Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Sticks and Stones…

Giving your dialogue that extra punch.

Dialogue is for many the most intimidating part of writing. FInding a way to breath life and pizzaz into their character’s can discourage anyone from making their master piece come to life. Even successful Hollywood writers would agree that dialogue is a daunting component of a script. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, who really reads scene direction any way? Relax, of course people read scene direction, but the dialogue is what makes or breaks a good story.

I was recently re-watching Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, a great film that is among my bluray collection for good reason. I’d always enjoyed the movie, but upon my most recent viewing I realized that the story itself was pretty predictable, the character very typical, and the world totally plain. So what is it that makes this movie so gripping? Ive seen it time and time again, know exactly what happens, yet I still can’t turn away. The answer is the electrifying dialogue. Every word is delivered with such intensity and force that you feel it in your own bones.

So I got the screenplay, hoping for the same effect, but was greatly disappointed. The dialogue on the page is bulky and awkward. It has only glimpses of the impressive nature of the words that jumped out of my TV. The opening monologue is an excellent example of this. What sounded great in the movie read as muddled garbage. It had lost that edge that made me think “wow, this character knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it.” Even as a lunatic’s rant, this monologue still had power in its well chosen words, once chut down in the production and post production phases.

This is an excellent example of over writing dialogue. It’s so common that even Tony Gilroy couldn’t avoid it, so don’t be too hard on yourself when you catch this in your next revision! Great dialogue, in my mind, consists of three key elements:

1) Originality – find a way to deliver your message in a way that hasn’t been used a million times. This is what makes for great movie quotes that stick in your audience’s mind, and make up killer trailers.

2) Subtext – We all know how awful on the nose dialogue can be, so dont do it.

3) Brevity. I can’t emphasize enough the power of lean dialogue. Get your point across and shut up. This is what made the dialogue in the film so great was you really got the impression that the characters, mostly successful lawyers, thought at a faster pace. Not a word was wasted, misused, or underpowered. The violence of the film came across more in the brutality of their words than the car bomb and murder.

So, next time you sit down to write some dialogue, pay attention to every word. Does it say exactly what you want it to say? Does it need to be there? Can you scour your vocabulary for a more efficient way of saying it? Chances are you can, and Im not saying everything needs to be one word answers, there are times for long winded rants and confusing tangents, but choose them wisely. It will serve you well by making for more powerful dialogue, and by improving the flow of your script.

http://www.afi.com/100years/quotes.aspx

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