The Solution to Talkiness Isn't Less TalkComplications Ensue
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Thursday, December 06, 2007

I got a note on a script a while back that it was too "talky."

This can be a frustrating note early in your craft. "But CLERKS is talky as all get out!" you say, "That's part of the fun of it. And look at Shakespeare. Big whacking chunks of solid text. And he's won more Oscars than you can shake a stick at."

And then you grump and go back to the script and cut a bunch of lines, and now people just think your script is dull. What happened?

A movie can be full of talk. But that's not what makes it talky.

What makes a movie feel talky is that we don't care about the talk. The problem with my script, the reason I was getting the note, was that the characters were talking undramatically. They weren't trying to get things from each other. They were not in conflict with each other.

Everything a character says in a movie should come out of that character wanting something from another character. You should always be able to think of a verb to describe what that character is doing by speaking: asking, demanding, probing, deflecting, misleading, deceiving, explaining, selling, seducing, rejecting, insulting, scaring, soothing.

In acting class, you learn to break down a script by finding the verb for each line. In a well written script, there always is one. If you can't find it, as an actor, you have to make one up.

A script becomes talky when the verbs get mushy. If it is not clear what each character is doing with their talk, then the talk becomes tiresome.

A script is also talky when the characters are not distinct enough. Then it feels like the same person is talking all the time. The nature of the verb is what creates character. A shy character is often going to be covering, or avoiding. An extrovert might often be selling. A liar might be trying to charm another character, or to insult them so they are off balance, or to make them feel guilty. A scene where one person is selling and the other is avoiding is naturally dramatic.

Another way to phrase it is: dramatic characters are defined by what they do onscreen, in both action and dialog. Too many beginners think that their characters "are" a certain way when they walk onto the screen. But they really aren't anything until they start doing something.

Note that the verbs can be subtle. A character can be telling an irrelevant story as a means of avoiding responding to a question. Or to suss out the nature of another character, by their response to it. Or to seduce somebody. Or to scare them. The verb does not have to be related to the literal meaning of what the character is saying.

In boring dialog, people say what they mean: she tells him she wants him. In crafty dialog, they say one thing in order to do something else: she warns him that the neighborhood is dangerous at night so that he will sleep over so she can seduce him -- and wind up doing something unintended -- she embarrasses herself.

In good dialog, what each character is literally saying is at odds with what he is trying to do by saying it. But we get exactly what he's up to. In great dialog, we understand what he's saying, what he's trying to do, and what he's actually doing, all at once. His words, his goal, and his results, are all different, yet we clearly see all of them.

One of the pleasures in watching well-crafted drama is decoding what's going on for ourselves, when the characters themselves don't see it.

(To wax philosophical for a moment: all young mammals play -- as a way of learning what they're supposed to be doing when they grow up. Lion cubs play fight. Chimp babies climb for fun. We watch movies and TV in the same way -- to practice decoding the social world around us, to model what we'd do in similar situations, to hone our own social skills. If there's nothing to decode, the drama lacks "play." If it's too hard to decode -- if it's murky or mushy -- then it's no fun either and we just feel frustrated. Great dialog shows us characters who resonate with us because we know people like that -- and then gives us a window into those people, so when we see the people we know who are like that, we feel we know them better.)

(Of course, sometimes you need your characters to have an outburst of pent-up emotion. "I have had it with these motherf***ing. snakes on this motherf***ing plane!" is a great line. So is Rick's send-off to Ilsa on the tarmac. But if the whole script were like that, we'd be bored.)

So long as each character has a strong dramatic goal in talking, the script can have a yards of dialog without seeming too talky. And that's not always a bad thing. Dialog is the cheapest special effect there is.

I did go back and cut some of the less clever dialog. But mostly I tried to make the dialog more compelling by making sure each character was trying to do something by talking, rather than just running at the mouth. That seems to have done the trick.

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Thank you, Alex. I have come across this idea of dialog as conflict before, but it never quite clicked. Your explanation feels like an entire symposium on dialog writing distilled to a single page. Aha! It finally makes sense to this beginning writer. When dialog seems to just flow onto the page, I usually have a nagging feeling that there must be something wrong with it. Now I have a better idea about what it probably is and maybe I can do something about it.

By Blogger Bill Weinberger, at 10:20 AM  

That totally fits into what I've read in a writing textbook. Dialogue is supposed to accomplish two or more goals (not just provide exposition).

Your monologue there helps provide another good aspect of dialogue. Thanks!

By Blogger The_Lex, at 11:24 AM  

Thanks for the article, Alex.

By Blogger Elver, at 11:25 AM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger kadgi, at 12:05 PM  

"The words, the goal, the results". I think i'll write it on my walls, thanks a lot. It's articles like these that made me order your book, yesterday.

By Blogger kadgi, at 12:07 PM  

Wow - this piece of advice came at the right time for me! I've already printed this out, highlighted portions, and taped it into my writing notebook so I can continually review it. Thanks!

By Blogger Wool in Sunshine, at 2:39 PM  

I want to both thank and congratulate in this comment. Does that make this comment mushy? :) Great post!

By Blogger Doug, at 8:06 PM  

Not having studied acting formally, this line in this post gave me pause:

"In acting class, you learn to break down a script by finding the verb for each line. In a well written script, there always is one. If yo [sic] can't find it, as an actor, you have to make one up."

Could you elaborate a bit, Alex?

Hope you're doing well!

By Blogger Fun Joel, at 11:32 AM  

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