GOOD PLAYING DIALOG VS. GOOD READING DIALOG - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

I like to write terse dialog. When it actually gets to the screen as written, I've noticed it plays really well. If you take out all the times characters say "Well" and "look" and "listen," the actors have to put all the emotion into the line itself, which makes for really effective scenes. I try to trim everything down so that every sentence says something new.

I also try to make my dialog skip ahead a bit. When people talk, they don't play catch, they play tennis. They don't acknowledge what the other person said and then respond, they just respond. There's a leap between Joe's line and Jane's line. People head each other off, they see where the conversation is going and they respond to that rather than to what's just been said. (This gets us into trouble in real life, but dialog isn't supposed to be more well adjusted than real life, it's supposed to be dramatic.)

The problem with this kind of dialog is it's hard to read. You have to read it actively, putting the emotion of the moment into every line. Otherwise it reads a little flat and choppy.

It's a conundrum. If it's your show, you can write how you like and insist the actors work with the lines they have. If it's not, you have to find a way of selling the lines on the page, or hope you're dealing with readers who are willing to invest the lines with heart and soul and not just skim them.

Obviously this is no excuse for actually writing flat and choppy dialog. You had better make sure your lines are so distinctive that any good actor can find the heart and soul in them. You'd better make sure the logical leaps are there to find.

I find I'm backing off from the notion that you shouldn't use parentheticals. I often put scene moments in the action, rather than the parentheticals, because if it's that important, it deserves its own line. But there's such a thing as being too Puritanical in your dialog. If you don't direct the actors at all on the page, readers may not get where the scene is going. And if the actors hate your scene directions, they can always cross them out later.

One of the most fun experiences I've had on shows is hearing actors read the lines out loud for the first time. Sometimes you can arrange meetings, sometimes you have to wait for the audition tapes, sometimes you have to wait for dailies. You doubt a scene until you hear it read out loud. If it works, you get a little thrill: yes! Beautiful!

4 Comments:

I know of many writers who feel the way you do, Alex. They keep their writing tight, and every line must advance the conversation to a quick, logical conclusion or it's deleted.

Then there are my actor friends who sometimes feel that, because of this somewhat restrictive writing style, the subtle quirks and nuances of their character get lost -- and they absolutely HATE direction in parentheses, telling them how to say their lines.

I read lots of scripts and I'll admit that, for the sake of time, I sometimes skim, and this usually ends up causing me some confusion because, if I skip past one or two lines of dialogue, I suddenly find myself missing a key plot point and I have to flip back through pages trying to find out what the hell I missed -- which ends up wasting more time than if I had just read it thoroughly to begin with.

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 12:51 PM  

This is interesting info, Alex.

Do you sometimes feel like you have two screenplays to write? Two styles? The one to get you funding (simpler, more conventional, easier to read in a short time) and the one you'd actually want a director and actors to work from?

By Blogger Martine, at 2:07 PM  

I'd reiterate the underused tactic of putting scene takes into the action line rather than parentheticals. Parentheticals feel, for many actors, like you;re shoving them about the scene, while a pith scene-tone phrase in the action set the mood and lets them find the way to do the line that both works for them and stays true to your intent.

By Blogger Rogers, at 2:03 PM  

Hi, Alex... I work in British TV, where writers tend to be solitary pieceworkers rather than team members. My current pet hate is the producer who gives you notes that require you to load more and more information into the dialogue.

"How did they get to the room?"

"I don't know... the stairs. Or they took the elevator."

"Someone needs to say that."

"Why does someone need to say it?"

"Because otherwise people will be wondering how they got to the room."

"No, they won't."

"I'm telling you, they will."

After three or four drafts, by which time your scene is carrying a ton of exposition that you've sweated to put into speakable form, they tell you that the actors are complaining that your dialogue lacks spontaneity so they're having it rewritten. Almost always by some office junior who's handy, hungry, and cheap... and does a terrible job.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 3:50 PM  

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