolving with every bounce. As writers we may know where the conversation will end
up, but the characters dont and the dialogue isnt taking the obvious route to that destination.
Because one character doesnt know what the other is going to say, they dont have that perfectly
formulated response. In fact, they are likely to misunderstand what the other person says or means. In
the het of n argument, the potential for misunderstanding increases. I love you may sound like I
loathe you. Your stupid job may sound like Youre stupid! - the other persons response coming
even before the sentence is finished. Real dialogue is filled with confusion and misunderstandings.
Look at each line of dialogue from the listeners perspective: how might they misconstrue the
meaning? This is a great way to expose character. Characters shouldnt respond the way you want
them to, or the story needs them to; but the way their history and attitude forces them to.
I love using misunderstandings to create reversals in dialogue. Leading the audience to think one
thing, then pulling the rug out from under them. In my cable film Hard Evidence protagonist Ken
Turner has been caught cheating by his wife Madeline and banished to the living room sofa. One
morning they bump into each other in the kitchen.
MADDY
That couch cant be too comfortable
to sleep on.
KEN
What are you saying? I can come back
to the bedroom, now?
MADDY
No. I think you should move out.
See how the misunderstanding creates a little twist in the story? He thought they were making up,
when really they were breaking up.
SUBTEXT
In the real world, people seldom say exactly what they mean. We hint around and test the
waters. When Im on a first date, there are dozens of direct questions I may want to ask.... but I cant.
So I might talk about a friend who is divorced with kids to see is shes ever been married and has any
kids. I may ask if she believes in equal rights and responsibilities... when what I really want to know
is whether shed be opposed to paying for her own meal, because the lobster she ordered will
probably send my Visa card over the limit. The difference between what I say and what I mean is
*subtext*. Good dialogue is layered.
Think about what each character wants in the scene, and how that will influence their dialogue.
One method for creating subtext is to give the audience information about what the character needs, so
that we know what theyre hinting at. Another method is to create a situation we understand, so the
dialogue doesnt have to be obvious. You spot an empty seat in a crowded cinema and ask: Is this
seat taken? That line has a different meaning if youre talking to a dangerous-looking biker or an
attractive member of the opposite sex. The situation creates the subtext. The third method for creating
subtext is to have the actions of a character at odds with what they are saying. If a character is hiding
and shaking in fear, but says: Im not afraid, we know they are trying to impress the person they are
speaking to... or convince themselves. More on subtext in the supplementals.
WORDS AND PICTURES
A movie gives the audience information through dialogue and through visuals and the actions of
the characters. When you ignore the images and only use dialogue to tell your story, youre not only
wasting money on film stock, you are forcing the dialogue to do all of the heavy lifting. This results in
trite, expositional dialogue. Instead of having a character tell us how they feel, find an action that
demonstrates how they feel. When the image part does its fair share of the storytelling, the dialogue is
free to go out and play. It can be loose and realistic. Characters dont have to say the obvious, they
can be subtle and clever. Keep in mind the See & Say Rule - if we see something theres no reason
to talk about it. Dialogue should be a counterpoint to visual, giving us another layer of information.
Creating realistic dialogue requires thinking of each character as an individual, with their own
agendas, secrets, wants and needs. The better you know your characters, the more realistic sounding
your dialogue will become. But realistic sounding dialogue isn't everything dialogue can be stylistic
and interesting and entertaining and character oriented. How do you make your dialogue sound
realistic but *also* be something special and amazing?
FORTY DIALOGUE TIPS
So, Im checking my voice mail, and I have a message from an unknown phone number. Someone
selling time shares? Producer calling about a script someone passed her? Wrong number? I play the
message, Hey, Bill-a-bong, my phones on the charge so I jacked this land-line in my agents lobby -
I should call my parents, huh? Hey, forgot to tell you - got an agent. Ring me after five, got something
for you. I check the time on my phone - its after five. But who do I call? How can I tell who left this
anonymous message? What are the clues to the callers identity?
This Blue Book began as an article called Ten Dialogue Tips, which was expanded to 21
Dialogue Tips for the paper version of the Blue Book and has been expanded again to 40 Dialogue
Tips for the e-book version... and all of the Tips have been expanded as well! This chapter is over
*five times longer* than the paper version! These tips will help you whip your dialogue into shape.
Turn those tired, flabby lines into strong, powerful, well muscled dialogue. So hop into your exercise
clothes, do a few stretches to limber up your mind, and get ready to feel it burn as you follow these
forty steps to better dialogue...
1) DIALOGUE IS CHARACTER
Recently I was racing to turn in the first draft of a screenplay assignment to a producer... and one
of my characters just wasnt working. When I was writing the treatment step of this deal, there several
policemen who showed up at several different murder scenes; but before handing it in I decided to
create one Detective character that could replace all of those policemen - turning a bunch of throw
away characters into a single character the producer could cast with some name actor. But when I
went to script, that role was underdeveloped... and all of his dialogue was bland. Devoid of
character. The problem was, I had no idea who this guy was other than a detective. What kind of
person was he when he wasnt at a crime scene? Once I figured out who the character was, I did a
quick pass through the screenplay focusing only on *his* dialogue... then turned the script in (on time).
Now, the Detective has a unique voice that could never be confused for any of the other characters.
The root problem of non-distinctive dialogue is usually not really knowing your characters. Oh,
you may know that the guy is a detective, and even give him a wife and kids and some pasted on
hobby... but you only know the *surface* of the character, not the character of the character. You want
to know who the character is not only when they are off screen, but who they are when no one else is
looking. Who they think they are, wish they were, hate about themselves, what made them who they
are, and what makes them tick - those core motivations that they may not understand. And how those
things come out in what they say and how they say it.
Dialogue is two things: what a character says (the meaning of their words) and how they say it
(their character peeking out from behind the words). Many scripts get the first part, but you also need
the last part. Even if your dialogue is witty and fun, if it does not expose character and is
interchangeable with some other characters dialogue, its *lacking character*. That is a serious
script problem (no matter what your name is). Most bland dialogue can be traced back to sketchy
characters or writers who know the surface of their characters but not the important elements. My
Detective ended up being a kind of spacey valley-dude trapped in the 80s... but really that was his
mask and underneath he was smart as a whip. It was an act. But once I had a handle on the character
I could come up with air-head 80s dialogue that was really a trap - he would trick people into giving
him information. Not only was his dialogue now fun to write, the character finally came alive on the
page!
Your Assignment: Take the time to really know your characters - not just their jobs and their
purpose in the story, but their fears and dreams and needs and secrets.
2) ATTITUDE
Another way to make dialogue distinctive is to expose character through attitude. Have one
character find the negative side of everything. Have another try to belittle all those around him.
Maybe a third only sees the world as it relates to him. This is the *tone* of the dialogue, not the
*message*. Make sure the tone and message are in conflict. In the movie "Rashomon", four people
witness the same event, yet relate it differently when testifying. Each brings their *perspective* to the
event, exposing their character through their viewpoint. Dialogue does the same thing: Five characters
might be describing the same event, but their tone and viewpoint will shade that description, making
all five different. The differences will give us clues to their lives and motivations.
Attitude is the basic intersection between who a character is under their skin and how they speak.
Because I write in coffee shops all over Los Angeles, I come into contact with many baristas who
have the same basic lines of dialogue... yet all sound very different. One barista is unbelievably
upbeat about everything and is the most sincerely positive person I have ever encountered. She will
find the silver lining in any cloud. If youve just lost your job of 15 years, shell say, Thats great!
Now you can spend more time with your kids and family! If you spill your coffee, We just started a
new pot, so your new cup will taste fresher!
Another barista is all about himself, so if you order an iced tea with melon syrup, hell say, I like
the berry syrup. No matter what you say to him, his responses are always focused on himself. If two
hundred people just died in a plane crash, hes find the way to make that about him. Yeah, a tragedy
that all of those people died, and the news report pre-empted my favorite show, *Ice Road Pizza
Deliveries*.
There are pessimist baristas, and needy ones who seem to want your approval, and baristas who
see everything as a dig at them, and ones who *must* one-up you to show their superiority, and
people who just dont have the time for you, and ones who think everything is sexual (if you know
what I mean, thats what she said), and servers who are confused by almost everything, and ones who
think their time is more important than yours, and people who are ultra-efficient and very detail
oriented, and baristas who are amazed by almost everything, and ones who worry about the most
unlikely things you can think of, and people who think everything is a question, and baristas who...
Each of these attitudes and traits are things that come out in the phrasing of the sentence, not the
information in the sentence. Its the spin on what they are saying, not the subject.
Your Assignment: take each of those types above and write a line of dialogue congratulating you
on winning the lotto.
3) BACKGROUND
A sister to attitude. Some people see the world through their own specific frame of reference and
background, and this comes out in their dialogue. Often where a character comes from or what their
experiences are not only effect word choice and vocabulary, but how they see the world. In my HBO
World Premiere movie *Crash Dive*, one of my terrorists was a goatherd and saw everything as
flock management, and used words like stray, gathering, heeling, shedding, and wearing
in his dialogue. His rural background also colored his responses and reactions to situations. His
dialogue was filtered through his character. The key to using words the audience may not be familiar
with is to put them in a sentence where the context makes the words meaning clear.
Factor in your characters backgrounds and frame of reference when writing their dialogue. A
college professor who grew up on a farm in the midwest will see the world differently than a college
professor who was born to a wealthy family in Upper Manhattan or one who grew up in the deep
south or one who grew up in the late 60s in Berkeley... and those differences will be apparent in how
they phrase things, their vocabulary, and how they see the world.
Your Assignment: Come up with the unique backgrounds for five different characters, then write
a line or two of dialogue where they ask you for a ride to the airport.
4) SENTENCE STRUCTURE
Do you know anybody who seems to put every sentence in the form of a question? Why do they do
that? Things that would be a statement to you or I end up being a question to them? Its as if they
arent sure of themselves or something, right?
What about those people who speak in run-on sentences, that just go on and on, every thought
connected to the next, as if they have no periods in their lives, only commas, and they never seem to
come to an end to their thoughts or sentences or anything else, they just keep on talking, like some sort
of Faulkner clone, until they get cut off by someone else, and maybe someone who can come to the
end of a sentence, like maybe
How about someone, not someone reading this, who litters their sentences with asides, such as
this one. There are also people who might through in a qualifier in their sentences, though not all of
them. Similar to that are people who may have a footnote in their sentence - an explanation of what
they just said.
Plus, like, those people who have those words they throw into sentences, you know, that dont
really do anything, my friend, but allow them a chance to, well maybe, pause to think of the next thing
to say or, kinda, take a little breath or something. There are also people who just trail off and never
finish a... Others get right to the point. No wasted words. Every sentence a jab. Dialogue a staccato.
Bam. Bam. Bam.
All of these are sentences structures. Characters string their words together into sentences
differently, and there are hundreds of variations. Different people have different rhythms and
cadences in their speech - like verbal finger print. The most unusual form of sentence structure
belongs to Yoda from the *Star Wars* movies who speaks completely backwards.
Two screenwriters are having a conversation: Ben Stein and Quentin Tarantino. Write the scene.
Tarantino is a fast talker, a machinegun staccato who slides from subject to subject without a
moment's rest. Ben Stein is an East Coast intellectual, a slow talker who considers every word before
he speaks it. See how their rhythms and speech patterns will influence their conversation? Given their
different backgrounds and vocabularies, they could be discussing the same film without using the
same terms. Different people speak differently. If you can't cover the character names in your script
and know who is talking, you may be using the same voice (your voice) for every character. Let each
character have his or her own voice. Let them speak for themselves.
Your Assignment: come up with three different types of sentence structures and have those three
characters have a debate about the last movie you saw. Bonus points if you can add in an attitude and
a background.
5) FAVORITE WORDS
Hey, baby, you may think this ties in to the above, but favorite words are more than a like or
you know, they tend to be unique to a specific character.
When Im doing my little character sheets, I like to give each of my characters *one* pet word
and/or pet phrase, my friend, that only they will use in dialogue throughout the script. I know many
people who have pet words and phrases they use several times in conversation, buddy-boy, and
sprinkling them through a characters dialogue in a screenplay can help make it distinctive and make
the character memorable. You dont want to overuse pet words or phrases, crikey! that can lead to
overload and turn what should be a little spice to add to a characters flavor into something where the
spice overpowers the taste of the meal. A pet word of phrase is like a running gag - you want to wait
until the reader has almost forgotten about it, and then bring it back. Pet words used too often and lose
their punch. Remember that any word repeated is a screenplay becomes more important that a word
only used once, so make sure the pet words you choose are *character related* and not
interchangeable with any other character.
While we are on pet words, make sure every character in your screenplay has a *different*
favorite swear word. Unless you are David Mamet, you dont want them all to use the same swear
word when there are so many to choose from... plus the ability to be creative and come up with a
swear thats never been used before. One of my characters uses kitty crap! as his swear. More on
favorite swear words in a later chapter. Make sure no two characters have the same favorite words -
and dont overdo the favorite words in dialogue. Also, as with everything - be creative! Try to come
up with the original and unusual and unique favorite words, instead of the standards like like and
you know.
Your Assignment: Come up with three unique favorite words and use each in a couple of very
different sentences. Make sure you use favorite words that you have never heard used before, so that
you are being *creative* rather than copying something from another film or real life. This helps to
make the dialogue *and* character unique.
6) VOCABULARY
Each character should have their own vocabulary, and it should not be the same as the writers
vocabulary. We use the same set of words, but our characters need to use different words - an
expanded set. Though I own a thesaurus, most of the time I just use words for my characters that I
know but seldom use . Once I know who the character is (background is part of this), I will have
some idea of what word palette they will most likely use, and when writing their dialogue I
mentally switch over to this palette.
One of the places that different vocabularies become obvious is in common words that will be
used throughout your script like yes and no or hello and goodbye or any other common word.
Make sure that every character uses different words, and that their versions give us a peek into their
characters. The more common the word, the more it needs to be substituted with something unique and
individual to the specific character. If everyone says Hello you may end up with Hello used a
half dozen times on the same page. Without a specific actors voice and spin, it gets old fast.
Your Assignment: make a list of twenty different ways to say yes and then a list of twenty
different ways to say no. Then make lists for hello and goodbye. Points for originality and
things that expose character.
7) SEE & SAY RULE
Never say what you see or see what you say. It's redundant. If a character says he's going to go
into the kitchen and make a sandwich, you don't need to *show* him making or eating that sandwich:
The audience's imagination has already done that for you. If you *show* a businessman racing through
traffic to get to a meeting, you shouldn't have him talk about the traffic when he gets to his meeting.
Even if that's what the character would naturally *say*, cut the line. There are many things we say and
do in real life which are BOOORING. Our job as writers is to give the audience only the exciting
part. That means no redundancies! Yes, some of you are thinking that *this* is a redundancy because it
was mentioned in an earlier chapter. But it was part of the original stand alone article and when it
came time to cut it I decided to leave it in, since it is one of the most common problems and a way to
instantly improve your dialogue.
A movie is picture and sound. We want to use both of those elements to tell the story. If each is
giving different information we can pack twice as much information into our screenplays and into the
movie. We are already limited by the number of pages, we dont want to further limit ourselves by
giving the exact same information twice. There are always exceptions - you may have a character
who is stupid, and to show this you have them note the obvious (things we can see). But in order for
this to work it must be the exception! One of the things that influences dialogue and creates subtext
(coming soon!) is the difference between what we see and what we hear. Different combinations of
dialogue and actions create entirely different meanings to what is said. So *use* the difference
between what we see and what a character says to add layers to the dialogue and create unique and
interesting meanings.
Your Assignment: Go through your script and make sure what your characters say is *different*
than what they are doing... then look at what the *difference* between what they say and what we see
means. Play around with these differences until you find the most interesting and information packed
combination.
8) DANCING AROUND THE SUBJECT
In real life, people beat around the bush: They never say what they really mean. Often they "test
the waters" by talking about something similar to what they're REALLY interested in. When you're on
a first date, there are dozens of direct questions you want to ask... but you can't. So you might talk
about a "friend" who is divorced, in hopes your date will give her views on divorce and tell you if
she's ever been married. Or ask her opinion of equal rights and responsibilities, when you really want
to know if she'd object to paying for her own dinner because the lobster plate she ordered is sure to
send your Visa Card over the limit. The more we want to know the answer to a question, the less
likely we are to come right out and ask it. Good dialogue reflects this. Later we'll look at a scene
from "Notorious" that shows this tip in action.
One of the things you want to be aware of is your word budget - we only have 110 pages or less
to tell our stories, so even though characters who beat around the bush with their dialogue is
realistic and desired (rather than OTN: On The Nose dialogue which is the most obvious and bland
way to say something) we dont want to waste too many words by not getting to the point. The key is
to use the beating around the bush as a way to show character and also to not waste a sentence, but
find the indirect way to ask something or state something instead of the obvious direct way. Yes, there
are times when a character *should* be direct and not dance around the subject, but to make those
direct questions and statements more powerful they need to be not the average dialogue. If its *all*
direct then it is all the same.
Your Assignment: Write a patch of dialogue where one half of a couple of date #3 asks the other
about their bad luck with spouses who seem to die in suspicious accidents.
9) SAY THE OPPOSITE
If people are scared, they tend to talk about how unafraid they are. When we speak to others, we
try to hide our vulnerability. Usually we are trying to hide it from ourselves. Our dialogue is often
what we wish were true, but is the opposite of the truth. And sometimes we say the opposite of what
we mean for social reasons. We tell white lies. No, those jeans don't make your butt look fat.
You're wearing a toupee? I would never have guessed. The difference between what is said and the
situation creates subtext and meaning... but also removes any see & say issues.
Verbal Irony is when a character says the opposite of what they mean, or what is true, *on
purpose*. They are not fooling themselves, they are commenting on the situation or what the other
person said. It's one of the key ingredients in sarcasm. Irony is when someone says something when
they actually mean the opposite. "That's the smartest thing I've heard all day" in response to the least
intelligent thing the person has heard. Though Verbal Irony is often sarcastic, all sarcasm is not
Verbal Irony. Only when someone says the opposite of what is true do we have irony. "That's great."
"Thanks for the help." The speaker says one thing but means the opposite. Sarcasm can be a cutting
remark that means exactly what is said, which is not ironic. Where sarcasm contains ridicule, Verbal
Irony often does not. There are Ironic Similes like "clear as mud" and "soft as a stone" contain no
sarcasm but plenty of irony.
10) EXPLODE CLICHES
We are writing *original* dialogue in our screenplays. If you have *ever* heard anyone say a line
like yours in a movie, *get rid of it*! There's a great YouTube video of cliched movie dialogue the
same exact lines used in a half dozen different films. I'm getting too old for this shit! I was born
ready. Don't you die on me. Is that all you got? (I'm just getting started.) Are you thinking
what I'm thinking? I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. I've got a bad feeling about this.
You don't want to see me angry. And hundreds of others! The same lines reused again and again
can't these writers come up with anything original? You want every line of dialogue to be original
to be unused in any other movie. I know that's not easy, but that is what we are striving for. When you
come to some line that is so common it;s difficult to avoid it, try to find the original way to phrase it.
I love you may be the one line that you can use again, but think of the great variations like You
complete me that mean the same thing but say it in an original way... and now are part of pop culture.
