By Jennie Jarvis
All humans have a weakness. Writers, it seems, have more weaknesses than the rest. Those various colors of kryptonite that can bind us up, take away our powers and make us feel like complete frauds. For me, my biggest writing weakness is dialogue.
Being a screenwriter, this may seem like a pretty huge problem. After all, the three primary storytelling elements of film are structure, event (visuals) and dialogue. Unfortunately, however, I need to be strong in all three aspects in order to really make my scripts shine. So, how do I approach this area of my writing, when I know that it’s my weakest link?
The first thing I do is to write the script, using basically placeholder dialogue in each scene. As long as I know what the clear and tangible goals are for each character in the scene, and I use dialogue to reflect the tactics that each character is using in that scene, then I don’t worry too much on my first draft about each word that is said. After all, that first draft is really just about getting my ideas out of my head and onto the page so that I can go back and rewrite it later. In the words of Anne Lamont, the first draft is meant to be a “shitty first draft.”
Then, once I have my first draft on the page, I can go back and revise, looking specifically at structure and event. Do I have my three-act structure and major dramatic curve in place? Are the characters using every tactic possible to win their goals? Are those tactics mostly visual or are there too many scenes with the characters just sitting around talking (a big no-no in film)?
This process may take some time, and I may not get to look at my specific lines of dialogue for quite a while. However, for me, fixing my dialogue is a lot of like making those final copy edits in a novel. Until everything else is in place, the individual lines don’t need to be changed since they will have to be changed again as I continue to revise.
However, once the rest of my script is in place, then I can tackle my kryptonite.
When it comes to revising my dialogue, I always use a three-tiered approach. First, I look at where the characters are being too “on the nose.” This expression means that the characters are saying exactly what’s on their mind. In film, being too “on the nose” can make a character look dumb or feel stagey. Often, a novice writer uses on the nose dialogue to convey exposition, and this can come across as boring or unbelievable if not done correctly.
However, from time to time, a writer can purposefully use on the nose dialogue to enhance a character’s personality. A great example of this can be found in the web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Writer/Director Joss Whedon gave one of his characters, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) on the nose dialogue to reinforce the idea that he is a shallow person. He always says exactly what he is thinking because he has no tact and isn’t the smartest tool in the box (pun intended).
Sadly, I’m not quite as gifted as Joss Whedon (yet), so many times, when I’m revising my dialogue, I find that my on the nose dialogue isn’t the most effective way to have my characters communicate. Once I have identified all the places where I am using on the nose dialogue, I try to get rid of it. If exposition is needed, then I try to make that exposition come as a result of two characters’ conflicting goals instead of just one character speaking the information in a boring fashion. If that doesn’t work, then I try to make that information come across in a much more subtle fashion. Perhaps someone is being interviewed, and the reason why he reveals the exposition is because he wants to impress his interviewer. Perhaps the information can be broken up and slowly revealed over multiple scenes instead of as one big info dump.
Sometimes, I’m even able to get rid of the spoken information all together, and can just rely on the actors’ performances to carry the same information across. The 10th Doctor from the British television show Doctor Who (David Tenant) was great at being able to convey volumes with his eyes. One of my favorite episodes, “The Girl in the Fireplace”, showed the Doctor’s pain at having lost yet another human friend (and the pain of all the others he had lost before) in a single look.
Once I have finished looking for all on the nose dialogue, my revisions continue by looking at each character individually. When it comes to writing dialogue, I find that it’s important for each character to have his or her unique voice. This doesn’t mean that each character should have a different accent (I have tried to write that way, and it was just silly). Instead, I try to find a unique set of identifiers to each person’s language. The identifiers that I work with when creating character language are sentence structure, diction, imagery and syntax.
Sentence structure – Does the character use complete sentences or run on sentences? Do they ask a lot of questions? Do they talk a lot or not much at all? Do they have an accent? Do they have a rhythm to how they speak?
Diction – What kind of words do they use? Do they use long words or short words? Do they swear? Do they use slang?
Imagery – Are they positive or negative in the individual images that they chose to use? Do they use similes or metaphors? Are they robotic and never use any kind of poetic language?
Syntax – Arrange words differently do they?
For each character, I figure out a unique combination of the above identifiers and go back through the script and rewrite their placeholder lines using that combination. This is one of those very English teacher-y kinds of steps that many of my screenwriting students just refuse to do, but I think it’s extremely important.
Once I have finished my self edits on my dialogue, then I bring in the experts – actors! I grew up in the theater, and so I have a lot of appreciation for what they can bring to the table. Actors aren’t just puppets that speak the writer’s lines and move where the director tells them to move on set. They are trained professionals, skilled in the art of breaking down a script and making the character their own.
As such, I know that the final step in my dialogue revision needs to be with them – and I don’t mean on set. Yes, when they get on set, they will be able to improv the lines and make them sound true to the moment, but there isn’t any reason that I can’t use their skills before the script is sold.
I find a group of actors, rent a nice quiet space where we can work undisturbed for many hours, and we read my script aloud. I don’t coach them (either in person or on the page), and I don’t say anything during the entire session. I just sit back and take notes. It can be a cringe-worthy experience, especially when my lines don’t sound at all like I imagined them to sound in my head. But it’s extremely valuable to hear my words spoken aloud.
Once the group has completely read the script aloud, I might have a few questions or, time permitting, ask them for any feedback on the characters and dialogue – not story feedback, that’s my job to figure out. Later, after I go home and cry into a pint of ice cream over how terrible it sounded, I’m able to go back through my script notes and make my final revisions.
So far, this technique of rewriting dialogue has helped me immensely, although I have to admit that there is something very freeing about writing dialogue in film. In many cases, after I’ve slaved over my dialogue to get it good enough, I’m reminded that my goal wasn’t to make my dialogue camera ready. It was just to get the dialogue good enough to get the script to sell. Once the script gets on set, the actors can just throw out all the lines and say whatever they and the director agree on anyway. I’ve known many writers that hate this idea, but for me, knowing that dialogue is my kryptonite, I love it.