LSF report #5: The Art and Craft of Dialogue

4 Nov
Claudia Myers, Professor of Film and Media Studies at the American University's School of Communication

Claudia Myers, Professor of Film and Media Studies at the American University’s School of Communication

One for the writers among my readers. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival, I attended a seminar on The Art and Craft of Dialogue, given by Claudia Myers, professor of Film and Media Arts and writer of three produced feature films. She started off with what makes a good scene:

1. Each scene (unless it’s just crossing the road to the grocery store!) should have a beginning, middle and end, mirroring the structure of a play.

2. It should centre on conflict. And the essence of that is competing agendas – eg two dogs, one bone.

3. Start in one place and end somewhere else. If you take the scene out and the story if unchanged, you don’t need it.

4. There should be a polarity shift – like the “plus” poles and the “minus” poles. So if it starts off with things looking bad for your character, maybe it finishes by looking good. Or vice versa: you go expecting a romantic dinner, but in fact it’s been arranged to break up with you.

5. Build towards a climax, which should lead to a resolution.

Okay, now – on to what makes good dialogue within that scene:

1. It can advance the plot. If the scene is a break-up, that will be likely verbalised in some way.

2. It can reveal character. The way people say things tells a lot about who they are: their level of education, where they’re from. Maybe they’re pedantic, or use big words, or reveal someone who’s always looking on the bright side – like in Happy Go Lucky, where what she says after her bike is stolen is “Aww, I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye!” Sometimes not speaking, not answering a question, can be revealing. You can express the way characters feel about each other, whether it’s contempt or admiration. In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are sleeping together, but he’s still calling her “Mrs. Robinson”.

3. It can give exposition. There’s really only so many newspaper articles you can have conveniently lying around, or diplomas and picture of their past on the wall. Ideally a scene should give exposition and reveal character. Here’s a bad way to give exposition: “I’m so glad you’re my brother and it’s your birthday.” Better is “Happy birthday, sis”, or if they both talk about “Mom” it’s pretty obvious they’re siblings.

4. It can set the tone. It you’re writing a comedy and the dialogue is not making me laugh, that’s a problem.

So, those are the pillars of good dialogue. Now, always remember that good dialogue works subtextually. Subtext is when people don’t say exactly what they mean. We do it every day. “I’ll think about it” usually means “no”, politely. Actors love playing subtext, too. And good dialogue revolves around conflict.

So let’s say a girl wants to break up with her boyfriend. Bad dialogue is: “Tom, I want to break up.” “Okay.” A better start would be: “Tom, before you say anything, I just want to say that these have been the best six months of my life.” At the climax of a scene, usually, a character can’t hold back and is forced to say bluntly what they were trying to say politely, as a result of the pressure the scene puts them under.

We closed with an examination of some terrific scenes from Erin Brokovich and Fargo. None of the above is rocket science, but it’s a very useful check-list to have to hand, if you are writing a script. Go over every scene you’ve written, and the dialogue within that scene, and ask yourself: could it be working harder, and doing more of the things on that check-list?

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