You don't want to be the follower, you want to be the leader. You don't want to quote other people's
dialogue, you want other people to quote *your* dialogue. Begin with removing all of the cliches
form your script, and any other line that you have heard in some other film.
Dialogue should always seem as if the character is creating it on the spot! Find an unusual way for
a character to say something usual. When Bo Hopkins is asked to surrender by the Pinkerton
Detectives in "The Wild Bunch", he doesn't just say "no", he says: "You can kiss my sister's black
cat's ass." Surely the most memorable line in film history, and definitely too descriptive to be a
cliche. The key is to *personalize* your dialogue with details from the character's life, which will not
only get rid of the cliches, but offer insight and understanding of your character. Though, I think we
learned more than we wanted to about Bo Hopkins' character.
The one place where you can use a clich is when you explode it take the clich line and use it
in an unusual and interesting way. In my (so far unproduced) screenplay The Last Stand I have a
character say I can't live without you - not a romance scene, a scene where a character will literally
be murdered unless the other person helps him. In The Dark Knight Batman is in the jail cell
interrogating the Joker, and the Joker tells him they need each other or neither can exist, You
complete me. If you can find a clich line and subvert the hell out of it, you can turn the unusual into
the odd and that's interesting dialogue.
Your Assignment: Make a list of ten dialogue cliches not mentioned above... and for extra credit,
twist them around and misuse them in a dialogue exchange.
11) GO FOR THE DETAIL
A great way to make your dialogue distinctive by using details. Bland dialogue is born when a
character uses the obvious words to describe what they have to say. Interesting dialogue comes from
using a detail to illustrate their emotions or intentions. Instead of I really miss my ex-husband, how
about The bed seems so big, now or I just cant stay warm at night, no matter how many blankets I
use. No matter what your character is trying to say, using details and examples will change stale
dialogue to personal dialogue.
Andrew Marlowes Air Force One has a great example, when villain Ivan Korshunov (Gary
Oldman) is on the phone with the Vice President (Glenn Close) and tells her, The President is safe.
But then, you must know that. He ran from here like a whipped dog. Im sure you cant wait for him to
get back to making the decisions so you can stop sweating through that silk blouse of yours. That
detail makes a threatening phone call *very* personal. Dialogue that could be used in another scene
or situation is not the best it can be. Find the detail that makes your dialogue specific to your
screenplay and your characters. No matter what your character is trying to say, using details and
"examples" will change stale dialogue into personal dialogue.
Your Assignment: Take five lines of dialogue from your screenplay and add a detail. The more
unique the detail, the better!
12) BE ZIPPY
No, not Zippy The Pinhead! All too often poor dialogue reads like Zippy wrote it! You want
dialogue that is exciting and different and alive. If you have your choice between bland but realistic
dialogue and weird and unusual dialogue? Though many writers want realistic dialogue, we can hear
that on the street... and we just paid a small fortune for a movie ticket and popcorn and soda we
want to be *entertained*. I know a bunch of screenwriters who *hate* the stylized dialogue in Juno,
yet that was the selling point to the audience. It wasn't the sort of dialogue we could hear in real life.
That was strange stylized stuff! What did the critics think of the dialogue in Juno? They loved it.
What did the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences think of the dialogue in Juno? They
gave it a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. The dialogue was zippy and electric and strange and fun.
Remember, we aren't reporters we are creative writers. Dialogue that is interesting is better than
dialogue that is real. Even realistic film dialogue is nothing like real dialogue it's clever, witty
stuff that has the *appearance* of being realistic. It's the best possible line, not the ordinary line.
Don't be afraid to try something fun with your dialogue, homeskillet.
When you watch classic films from the 1930s and 1940s, you'll notice how fast paced and clever
the lines are. "The Big Sleep" and "Bringing Up Baby" are great examples of zippy, witty dialogue.
Writers from the "Golden Age" wrote great dialogue, because they wrote it the old fashioned way:
Line by Line. Every word received individual attention. So go through your script line by line and try
to find the most clever, witty, way to say each line. Check out the dialogue in John Carpenter's
original "Assault On Precinct 13" for a modern example.
13) BANTER
Those Golden Age movies like "His Girl Friday", "Bringing Up Baby" and "The Big Sleep"
utilized a rapid-fire style of dialogue called banter. Banter are short sentences that bounce back and
forth between characters like a tennis ball. Often banter uses clever put-downs and witty insults,
misunderstandings (often intentional), wisecracks, flirtation, and puns (often with sexual innuendo).
Each line of banter "tops" the one before it and it becomes a verbal war of wit. "The Big Sleep" has
Bogart and Bacall in a rapid-fire discussion of horse racing... that's really about sex. (Picking a
winner depends on who is in the saddle, etc.) It's one clever line after another! A later scene has
Bogart and Bacall pass the phone back and forth - each firing a funny line at the police officer on the
other end.
The TV show "Moonlighting" was built on the banter between Dave and Maddy. To write banter,
either look for a subject that lends itself to flirtatious dialogue or look for the barbs or put-downs in
every line. Make a list of every witty line you can think of - then just use the good ones! You want one
funny line after another. An insult that isn't clever isn't good enough. You might also take a look at
Marx Brothers movies - Groucho fires off some great lines! For the expanded version of this Blue
Book for Kindle/Nook/e-books I'm writing a new article on Banter using Bringing Up Baby and
His Girl Friday.
14) WORD COUNT
Just as short scenes make for a faster pace, as do short *shots* - short lines mean fast paced
dialogue. Long lines mean more deliberately paced dialogue. You would think this is obvious, but in
the opening scene of "Pulp Fiction" Quentin Tarantino tells us that Pumpkin and Honey Bunny's
dialogue "is to be said in a rapid pace "His Girl Friday" fashion"... but the dialogue which follows
are huge chunks of speech running as long as 17 lines per character! No matter how fast the actors
speak those lines, the pacing can not be rapid because what we have are *speeches* instead of
dialogue. Fast paced dialogue ping-pongs back and forth between characters. Most of the dialogue in
"His Girl Friday" is one line per character, and averages about four to five words per line many
lines have only *one* word! That's what creates that rapid-fire pacing. Be conscious of the number of
words per line in your dialogue, since that translates to pacing.
You can control the pace of the dialogue by the length of each sentence and the length of each
string of sentences before the other person speaks. You can also have one character who uses long
sentences having a conversation with another who uses short sentences. Different characters may
speak at different speeds, but arguments will be faster paced than quiet discussions. *You* control
the pace of conversations, so make sure the sentence length matches the desired pacing.
That dialogue in the classic His Girl Friday is one line per character, and averages about four
to five words per line. Rapid-fire pacing is short lines of dialogue, lots of back and forth between
characters, no speeches or run-on lines. Be conscious of the number of words per line in your
dialogue, since that translates to pacing. If you find long blocks of dialogue, know that those will
slow down your script - do you *want* your script to slow down at that point?
Different people speak differently. If you can't cover the character names in your script and know
who is talking, you may be using the same voice (your voice) for every character. Let each character
have his or her *own* voice. Let them speak for themselves.
Your Assignment: Grab a dialogue exchange from your screenplay and rewrite it with short lines
and faster pace... then with long lines and slower pace.
15) HOOK WORDS TO CONNECT DIALOGUE
One of those old techniques from the golden era which isn't used much anymore (except on
television). If you watch a half dozen Ben Hecht scripted films, it becomes apparent that he uses
words like hook and eye fasteners, to connect one line of dialogue to the next so they speed by. "This
investigator? They say he's good." "Then he's good as dead."
Both David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin use a variation where dialogue is echoed: "I'm going to
work." "To work?" Yes, to work. To work on what? what needs to be done? What needs to
be done? The work. What's strange about echo dialogue is that even though words are repeated,
the pace seems faster. That's because the echoes are very short sentences. Sentence length is pacing!
One problem with echo dialogue is that it gets old fast - we're hearing the same words over and over
again. I could only take so much of Josh & Donna's hallway banter on "The West Wing" before I
wanted them to get to the point. But this is a great dialogue tool that can create a rhythm and tempo.
From David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross:
MOSS
No. What do you mean? Have I talked
to him about this...
AARONOW
Yes. I mean are you actually talking
about this, or are we just...
MOSS
No, we're just...
AARONOW
We're just "talking" about it.
MOSS
We're just speaking about it.
(pause)
As an idea.
AARONOW
As an idea.
MOSS
Yes.
AARONOW
We're not actually talking about it.
MOSS
No.
AARONOW
Talking about it as a...
MOSS
No.
AARONOW
As a robbery.
MOSS
As a "robbery"? No.
See how the repeated words not only create a rhythm but seem to increase the pacing of the
dialogue? Because the word in one character's line is used in the next character's line, instead of
seeming like more words it seems like fewer words, and the lines seem connected to each other
there is a flow. This is an interesting technique, and seems to work well for two of our greatest
playwrights turned screenwriters.
16) ECHO LINES
This is a technique I learned from Michael Hauges great book Writing Screenplays The Sell,
and use it in almost every script I write. An echo line is a sentence or phrase that is repeated
throughout the screenplay... and changes meaning every time it is used. As the story evolves the
meaning of the line evolves as well - even though the words remain the same. I have used examples
from several films when Ive done classes in the past, but my friend Robin pointed out a great
example in Tony Gilroys adaptation of Stephen Kings Dolores Claiborne. This is one of those
great films that has fallen between the cracks; if you havent seen it, add it to the NetFlix cue.
When maid/caregiver Dolores (Kathy Bates) is arrested for murdering her wealthy employer Mrs.
Donovan (Judy Parfitt), her estranged daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) comes home from New
York. In the course of the investigation, dark secrets are uncovered, including the murder of Dolores
husband Joe (David Strathairn) when Selena was just a kid.
Dolores is an angry, bitter woman. After Selena bails her out, they drive home, and Selena asks
her mother why she has to be so antagonistic to the police, the townspeople, even a couple of kids
riding bicycles that she yells at. Dolores answers, Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to
hold onto. Explaining her anger - it is the one thing in her life at this point that is within her control.
Later, Dolores asks Selena if she remembers being molested by her father. She only remembers
good things about her father and has suppressed the bad. Dolores pushes it until memories of the dark
past bubble up in Selenas consciousness. She doesnt want to deal with any of this, packs her things
to leave, telling her mother Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto as an apology
for leaving when her mother needs her most.
The story flashes back to when Dolores first began working for Mrs. Donovan - when Dolores
husband Joe beat her almost every day, but when she discovers that her husband is molesting young
Selena she breaks into tears at work. Mrs. Donovan wonders what would bring a strong woman like
Dolores to tears and pulls her aside, asking whta is wrong. When she tells her employer whats
happening at home, the wealthy Mrs. Donovan - a recent widow - tells her that An accident can be
an unhappy womans best friend. Theres a full eclipse coming up, and a dry well that Joe might
easily fall into in the dark. On the day of the eclipse, Dolores isnt sure she can kill her abusive
husband, so Mrs. Donovan tells her, Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto to
give her that push to go home and kill Joe.
The same exact line used three times in the movie, with three different meanings as it is passed
from one woman to the next. This is a very specific sentence, when I come up with an echo line, I like
to find a line that puns and can easily have different meanings. In my Sleeper Agent script the
mistress of a Bin Laden type terrorist agrees to defect and give Interpol the names of the 207 sleeper
terrorists in the United States and Europe. Her Interpol bodyguard tells her to stay within touching
distance at all times for her own protection. Later in the script, they end up making love, and she says
Touching distance afterwards. At the end of the script, she is exposed as a terrorist whose mission
is to kill the chiefs of several countries espionage agencies sent to debrief her. Her hands are coated
with liquid gloves (photographers use it in dark rooms) and contact poison - all she has to do is
touch you and you are dead. The Interpol bodyguard must get within touching distance to subdue her.
The same phrase has three different meanings within the script.
Your Assignment: Make a list of a couple of phrases or lines that have multiple meanings and
can evolve through the course of a screenplay.
17) NEXUS WORDS
A similar technique are Nexus Words which connect to the theme and story, from my long out of
print book. Before writing a screenplay I come up with a list of thematic words and use it as a
palette when writing dialogue in order to come up with lines that have both a meaning within the
scene and a larger meaning within the story. Once you come up with your palette, you dont *force*
the words into dialogue, but when one of the words fits, you use it instead of some other word that
would only give the line a single meaning. This can be done as part of the rewrite process if that
works better for you.
The film I often use as an example is Minority Report where many line of dialogue have to do
with sight - and the story deals with seeing the future. One of the very first lines of dialogue is
potential killer Howard Marks saying, You know how blind I am without my glasses. There are
dozens and dozens of lines of dialogue that use words dealing with sight throughout the script, a great
example is when Burgess calls Danny Witwer an *observer* from the Justice Department. He could
have called him an Agent or any number of other words, but observer is a sight word. Yes,
screenwriters think about things like this... and this technique is used in many screenplays. Next time
you watch Minority Report look for the sight words - there are probably a hundred of them!
Your Assignment: What is the theme of your screenplay? Now come up with a list of thematic
words and phrases that reflect that theme. Try to list at least 20... and an extra point for every word or
phrase over 20.
18) BUMPER STICKER
Years ago, I was talking with Pat Duncan who wrote Courage Under Fire and Mr. Holland's
Opus about bumper Sticker Dialogue like Go ahead, make my day and Ill be back - those
lines that everybody quotes and ends up on T shirts and bumper stickers. Pat did a rewrite on my
favorite Chuck Norris movie, and one of his lines ended up on a bumper sticker. We have no idea
what lines will end up on bumper stickers, but thats no reason to write bland dialogue that doesnt
have a chance.
Movie dialogue isnt realistic dialogue, it is dialogue that *appears* to be realistic, but really
serves a story and character purpose. Movie dialogue should be all of those great lines we come up
with the day after the argument. We want "I wish I'd thought of that!" lines. Though Diablo Codys
Juno has love it or hate it dialogue, we can probably all quote at least one line from the film. Ernest
Lehman and Clifford Odets screenplay for Sweet Smell Of Success* has dialogue so distinctive that
a character in Diner constantly quotes from the film. Some of John Carpenters dialogue in Assault
On Precinct 13 and Big Trouble In Little China is amazingly quotable. But my all time winner film
is Richard Brooks The Professionals, which contains dozens of lines like, "Certain women have a
way of changing boys into men... and men back into boys." Push yourself to come up with those great
lines that people will be quoting for years to come. If there is a clever way to say something, do that.
We want dialogue that sparkles, even if it doesnt end up on a bumper sticker or T shirt. More on this
in the supplemental section, including quotes from a couple of movies.
19) INCONGRUOUS
One method to make your dialogue interesting is to have some of it be incongruous, the Coen
Brothers do this often. While everyone is talking about what seems to be important in a scene,
someone says something about something that is *not* important in the scene. Usually these lines are
character related - some character with tunnel vision and seems oblivious with what is going on
around them. An incongruous line can also create realism in a wild situation, by calling attention to
something that is grounded in reality, like the Mayors (Gregg Henry) need for a Dr. Pepper during an
alien invasion in James Gunns brilliant Slither.
In my zombie apocalypse script Just Before Dawn some of the last survivors are heading for the
hills now that zombies control Los Angeles.
JACK
What's in the backpack?
STEWART
9mm Auto, knives, binoculars, compass,
snake bite kit, matches, some other stuff.
CAROLINE
Bota-bag of vodka. For emergency
use only. And two loaves of freshly
baked bread. Do you want some now?
JACK
Save it for after we get out of here.
CAROLINE
It won't be warm.
While the city is overrun by flesh eating zombies, the joys of eating bread warm from the oven are
still part of being human. I used this to anchor the wild story with a reality we can all relate to. Plus,
the Caroline character is all about old school cooking from scratch, so the line is completely within
character. Whenever you have a situation that is outside of the audiences norm, what bit of realism
can you inject into dialogue? What would *you* be thinking if you were in that situation?
Your Assignment: You have two characters in a big, exciting car chase write some
incongruous dialogue for them that shows their character.
20) WEIRD WORLD VIEW
A related method is to give your character an interesting way of looking at things. Not just one
thing in one situation - but *everything* In Scott B. Smith's "A Simple Plan" the character Billy Bob
Thornton plays sees the world the way a child would. When he notices crows sitting on a branch he
remarks "What a weird job - sitting around and waiting for something to die so that you can eat it."
That's an unusual way to look at crows! This character has such an unusual way of seeing things that
you can't wait to see him in another scene!
The movie Hannah is about a girl raised from infancy in the Arctic woods by a crazy survivalist
father she hunts and kills her own food, makes her own clothes... but has never heard music or
known another person. She has no social skills at all. Her backstory that she will discover is that she
was a test tube baby with altered DNA created by the CIA to be the ultimate soldier... the ultimate
killer. Her father is a renegade CIA agent who rescued her from the laboratory and has raised her
as his daughter. Once she escapes into the world, she has no idea how the world works. She has
never seen a fluorescent light or a television or a telephone. So her dialogue and reactions to the
world around her are *very* unusual. She says things that make perfect sense in *her* world, but not
in *our world*. And you don't want to ask her to make breakfast she'll go out and kill and gut
squirrels!
The character of Monk is also like this everything in the world to him is seen through the filter
of *germs* and *order*. When someone holds a knife to Mr. Monk's throat he may be more concerned
with how clean the blade is than whether he's going to live or die. These characters don't see the
world through normal eyes and their extreme characters tint how they react to the world... and
what they say and do. The great thing about Weird World View Dialogue is that it's completely
character related... and interesting.
Your Assignment: Imagine a character who relates to everything by *smell* and seems to focus
entirely on the smell of things. Their dialogue isn't just communicating about what is happening but
filtered through the way things smell. Okay, they get a chance to dance with the person they love...
what do they whisper while they are holding that person close? And how does the conversation go
from there?
21) REMOVE WORDS
The easiest way to make dialogue distinctive isn't to add something, but to subtract something.
Most lines of dialogue can survive the amputation of the first word or two. This can improve many
sentences by making them seem more natural and less mannered. This is an easy way to loosen up
dialogue, and I will often go through a script and cut first words in much of the dialogue. It goes from
stiff to more realistic sounding instantly. If you find that doing this to all characters dialogue ends up
making all of your characters sound alike, pick one character to chop words from.
Well, I was just checking to make sure everything is set for Fridays meeting. Becomes Just
checking to make sure everything is set for Fridays meeting. Dropping a word or two from the
*middle* of a sentence is also a great way to create distinctive dialogue for a specific character.
Just checking - everythings set for Fridays meeting?
Your Assignment: Find a patch of dialogue in your screenplay (or some other screenplay) where
three people are speaking and cut the first word or two from one character, middle words from
another character's dialogue, and last words from the third character's lines. Does it still make sense?
Is it more realistic and interesting?
22) SYMBOLIC DIALOGUE
Instead of talking about Subject A, which would create obvious dialogue, have your character talk
about Subject B.
