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More Than Words: Screenplay Dialogue

When it comes to dialogue, I find it helps to think of dialogue as more than mere words: there are so many variations of saying the same thing (especially when it comes to English and its many synonyms and dialects) that WHAT is said by a character is often more important than HOW, since the way in which they express something (or not, even) is often indicative of WHO they are (and thus HOW they would say it anyway… Phew – what a long sentence! I’m sure I could’ve said that a lot more concisely…. See?!). Anyway.

Many writers think accent and dialect automatically gives a character their own “voice”. My take? It does and it doesn’t – it depends what you do with that accent… Not to mention which one you choose. Some writers do loads of research in recreating an entire dialect, but I don’t think that’s a good idea because some dialects are really hard to understand. I’m quite used to Scottish, Northern and Devonian dialects for example, but can see why some readers find them incomprehensible. I think a few words of the dialect sprinkled here and there are far more effective. Some scribes can get hung up on parentheticals, especially ones that say stuff like (Northern accent), (German accent), (Scottish accent). Why bother? Of the three, which is this:

Any road, I never said ‘owt.

Or this:

And then I am thinking you lie to me.

Or this:

Ach, youse ned: I’ll kill ya.

It’s obvious, right? You may not know the exact meaning of “any road” (anyway) , “’owt” (anything) or “ned” (Scottish variant of “chav”) as they are very specific, but contextually it’s very obvious: “any road” is as if someone is changing the subject; “’owt” is similar to “nowt” (“nothing”) – but if you don’t know that either, the ‘never’ indicates “’owt’s” meaning; “ned” is clearly some sort of insult. You may also not know, as EFL teachers do, that German speakers often speak in the present continuous tense when speaking English (if not a fluent speaker) – but you still get the point this character is non-native.

Where someone is from counts for a lot when they are speaking. Whilst I have the kind of plummy accent that would make Kate Winslet jealous, if you listen *really* carefully, you can still hear the trace of an accent: I have short /a/ sounds to my speech – instead of “cah-stle” I’ll say “cass – le”. Most of my questions become tag questions: “Going to town, are you?” All typical of Northern speech patterns. I never lived long there (a year or so), but my mother has those very same patterns to her speech and unconsciously I’ve copied them. Weirdly, I’m the only one of the five children in the family to have done so.
But how someone feels about themselves also counts for a lot when they are talking. A strong personality will be more confrontational in its speech, just as a weaker one will seek to avoid conflict:

Strong: What did you go and do that for?

Weak: I was just wondering… If you wouldn’t mind… please can you not?

Two very obviously contrasting ways of speaking there. Similarly, people with delusions of grandeur will have particular ways of talking, as do people crucified by feelings of self-loathing – even when they seek to hide these feelings. What a character says, what they want to talk about (or as always, not talk about), will tell the reader a helluva lot about them (though you should not rely on it totally obviously; action plays a major role too, or should do).

Age too can differ when it comes to speech. Small children often speak very directly and get right to the heart of the matter:

Why are you crying?

Is that a bad man?

Do you want a hug?

And they are more confrontational, especially when it comes to questions, “Why?” being the most obvious. This flips upside its head as soon as said kid becomes a teenager: they will stop being direct, even go out their way to be INDIRECT. That’s why favourite catchphrases will crop up time and time again, “Whatever” being the most obvious there, though teens will often have their own idiomatic ways of expressing things, such as “durr”, “Emo” and my favorite I heard only this week from the teen across the road on her phone: “Kelly thinks David’s “oots”” – “oots” apparently meaning “handsome” or “gorgeous”.

As a character becomes an adult, it becomes a little more complicated; sometimes their role in life can affect how they speak. For instance, in real life parents may unconsciously copy their children; I found myself saying the other day, “it was pips”. “Pips” means “easy” and is used by my ten year old son. Sometimes an adult’s job will alter what they say: when I was concerned about the feng shui of our sitting room for example, my husband said “ the proxemics are all wrong”. As a fellow trained teacher, I know “proxemics” is the (ridiculous) word used by education theorists to describe how a room layout affects what happens in said room (ie. Learning). These two elements can make it into script dialogue relatively easily and obviously: jargon is a real favourite in cops and docs drama – I learnt “MI” (myocardiac infarction aka heart attack) from Holby City and “IC1 male” (white male) from The Bill years ago; this type of thing, used sparingly, can add to the arena really well.

