Screen to Scene: Dialogue

As a writer, my biggest distraction is the television.  If I’m going to give into my greatest weakness, the least I can do is multi-task.  Story is story and writers know you can use steal from anywhere.

If you are going to watch television, go for the good stuff.  “Storage Wars” is addictive as all get-out but you aren’t going to get anything out of it except an annoying habit of saying “Yuuuuup!”

Don’t say that.

Dialogue is an integral part of your story.  What your characters say, what they don’t say, and how they may or may not say it speaks volumes.  So instead of reality television, spend an hour with one of these masters.

Aaron Sorkin: Sports Night, The West Wing, Studio Sixty on the Sunset Strip, and coming soon (and can I say how excited I am), The Newsroom.  Take a look at this exchange:

President Josiah Bartlet: [Before the State of the Union, Bartlet is counseling a cabinet member on what to do in the event of a terrorist attack] You got a best friend?
Roger: Yes, sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: Is he smarter than you?
Roger: Yes, sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: Would you trust him with your life?
Roger: Yes, sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: That’s your Chief of Staff.

What did you learn about President Bartlet? He told the audience all about himself, his philosophies and his politics.  He also offered good advice, counselled a colleague, complimented a friend and made a self-depreciating joke.  Pretty good for four short lines.

Joss Whedon: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and in theaters soon The Avengers.  The man is so good that after receiving a ton of compliments on his dialogue style, he wrote a Buffy episode called “Hush” (where the characters spend half the show without their voices) as a personal challenge just to see if he could do it.  And then he wrote a musical episode.

Giles: There’s a certain, um, dramatic irony attached to all this. A synchronicity that borders on-on predestination, one might say.
Buffy: Fire bad. Tree pretty.

From an eloquent British observation to a valley-girl “shut up” in two lines.  Does it leave you with any questions about the speakers?  Everything you need to know about their relationship is right there.

There are some significant differences when it comes to screenwriting and novel writing when it comes to dialogue.  Here are three:

Accents are a big one.  Zee French accent iz very sharming, no?  It sounds sexy but it reads like a nightmare.  One technique is to use an accent liberally in the first chapter where the character appears and then cut back drastically after that, as the readers will know that the character has it and they only require an occasional reminder.  It is easy to overuse an accent.  Personally it drives me nuts when I have to stop, go back, and read a line out loud to figure out what a character is saying. Anything that pulls the reader out of your story is bad!

Another difference is that television is about 20% show and 80% tell when it comes to storytelling, meaning that the medium is designed to allow the audience to get more than three quarters of the information they need from auditory clues in case they aren’t watching the screen. Consider how many times you are distracted during a show but can follow the plot from what the characters are saying.  Sometimes buddy banter is simply for fun because the real purpose of the scene is behind the speakers on the screen, but a majority of the time it provides the audience with the needed information. (For the record, movies are said to be about 90% visual input.  Think about it:  long musical montages, close-ups on objects, car chases.  You have to pay more attention to movies.)  Since books don’t have camera angles, make your dialogue count.  It has to reveal something, even if that something as simple as characterization.

Finally, books aren’t real life.  They just need to sound like it.  Here’s an exercise.  Record a conversation at a coffee shop.  Then transcribe it word for word.  That is how people actually talk.  Ums, ahs, likes, and broken sentences reign.  You also don’t need all the pleasantries and small talk unless it serves a secondary purpose.  We can fill in the blanks.  Just get to the story.

So go ahead, get your weekly fix from the boob tube.  But if you’re not writing, at least be watching something worthwhile.  Jersey Shore kills brain cells.