Robert Perez's comedy 40 Days And 40 Nights opens with a video that chronicles his
relationship with his long time girlfriend Nicole (Vinessa Shaw)... ending with the break up of their
relationship. Matt (Josh Hartnet) has been watching the video on his laptop and when it's over a box
pops up: "Delete Nicole?" Matt has the cursor on "delete", looks at the image of Nicole - can he
really delete her from his life? - then moves the cursor to "save" and clicks twice. He's still hung up
on her. No matter how many one night stands he has, he can't get her out of his head. His roommate
Ryan (Paulo Costanzo) has arraigned a double date with a pair of hot girls from Lake Tahoe, but that
night when things are getting hot & heavy, Matt just can't bring himself to sleep with her. Both have
stripped down to their underwear and she's all over him... but he excuses himself to the bathroom,
where his roommate finds him...
RYAN
Throw me a Magnum for my magnum,
MATT
Yeah.
(throws him a condom)
Hey, have you ever noticed a crack
on my ceiling?
RYAN
Dude, you're action packed with issues.
MATT
I can't do this anymore. I can't --
RYAN
What? Does Johnny not want to come out
and play?
MATT
No. No! Johnny's fine, okay? It's...
I'm all fucked up.
RYAN
Alright, alright, alright. Here's what
you're gonna do. You're gonna strap
a helmet on big John, put him in the
game, and he play his heart out, okay?
He will put up big numbers for you.
You will forget about the cracks in
the ceiling, forget about Nicole, just
go out and give your star player the
support he needs. Right?
(hands him a condom)
Helmet.
See how Perez avoided cliche dialogue by using a sports analogy? By talking about subject B
instead of subject A, he could use dialogue to carry the information without resorting to the obvious.
He talk about how hot the girl is, managed to talk about sex without being X-rated, and barely
mentioned the real issue - Nicole. The football analogy makes the dialogue clever, and it's completely
in character. The Dot-Com where they work has betting pools on football games, baseball games, and
will end up having a pool on whether Hartnet can go 40 days and 40 nights without sex. The analogy
fits the characters and the story - it's organic.
Using "symbolic dialogue" keeps your character's words from giving identical information as
their actions and adds a new level to the dialogue. Plus, symbolic dialogue can be amusing... a good
thing whether you're writing a comedy or not.
Your Assignment: Use symbolic dialogue in a conversation about that dead friend in the trunk of
the car... when they have been pulled over by the police for a broken tail light.
23) NEVER HEARD THAT ONE
This is related to the clich tip remember that we are writing *original* dialogue. If a line of
dialogue has been used in some other movie, dont use it. You dont want to use *common lines* of
dialogue even if they are not cliches. You want unique and interesting lines of dialogue. Always try
to find a way to say the same thing in an original way. The more common the sentence, the more you
need to make it unique.
This is also true for jokes and funny lines - if you have heard it before, dont use it. Create your
own funny lines and jokes, dont recycle the work of others. Comedy writing is not easy, and any time
you take a short cut and use someone elses line it will either be discovered when they read the
screenplay and you will look like a rip off, or it will be discovered later in the process and you will
have to remove the gags and replace them with something original. Better to save yourself the
embarrassment and start with original dialogue. I once read a screenplay where every single funny
line was obviously from a joke book, and I asked the writer about this... and he admitted they were
from 1,001 Jokes For All Occasions! He thought that's where jokes in movies came from... I had to
tell him movie jokes are created by the screenwriter for the film and aren't recycled from some
other film or a joke book. We don't want to share a credit with Dixie Joke Cups or The Big Book Of
Bathroom Humor. Write your own jokes, folks!
We don't want common dialogue, we want extraordinary dialogue that people will remember after
the movie ends, or after they have read your script and are writing up the coverage that will leads to a
sale or assignment or a pass.
24) ANTI-DIALOGUE?
Sometimes dialogue isn't dialogue at all. Re-read the scene in "Of Mice And Men" when Lenny is
talking with Curley's Wife, neither is talking about the same subject, yet the dialogue intersects. It
meshes. They *think* they're having a conversation, but actually, each is wrapped up in their own
little world. Though most dialogue is one character responding to another character's last line;
*some* dialogue isn't dialogue at all, but intersecting monologues. Each person is either talking to or
about themselves but each line seems to spring from the other person's line. They are responding
without really listening - those on you who have been in long term relationships may have
experienced this.
We'll take a look at a scene from "Psycho" which illustrates this tip in action in the supplemental
section. It's the key scene from the film, and was part of the very first version of this Blue Book but
cut for space the following year when I added a new article. Now it is restored... because who cares
how many pages an e-book has?
25) CONTRAST BETWEEN CHARACTERS
Buddy cop films depend on the contrast between characters, and that includes their dialogue. In
Shane Black's "Lethal Weapon", Riggs is a young suicidal loner who will take any risk to catch the
bad guys. Murtaugh is an older family man who always proceeds with caution. If you made a list of
every one of Rigg's character traits, they'd be the exact opposite of Murtaugh's. The contrast between
the two characters creates the friction which leads to comedy and suspense. This is also brought to
the surface in their dialogue each character uses words and phrases and has an attitude that reflects
their character.
The more contrast and conflict between characters the more difference in their dialogue and the
more conflict and humor can be produced in conversations when they rub up against each other.
Though this is part of story and plotting, remember to pair your character with the person least like
them. If you have one cop who plays by the rules partnered with another cop who plays by the rules,
you have boring interactions and a boring screenplay. For the sake of your *story* you want to pair
people who are opposites whenever possible... and this will help your dialogue, too. If you have two
characters who do nothing but agree with each other, that's not as interesting as two characters who
completely disagree. Accentuate the differences in your characters, and let it simmer to the surface
through dialogue.
Your Assignment: Make a list of character traits for each one of your characters and make sure
they are in the opposite corner from the character they will spend the most time with. This will lead
to humorous banter (we hope!) when the opposite characters are thrown together.
26) CONTRAST IN LOCATIONS
Contrast is also the key to "fish out of water" stories like "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Witness".
Axle Foley in "Beverly Hills Cop" is a street smart Detroit cop who has to solve a case in wealthy,
polite Beverly Hills. Contrast = humor. He is constantly making fun of Beverly Hills society! Every
"polite" situation he is thrust into sets him up for a joke or a witty line. Characters can react to each
other, but also they can react to their environment. If you place Axle Foley on the tough streets of
Detroit, not only does he fit in to that world, he sees that world as normal and won't comment on it.
But Beverly Hills is unusual to Axle, and when a character is surrounded by things they find unusual
they are likely to comment on them... an that can either give you insight to character and/or humor.
The Clint Eastwood movie Coogan's Bluff is about a non-nonsense Arizona Sheriff who chases
his suspect to New York City where everything is very different. The *customs* are different, and
that produces conflict and interesting dialogue. Instead of observing the world he is used to, Coogan
observes a strange world where characters do unusual things. And the things that Coogan thinks are
normal the people of New York City find completely strange. Part of this story is that Coogan has
to figure out how to get what he wants in this strange world, and that means changing his methods...
but also Coogan's cowboy methods can get the job done when New York methods fail. He is
straightforward and violent, but New York has rules. This creates some great dialogue exchanges.
The classic comedy Ruggles Of Red Gap has reserved British butler Charles Laughton won in a
poker game by dusty cowboy Charlie Ruggles. Now we have a typical western story with horses
and six guns and saloons, but seen through the eyes of a British butler. Situations which might have
been clich in a typical Western are now interesting and unique... and that carries over into the
dialogue as well. Just compare cowboy dialogue to butler dialogue and you can see how this
creates some interesting exchanges. It's like these people are speaking entirely different languages!
When you are coming up with your script idea, you can have "built in" humor or interesting
dialogue by looking for contrast between characters, between characters and environment, or between
characters and situations. All of these can lead to witty dialogue or just interesting dialogue that
allows us to see more of each side by using the tools of conflict and contrast.
Your Assignment: Your character is a ballet star: make a list of three interesting locations for
stories with this character, guaranteed to bring out some great dialogue exchanges.
Your Assignment: Your character is a garbage man: make a list of three interesting locations or
venues for stories with this character, and a couple of dialogue exchanges with someone in those
worlds.
27) UNDERSTATEMENT
Understatement uses contrast in situations. If your hero's in the middle of a shoot out when the
love interest calls on his cell phone, having him say "This isn't a good time - can I call you back?" is
going to work better than having him explain his situation. Understatement automatically improves
dialogue because it acts as a counterpoint to the situation.
Ted Talley's screenplay for "All The Pretty Horses" is a text book on understated dialogue! In one
scene Matt Damon has just been released from a Mexican prison where he was involved in a violent
knife fight and almost died - he is bruised, his face is scarred, he looks awful - but he refers to his
incarceration as "his recent difficulties". Lucas Black says he's fired a gun before... and ends up being
an expert marksman! Understatement is especially effective when the events are larger than life.
When I do my big two day class I use a clip from John Milius' excellent gangster biography
Dillinger (1973) where Harry Dean Stanton plays Homer Van Meter a man who has the absolute
worst luck in the world. When the FBI surrounds the hotel he's staying in, he is almost killed before
having breakfast or even his morning coffee... goes on the run, gets to a road and hitchhikes and cars
keep passing him by! Um, soon the FBI will find him! Finally he gets a ride, but the people dump him
in the street... as an armed angry mob approaches to kill him for the reward! And Homer says, This
just isn't turning out to be my day. Things don't turn out well for his character... but throughout the
film he's had this great understated dialogue.
Understatement is probably some cousin to irony in that it is dialogue at odds with the situation. It
can be used to show a character is world-weary or clever or unfazed by the situation. It's a great
dialogue tool to show character... and sometimes get a laugh.
28) HUMOR
Every character should have their own sense of humor. Not the writer's sense of humor, *their
own* sense of humor. The big problem with Woody Allen movies is that all of the characters sound
exactly the same and tell exactly the same style jokes... though Midnight In Paris gets great mileage
by having famous characters with distinctive voices like Hemingway and Zelda and Dali. Woody
could use the voices of real people instead of his own. But Owen Wilson still played Woody Allen,
the way Martin Landau played Woody Allen in Crimes & Misdemeanors and Hugh Jackman played
him in Scoop and Anthony Hopkins played him in Tall Dark Stranger!
Your characters should all use different styles of humor, which will be an aspect of their
character. One character may be sarcastic, another may use innuendo, another might have great
zingers. One of the best things that made the TV show Friends work was that each character has a
very distinctive type of humor. A "Chandler line" had a much different style of humor than a "Phoebe
line". You can actually cover the character slugs on a Friends script and know exactly which
character belongs to what line.
Three of my favorite stand up comics are Wendy Liebman, Steven Wright and Louis Black.
Liebman is the master of the last minute reversal. She makes a statement, then tacks on a couple of
words that change the meaning of everything she's said so far. Her humor is based on a twist at the
end of a sentence. I'm a writer. I write checks. Mostly fiction. And I'm 23 years old and I just
found my first gray hair... on my chest. And Most of my childhood is a big blur... I needed better
glasses. And My mother is an actress... I was raised by her understudy.
Wright creates bizarre images through wordplay - I love the idea of being so drunk you use your
car keys in the front door of your house... and it starts up! I have a decaffeinated coffee table. You'd
never know it to look at it. And I bought some powdered water, but I don't know what to add to it.
And Right now I'm having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I've forgotten this before.
And the one about the restaurant that serves breakfast any time, so he ordered French toast during the
Renaissance.
Black begins speaking calmly and then gets so steamed up by his stories he can hardly contain
himself. His humor is all based on how really stupid the world can be. Each of these comics requires
a different kind of joke. You couldn't swap their material - their delivery and persona are based on a
specific type of humor. Each of your characters needs a sense of humor that fits their persona, their
character... and you want each character's humor to tickle a different funny bone.
One of the most popular film comedy teams of all time is the Marx Brothers, because each
supplied a different kind of humor. Zeppo Marx was the group's straight man usually the romantic
lead in their films. Though you may not think supplying the set ups to jokes and looking handsome is a
style of humor, but Zeppo was the normal one in a family of lunatics. When you put a lunatic in a
crazy situation, you lose the contrast and conflict that help top create humor so we *need*
characters like Zeppo and Margaret Dumont to make the *situations* funny. Groucho Marx was the
verbal wit the king of the one liner. He had a clever zinger for everything. A master of wordplay, he
could joke circles around any character. Harpo Marx never said a word his area of expertize was
slapstick, physical humor and visual humor. In Horsefeathers in order to gain entrance to a
speakeasy you needed to say the password swordfish - so Harpo pulls a sword and a fish from his
pocket and gains entrance. Harpo's pockets could hold *anything*! He was also expert at all kinds of
physical comedy in the film Love Happy and Duck Soup and an episode of I Love Lucy he
did his famous mirror gag where he would perfectly mimic the movements of someone else, as if he
were their reflection in a mirror. Chico Marx had a completely different kind of humor based on
malaprops and misunderstandings. Though his humor style is what David Letterman might call dumb
guy, Chico's character was a sly schemer who thought he was more clever than he was... so his
schemes usually backfired on him.
The great thing about the Marx Brothers was that no matter what kind of humor made you laugh
it was represented by one of the brothers. If you didn't find sight gags funny, wait a minute and Grouch
will come in with some clever wordplay! This variety of humor styles is the key to the success of TV
shows like Friends and movies like Hangover. If you are writing a comedy film (or any other
genre) make sure each character has their own distinctive style of comedy so that everyone's
funnybone can be tickled.
29) SHORTEST DISTANCE BETWEEN POINTS
All "set-ups" should be completely invisible. One of the reason why we're writers is that we
come up with a great response line... two days later. So we get a chance to look brilliant on the page
by zinging that line back immediately. Sometimes the line we're responding to (the "set-up") is too
obvious, allowing the audience to predict the punchline. Sometimes the "set up" is so complicated
we're still string to figure it out and miss the witty response. Make sure your "set ups" are short and
concise. If a witty response requires a complicated or obvious "set up", it's not a good line. Get rid of
it! No matter how funny the response is, if the audience has to WORK to get to it, they aren't going to
laugh.
One culprit in bad "set ups" is exposition - you're "Laying pipe" in the most obvious way. "Are
you the only one who saw the car accident happen?" could be "Anybody else there?" You're trying to
pack all of the information in one character's dialogue, so that the other gets the zinger line - a
mistake! Instead, turn the "set up" into a conversation - giving each participant a smaller piece. You
never want the audience to know you're setting up *anything*. You aren't supposed to be steering the
dialogue, the characters are supposed to be coming up with these lines spontaneously!
30) STINGER IN THE TAIL
A scorpion has their stinger in the tail, not in the middle... and a good line of dialogue should be
the same. That important piece of information or twist or big reveal needs to be at the very end of the
sentence. Often the most important part of a line of dialogue comes in the middle, and the rest of the
line just kind of peters out. You want to end *strong* instead of wimpy.
I have been sent to kill you by the elders. - are the elders the stinger? The elders have sent
me to kill you. - better, because the line ends on a strong note - you are going to die. That sentence
could still use some work, but it's much stronger. Make sure you put the stinger in the tail that you
aren't burying the impact in the middle of the sentence so that it just peters out.
31) CONFLICT IN DIALOGUE
Sometimes dialogue seems "flat" because the conversation doesn't contain enough conflict - or the
line itself may not be part of the conflict. You can spice up lines like this by putting conflict right in
the sentence. In "The Professionals" Burt Lancaster refers to a fellow desperado as "That magnificent
bastard". You might have a character say he "hates loving" his girlfriend. The words contradict each
other, and show conflicting emotions within the speaker. This brings a spark of life to the line, and
leads to some very memorable lines. This is an element of irony but kind of super-sized.
Your Assignment: Let's have some fun by coming up with phrases that combine two opposites...
and still makes sense.
32) THREE LINE RULE
A cousin to the Four Line Rule in description... this *used to be* the FIVE line rule, but after
talking to several development executives, it's been dialed down. Try to keep your dialogue under
three lines on the page (not three SENTENCES - three LINES). Wait! Why would there ever be such
a rule? Well, first of all there are no rules. All of these are just tools to help you improve your
screenplay. But any character speaking for more than three lines without being interrupted? Not
realistic at all! In real life people jump in the moment they think they know what you are saying
(which is not the same as actually knowing what you are saying) so dialogue ends up being like a
ping-pong match.
More than three lines without some character jumping in is probably a speech - and that's often
exposition! Breaking up a speech into three line segments with some action or some passive character
saying a word or two in between isn't solving the problem, it's just disguising it. Remember, dialogue
is *two* people talking! The Three Line Rule isn't a rule, so there's no points off for some bit of
dialogue that goes four lines or even five lines but just be on the look out for unrealistic blocks of
unalogue (one person speaking and the other person is either just sitting there listening
unrealistically or passively waiting for the person to be finished with their speech before
responding). There will be times when it makes sense for a character to just shut up and listen but
most of us try to get a word in edge-wise and your characters shouldn't be any different.
33) SPEECHES
There is nothing wrong with a speech in a screenplay... as long as it's as good as the soliloquy
from Hamlet. Your speeches have to be brilliant! You know the gold watch speech Christopher
Walken gives in Pulp Fiction? That good. You know the speech Dennis Hopper gives to Walken in
True Romance? That good. Tarantino can write a speech! The problem with speeches on film is
that they kill the back-and-forth of editing. When two people are having a conversation the camera
will cut between them and that will give us a regular change of image and also create a rhythm and
pacing in the scene. When only one person talks, the camera usually stays on them and we lose both
the change in image *and* the pacing of the scene. So the speech has to be so brilliant makes up for
that. If it's just someone talking, it's not good enough it needs to be the kind of speech that people
will be quoting a decade after the film comes out!
Those are difficult to write... but the good news is that actors love a great speech. I'm not trying to
talk you out of writing speeches, I'm trying to talk you into writing *great* speeches! Turn anything
that *should be* dialogue into dialogue, and save your speeches for something amazing that actors
will be killing each other for the chance to perform. If your speech isn't that great work on it until it
*is* that great. Speeches are like the nuclear weapons of dialogue you don't use them without
reason. If you are going to write a speech, I suggest you study several to see how the rhythm works.
34) INTERRUPTIONS
When you have someone droning on and on and on, it's natural for the other person to cut them off
mid sentence. But isn't that rude? And how do you do that in a screenplay? Well, the rudeness thing
hey, isn't it rude to just drone on and on and monopolize conversation? Oh, you wanted to know about
the script part, didn't you?
ONE CHARACTER
Will start talking and while they
are speaking
ANOTHER CHARACTER
Cuts them off! And you use a dash or
double dash to show that the line is
cut off.
ONE CHARACTER
-- sometimes you might have the sentence
continued after the interruption and you
use a dash or double dash to denote that.
ANOTHER CHARACTER
But what if a character just, you know,
trails off...
ONE CHARACTER
That's when you break out the ellipses.
Three of them. Though I have seen four
used when the trail off is also the end
of the sentence, though that's kind of
confusing to me....
ANOTHER CHARACTER
Why? That seemed pretty clear to
ONE CHARACTER
To you? But you're just another
voice in Bill's head! Like
ANOTHER CHARACTER
Like you?
Don't be afraid to interrupt dialogue and don't worry that the reader won't get what's happening. If
the dialogue will play on screen and the audience will understand - then it will play just as well on
the page. Give us the feeling of real dialogue, and the illusion that it's coming right out of the
character's mouths... rather than the writer's keys.
