THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
WHAT IS DIALOGUE?
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.
INT. ARCHER'S CAR - MOVING - DAY
Sipping a beer, Castor cruises past the suburban bliss: men
on hanmocks; women chatting; kids playing tag.
Jesus, what a life.
Castor tries to catch a street address and rolls past ...
Dressed for work, Eve watches blandly as the car goes by.
A moment later, it backs up and parks.
Hiding the beer can, Castor forces a sheepish smile - and
gets out. She doesn't smile back.
I suppose it was only a
matter of time before you
forgot where we lived.
Sorry -- the job's been
Castor looks her over -- she's much sexier than he expected.
So what happened to your
What do you know about it?
I know exactly what you always
tell me: Absolutely nothing.
It didn't work out the way
everyone thought it would.
Where are you off to?
I've got surgery.
Surgery -- are you okay?
Then he spots her medical bag. Oops.
Don't try to Charm me --
I'm still angry. There're
leftovers in the fridge.
Have fun at work.
Castor kisses her goodbye -- on the mouth.
What is with you?
Don't I usually kiss my wife?
Castor reacts as she gets in the car and pulls out.
BOTH SIDES NOW
It’s important to look at dialogue from both sides - from the minds of both characters - and to try and avoid the writer’s side. Yes, that sounds impossible, because you are the writer. But not being able to see the dialogue from each character’s perspective is what leads to terrible dialogue - and I don’t think the writer wants that. So you have to get into character and look at what Character A said and make sure that it reflects who they are and what they need or want and all of the other elements of that specific character, and then look at what Character B says in the scene through Character A’s eyes - and react using *only* Character A’s knowledge of what is being said. Character A will *hear* what is being said and *process* what is being said through their experiences and character and knowledge of what is happening in the story - they don’t know everything that is happening in the story (like the writer) they only know what they have experienced. So their reactions - and their dialogue - will be unique to their perspective.
And once you have done this, go back again and get into character as Character B and do it all over again - you only know what Character B knows. Character B is fighting for their wants and needs - their own agenda - and they see everything that Character A says to them through that lens. They react - their dialogue - is in response to what they *think* Character A says and means, not what Character A actually says and means. Each character sees the scene from their individual perspective, *not* through the writer’s perspective, and *not* to service the story or plot (this is why the characters need to be the right characters for the story - they will naturally be illustrating some side of the story, even if they go “off track”). The dialogue and the responses are from the specific character’s experience and knowledge of the story - which is limited. You, as the writer, know everything about the story, but each of your characters only know what they have seen or heard... or what they are seeing. Their dialogue reflects this.
The FACE / OFF scene is a great example of this - because each character only knows their part of the story and has no idea what the other character knows or is thinking or wants or needs. They react using only their perspective... and here we have a mistaken identity element. Eve doesn’t know that this isn’t her husband (Archer), and Castor (as Archer) is trying to respond correctly and get information from Eve that will help him blend in. Which brings up...
TALK IS A BATTLEFIELD
Story is conflict, so if there is no conflict in a conversation it becomes very dull very fast. Some conflict in dialogue is obvious, some - like in this example - is sneaky. The conflict is that Castor doesn’t want to be discovered as a fraud... and Eve thinks that he is acting strange and wonders why. Castor has no idea what Archer’s relationship is with Eve, and he is finding out things in this scene by poking around in the dark until he gets a reaction. Eve is angry at the her husband - their marriage has been on the rocks since their son was killed and her husband changed into a revenge machine who has no time for being a husband or father. So each is doing a bit of subtle jousting in this scene - poking away at each other to get a response. Eve drives the scene - she is pissed off at her husband and keeps poking at him... and what makes this scene great is that the *audience* knows that this man who she thinks is her husband Archer drove right past their house because he’s never been there before, but Eve doesn’t know this. The scene creates suspense because we worry that she may discover that this is not her husband Archer, but Castor - the man who murdered their son - and how will Castor react to that? So this whole conversation is filled with danger and tension... because of “audience superiority” - we know something that one of the character does not.
But as Eve verbally spars with the man who she thinks is her husband, Castor must parry to defend himself while getting in his own jabs as a way to get information on this role that he is playing. This is a battle scene - with words. The battle is subtle - because Castor doesn’t want Eve to know his secret - and that secret is one of the things that he is defending in this battle. But Castor, who is on the defensive in the scene, is the more dangerous of the two - so this scene is like a toddler playing with a tiger and calling it “big kitty” - you worry what will happen if the kid does the wrong thing and pokes the tiger in the nose. It’s a battle... and so is every dialogue scene in your screenplay.
Remember: Your character only knows what they know.
The additional element in this scene is that the dialogue is amusing - the misunderstandings that create suspense are also funny... and that comes from point of view. I love the surgery misunderstanding because it’s a moment where Castor steps into danger by not knowing one of the basic things about Eve that her husband Archer has always known - she’s a doctor, a surgeon. Castor not only doesn’t know this, he also has his own limited perspective on women - as a terrorist for hire, his women are all basically playthings. He isn’t looking for his equal - what if she double crossed him? He thinks that other men think the same way as he does - and that Archer’s wife will be a housewife like in some 1950s TV show. Certainly not a *doctor*, and the idea that she could be a surgeon is beyond his personal experience and knowledge. So his reaction to her line about surgery doesn’t even consider that she might be the surgeon and not the patient - of course she’s a patient!
But other places where Castor’s character and life experiences comes through in the dialogue is his clever lines - “The job’s been murder lately” - though something that Castor thinks a guy who lives in suburbia might say, it’s also an accurate description of a terrorist for hire and assassin’s job. Castor thinks that he is always in control of the situation, so he can joke like this - play with those who are future potential victims. He goes into the conversation thinking that he will be able to easily fool this housewife, and comes out of it realizing that he is now in a minefield with a woman who may be his intellectual equal. But she doesn’t know his secret...
Your Story Checklist:
1) Make sure that there is no “mind reading” in your dialogue scenes - where one character knows exactly what the next person is going to say and has a response handy.
2) Eliminate any “set ups” - where one of the character’s dialogue is nothing but lines designed to set up the other character’s brilliant response.
3) Remember that it’s a battle - each character wants something in a scene and is poking around trying to get it.
4) Look at the dialogue from each character’s perspective - does it reflect thier limited knowledge of the story... and their specific character?
5) The “bounce” of misunderstandings - does each character react to what is being said to them *as that character*, leading to realistic misunderstandings?
Does each line of dialogue change the direction of the
conversation? Is there INTERACTION between your characters? Have
you written DIalogue and CONversation, or just alternating
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E BOOKS PAGE
E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of
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will soon be novels.
E BOOKS: BLUE BOOKS & NOVELLETES
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