An adult’s perception of themselves and how they believe others see them may also dictate how they speak – and it’s this which is more difficult to replicate in script form, since it sometimes relies on a certain amount of backstory. For example, if a character in your script has acted the class clown all his/her life but secretly yearns to be taken seriously, the last thing you want to do is pay it all off randomly and/or have a completely on-the-nose comment like “I wish you would take me seriously!” You might have to dig a little deeper to represent this and that’s where it gets harder.

As for techniques in identifying dud dialogue, I think it’s surprisingly easy (though fixing it might not be!) – you need to read it aloud or try it out. So few writers do this and it always surprises me. Whilst getting actors for a read through is obviously the ideal, that’s not a practical solution for every draft. If you have a sympathetic spouse, partner or friend to read parts for you – do it. If you don’t or your spouse is rubbish at pretend people ‘cos they go robotic like mine, (love you really, mwah), try working your dialogue into ordinary conversation. It’s a challenge but it works – because if it’s crap, the person you’re speaking to will go, “Eh?!” If it slips by unnoticed then – even if you change personality – then it’s good stuff. Similarly, write anything you like down, whether it’s overheard on the train, on the phone or whatever. Finally, record conversations if you can get away with it. Lots of mobiles have record functions – switch it on now and again for a minute here, five minutes there – see what you catch. Snatches of random conversation tell you so much about how people speak. Also, watch TV and movies with subtitles, even if it’s in English. You will soon see who can write good dialogue and who can’t – and be able to appreciate why you like it or not. I also think stressing about dialogue doesn’t help; I always think of it as the last thing to sort out, once stuff like plot and character begin to fall into place. Finally: don’t try and copy anyone. Joss Whedon is great, but there is more than one way to skin the veritable scriptwriting cat. If you develop your own voice, your characters will inevitably find theirs.

What do you do to make your dialogue shine?

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3 thoughts on “More Than Words: Screenplay Dialogue”

  1. No, no, no – never watch subtitles unless you’re watching a foreign film – and even then only if you don’t understand the language. More often than not they will abbreviate dialogue to get it on the screen or (in the case of I think it was a Kevin Smith film I was watching) just cut large parts of the dialogue because the actors were speaking faster than the subtitles could display so they gave the gist of what was being said rather than what was actually being said.

    You can’t trust caption people to put either what was in the screenplay or what the actors are actually saying.

  2. As always Drac, there’s ALWAYS more than one way of looking at something–

    Yes, subtitles are often shortened: soap operas do this LOADS for example. But it gives scribes an opportunity to make a comparison – which was better: what the actor *actually* said or what was put in the subtitle. It can make surprising viewing sometimes.

    And DVD subtitles usually say what is said in my experience because they don’t have to rush like TV people. And that in itself can make surprising viewing – for example, Alien, in which all the actors appear to MUTTER their lines all the way through revealed some very interesting differences in what I had *thought* they said and what they *actually* said…

  3. Arguably, if they’re muttering the words then the words don’t actually matter. Case in point (AND BEWARE SPOILERS BUT GET OVER IT BECAUSE IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT BY NOW YOU’RE NOT REALLY A FILM FAN) is the Usual Suspects. Benicio Del Toro pretty much mumbled Fenster’s lines and gave him that bizarre accent because he felt, given Fenster’s eventual fate, that nothing he said actually mattered – it was dialogue for dialogue’s sake. That decision on the part of the actor made what could have been an entirely forgettable character one of the most memorable in the film – even though you couldn’t understand a damn word he was saying. Similarly Alien. Yes a lot of the dialogue is mumbled and incoherent but mostly it’s just guff anyway.

    You’re right, there is always more than one opinion. I steer clear of subtitles for a lot of reasons. I’d rather sit there with a copy of the screenplay and see what changed between script and what ended up in the film.

    Anyway, enough about subtitles. I’ll get back to some of your other points later.

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