35) PREWRITING, WRITING, REWRITING
Often when I write I hear the characters voices in my head, which probably means Im crazy. I
know the characters well enough to know what they would say and how they would say it, and slip
into character when I write their dialogue the same way an actor might slip into character before
stepping onto stage. When my mind is in character, I can improv any dialogue that character might
say in their voice. I can write scenes that have nothing to do with my story, I can put together two
characters from different screenplays in a situation and have them speak to each other. Its like
magic... which is why the voices in my head probably mean Im crazy.
But it doesnt always come that easy. Sometimes its hard work and slightly mechanical. Nobody
cares how you write a great script, all they care about is that it is a great script. So distinctive
dialogue will probably take some work in order to look effortless and spontaneous. I often create a
character sheet for each of my characters with a story-specific biography along with favorite words
and sentence structure and attitude and some vocabulary choices. This helps me get to know the
character before I write the script, but also helps me stay in character while writing the script if I
cant hear those voices in my head some days. I can use it as a cheat sheet to make sure the
characters dialogue is consistent and unique throughout the screenplay.
I can also use the sheet as a guide to a characters dialogue in rewrites. But as I did with my
Detective in my assignment, I can also add distinctive dialogue and character in a rewrite as well.
Sometimes characters change when you are writing the screenplay, and you need to conform how the
character used to speak with how they ended up speaking. We want each characters dialogue to be
so distinctive that a reader can tell who is speaking even if the characters name is covered.
Your Assignment: Just for fun, cover the character slugs in your screenplay or some other
screenplay and see if you can tell who is speaking based on what they say and how they say it.
36) THE LIFE OF WRYLIES
Wrylies are the insider term for parentheticals, and there's even a whole play written about
them by Izzy Diamond (The Apartment) called Quizzically that I've seen performed by Jack
Lemon and Walter Matthau at the WGA's Words Into Pictures conference about 15 years ago. The
basic use of Wrylies is to tell an actor how to deliver a line... and actors hate them. Often new
writer's screenplays are littered with Wrylies, and usually one (or more) of three reasons is behind
this:
Basic confidence new writers often worry that readers won't understand what they mean and try
to spell out everything. Though there *are* readers who miss things, and directors who miss things,
and development executives that don't get things most of them will understand your intentions and
don't need you to hammer them home by over-explaining what the line means. They get it!
Trying to fix a bad line sometimes a writer will try to make a defective line work by adding a
parenthetical to explain what they meant to say. The problem here is that the parenthetical doesn't
actually fix the line at all, it's kind of a Band-Aid. The best thing to do is make sure all of your
dialogue works and is understood without the parenthetical. If the line isn't clear, work on it until it is.
Overly controlling and sometimes the writer is micro-managing the script and wants everything
to be *exactly* as they envision it, without the slightest difference. This line must be delivered
*exactly* like this! These screenplays are usually the ones with all of the shots broken out as well.
The writer doesn't want to leave any room for interpretation or change. Film is a collaborative
medium and everyone involved is some form of artist. Not only will they want to interpret your
screenplay, you will *want* them to add their artistic skills to yours. The sum is greater than the
parts.
The reason why actors *hate* Wrylies is the same reason anyone hates to be micro-managed and
told how to do the job they've trained their whole damned life to do. They have a creative
contribution to make to the film and want to be able to make the decisions that deal with their
particular discipline. I have seen actors cross out Wrylies before they even read the script for the first
time, and I have seen them *purposely* do the exact opposite of what is written. Actors and directors
and everyone else on a film are *just like us* - when you push them they get angry and push back.
Yes, people will tell us how to do our job and that sucks, but we can't expect someone else to like it
when we tell them how to do their jobs!
Plus, you *want* a good actor to use their talent when they interpret the line and the way the line
is supposed to be delivered. In The Killers (1964) Lee Marvin plays a violent hit man tracking
some stolen money. The trail leads to auto mechanic Claude Akins, and Marvin interrogates him.
Akins isn't cooperating, pretends he doesn't know anything... but he's obviously lying. So Marvin
ramps up the threats and you know the line was written to be in anger. It's the sort of line that
accompanies a pistol whipping. But Marvin makes an interesting delivery choice, and leans in close
to Akins, whispering the threat in a calm, quiet voice... and it's a hundred times more chilling than if
he lost his temper and shouted the line. The words are exactly the same but the quiet, intimate,
whisper makes it more powerful. If the writer had written (shouting) and Marvin had delivered it that
way, I wouldn't be telling you about the scene now. It would have been the scene we were used to
seeing instead of the scene that stands out. Let the actors do their jobs! Let the directors do their jobs!
But why do they have 'em if you can't use 'em? You *can* use Wrylies and no one is going to
kick you out of Hollywood if you litter your script with them, but we have a limited amount of space,
so let's use it wisely. If you think the line will be confusing without a wrylie use one. Sometimes
without (joking) or (sarcastic) someone really might completely misread the line. Now, some of this
can be done just with the introduction of the character if they are a jokester, the reader will figure
out the line isn't serious. But when you have a character who isn't established as someone who might
joke or use sarcasm says something that we misinterpret, you need to use a wrylie to make the
meaning clear. So you may end up with a handful or so in your screenplay. That's cool there's no
rules saying exactly how many you use... and sometimes you can completely subvert whatever rules
there are for fun. I read a script by the Dahl Brothers (Red Rock West) about a feud between two
lawyers that had a parenthetical after *every single line of dialogue*!
JOE
(I could easily stab
you with this knife)
Can I cut you a piece of cake?
Sure, part of it was breaking the "rules" as a stunt, but without the subtext would you have thought
"Can I cut you a piece of cake?" was a threat of violence? It can be played that way by the actor, so it
wasn't breaking any rules. Something like this where every line has a wrylie - is a fun read, but
the script never made (and I don't even remember if it sold). Like with everything else that people
call a rule - you can break them for a reason, just not because you are lazy or to prop up writing that
needs work.
37) ACCENTS
Accents are like Wrylies in a way they are often more part of performance than required by
the story. Usually whether a character speaks in an accident is part of the character, and ends up being
a decision made by the director or the actor. In many World War 2 films, Nazis spoke with *British*
accents! I have no idea why they made this decision maybe to make them sound different than
Americans, speak English (so that we could understand them) and also sound superior and aloof.
This carried over into Cold War movies sometimes... but sometimes in Cold War movies the
Russians had *German* accents. Huh? When Sean Connery played a Russian in Hunt For Red
October he had a Scottish accent. Even though Connery is from Scotland, it seemed more
pronounced than when he played James Bond so maybe that was a decision. Sound foreign - and
Scottish is foreign, right?
Usually just noting in the character description that the character speaks with an accent is
sufficient, but if you want to add the flavor of their accent to the characters dialogue know that a little
goes a long way. Remember, your goal is to have the reader understand your dialogue without having
to stop and wonder just what the heck that word is supposed to be. The occasional Y'all or foreign
word thrown in every few pages gives us the flavor without adding too much confusion. We'll look at
subtitles in the supplemental section later in the book.
38) DOES IT PLAY?
We all hope that our scripts will eventually end up on screen. That our words will be spoken by
actors and our images in our imagination will be realized in Technicolor. For most new writers,
writing is theoretical rather than practical. The story is anchored in our imagination with little or no
thought to how it might work in the real world... and that can be a problem.
Dialogue that plays on the page may not "play on the stage". This is often true with dialogue that
looks fine... but becomes clumsy when spoken aloud. If possible, you should always try out your
dialogue with a reading of some sort. Playwright Sam Shepard says, "A good actor always sets you
straight. If you've written a false moment and thought it was probably pretty great, the actor's gonna
show you (whether it it's great or not) when he gets to that moment. They are the great test of the
validity of material." Contact a community theater group in your area, or draft a group of fellow
screenwriters. Listen to how your dialogue really sounds, and identify any problems while you're still
in the script stage. The higher your script moves up the ladder of production, the more likely it will
encounter someone who knows how it will play on screen. Readers often have no experience with
how a script will play on screen, but directors and producers know what works... and what doesn't.
Eventually those lines that won't work on screen will be discovered, so let's try to solve the problem
before anyone notices it exists.
Here are some common dialogue problems that only appear when the script goes to screen.
A) Long sentences that don't provide any place for an actor to breathe.
B) Tongue twisters or lines with similar sounding words that might be transposed by an actor.
C) Word combinations that accidentally form puns - If a character in a bathroom says "You're in!"
the audience may misunderstand. Some sentences look perfectly innocent on the page, but when you
read them out loud they provoke laughter.
D) Homonyms back-to-back like "They're there!" Anytime you have two words that sound the
same in a row... or even the same word back-to-back in a sentence, you have a problem.
E) Multi syllable words that just don't fit in an actor's mouth like, well, mutisyllabic. Similar to
tongue twisters, these words are easy for an actor to trip over.
F) Words that create facial expressions at odds with their meaning. This is one that you may miss
in a reading. I had a story meeting on one of my scripts where the development exec wanted me to
change a line of dialogue. My lead character didn't want to get involved in a situation where he might
be killed and said, "It looks dangerous." The development exec wanted me to change the line to: "It
looks risky." She didn't understand that when you say the word "risky" you smile... and a smile would
change the meaning of the line. Instead of the lead being afraid, he would end up looking as if he were
happy to walk into danger. She didn't understand what I was talking about until she said the line while
looking in a mirror... and realized she looked HAPPY to be risking her life!
G) One sided conversations where the other person just stands there. That may look okay on the
page, but on screen that other actor has nothing to do.
You want to make sure that dialogue that looks great on the page can be spoken by an actor, and
*works* when spoken by an actor.
39) MY FAVORITE CUSSWORD
Dumb but true story: My favorite cuss-word seems to be "shit". In my script "Dark Salvage" I had
four main characters saying "shit" at sometime in the script. When they were dejected, or mad, or
frustrated, or hurt, or any of the other places where people us foul language. They all four used the
same four letter word. This was a red flag. It's MY favorite swear word, not the characters!
So I came up with three alternative swear words and gave each character their own form of
cussing - based on their character. I just used the REPLACE function, plugging in the three new cuss-
words depending on which character was doing the cussing. My favorite new cuss-word was "kitty
crap". It became really funny when it was plugged into some of the sentences. It took normal lines and
gave them character. Every time I come across a word or phrase used by more than one character, I
find alternatives that help display character... and make the dialogue more interesting and fun as a
side effect.
Your Assignment: Come up with some interesting and unusual swears.
40) THESE THREE
Remember, all dialogue should do three things (at once!):
1) Illuminate character.
2) Move the story forward.
3) Be entertaining.
The last one is the most difficult. You have to go over every line, and try to find an amusing or
unusual way to say it. That's the hard work part. Usually the first line that comes to mind is the most
obvious and dull, so you have to "mine" the line - dig until you come up with a clever or witty way to
say the same thing.
Movie dialogue should be all of those great lines we come up with the day after the argument.
Every line should be a "I wish I'd thought of that!" line. Of course, some lines will work and others
will be "just okay", but you have to try to make them ALL gems, or you'll end up with some "just
okay" lines and the rest not very good at all! Push yourself to do the best every step of the way!
It all takes work! Writing isn't easy!
41) MOST IMPORTANT TIP:
Remember, use dialogue only as a last resort, when actions won't tell the story. Film is character
in action.
NOTORIOUS
One of the best scenes in Notorious shows Hecht's talent for oblique dialogue. Instead of having
his characters say what they think, they dance around the subject. In the film, Cary Grant plays no-
nonsense CIA Agent Devlin who recruits Ingrid Bergman's hard drinking party girl Alicia Huberman
for a mission. The two fall in love before they get their orders - Alicia is to sleep with a Nazi in Rio
De Janeiro to learn what he's up to. This puts a damper on their relationship... to put it mildly. She
can't understand why a man who loves her would order her to sleep with another man.
In this scene whatever was left of their relationship dissolves. When she meets Devlin on a park
bench, both are hurt by each other's actions. Neither knows that the Nazi (Claude Raines) has
discovered that she's a spy and is slowly poisoning her!
Devlin has been waiting impatiently when Alicia weaves to the park bench and sits on the
opposite end.
ALICIA
I'm sorry I couldn't make it on time.
DEVLIN
It gets a bit lonely squatting on
a bench all day.
ALICIA
Yes. Rio can be a very dull town.
DEVLIN
Any domestic troubles about the
other night?
ALICIA
No. Nothing yet.
DEVLIN
Just a social visit, huh?
ALICIA
A little fresh air helps.
DEVLIN
You don't look so hot. Sick?
ALICIA
No... Hang over.
DEVLIN
(disappointed in her)
Back to the bottle again, huh?
ALICIA
It lightens my "chores".
DEVLIN
Big party?
ALICIA
Just the family circle.
DEVLIN
Sounds quite jolly.
ALICIA
It helps life in a dull town.
DEVLIN
You ought to take it easy on that
liquor.
ALICIA
Don't you find Rio a little hard
to take, too?
DEVLIN
Not a bad town... You look all
mashed up - must have been quite
an evening.
ALICIA
It was.
DEVLIN
Okay, if you want to play it
that way... Go on. Have fun. No
reason why you shouldn't.
ALICIA
That's right.
(pulls out his scarf,
hands it to him)
Here's something that belongs to
you, I should have given to you
sooner.
DEVLIN
What is it?
ALICIA
Scarf that you lent me once, in Miami.
DEVLIN
Cleaning house, huh?
ALICIA
Goodbye, Dev.
DEVLIN
What do you mean "Goodbye"?
ALICIA
Nothing - just goodbye. Fresh air
isn't as good for hangovers as I thought.
DEVLIN
Sit down - you're still tight.
ALICIA
I don't want to.
DEVLIN
Where you going?
ALICIA
Back... home.
So much going on between the lines! Devlin believes she's fallen off the wagon and is back to
being a "party girl". Her "chores" are sleeping with the Nazi - Alicia wants Devlin to show how
much he loves her by taking her off the case. But the line backfires - it hurts him to think that she's
sleeping with the Nazi. When he tries to show his concern, it comes off as if he's scolding her - which
pushes her away. When Alicia asks him if he finds Rio hard to take, she's talking about their
mission... But Devlin suppresses his emotions. He thinks he'd be a fool to fall in love with a drunken
slut and says there's no reason why she shouldn't have "fun" (now there's a euphemism!). That ends
the relationship for her. Alicia gives him back the scarf he loaned her the day they first met. This ends
the relationship for him. "Cleaning house" means removing him from her life, and she answers by
telling him goodbye. When she's says she's going "home" she's talking about the Nazi's house... That's
where she thinks she belongs, now.
This scene is a heart breaker. Devlin was the first man who truly cared about Alicia, and now he
seems to be rejecting her. Her new found self esteem disappears in this scene - not only does Devlin
think she's a drunken slut again, Alicia feels that way about herself. Their relationship was her only
hope... and it dissolves away to nothing in this scene. Both have been hurt, and keep pushing each
other away when they should be reaching out to each other. They dance around what they really want
to say in hopes that the other will make the first move... but each is used to moving away from love
rather than moving towards it. Each ends up heartbroken once more. Their last hope for love, gone.
Destroyed by the mission. Nowhere in the scene do they talk about their relationship... it's all
masterfully concealed between the lines. A great example of dancing around the subject they really
want to discuss.
PSYCHO
A superb example of intersecting monologues is Joseph Stefano's screenplay to 1960's "Psycho"
(based on the novel by Robert Bloch). This only seems to be dialogue each character seems to be
responding to the other, but in reality each is in their own private world talking about themselves and
not really interacting as much with the other person as it would seem. This dialogue *matches* the
subject of the conversation, but also shows how both characters really are alone in their own private
worlds... and maybe more alike than you might think. This is the scene where the baton is passed
from one protagonist to the other.
Marion Crane is trapped in a dead end job. Her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, is trapped in debt. When
he boss gives her $40,000 in cash to deposit in the bank, she decides to steal it... falling into yet
another trap. A fugitive on the run from the law, she stops for the night at the Bates Motel. When
Norman asks her if she'd like to have dinner with him, she accepts.
NORMAN
You eat like a bird.
MARION
(looking at the stuffed
birds in his den)
You'd know, of course.
NORMAN
No, not really. Anyway, I hear
the expression "Eats like a bird"
is a false.. false... falsity. Because
birds really eat a tremendous lot.
But I don't really know anything about
birds. My hobby is stuffing things.
You know, taxidermy. And I guess I'd
rather stuff birds because I hate the
look of beasts when they're stuffed.
You know, foxes and chimps... Some people
even stuff dogs and cats... but I couldn't
do that. Only birds look well stuffed
because - well, they're kind of passive
to begin with.
MARION
It's a strange hobby. Curious.
NORMAN
Uncommon, too.
MARION
Oh, I imagine so!
NORMAN
And it's not as expensive as you
might think. It's cheap, really.
You know, needles, thread, sawdust.
The chemicals are the only thing that
costs anything.
MARION
A man should have a hobby.
NORMAN
It's more than a hobby. A hobby is
supposed to pass the time, not fill it...
MARION
Do you go out with friends?
NORMAN
(resigned)
A boy's best friend is his mother.
You haven't had an empty moment in
your entire life, have you?
MARION
Only my share.
NORMAN
Where are you going? I didn't mean
to pry.
MARION
I'm looking for a private island.
NORMAN
What are you running away from?
MARION
Why do you ask that?
NORMAN
You know, people never run away
from anything, really. You know
what I think? I think we're all in
our private traps. Clamped in them.
And none of us can ever get out.
We scratch and we claw, but only
at the air. Only at each other.
And for all of it, we never budge
an inch.
MARION
Sometimes we deliberately step
into those traps.
NORMAN
I was born in mine.
Private traps... Both Norman and Marion are in their own private worlds, and the dialogue
reflects that. This isn't as much dialogue as it's intersecting monologue, Marion focused on her private
trap and Norman on his. They seem to be talking to each other, but they are actually talking to
themselves. When Norman talks about Marion's private trap, he's really talking about his own trap.
When she talks about deliberately stepping into a trap, it has nothing to do with Norman's situation...
it's almost as if she wasn't listening to him at all. It seems as if they are responding to each other, but
they aren't. Norman goes off on a personal tangent based on whatever Marion said last... and she does
the same.
Stefano uses the style of conversation to show the isolation of each character. By the end of the
conversation Norman realizes that he has to escape his domineering mother if he's going to survive
and Marion realizes she can't run forever... that's a trap in itself. She decides to drive back to Phoenix
in the morning and return the $40,000. Each has made the decision on their own. Bouncing words off
each other like a ball bouncing against a wall.
YOU CAN COUNT ON ME
Ken Lonergan's "You Can Count On Me" has made almost every critic's ten best list, has been
called one of the best films of 2000 by the American Film Institute, and was nominated for a Best
Screenplay Oscar. It's either the funniest drama you have ever seen or the most emotional comedy. It's
hard to categorize a film that opens with a horrifying car accident that kills the parents of a little girl
and her brother... but has you laughing out loud at daily life in small town America a few minutes
later. Ken Lonergan's screenplay has the most realistic characters, situations, and dialogue of any film
in recent memory. The dialogue in isn't filled with jokes, it's filled with the truth; and when we laugh
at the characters on the screen we are laughing at our own foibles.
Two decades after the accident that killed her parents, Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney) is a VERY
organized bank loan officer (she has a complex filing system for her personal correspondence) trying
to raise her son as a single mother. Her brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) is a dope smoking drifter who
has never been responsible a day in his life. When Terry comes to visit Sammy (and hit her up for a
loan) at the same time her long time boyfriend finally proposes and her bank gets a new by-the-book
manager, she is faced with more conflicts than she can handle.
One of the first scenes has Sammy calling her boyfriend Bob (Jon Tenney) and asking him out to
dinner... cut to them in bed after making love. There's an awkward silence, then she says very
politely: "Thanks for a lovely evening." The juxtaposition of the two scenes gets a big laugh, and her
line acts as a "button" - pressing the audience with an end to the scene that creates additional laughter.
The line also tells us a great deal about Sammy's character and her relationship with Bob. She is still
in complete control of herself, and doesn't let down her guard when she's in bed with her boyfriend.
What makes the line funny is that it is out of place in that situation, but completely in character for
Sammy.
AWKWARD PAUSES
Natural sounding dialogue is difficult to write. Real dialogue is often pointless or vague, but
we've only got 110 pages in a screenplay so we have to get to the point. Our introduction to Terry has
him hitting up his girlfriend Sheila (Gaby Hoffman) for bus fare so that he can leave her. The scene is
filled with conflict bubbling just below the surface. It's a situation created to turn the liabilities of
realistic sounding dialogue into assets. The conflict increases the more Terry beats around the bush.
SHEILA
Hey, Terry. Where'd you get that hat?
TERRY
I got it on the street for a dollar.
SHEILA
It's nice.
TERRY
It's pretty much your standard woolen
hat.
SHEILA
I had a very similar reaction to it.
TERRY
Uh.... Um... Can I get that money
from you?
SHEILA
Oh, yeah.
TERRY
Is that all you had?
SHEILA
Yeah.
TERRY
Can you borrow some more from your
brother?
SHEILA
Well, that would involve speaking
to him.
TERRY
You know, I'm definitely going
to be gone for a couple of days,
Sheila. I mean...
SHEILA
Why are you staying for so long?
TERRY
Because my sister is not a bank,
you know? I can't just show up and...
That's when conflict boils over into the argument we can see coming from the beginning of the
scene. Talking about unimportant things like the hat create suspense in the scene by keeping that
argument below the surface. He dances around the subject. The situation tortures the audience with
every awkward pause. We feel sorry for him, but we are also learning about his character. Terry will
continue to use the phrase "you know" throughout the entire script - two words added to a sentence
that creates instant colloquialism.
CONFLICT
Those awkward pauses and tangent subjects come into play again when Terry breezes into town
to meet Sammy. We know that all Terry wants is money, so to intensify the "uncomfortable suspense"
the sequence opens with Sammy cleaning house and preparing a homecoming feast for her brother.
We know her expectations for the visit are much different than Terry's.
TERRY
Um... So, you coming from work?
SAMMY
No. It's Saturday.
TERRY
Yeah, nah. It's just you're dressed
so formally.
SAMMY
Oh. No. I thought it was a special occasion.
Which it is.
Terry is dressed in a ripped shirt and jeans. The conversation gets off on the wrong foot, and
keeps stumbling. She asks what he's been up to, he's evasive. She asks why he hasn't sent a post card
in six months. Now he's on the defensive. The more she asks about where he's been, the more evasive
he becomes... until he finally says, "I actually got to confess to you Sammy, the reason why you may
not have heard from me for a while, is that... I've been unable to write, um, due to the fact that... I was
in jail for a little while." Conflict erupts, and it becomes more difficult for Terry to hit her up for a
loan and split. After he asks her for money, it just gets worse:
TERRY
Do you not even want me to visit now?
Because I can catch the bus at five O'clock
if that's what you want.
SAMMY
Of course I want you to visit, you idiot. I've
been looking forward to seeing you more
than anything. I told everybody I know that
you were coming. I cleaned the whole fucking
house so it would look nice for you. I mean, I
thought you would stay at least a few days. I
had no idea that you were just broke again. I
wish you had just sent me an invoice!
The last line is not only clever, it's completely in character for Sammy. But the preceding lines
are a great example of complex relationships: There's a contrast between what Sammy says, the tone
of voice she says it in, and what she means. There are layers to the dialogue. She says "I've been
looking forward to seeing you more than anything" - the words would make it seem she's happy to see
her brother, but she's screaming this at him in anger. Underneath that anger is disappointment - Terry
has let her down again. Her expectations for Terry form a layer under that, and her inability to control
the world around her is the core conflict in the story.
The dialogue grows out of the complex relationship between characters who love each other but
are completely different - even antagonistic to each other. The situation is what makes the dialogue
meaningful.
SUBTEXT
These layers of dialogue are called subtext. The first level of dialogue is the meaning of the
words - the primary goal of the speaker. If you spot an empty seat next to someone in a crowded
theater, you might ask "Is that seat taken?" But the tone of your question and your choice of words will
change if you are talking to a mean-looking biker or an attractive member of the opposite sex. There's
a second level of meaning - a second goal. You either don't want to get beaten up, or you may be
hoping for romantic possibilities.
Lonergan gives us several levels of meaning in most of his dialogue. In the passage above where
Sammy talks about looking forward to seeing Terry, who is she talking about? Count the number of
"I"s in her lines for a clue. Terry may think he's only here to ask for money, but there's a second goal.
He really wants his sister's love and acceptance. That's the subtext in almost every line of dialogue he
has with her, you can even see it in his admission that he spent time in jail. He's a character who
needs a hug, but doesn't want anyone to get too close to him. More on subtext in the supplementals.
SITUATIONS
Many of the best moments are scenes where characters don't say anything... but want to. Let's call
it "unspoken dialogue". Lonergan sets up situations where we know what a character wants to say,
then leaves it unsaid. Later in the film Terry gets some bad news and decides to extend his stay with
Sammy... finally breaking down and crying. She holds him, and we see the love between them that
words can not express. No lies, no accusations, no evasions.
Because Sammy's new by-the-book bank manager (Matthew Broderick) won't allow her the
fifteen minutes a day to pick up her son Rudy (Rory Culkin) from school and take him to the
babysitter's house, this becomes Terry's responsibility. One day Sammy gets a call that Terry and
Rudy never arrived at the babysitter's. She rushes out of the bank without a word of explanation to her
manager and searches for them. She spots Terry's car at a construction site where he's doing day labor
and prepares to accuse him of being so irresponsible and self-centered that he forgot Rudy... but when
she spots Terry she's speechless. He's teaching Rudy how to hold a hammer and pound a nail. Sammy
watches for a while, smiling, and leaves before they see her. This is one of the most emotional scenes
in the film, but not a word of dialogue is spoken by Sammy.
MISUNDERSTANDINGS
Good dialogue contains misunderstandings. Characters can't read each others minds and have no
idea where the conversation is going. Bad dialogue tries to push the story, good dialogue flows with
it. Terry genuinely likes Rudy. Maybe it's because they're at the same level of (im)maturity, but he
gets along great with this eight year old. They become pals and share confidences.
TERRY
You know, this used to be my room.
RUDY
Yeah... You want it back?
TERRY
No.
Gets a laugh. Lonergan's misunderstandings are sometimes funny, sometimes painful. Characters
think they understand each other but are often miles apart.
Rudy is the only character who can cut through Terry's evasiveness and get an honest answer from
him. The two cement their friendship when Terry misunderstands Sammy's childcare instructions on
purpose. The rules are Rudy can only watch two hours of TV. So after two hours, the TV set goes off
and Terry takes Rudy to a roadhouse with a pool table. A pretty rough looking place.
RUDY
I don't think they let kids in here.
TERRY
Well, we're not allowed to watch any
more TV so it's this or nothing. If
we get in any trouble, you let me do
the talking, okay?
RUDY
Okay.
TERRY
(to pool players)
I got a hundred bucks here that me and my
nephew can beat anybody in here, only we
gotta get the next game because he's got to
be in bed by ten o'clock.
Terry and Rudy play against two big guys. The situation is not only filled with laughs, it shows the
close relationship between the two. It's the most fun Rudy has ever had (Sammy's over protective -
she holds on too tight to those around her for fear they will be yanked away). Who would take an
eight year-old to a bar and team up with him in a pool match? For money? They not only win, but
Terry lets Rudy sink the winning shot.
TERRY
Just kiss it.
RUDY
What do you mean "kiss" it?
TERRY
I mean tap it. Firm, but very very softly.
RUDY
Okay.
This scene leads to a misunderstanding that changes the direction of the story. Rudy swears to
Terry that he won't tell his mom about their trip to the roadhouse. But a friend of Sammy's saw them
playing pool and tells her... and she chews out Terry. Because Terry believes that Rudy "squealed" he
puts an end to their friendship. The two characters who most need each other have been driven apart.
LATE STARTS
Lonergan also brings us into scenes as late as possible, starting when the scene gets juicy. Bob
misunderstands Sammy's strange mood (caused by problem overload) and thinks she wants to get
married... so he pops the question. The scene begins with Sammy looking at the ring, "Are you
serious?" Not exactly the response Bob was hoping for. The more Bob tries to patch up the situation,
the more Sammy tries to avoid it. She really doesn't want to get married. Unlike the earlier scenes
where small talk heightens the suspense; here it would only get in the way, so Lonergan avoids it and
cuts to the chase.
He also gets laughs with dialogue reversals like this one that leads to a scene that clears up the
misunderstanding that created the rift between Terry and Rudy and Sammy:
TERRY
Want to smoke some pot?
SAMMY
No, I don't.... Why? You got some?
Brother and sister have their first conversation together without recriminations and anger. Neither
is trying to be someone they're not. Sammy tells Terry how much her life is out of control, and he
offers her good advice. They've switched roles, and the dialogue reflects this. She is the one coming
to him for help, and he's the one who offers her a hug and a shoulder to cry on. They've come full-
circle, even though we're only halfway through the film. I won't spoil Sammy's biggest problem for
you, you'll have to see the film. "You Can Count On Me" has dialogue that sounds overheard rather
than written. It's one of the best written films of 2000.
BRINGING UP BANTER
Men and women don't just talk in classic films, they often banter. Banter is short sentences that
bounce back and forth between characters like a tennis ball. Often banter uses clever put-downs and
witty insults, misunderstandings (often intentional), wisecracks, flirtation, and puns (often with sexual
innuendo). Each line of banter "tops" the one before it and it becomes a verbal war of wit. One of the
great banter techniques is to use symbolic dialogue like in this early scene from Double Indemnity...
PHYLLIS
Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow
evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.
NEFF
Who?
PHYLLIS
My husband. You were anxious to talk to
him weren't you?
NEFF
Yeah, I was, but I'm sort of getting
over the idea, if you know what I mean.
PHYLLIS
There's a speed limit in this state,
Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
NEFF
How fast was I going, officer?
PHYLLIS
I'd say around ninety.
NEFF
Suppose you get down off your
motorcycle and give me a ticket.
PHYLLIS
Suppose I let you off with a warning
this time.
NEFF
Suppose it doesn't take.
PHYLLIS
Suppose I have to whack you over
the knuckles.
NEFF
Suppose I bust out crying and put
my head on your shoulder.
PHYLLIS
Suppose you try putting it on my
husband's shoulder.
NEFF
That tears it.
See how they talk about speeding down the highway, but are really talking about sex? How the
lines bounce off each other? Finding that symbol for sex is a great way to create amusing banter filled
with wordplay and innuendo. Clever talk for clever criminals. In the classic Private Eye film The
Big Sleep the following horse race conversation between Bogart and Bacall is jam-packed with
innuendo.
VIVIAN
Speaking of horses, I like to play
them myself. But I like to see them
workout a little first, see if they're
front runners or come from behind, find
out what their whole card is, what makes
them run.
MARLOWE
Find out mine?
VIVIAN
I think so.
MARLOWE
Go ahead.
VIVIAN
I'd say you don't like to be rated.
You like to get out in front, open up
a little lead, take a little breather in
the backstretch, and then come home free.
MARLOWE
You don't like to be rated yourself.
VIVIAN
I haven't met anyone yet that can do it.
Any suggestions?
MARLOWE
Well, I can't tell till I've seen you
over a distance of ground. You've got a
touch of class, but I don't know how,
how far you can go.
VIVIAN
A lot depends on who's in the saddle.
Come from behind? Depends on who's in the saddle? Are they talking about horse racing or
something else? The Big Sleep was directed by Howard Hawks, who was the king of banter he
also directed our two main examples of banter, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Though
he didn't write any of these films (The Big Sleep was written by William Faulkner (king of run-on
sentences) and Jules Furthman & Leigh Brackett) he often hired the writers and was pretty hands-on
with this film since it went through a major *post production* rewrite, with a bunch of brand new
scenes written and shot after a disastrous test screening (yes, in 1945 they had test screenings). The
horse racing dialogue above was part of the re-shoots, which expanded the Bacall role from a bit part
into the female lead... and cut out whole characters to rework the story.
Here's another example from the film, that uses repeated words:
EDDIE MARS
Convenient, the door being open when
you didn't have a key, eh?
MARLOWE
Yeah, wasn't it. By the way, how'd
you happen to have one?
EDDIE MARS
Is that any of your business?
MARLOWE
I could make it my business.
EDDIE MARS
I could make your business mine.
MARLOWE
Oh, you wouldn't like it. The pay's
too small.
See how the dialogue bounces back and forth between the characters, each trying to out-do the
other? Banter doesn't require sexual innuendo (Marlowe and Eddie Mars don't hook up), but it usually
has that fast-pace and has each character trying to top the previous line. It zings back and forth and is
witty and crisp.
VIVIAN
My, you're a mess, aren't you?
MARLOWE
I'm not very tall either. Next time
I'll come on stilts wear a white tie
and carry a tennis racket.
VIVIAN
I doubt if even that will help.
(A moment later in the same conversation)
VIVIAN
You go too far, Marlowe.
MARLOWE
Those are harsh words to throw at a man,
especially when he's walking out of your bedroom.
Here's an exchange with the Sternwood's butler Norris:
NORRIS

Are you attempting to tell me my
duties, sir?
MARLOWE
No, just having fun trying to guess
what they are.
So, step one in Banter is: Have a quick wit! The great thing about being a writer is that you can
have a positively glacial wit, write down the funny come-back three days later, then use it in a
screenplay and everyone thinks you are a comic genius. If they only knew how long it took you to
come up with those lines!
BRINGING UP BABY
Bringing Up Baby (1938) is considered the classic screwball comedy and was directed
by Hawks and written by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach). Screwball comedies feature crazy
plots and lots of banter. See if you can follow this plot: Paleontologist David Huxley has a
big day coming up he is receiving the last bone (the intercostal clavicle) needed to build
his Brontosaurus skeleton in the museum and also marrying fellow professor Alice Swallow
(who doesn't want a honeymoon, or children, or sex of any kind)... but the day before he
must play golf with lawyer Alexander Peabody who represents the wealthy Mrs. Carleton
Random who may give the museum $1 million. While playing golf, ditzy Susan Vance plays
David's ball, steals David's car, tears David's clothes open, drops an olive that David trips
over falling on his ass and his hat (crushing both), and generally turns his life into a living
hell. This is the same sort of story we get in Something Wild and After Hours where a
straight-laced man living a boring life that does not include fun, meets a wild woman who
teaches him to have fun even though at times he think he might die in the process.
DAVID
You see, a PGA has two lines and
Crow-Flight has a circle.
SUSAN
I'm not superstitious about things
like that.
DAVID
(pointing to a mark on a golf ball)
You see, it's a circle.
SUSAN
Well, of course, do you think it
would roll if it were square?
See how misunderstanding is used to create humor? This dialogue is delivered rapid-fire fast,
bouncing back and forth between characters. Here's an exchange that works by having one character
with a single sentence and the next with a single word response, creating a rhythm. Oddly, the single
word response *slows down* the dialogue becoming a kind of punctuation.
SUSAN
You mean you want *me* to go home?
DAVID
Yes.
SUSAN
You mean you don't want me to help
you any more?
DAVID
No.
SUSAN
After all the fun we've had?
DAVID
Yes.
SUSAN
And after all the things I've
done for you?
DAVID
That's what I mean.
After Susan (Katherine Hepburn) completely ruins David's (Cary Grant) meeting with Peabody
she offers to take him to her Aunt's house in Connecticut, since she knows Peabody and will be
meeting with him the following day. David says no he's getting married and has just received the
final bone for his Brontosaurus skeleton. But Susan tells him her brother Mark left her a leopard
named Baby who is lose in her apartment... and pretends to be attacked. David rushes right over,
finding a live leopard in her bathroom!
DAVID
Susan, you have to get out of this
apartment!
SUSAN
I can't, I have a lease.
The leopard is tame, and loves the song I Can't Give You Anything But Love. Somehow, Susan
convinces David to go to her Aunt's house in Connecticut with Baby in the back seat... Along the way
they have various adventures, and once they arrive David and his clothes are filthy. Susan convinces
David to take a shower... then steals his clothes so that he will be forced to stay with her. The clothes
are sent out to be cleaned and pressed, but until then David is forced to wear her aunt's frilly robe.
And that's when the aunt shows up along with her little terrier dog George (Asta from the Thin Man
movies)...
MRS. RANDOM
Well who are you?
DAVID
I don't know. I'm not quite myself
today.
MRS. RANDOM
Well, you look perfectly idiotic
in those clothes.
DAVID
These aren't my clothes.
MRS. RANDOM
Well, where are your clothes?
DAVID
I've lost my clothes!
MRS. RANDOM
But why are you wearing *these* clothes?
DAVID
Because I just went gay all of a sudden!
MRS. RANDOM
Now see here young man, stop this
nonsense. What are you doing?
DAVID
I'm sitting in the middle of 42nd
Street waiting for a bus.
Susan's Aunt thinks David is insane, when David is out of the room (looking for something more
presentable to wear) Susan tells her that she is in love with David. Her Aunt says they have enough
lunatics in the family already. I suspect the character slugs in the above exchange may have given
away part of the end, since Susan's Aunt is the woman with the $1 million to donate to the museum.
But before we get to that, the Aunt's little dog finds the Brontosaurus bone and takes off with it
burying it somewhere on the estate. To add to the complications, Baby also escapes his cage and is
also roaming the estate... and may think George is a snack. So Susan and David (now dressed in an
English riding outfit) must find George the dog and have George find the bone before Baby finds
George and eats him. Do I even have to say complications ensue?
SUSAN
Oh, I'm caught on something - David,
help me, will you?
DAVID
Oh, no. That's poison ivy.
SUSAN
I bet you wouldn't treat Miss Swallow
this way.
DAVID
I bet Miss Swallow knows poison
ivy when she sees it.
SUSAN
Yes, I bet poison ivy runs when
it sees her.
Again we have repeated words that bounce between the characters and seem to speed up the
pacing. Banter style dialogue moves at a much faster pace than regular dialogue and is designed for
rapid exchanges between characters. Each line "tops" the one before it and it becomes a verbal war
of wit. The story continues with a crazy dinner party including Major Horace Applegate (Charlie
Ruggles from Ruggles Of Red Gap - see, it's all connected!) and they find George, the intercostal-
clavicle bone, runaway leopard Baby, plus they destroy the Brontosaurus skeleton at the museum, and
David realizes that Susan's Aunt is the woman with the million dollar donation... and that he has more
fun with crazy Susan than his stuffy fiance.
SUSAN
Certainly you can't think I did
that intentionally!
DAVID
Well, if I could think, I'd have
run when I saw you!
Bringing Up Baby landed at #24 on Entertainment Weekly's list of 100 Greatest Movies Of All
Time and it's still a lot of fun (and a great example of banter). The same director (Howard Hawks)
and the same leading man (Cary Grant) also made the prototype rom-com that also features rapid-fire
banter...
HIS GIRL FRIDAY
Though everyone complains about remakes now, in the Golden Age there was no television and
no DVD and BluRay, so once a film had played in cinemas it was retired to the studio's vaults.
Though sometimes an older film would pop up on the bottom half of a double bill with a new film
featuring the same star, for the most part there was no way for the public to see a film once it had left
the cinemas... So remakes were not just tolerated, they were often welcomed. The story would be like
an old friend dropping into the cinemas a few years later wearing new clothes. This chapter began
with Howard Hawk's The Big Sleep, based on one of the Marlowe mysteries by Raymond
Chandler (who wrote Double Indemnity - it's all connected!) but the previous Marlowe film
Murder My Sweet based on the novel Farewell My Lovely was actually the second film based
on that book made in the same year! And the version of The Maltese Falcon that starred Big
Sleeps Humphrey Bogart was the *third* version of that novel made within ten years! Imagine two
remakes of a popular film ten years after the original had been released!
Just as the second version of The Maltese Falcon featured some sex changes, the second
version of the hit film The Front Page featured a sex change which altered the dynamics of the film,
and made it unlike the original. Instead of a pair of bickering buddy reporters, His Girl Friday
features Cary Grant as reporter Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson his reporter
ex-wife... who is about to be married to the most boring man in the world, insurance agent Bruce
Baldwin played by Ralph Bellamy. Because Walter is still in love with her, he does everything to
break up their impending marriage and win her back.
WALTER
There's been a lamp burning in
the window for ya, honey.
HILDY
Oh, I jumped out that window a
long time ago.
Walter's scheme for keeping Hildy around long enough to make her fiance look like an idiot
involves a convicted murderer sentenced to be executed on the following morning and the reporter
who was supposed to be covering the story stuck in the hospital with a pregnant wife. Could Hildy do
him a favor and interview the condemned man? Only take a minute. Hildy tells her fiance about the
slight delay...
BRUCE BALDWIN
He's got a lot of charm.
HILDY
He comes by it naturally. His grandfather
was a snake.
Walter knows that Hildy is a great reporter, and she when she interviews the condemned man she
discovers clues to his innocence that everyone else has ignored... and begins her own investigation.
Which means she's working with Walter again, and he can work his magic on her.
WALTER
Wish you hadn't done that, Hildy.
HILDY
Done what?
WALTER
Divorced me. Makes a fella lose all faith
in himself. Gives him a... almost gives him
a feeling he wasn't wanted.
HILDY
That's what divorces are *for*!
The great thing about this film is that Hildy is no wimpy woman *she's* the ace reporter... and
she also gets many of the great lines. One of the keys to banter in a rom-com is that the two characters
must be evenly matched. These days women characters are girlfriends and wives but seldom
*equals*. Banter doesn't work if one of the characters is dominant because all of the insults become
less playful and more real. These scripts need strong female leads who are just as quick and clever
and *powerful* as the men.
WALTER
Look, Hildy, I only acted like any husband
that didn't want to see his home broken up.
HILDY
What home?
WALTER
"What home"? Don't you remember the home
I promised you?
As Walter schemes against Bruce and tries to win back Hildy, evidence mounts that the
condemned man Williams was innocent... and he escapes! Walter and Hildy find him, and hide him
under a desk right in the middle of the press room as the police search the building.
REPORTER 1
Any dope on how he escaped?
REPORTER 2
Maybe the sheriff let him out so Williams
could vote for him.
Everything gets solved by the end of the film, and Hildy comes to realize that she is not cut out to
be a suburban house wife her character arc showing us her gradual change back to investigative
reporter and she ends up in Walter's arms again.
HILDY
Walter!
WALTER
What?
HILDY
The mayor's first wife, what was her name?
WALTER
You mean the one with the wart on her?
HILDY
Right.
WALTER
Fanny!
Um, where was her wart? Remember that one of the elements of fast paced dialogue is sentence
length. You want to keep the sentences short and to the point so that they can be fired off like a
machine gun! Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page was made in 1931, this rom-com
version, then in 1945, 1946, 1948, 1949, 1970 (TV), and a Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau version
directed by Billy Wilder (who directed Double Indemnity - it's all connected!) in 1974 plus a
version about TV reporters starring Christopher Reeves called Switching Channels in 1988. Why
do they keep making it? Great situations and that amazing banter! Hopefully they will keep remaking
your script again and again because of your amazing dialogue. The techniques in this Blue Book give
you a head start now all you need to add is your own talent and wit... and all of those words!
Good luck and keep writing!
- Bill
BONUS MATERIALS
When I first decided to release the Blue Books on the Kindle, Nook, and other e-book platforms;
two things occurred to me: they would no longer be blue... and since they would be less expensive to
purchase in electronic form is there some way I could add material to them to make them even more
of a bargain? Charge less, get more! That's why I'm a whiz at business! Though this Blue Book was
rewritten and expanded, in addition to that I decided to add 4-5 of my daily Script Tips that contain
some additional information on the particular subject of this Blue Book (which is actually gray).
Since each Script Tip is only removed from the vault and put up on the website about every year and
a half (soon to be once every two years), being able to read them whenever you want is a nice bonus.
With the Dialogue Blue Book I did some integrating of tips into existing material instead of just
loading them all up at the end. That way, fewer of the following Script Tips cover the same material
and I can focus on material that is nowhere else in the Blue (gray) Book.
There are close to 10,000 words of bonus materials and that's like an additional 40 pages! Sure,
once every 18 months everyone in the world can read these for free but for every other day it is only
you and the others who own the e-book versions. Included in the Bonus Material are a couple of
articles that originally appeared in Script Magazine that you won't find anywhere else but here.
Bill
JARGON AND SLANG
A few years back there was a commercial for the Los Angeles Times entertainment section about
a film Production Assistant's first day on the job. Everyone is yelling at him to get something: "Get me
a high hat!" "I need a snoot!" And the burley Key Grip needs a "spinner" right away. The Production
Assistant looks up each term he doesn't understand in a little film dictionary, and gets what was asked
for... except for that "spinner". It isn't in the book. So he keeps avoiding the Key Grip. Finally, he
comes face to face with the big Key Grip who says, "I asked you for a spinner!" The Production
Assistant admits he doesn't know what that is, and somebody hands the Key Grip a coffee
stirrer...which he puts in his cup and spins. Everybody laughs.
That commercial was not only a good illustration of story, it's a good illustration of the difference
between JARGON and SLANG.
JARGON is the technical terms used in a specific occupation. George Bernard Shaw once
quipped that "Every profession is a conspiracy against the layman." On ER we hear doctors talk about
contusions and lacerations and hemorrhaging and BPs and sinus rhythms. We can translate those terms
into bruises and cuts and bleeding and blood pressure and heart beat rates... but then we wouldn't
sound like doctors! Each of those terms is a real word or abbreviation of words that has an actual
meaning. We can go to any ER in the world and the same terms will be used. Jargon are words with a
specific meaning used in a specific occupation. Because they aren't "made up" you can't substitute one
term for another or make up a term that "sounds cool". You can't have Dr. Carter ask for a "red sauce
test" instead of an "ESR". You CAN have him ask for a "sed rate test" - that's also medical jargon for
an Erythrocyte Sedidentation Rate test which tests the rate at which red blood cells settle. It's part of
the standard "blood work" done by the lab. Jargon words have actual meanings that people within that
occupation all understand.
SLANG is made up words. Though these words may actually be understood by others in the
occupation, they are not based on read words or abbreviations. On the TV show NYPD Blue Andy
call crooks "skels" - that's slang. According to William Safire "it is a shortening of (slang term)
skellum, meaning a rascal or thief". The word doesn't have a specific meaning - it's a blanket term for
low-lifes. Though a slang term may have its roots in a real word, it's sill a bastardization. It's
something that may not be understood by others in the same occupation - "skel" is only used in New
York City. Slang terms tend to change and evolve because they aren't based on actual words or
phrases. A "sed rate test" isn't going to change - it's short for "Erythrocyte Sedidentation Rate test"
which isn't going to change. But a "skel" used to be a "punk" used to be a "scumbag" used to be a... A
"skel" may be a "perp" - that's jargon for "perpetrator", someone who commits a crime - but not all
"skels" are "perps". You can find perpetrator in your dictionary but you won't find skellum.
It's important to use correct jargon when writing a script in order to be authentic, but slang is a
much different story. You can play with slang, make up your own slang. You may do some great
research and come away with a list of "real slang" used by whatever profession your script
involves... but if we've heard those slang terms before in a dozen other movies you'll want to come up
with something new.
In Clueless they could have used real teen slang, but created their own original slang which
made the movie unique. "He's totally Baldwin" is something we've never heard before... which adds
to the creativity and entertainment value of the film. Also, today's real slang changes so fast, by the
time your film hits theaters "bad" may have gone back to meaning bad and confuse the audience. When
you're making up slang put yourself in the shoes of your character to see the world as they see it. In a
script about computer programmers they insult someone by calling them a "crasher" because having
your computer crash is the worst thing that can happen. Even if real programmers use different slang,
you aren't being inaccurate because slang changes and evolves.
I'll bet actual high school kids were using the made up slang from Cluesless after the film came
out... but they still called them "S.A.T.s". Be accurate with jargon and be creative with slang.
Your Assignment: Your script is about people doing community service work cleaning up trash
from the side of the highway to pay off speeding tickets.
Come up with the slang terms for any 10 of these:
The road
The county transport van
The bags they put the trash in
The sticks they use to poke & pick up refuse
The shoulder of the road
The Sheriff who monitors them
The orange vests they wear
The fastest worker
The slowest worker
A habitual speeder who does this every weekend
The newbie
Paper refuse
Food refuse
Cigarette butts
Dead animals
Discarded clothing
The other side of the road
The white line on the road
LAME CONFESSIONS
You know Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers movies who jumps in to tell Austin and the
audience what happened, or explain how something works, or what Doctor Evil is up to? Well, Basil
has a cousin named Prompter.
The first rule of screenwriting is *show don't tell*, create situations so that the audience can
*experience* the story through actions, rather than have someone tell you what happened. Create a
situation so that we can *experience* emotions, rather than have a character tell you how he feels.
Use dramatic conversation (built around a conflict) rather than a big steaming pile of exposition.
Create choices that demonstrate a character's thought process rather than have a character tell you
what he's thinking. We want our film to be an experience, not a lecture.
V For Vendetta seems to be a love it or hate it movie. Some critics think it's brilliant, others
think it's awful. On a message board someone theorized that the folks who dislike the film may be
conservatives who don't like the film's revolutionary message. Well, I disliked it for completely
different reasons - I thought it was exposition heavy. And that's what most of the negative reviews say
(The L.A. Times complained about the "lengthy speeches", The New Yorker noted that "Theres a big
drop in excitement every time V and little Evey discuss life and art in the shadow gallery",
Newsweek said "Extremely talky. The Wachowskis' presence is felt not just in the movie's imagery,
in the slow-mo shot of raindrops and in the vapor trails that follow V's ching-chinging knives, but in
the endless scenes in which people sit around *explaining* stuff", the Washington Post called it "D
For Disappointing", the Chicago Tribune said it "grinds on, growing increasingly flabby and yakky",
and the Dallas Morning News said "V for Vendetta engages in lots of speechifying about the
importance of ideas and the freedom to question them. Ironically, though, the movie doesn't really
seem to have any ideas of its own.") - not much about politics but a whole lot about the endless
exposition. And most of those papers are not owned by Rupert Murdoch. I actually think the people
who love this film, love it for the politics and turn a blind eye to the many flaws.
I saw the movie with three friends on opening night, and none of us liked it. All of us thought the
same thing (which is unusual, by the way - we never agree on anything) - way too much non-dramatic
expositional speeches. "Let me tell you what happened to me..." And then we get five minutes of talk
instead of allowing us to actually *experience* the scene. And I have no idea why we got about a ten
minute grade school-to-death story about a character who really has nothing to do with this story.
Sure, she's oppressed, but she's also dead when the film begins. In scene after scene, characters
explain what is happening as if this is the frozen panel of a graphic novel instead of a moving picture.
When we have two cops sitting there talking to each other about the case instead of a scene where
the cops actually discover information through investigation, you know we're in trouble. The
detective in this film (Stephen Rea) never moves - he's frozen in a comic book panel, too - he just
stands there and explains what happened at the crime scene to his underling (whose only purpose is to
stand there and listen to his boss). In most of the scenes that two detectives are sitting in a room
talking about the case - not moving, and certainly not doing anything to solve or investigate the case. I
wanted to yell at the screen - "It won't solve itself! You have to *do something*!"
As for the film's point - they talk about it endlessly... yet managed to sum it up one line:
governments should be afraid of their people, making the rest of the endless gabfest redundant. I don't
need to be sledgehammered with the point in one talk scene after another... Actually, I'd rather figure
out the point on my own based on what the characters actually *do*. Actions speak louder than
words.
I read a review that said the film started great and fell apart at the end - I think the opposite is
true. The film started out crappy (V goes on and on with alliteration until I want to kill him... and it's a
completely static scene. Evey just sits there and listens for five minutes... do you know *anyone* who
just listens to someone rattling on-and-on? We get that's he clever after a handful of words, so let's get
going!) and continued to be an exposition-fest until Act 3 where we suddenly get something
happening... the masks are delivered and the rioting begins... and then we have a fantastic end with the
crowd wearing masks at the end fireworks display (and the underground scene - all of it pretty good
dramatic and cinematic stuff). I thought the end was good enough to make me forget to ask where he
got all of those masks and capes made and how he got them all delivered on the same day in a world
where the government regularly listens in to what normal people say at the dinner table.
In The Incredibles, the sure-fire way to get the upper-hand on a comic book villain is to get
them "monologuing" - but in V For Vendetta all of the characters are monologuing. Maybe those
long speeches work in a graphic novel where characters are locked into panels and have no choice,
but in a movie we need to find ways to express the story through *movement*. Actions. Doing things.
Exposition is the real enemy....
PROMPTER EXPOSITION
A few years ago at the Raindance Film Festival one of the films went to new lengths to have
characters *tell* the audience information...
Orphan was about a Boston hitman who becomes guardian angel to the daughter of
one of his victims. After murdering her father, he takes it upon himself to buy her gifts, set
up a college fund, and even name a star after her. For at least 75% of the script they have
no scenes together - each living in their own little world. Since the two main character aren't
in any scenes together for most of the film and can't have a relationship, let alone a
conversation, the script used good old Prompter Exposition. He's the character who is
always asking questions like "And then what happened?" and "How did that make you feel?"
and "I thought you two were friends?" All this guy does is ask leading questions! Instead of
having a conversation with the hero, he's only there to set up exposition.
Orphan has the hitman-hero calling his favorite operator at the Psychic Hotline
constantly so that she can ask him leading questions that result in pages of exposition. We
end up with a rambling internal monologue thinly disguised as telephone conversation... and
a dozen static scenes of a man talking on a phone.
Though you might believe a hitman might confess all of these things to a total stranger through the
anonymity of the psychic hotline, it still rings false. Nobody actually tells anyone what they're
thinking, what their most private feelings are. So even if it didn't bring the film to a grinding halt,
these long confessional scenes don't work. The obvious answer is to take these characters out of their
separate worlds and have them interact - to have a relationship between the two lead characters, so
that they can talk to each other... instead of each having alternating confession scenes (he with his
psychic, she with her boyfriend who only exists to ask those leading questions). The writer seemed to
be afraid of getting these two characters together, afraid of creating an actual dramatic situation! So
we end up with dueling monologues.
A few years ago I was at the Temecula Film Festival, and saw the feature Discord about a pop-
star violinist who realizes her music is being treated as a product rather than as art, and quits the biz.
She and her composer husband move to a beach house... where the role of Prompter Exposition is
played by an old beachcomber who is always asking her "How do you feel?" so that she can do a 5
page monologue about the commercialization of art. She also talks directly to the camera for no
reason, and there's a retired police detective who handles the plot exposition by either talking outloud
or phoning his wife or the police station to make a monologue-report. Instead of dramatizing the story,
the characters tell us what they are feeling or thinking or what happened when they were kids.
The big problem is that they are telling us what has already happened instead of just showing us
what happened while it was happening. We end up with a past tense movie where the drama has
already happened (offscreen) and we are left with one character telling another what happened. No
drama there - the conflict is already dead. The reason why screenplays are written in present tense is
that it's about what is happening *right now* - as we watch. Not what happened earlier. Not a
character telling you what he will do in the future. Movies are about *what's happening now* - as we
watch! So don't have characters talk about what they've done, show them actually doing it!
Our job as screenwriters is to find a way to demonstrate thoughts and feelings through actions
(something we can see) - and to *dramatize* scenes like so that the audience participates in the
emotions. Instead of one character telling another about an argument (that's telling), *show* us the
argument as it happens. Having someone tell us how they feel has no effect on the audience, we need
to create a scene where the audience shares those feelings. Our job is to give the audience an
emotional experience.
And no "speechifying"!
Beware of shrinks, friends, lawyers, phone conversations, police interrogations, people who talk
to themselves, court room scenes, voice over, priests in confessionals, dictating into a tape recorder,
and any other situation where Prompter Exposition might pop up to ask a leading question. Movies
tell stories in pictures, through the actions of characters and dramatic dialogue (with a conflict)... can
you skip the dialogue in your script and still understand the character? Do you have any scenes where
characters talk about what happened earlier (if so, get rid of them)? Is your dialogue actually
*dialogue* (two or more people talking)?
Don't tell us what happened, show us while it is happening.
BUMPER STICKER DIALOGUE
I was browsing Cafe Press and noticed dozens of T shirts for sale that sport lines of dialogue
from hit films. We'll ignore the copyright issues for a moment and focus on how amazing this is. A
screenwriter types a line of dialogue, and actor speaks that line on screen, then someone swipes it
and puts it on a T shirt... and hundreds of people actually buy that shirt and wear that line of dialogue.
They wear it!
Hide The Rum!
My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!
I believe you have my stapler
I want my two dollars!
Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho!
Franks and beans!
I am serious... and don't call me Shirley!
This is my boomstick!
Porch monkey for life (I'm taking it back)
How much for one rib?
Excuse me, I speak jive.
I'll be back.
Tomorrow is another day.
You're so money, baby!
If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.
And 7,130 others! Think about that for a minute. Then think about all of the great lines from
movies - you, know, the ones you remember years after seeing the film. The lines that bring back
memories of the film when you hear them (or see them on a T shirt).
Years ago, I was talking with Pat Duncan (Courage Under Fire) about what he called Bumper
Sticker Dialogue - those lines like "Go ahead, make my day" that end up on bumper stickers and T
shirts. Pat did a rewrite on my favorite Chuck Norris movie, and one of his lines ended up on a
bumper sticker! You don't get any extra pay for that, but knowing that something you wrote was good
enough to stick on the back of someone's new Mercedes is kind of heady. All of us want to write
something that stands the test of time, but most of us think about the entire script... how about writing
that great line of dialogue that everyone will be quoting for years to come?
No one really wants realistic dialogue in their film, what they wants is dialogue that *appears* to
be realistic, but really serves a story and character purpose. Movie dialogue should be all of those
great lines we come up with the day after the argument. Every line should be a "I wish I'd thought of
that!" line. Of course, some lines will work and others will be "just okay", but you have to try to make
them ALL gems, or you'll end up with some "just okay" lines and the rest not very good at all! Push
yourself to do the best every step of the way! Really try to come up with those great lines that people
will be quoting for years to come.
As I said earlier in the book, one of my favorite movies is Richard Brooks' The Professionals,
a western about a team of four of the best guns in the west who travel south of the border to rescue the
kidnapped wife of wealthy railroad baron. You could take every line from that movie and put it on a
T shirt! Every line seems realistic - it's exactly what the character would say in the situation, but is so
carefully crafted that it hits the bullseye. Here are some random examples:
"Your hair was darker then."
"My heart was lighter then."
"I have the highest respect for him... as a soldier."
"Certain women have a way of changing boys into men... and men back into boys."
"What's the proposition?"
"Well, you won't lose your pants... your life, maybe."
"Well I'll be damned!"
"Most of us are."
"These horses will have to do."
"I can make a horse run, but I can't make it do."
Those and many more are in the first 13 minutes of The Professionals (including the title
sequence). It's a great film, you should check it out. Dialogue like this may seem intimidating, but
nobody actually comes up with stuff off the top of their heads (okay, maybe a few geniuses can, but
not me). There are three ways to end up with dialogue like this:
1) Keep notecards in your pocket and whenever you come up with some great line of dialogue or
bit, jot it down. Eventually you have a few pages of great lines, and you put them in your script... as if
you came up with them off the top of your head. You may end up with ten years of great lines in one
script.
2) Rewriting. Work the lines over and over again until you come up with some thing much better
than that line that came off the top of your head. Most people don't spend enough time rewriting their
dialogue - really playing with it until they come up with something great.
3) Note that The Professionals great dialogue *is* dialogue - it is two people talking. Most
of those great lines are "punchlines" in response to the other character's "set up". You always want
the "set ups" to be invisible - part of normal conversation. But having a set up makes the witty
response easier - it is only half of the dialogue exchange, and the set up does some of the heavy
lifting. So when you are coming up with lines or rewriting later, don't think *one* line has to be this
amazing witty line, you have the set up line from the other guy that does much of the work... taking the
pressure off that great response line.
I always have notecards *and* rewrite my dialogue. Go through your script line by line and try to
find the most clever, witty, way to say each line.
ACTOR PROOFING YOUR DIALOGUE
Timing is everything in comedy... and one thing we can't really write. That is brought in through
performance.
Things we do control are situation and the actual words within the material. So that's where I
concentrate. I don't write comedy... I write movies that often end up starring non-actors who are pro
athletes. So I can not depend on the acting (delivery) of any line. I have to create an "actor proof"
script. A script where *I* do the acting through my writing. That means I have to create a strong
emotional situation that Wilson the volleyball could win an Oscar for. Then find lines of dialogue that
have double meanings or are packed with emotion - again, something that will work if the actor reads
it off a cue card in a monotone. Basically, my script is carrying the actor.
And that is not easy, but I think some of those things translate to comedy writing. The material has
to be funny just sitting there on the page, not dependent on an actor to add that zing that makes it funny.
That zing is the bonus.
Bonus - here are some interesting bits of dialogue from the same movie. Can you guess which
one?
"A pocket fulla firecrackers - looking for a match!"
"Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, "Hey,
Shrimp, rack the balls!" Or, "Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts." I don't want tips
from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players... In brief, from now on, the best of everything
is good enough for me."
"The next time you want information, don't scratch for it like a dog, ask for it like a man!"
"Who could love a man who makes you jump through burning hoops like a trained poodle?"
"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."
"It's a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it."
"What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?"
"You've got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!"
"I don't relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don't you just shuffle along?"
"Maybe I left my sense of humor in my other suit."
"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."
"Don't remove the gangplank, you may wanna get back onboard."
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do! That gives you a lot of leeway..."
"Crow like a hen. You have just laid an egg."
"Tell me sir, when he dies, do you think he'll go to the dog and cat heaven?"
"Start thinking with your head instead of your hips."
"This syrup you're giving out with... you pour over waffles, not over me."
Different characters in the same movie from 1957. Stylized dialogue, like from the film Juno.
Nobody talks like that, you say! But it's a movie, not reality. Movie dialogue has always been clever,
witty, interesting - that's why we quote it, instead of quoting what the clerk at Safeway said about
paper or plastic.
In fact, even in "realistic" movies, nobody talks like the characters talk. Realistic dialogue isn't
real - it's crafted to sound real, but more clever, witty, and concise.
You want the best possible dialogue in your screenplay - dialogue that shows us the character,
and is memorable enough that the reader will be talking about it for years to come... after they've
made the movie. Someday, you may be complaining that your dialogue is on everybody's T shirt or
bumper sticker... and you didn't make a cent.
"If I want your opinion, I'll beat it out of you." - written by Pat Duncan.
LOOSENING UP
Everybody wants tight dialogue, but nobody wants stiff dialogue. We want our dialogue to be
limber and relaxed. To do that we need to loosen it up, get rid of those complete sentences that make
our characters sound as if their 3rd grade teacher was in the room waiting to correct them. We want
our dialogue to sound, loose, unplanned and improvised... as if our characters were just making it up
as they go along. The movie Juno has clever dialogue, but it seems like characters are making it up
as they go along. It sounds "real" for those particular characters - and that is "movie real" rather than
real real. You want dialogue to have the *appearance* of reality, but not the boredom of real
dialogue. You want *entertaining* dialogue.
If you were to take a tape recorder out into the real world and record an actual conversation you
would find very few complete sentences. When I did this several years ago, I ended up getting one
guy who spoke only in belches - different tones had different meanings. That might be too realistic for
a movie, but an episode of West Wing once had Sam Seaborn replying to almost every sentence
with variations of "Yeah". Resigned "Yeah", enthusiastic "Yeah", bored "Yeah", and even that
special reading of "Yeah" that means "not on your life".
Usually I can hear the character speaking in my head (yes, I am crazy). But that doesn't mean it just
flows out perfectly, I still need to work with it. And sometimes a character starts out one way and
then something happens in rewrites that makes the character come alive... and I have to rewrite the
dialogue to fit the new (improved) character.
So many things are part of making dialogue sound natural. The main thing is to make sure the
dialogue doesn't have to carry the story - the actions of the characters tell the story. That frees up
dialogue to be playful and interesting. Also, make sure none of your characters knows what the other
*means* exactly. In real life we don't really know what the other person is after, so we're trying to
figure it out as we speak. Think of how lines can be misunderstood, how conversation can be side-
tracked to what the character *thinks* the other fellow is talking about. This exposes character.
Dialogue can seem stiff and overly mannered for many reasons. One is the over-use of personal
pronouns. In a novel you might have a character say "That might be dangerous, Joe" because we need
to be reminded of who is talking and who they are talking to. On screen that information is given to us
visually - we can SEE that he's talking to Joe. So calling characters by name is giving the audience
redundant information. Shouldn't he KNOW he's talking to Joe? If we can see Joe up there on screen,
why can't he? So go through your dialogue and try to eliminate every personal pronoun. Don't worry
about the audience not knowing your character's name - that's not as important as you think it is. We
never learn the name of Joan Fontaine's character's name in Rebecca... and that film won the Oscar
for Best Picture... more on that film in an upcoming Hitchcock book.
LATE START
Next treat your dialogue exactly like you treat your scenes - start when the sentence gets good and
finish when there's no more information. That means you'll probably end up with what my third grade
teacher Mrs. Klauser called "sentence fragments", but we aren't trying to get an A in English, here,
we're trying to create realistic sounding dialogue. Often I will go through the script and cut the first
word or two from each sentence. You'd be surprised how often these words aren't needed, and in real
life unused. Sometimes you have to keep an eye on this - as if often creates a specific sound to the
dialogue that might make all of your characters sound alike. You want *individualized* dialogue for
all of your characters, so you may end up chopping the first couple of words off the sentences for one
of your characters and leaving the rest alone... or maybe finding some other way to loosen up
dialogue for another character.
Remember that the root word of conversation is converse, and that dialogue is going to be a
verbal battle between two people - they are bound to cut each other off before they finish their
sentences.
Redundant information of any kind needs to be cut from dialogue. Instead of saying "I think that
you are an idiot!" a character is going to say "You're an idiot!" We KNOW it's what they think, so
that's redundant information. In real life, people use contractions and leave out words and jump right
into the middle of a conversation if the other person knows what they are talking about. We don't need
to explain every detail of things that happened before, we can allow the audience to play catch-up.
The audience doesn't have to know what the conversation is about before the conversation, you can
reveal important information DURING the conversation. If Jane is talking to Betty about her ex-
husband Jack, we don't need to have her say: "You know my ex- husband Jack?" at the beginning of
the conversation. If it's critical for the audience to know that Jack is her ex-husband, she can just start
complaining about Jack, and have Betty reply, "You married him" and have Jane counter with, "And
divorced him." Instead of getting exposition, it's broken into conversation. WE want our dialogue to
bounce back and forth between characters, gaining energy and momentum like a super-ball. We want
dialogue to move so fast that there's no time for those complete sentences our 3rd grade English
teachers would approve of. Get rid of stiff dialogue by loosening up your conversations.
Film dialogue gives the appearance of realism, but is *better* than real dialogue.
VOICE OVER
You may have noticed that Sin City has voice over narration. It fits the film's pulpy roots - the
old Film Noirs of the 1940s and Roman Noirs of the 1930s and 1940s. Tough guy stuff. But wait -
isn't Voice Over Narration one of the two big no-nos in screenwriting? Shouldn't someone from the
Film Police take Robert Rodriguez out and shoot him? Shouldn't he at least be kicked out of
Hollywood (or Austin)?
The reason why everyone says "Never use flashbacks or voice over narration" is that most of the
time they are used wrong. 95% of the scripts they read with flashbacks and voice over narration suck
because the writer used both techniques to plug plot holes with a big chunk of verbal or visual
exposition. The problem is, some of the greatest movies ever made have voice over - what would
Sunset Blvd. be like without that "typical monkey funeral" narration?
One of my all time favorite undiscovered flicks, Pulp starring Michael Caine, uses voice over
narration. It's about a novelist who writes tough guy action books, who takes a job writing the
memoirs of a real mobster... and the narration is pure tough guy pulp - all of the cliches. What makes
the film funny is that the tough guy narration is at counterpoint to the reality of the wimpy novelist.
Like every other bookworm, he's not exactly an action hero.
Often the narration describes him beating the heck out of the bad guys, while the picture shows the
bad guys beating the heck out of the hero! And that's where the much of film's humor comes from. To
remove the narration would remove much of the humor and kill the film! The story would still work,
it just wouldn't be *funny*. The resulting film would be a semi-serious movie about a writer who gets
in over his head with the mob... and a mob hit man - the late, great Al Letari dressed as a nun - is
tracking him down.
So - is voice over a good thing or a bad thing? If Billy Wilder can use it in classics like Sunset
Blvd. and Double Indemnity, why can't the rest of us? Is it something that only working pros can
use? Or must we give up our DGA & WGA cards and move to Texas if we want to use VO narration?
It's much easier for some Screenwriting Guru to say "Never use voice over narration" than it is to
explain *why* you shouldn't use voice over in most cases but *should* use voice over in other cases.
This is complicated, may be difficult to understand at first, but here goes:
1) Voice Over and Flash Backs are STYLES - that is, they don't just pop up here and there in
the story. The entire story uses flashbacks or voice over. Sunset Blvd. is a narrated movie - the
whole thing has a voice over. Same with Don Roos' darkly funny The Opposite Of Sex. The voice
over doesn't just pop up in the middle of the film. Look at any of those great films that use voice over
narration and you'll note that the *whole film* is narrated. One of the indicators that VO is being used
to plug a plot hole is when it only pops up here and there - right where the plot holes are. Hmm, that's
kind of suspicious! If you find yourself only needing the narration here and there, you are probably
using it for evil rather than good and you should probably just get rid of it.
2) Voice Over isn't used to tell the story - it's used to comment on the story already being told
through actions and dialogue. Remember, film is a *visual* medium. That doesn't mean dialogue is
unimportant. But if you aren't using the picture part to tell the story, you're wasting film. You don't
want a big chunk of narrative exposition telling your story, you want the audience to *experience*
your story through what the characters SAY and DO. If the narration is telling us the story, what
makes it a movie? Why don't you just stand in front of an audience and *read* the narration? Skip the
whole film thing. Moving pictures are stories told through *moving pictures*. Don't tell us with the
narration, show us - let us see and hear what happens.
3) You should be able to remove Voice Over Narration and the entire script still makes
perfect sense. We still understand every character's motivations, we still understand the connections
and relationships between characters, we still understand what happens. The script doesn't *need* the
voice over narration - you aren't using it as a crutch or to cover up story problems.
Narration is often mis-used as a way to get inside a character's head - it's thought balloons. The
problem with using narration to get inside a character's head is that it isn't *visceral* - it's
intellectual. Words have to be processed by the audience - we have to convert the words into
feelings. They aren't actual feelings. If I show you a man kicking a puppy, *you* create the feelings
yourself. *You* experience the feelings. No processing required. So you want to find ways to convert
thoughts and feelings into *experiences* rather than just have the character tell you about them. Make
the story first hand instead of something related verbally. You want to make sure you are using the
narration for the right reasons. If you're using narration to hide lazy writing, you're better off just
getting rid of it. If you *can't* get rid of the narration and still have a script that works, your script
doesn't work... fix the danged script!
4) Voice over is never used to plug plot holes... One of the reasons why Voice Over Narration
has a bad name is that it's often used to "fix" screwed up films. When they used to have a film where
the story didn't make any sense, or they had to chop a half hour out of the middle of he story for
running time, or the film had some other big problem; the studio would try to fix it with narration.
They were plugging holes. So Voice Over Narration became one of those signs that a movie sucked,
along with no critic screenings and the words "Starring Ben Affleck". Though so many *great* films
use narration, there are probably many many more bad ones that do. So when a producer sees
narration in your script they may worry the narration might be seen as a negative. Why buy a script
with a negative element?
5) Voice Over adds an *additional layer* to the story. Think of it as the icing on the cake. It's
not the cake. You can eat the cake without the icing, but it's even better *with* the icing.
The TV show Burn Notice is a good example - you could strip away all of the voice over and
still have a great show. If you have never seen it, the series is a variation on the private eye show, but
instead of a PI we have ex-spy Michael Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) who has been "burned" by his
agency: his identity erased, his credit history erased, his credit *cards* and bank accounts gone...
along with his passport and birth certificate. He can not get a job or drive a car or leave the country
or do anything that requires him to have an identity. He is stuck in Miami, Florida... so he rents
himself out to people who need problems solved but don't want to go to the police, as he tries to find
out who burned him and why.
The "B Story" in every episode has Weston finding some clue to who burned him, and the "A
Story" has someone in trouble coming to him for help, and he had his two friends - Hard-as-nails
sniper / ex-girlfriend Fiona (the always hot Gabrielle Anwar) and Boozy ex-military guy Sam Axe
(the always funny Bruce Campbell) - and sometimes his retired mom (the ultra-mom-like Sharon
Gless) help them out.
The show would work perfectly without voice over, because the VO is the icing on the cake - in
this case, footnotes. So the dialogue might be Weston saying, "Let me get a gun" and the visual might
be him opening a drawer with 5 guns inside, grabbing one and shoving it in his pocket... But the VO
gives us the technical details - the footnotes - on the gun. Make, model, stopping power, range of
accuracy, muzzle velocity, and anything else that makes us feel like insiders in Weston's world. We
don't just get the story, we get the detailed footnotes that are cool to know, but not really required.
You could read a whole book and ignore all of the footnotes - most people do. So the VO on the show
is not required... not the cake, but the sweet icing that makes the show unique and really cool.
6) Voice Over is often used with book ended stories - where we begin after the story is over
and flash back to the story in progress. American Beauty does this very well. Again - you could
remove the Voice Over from American Beauty and the story would still make perfect sense.. We
just wouldn't have Lester's funny commentary on the story.
Same thing with Pulp: we'd still get the whole story of novelist Michael Caine writing a
gangster's tell-all biography and meeting up with other mobsters who would rather he not *tell all*,
but we'd miss the comedy that comes from the contrast between the tough guy Caine imagines himself
as, and the wimpy writer he really is. Sunset Blvd. would work perfectly... but we wouldn't get
William Holden's sarcastic commentary on the film biz. That commentary is an additional layer - it's
icing on the cake.
7) Your Voice Over better be damned funny... who wants a cake spoiled by crappy icing? If
the Voice Over doesn't make an already great script even better, it's best to just leave it out. If the
narration isn't making a great story even better, it's just taking up space, isn't it? Because Voice Over
is never *required to tell the story* a Voice Over that doesn't really kick ass is adding weakness to a
perfectly good story. It will drag your whole script down! So make sure your narration *rocks*! Make
sure it's as good as Billy Wilder's narration in Sunset Blvd. - If it isn't as good as Wilder's - get rid
of it!
Voice Over Narration isn't evil. It can be used by new screenwriters as well as old pros. The
problem is, narration can be used for good or for evil. Using it the wrong way makes your script suck
really bad - and we don't want that. So use it with caution. Make sure you are using voice over
narration for the right reasons - to add that additional layer to your script. Don't give in to the dark
side!
MORE ON SUBTEXT
Layers of dialogue are called subtext. The first level of dialogue is the meaning of the words - the
primary goal of the speaker. If you spot an empty seat next to someone in a crowded theater, you
might ask "Is that seat taken?" But the tone of your question and your choice of words will change if
you are talking to a mean-looking biker or an attractive member of the opposite sex. There's a second
level of meaning - a second goal. You either don't want to get beaten up, or you may be hoping for
romantic possibilities.
A good example can be found in an episode of the TV show The Closer - Homicide detective
Brenda (Kyra Sedgwick) and her boyfriend FBI agent Fritz (Jon Tenney) have been renting a home
together in Los Angeles, and one morning while showering together Fritz suggests that they buy a
house, so they aren't just pouring rent money down the drain. He has even found a house...
FRITZ
Four bedrooms, ranch style, big backyard,
pool, custom gourmet kitchen.
BRENDA
And it's within our price range?
FRITZ
Yeah.
BRENDA
Where's it located?
FRITZ
New copper plumbing, new electric, new
roof.
BRENDA
Where, though?
FRITZ
Great school district.
BRENDA
Fritzy, where is it?
FRITZ
Calabasas.
Which is way the heck out in the hinterlands of Los Angeles County. Brenda thinks it's too far. The
discussion is interrupted by a call - and the episode's murder plot. But they get back to talking about
the house later in the episode. Brenda has come up with an alternative house in their price range in the
Hollywood Hills.
BRENDA
The house is between your work and mine.
FRITZ
Two bedrooms, office, pool, great views.
I take it, then, you aren't interested in
what school district we buy into?
BRENDA
I don't think we need to worry about
schools, really.
FRITZ
I see.
BRENDA
If you absolutely have your heart set
on a bigger place...
FRITZ
A bigger place has to be something we
both want. Maybe in this case smaller
is better.
Okay, folks - are they talking about buying a house? Or something else? The dialogue is all about
buying a house, the location and size of the house. But what they are really discussing is the future of
their relationship and what that relationship entails. Subtext is what's being said *between the lines*.
When I was at the Raindance Film Festival last year I saw a great film from Japan called
Vacation, about a 40 year old prison guard on death row, Hirai, who is about to be married for the
first time to a widow with a young son. In order to get two weeks off for his honeymoon, he
volunteers to be one of two guards who will handle a prisoner during an execution.
This film has a great example of subtext: Hirai and his fianc are meeting a weeding planner, and
the son wanders away. The fiance goes into a panic, and they search the grounds for him. Hirai finds
the boy sleeping with his drawings in a hiding place, calls his fiance on his cell phone and she comes
over. He picks up the sleeping boy, and his fiance asks if the boy is too heavy for him to carry. That
line is *not* about the weight of the boy, but about whether Hirai is really ready to be a father. Ready
to care for her child. Subtext is a second layer of meaning in a line of dialogue, often something that
can not be said overtly. Though this is a small story, the writing was complex and precise and very
realistic.
Does your dialogue have a second (or even third) level of meaning? It's not only what is said, but
HOW it's said that's important.
SUSPENSE? JUST ADD A WEAPON!
Keeping the audience on the edge of their seat is the function of SUSPENSE. Suspense is not the
same as action, nor is it the same as surprise. Suspense is the ANTICIPATION of action. The longer
you draw out the anticipation, the greater the suspense.
Hitchcock explained; "Two men are having an innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a
bomb underneath the table between them. Nothing happens, then all of the sudden, BOOM! There is
an explosion. The audience is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has been an absolutely ordinary
scene, of no special consequence.
"Now let us take a SUSPENSE situation. The bomb is underneath the table, but the audience
knows it... Probably because they have seen the villain place it there. The audience is aware that the
bomb is going to explode at one O'clock, and there is a clock in the decor. It is a quarter to one. In
this situation, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating, because the audience is longing
to warn the characters on the screen: 'There's a bomb beneath you, and it's about to explode!'
"In the first case, we have given the audience fifteen seconds of SURPRISE at the moment of the
explosion. In the second case, we have provided them with fifteen MINUTES of SUSPENSE."
Suspense adds spice to any scene - it doesn't have to be a thriller or action script. Comedies
frequently use suspense... many of the laughs in About A Boy come from the anticipation that
Rachel Weisz may discover that Nicholas Hoult is not really Hugh Grant's son. Every lie Hugh Grant
tells is a ticking bomb that we know will eventually blow up in his face. Even though you can use
suspense in comedies and dramas and musicals and romances, the most common place to use
suspense is in a thriller.
Unfaithful takes a dramatic scene and creates suspense just by adding a weapon. Bland
suburbanite Edward Sumner (Richard Gere) has discovered that his sexy wife Connie (Diane Lane)
is having an affair with a hunky SoHo book dealer named Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez)... and goes
to confront him. This is a dramatic situation made volatile and dangerous just by showing us a very
sharp butcher's knife sitting on the table near the two men. A deadly weapon within easy reach.
SUMNER
How did you? Meet my wife?
MARTEL
By accident. On the street. There was
a wind storm, she bumped into me and --
SUMNER
You're him.
MARTEL
She told you about that?
SUMNER
Yes. This is where you meet?
Martel glances at the knife.
MARTEL
Yes.
SUMNER
And she likes it?
MARTEL
Well, I guess - she never complained.
SUMNER
Do you stay in all the time? Or do you
go out, too?
MARTEL
It depends. Sometimes yes, we go out.
Martel moves closer to the table... and the knife.
SUMNER
She likes this neighborhood?
MARTEL
Yes. More exciting than the suburbs, I guess.
SUMNER
We've been married eleven years. We have
a son.
MARTEL
Yeah. She told me.
SUMNER
He's the reason why we left the city.
Connie thought it would be better for him.
MARTEL
Oh? She said it was your idea.
SUMNER
You talk about me?
Sumner picks up a snow globe near the bed.
SUMNER
Where did you get this?
MARTEL
It was a Gift.
Sumner twists the globe and it begins playing a music box tune.
MARTEL
I didn't know it made music.
SUMNER
Why would she do that?
MARTEL
Maybe she just wanted to buy me something.
SUMNER
She didn't buy it. I gave it to her. I'm
feeling sick.
MARTEL
You want some water?
Sumner sits down on the bed. In his hands the snow globe keeps playing the
tune.
SUMNER
I'm feeling sick. I'm not well.
I'm not feeling well.
Sumner SLAMS the snow globe onto Martel's head... killing him.
Just having that knife on the table instantly creates suspense. We know that either man might grab
for it at any time - and that makes the conversation exciting. Will Martel say something to set Sumner
off? You think that "more exciting than the suburbs" crack is going to do it - but Sumner maintains
control. That knife is right there - will Martel grab it and kill Sumner? Tension builds. We wait for
someone to grab that knife. We anticipate the action - and that turns a dramatic conversation into a
real edge-of-the-seat experience.
There is a great scene in Kill Bill 2 where Uma Thurman (the bride) confronts David Carradine
(Bill) as he is making sandwiches. It is a tense conversation, made *intense* by Carradine using a big
shiny sharp knife to make the sandwiches - you keep waiting for him to throw it at her. This would
have been a normal scene - tense, but not life threatening - if Carradine had been stirring tomato soup
with a wooden spoon. No threat from the spoon. But we know what he can do with that shiny sharp
knife. If Uma says or does the wrong thing - he could easily kill her. This ups the suspense... in a
conversation scene.
The opening scene of the classic Private Eye movie Murder My Sweet has Philip Marlowe
(Dick Powell) quitting work for the day, taking his gun off and putting it on his desk, then sitting back
in his desk chair and looking out his office window at the city... when he sees a reflection in the
window of a man standing behind him. A *huge* man. Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) enters the
office and sits on Marlowe's desk, next to the gun, and demands that Marlowe help him find the
girlfriend who he lost track of while he was in prison. Throughout the whole conversation, that gun is
between the angry ex-con and Marlowe - adding tension to the scene and creating suspense.
Eventually, Marlowe must carefully remove the gun without making it look threatening to Malloy...
even more suspense. The great things about this scene is that it is that typical exposition-filled scene
where the client hired the private eye, but with that gun on the desk between them we hardly even
notice the exposition.
Tension is unresolved conflict. The conflict has to exist below the surface, and it has to threaten
to erupt at any minute. When you throw a gun or a knife into the scene, the tension escalates.
Want to add suspense to your dramatic conversation? Just add a weapon!
FOREIGN TONGUES
Whether you're writing a script about an spy going behind enemy lines during the Cold War, a
comedy about a couple on the verge of divorce taking a package tour of Europe, or an epic romance
like The English Patient you're going to run into characters who don't speak English. How do you
write that in a script? Do you look up the words in a German-English dictionary? Do you write it all
in English and pay someone to translate it for you later? Or is there a special format thing to do when
people speak a foreign language in a film script?
The first thing to consider is your audience. A film delivers information to the audience and your
script should deliver the same information to the reader. What do you want the audience to know? Do
you want them to understand the person speaking German? Or be confused?
Think of your lead character. They are the audience surrogate. Do THEY speak German? Is the
audience supposed to know what these German-speaking people are saying? How will they know
what they are saying? Is your lead character supposed to know what these German-speaking people
are saying? How will he know what they are saying? Usually the audience and lead character get the
same information - so the answer to the above questions will be the same.
If the lead character and audience don't understand German, it doesn't matter what they are saying.
We don't understand it. They could be talking about their pet goldfish for all we know. In that case,
you might just say they are having a conversation in German (in your action), or maybe even do
something like this:
KLAUS
(mile a minute German)
BERNARD
(replies in German)
You don't need to write what they actually say, because the audience (and reader) will never
know what they actually say.
I have a script called Viper Force about commandos behind enemy lines who are discovered by
a patrol. They try to bluff their way out by answering "Da" or "Nyet" to anything that is said to them.
We have no idea what they are agreeing or disagreeing with. They get some strange looks from some
of their answers. Eventually they answer something completely wrong and the patrol draw their
weapons. We never know where they screwed up - we have no idea what they were being asked.
If we are supposed to understand what they are saying, you might use subtitles. But it's almost
impossible to create a situation where the audience "understands" German with subtitles, but your
lead character isn't supposed to understand. Can't he just look down and read the subtitles?
This was a big problem in adapting Michael Crichton's Congo - in the novel, only one character
speaks sign language, and a major part of the story is how he chooses to translate what the gorilla
says to the others. In a novel you can take us inside the head of one character, and have him be the
only one who understands. In a film everyone hears the dialogue and reads the subtitles - we have no
way of knowing who *doesn't* understand... so any subtitled dialogue is automatically understood by
every character on screen. This limits the way you can use language in a film. If one character
understands German, everyone understands German!
If your characters are speaking subtitled German, try this:
KLAUS
(German, subtitled)
No, Fritz! You put the potato down
the FRONT of your bathing suit to attract
women while at the beach!

You can also just say in the description/action line that the following exchange will be in German,
subtitled in English. Whatever is most simple. But it all comes down to the audience - what
information do you want to give them? If a character speaks German and the lead isn't supposed to
know what they are saying, it doesn't matter WHAT they say. If the lead is supposed to understand
German, you need to write the dialogue in the language the READER understands, but indicate that it
will be spoken in German then subtitled.
What do you want the audience to know? What information are you giving them?
AFTERWARD
I never set out to write screenwriting articles and books, I'm a working pro screenwriter
with a couple of producers wondering where their script is... But back in 1991 I complained
to the editor of a screenwriting newsletter that no one writing for them had ever sold a
script that got made... and ended up being an unpaid writer for them. Now I had to figure
out how to explain how screenplays worked and why they sometimes didn't work. Suddenly
I found myself writing about writing for a bunch of publications including Writers Digest and
Movie Maker and the Independent Film Channel Magazine. Oh, and Script Magazine. Some
written advice I gave some fellow pro writers ended up becoming my book The Secrets Of
Action Screenwriting and the Blue Book series followed. Once I began looking at how
scripts worked (or did not) I couldn't stop writing articles and now have a website and a
blog and about 7 books worth of screenwriting articles on my hard drive.
If you liked the information in this Blue Book and want more - for *free* - check out my
Script Tip of the day at http://www.ScriptSecrets.Net - there are 380 of them in rotation,
and when I get to 500 I'm putting it on automatic and going to the beach.
I also have a blog where I chronicle my adventures in Hollywood and talk about my
favorite films and generally complain a lot. http://sex-in-a-sub.blogspot.com Don't let the title
fool you, there is no sex involved, it's a terrible note I got from HBO on my rash Dive!
movie. You can read about it on the blog.
You can also follow me on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/wcmartell every once in a
while I might say something funny, and I often post links to articles from my vault.
And if you could do could do me a favor and write a review of this Blue Book at Amazon,
that would be great. I'm not asking you to lie and write a good review if you didn't like it
be honest! Any problems you had with the book will be used to improve the next version
(which you will probably plug right into your skull). But if you *did* like the book, if you would
be so kind as to tweet your friends, FB status them, mention it on message boards, Google
Plus your circles, and call everyone in your cell phone contact list at 4am while drunk and
tell them you liked it; that would be great! The Blue Books have always been a word of
mouth thing no advertizing, people who like them tell their screenwriting friends. So if you
liked it, please don't keep it a secret!
Because people always ask: The Secrets Of Action Screenwriting is coming soon to
Kindle, Nook, and other platforms (and paper, too).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William C. Martell just handed in the first draft for the studio remake of a classic 1980s
horror film, and has written 19 films that were carelessly slapped onto celluloid: 3 for HBO,
2 for Showtime, 2 for USA Net, and a whole bunch of CineMax Originals (which is what
happens when an HBO movie goes really, really wrong). He's been on some film festival
juries, including Raindance in London (twice - once with Mike Figgis and Saffron Burrows,
once with Lennie James and Edgar Wright and was called back to "jury duty" in October
of 2009). Roger Ebert discussed his work with Gene Siskel on his 1997 "If We Picked The
Winners" Oscar show. He's quoted a few times in Bordwell's great book "The Way
Hollywood tells It". He has written a column for Script Magazine since 1991, and is now
Editor At Large (which he suspects may be a dig at his weight) and has a column in every
issue. His USA Net flick HARD EVIDENCE was released on video the same day as the Julia
Roberts' film Something To Talk About and out-rented it in the USA. In 2007 he had two
films released on DVD on the same day (one from Lions Gate, one from Sony) and both
made the top 10 rentals.
His book The Secrets Of Action Screenwriting is an industry standard. Last year a
copy of his book THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING sold on e-bay for
$999.00 he didn't make a cent off the deal.
Mr. Martell has been interviewed in Variety (February 24, 1997), featured in The
Hollywood Reporter's first Writers Special Issue (February 1994), was the cover interview
in The Hollywood Scriptwriter (October 1996), and was interviewed in the first issue of
ScreenTalk Magazine (Denmark). Entertainment Today (March 23, 2001) named his
website ScriptSecrets.Net the Best On The Web for screenwriters... and his blog was
selected as one of the best by Bachelor's Degree Org.
Past students of Martell's big two day class have sold scripts to Miramax, George
Clooney's Section Eight Productions, Joel Silver Films, and the amazing Steve Robinson
took what he learned in the class and wrote the winner of the Nokia International Short Film
Competition, "Have I Passed?".
Mr. Martell has taught screenwriting courses at Sherwood Oaks College in Los Angeles,
for Project Greenlight in Los Angeles, at the Cripple Creek (Colorado) Film Festival, the Ft.
Lauderdale (Florida) Film Festival, the Temecula (California) Film Festival, several times at
the Santa Fe Screenwriters Conference along side Oscar winners William Kelley
(WITNESS), David S. Ward (THE STING), and Oscar nominees Chris DeVore (THE
ELEPHANT MAN) and Mark Medoff (CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD), twice at the Las
Vegas Screenwriting Conference along side Steven Katz (SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE),
Shane Black (LETHAL WEAPON), and Ross LaManna (RUSH HOUR), and three times
taught classes at the Sacramento (California) Film Festival.
Mr. Martell's book, THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING has been called:
"The best book on the practical nuts-and-bolts mechanics of writing a screenplay I've ever
read." - Ted Elliott, co-writer "The Mask Of Zorro", "Shrek", all of the "Pirates Of The
Caribbean" movies.
"William C. Martell knows the action genre inside out. Learn from an expert!" - Mark
Verheiden, screenwriter, "Time Cop", "The Mask" and TV's "Smallville" and Falling Skies.
"This book is dangerous. I feel threatened by it." -Roger Avary, Oscar winning
screenwriter, "Pulp Fiction".
"My only complaint with SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING is that it wasn't
around when I was starting out. The damned thing would have saved me years of trial and
error!" - Ken Wheat, screenwriter, "Pitch Black" and "The Fly 2".
"Finally a screenwriting book written by a working professional screenwriter. Bill Martell
really knows his stuff, showing you how to write a tight, fast screenplay." - John Hill,
screenwriter, "Quigley Down Under".
Mr. Martell was born in the same hospital, in the same month, as Tom Hanks. Many
believe they were switched at birth, and Bill should be the movie star. He lives in Studio
City, California, and can be found most afternoons at some coffee shop writing some
darned new script on his laptop.
THE BLUE BOOK SERIES
All are coming to Kindle, Nook, and other e-platforms soon!
#1 YOUR IDEA MACHINE -- How to generate great ideas and create that killer
concept. High concepts, hooks, clear concepts... and how to create them! 170 pages!
#2 SECRET OF OUTLINING -- Various outline methods (beat sheets, cards), examples
of outlines, pacing your script, more! Organizing your thoughts into a screenplay.
#3 STRUCTURE IN ACTION: THE MATRIX -- Learn basic script structure. 3 Acts,
Strange Structures.
#4 SECRETS OF STORY: LIAR LIAR -- How stories work, subplots, elements, theme.
using LIAR LIAR.
#5 FORMAT BASICS (under construction) ***
#6 HOOK EM WITH YOUR FIRST TEN PAGES -- Top tips to grab readers! Your first
ten pages, your first *page*, your first *word*!
#7 CREATING STRONG PROTAGONISTS -- Prevent passive protagonists! Top tips!
Characterization. Creating interesting lead characters.
#8 VISUAL STORYTELLING SECRETS -- How to show character without dialogue.
Show don't tell. How to make your screenplay more visual.
#9 DESCRIPTION -- It's 50% of your screenplay... Top Tips to make sure it's pulling
50% of the weight! Description (really Action) needs to be as exciting to read as it will be
to see on the screen.
#10 DIALOGUE SECRETS -- Learn the secrets of creating sparkling dialogue!
Individualized dialogue, subtext, realistic sounding dialogue, banter.
#11 SCENE SECRETS -- Learn how to tune up your scenes, link scenes, add spice to
existing scenes! What is a scene?
#12 SUPPORTING CHARACTER SECRETS -- Creating memorable supporting
characters. Individualizing characters. More!
#13 ACT 2 SECRETS -- Get rid of the Act 2 blues with these top tips! Why Act 2 is the
*easy* act to write! Midpoints. Character conflict Act 2s vs. Plot conflict Act 2s.
#14 WRITE A BLOCKBUSTER -- Write a big summer blockbuster! Using "Gladiator",
"Planet Of The Apes" and other examples!
#15 TITLES, NAMES, GENRES (under construction - coming soon!) ***
#16 GRAND FINALES -- Creating great endings for your scripts. The different types on
endings. Resolving conflicts.
#17 REWRITES -- How to cut your script, rewrite to strengthen character and theme,
and get your script ready for market. How to trim that long script down to size!
#18 RESEARCH GUIDE (under construction - coming soon!) ***
#19 TREATMENTS AND LOGLINES -- How to write a logline, treatment, synopsis, one
pager, leave behind, and one paragraph synopsis!
#20 SELLING YOUR SCRIPT -- From Query Letters and e-queries to Guerrilla
Marketing and from Agents to Managers.
#21 PITCHING YOUR SCRIPT -- Tips on the "Elevator Pitch", the "Pitching Pyramid",
longer form pitches and how to find producers to pitch to!
COMING SOON
THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING revised for 2011. The screenwriting
book recommended by Oscar winners and screenwriters of mega-hit movies. The Secrets
Of Action Screenwriting is the best book on the practical nuts-and-bolts mechanics of
writing a screenplay I've ever read, Ted Elliott, co-writer of the Pirates Of The Caribbean
movies, Shrek, Mask Of Zorro, and many others.
EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR: SCREENWRITING LESSONS FROM HITCHCOCK
Hitchcock films experimented with form, structure, and story, and this book uses twenty of
his films as examples and illustrations of advanced and experimental screenwriting
techniques.
Http://www.ScriptSecrets.Net