SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: Dialogue and the Written Word

Paul Peditto dives into steps to help elevate both your story and dialogue.
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Paul Peditto dives into steps to help elevate both your story and dialogue.

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This is the follow-up to a lecture I gave on dialogue at Chicago Screenwriter’s Network. Since 1995, CSN has provided an excellent resource for local screenwriters. Featured speakers have included Harold Ramis and Tim Kazurinski. Many thanks to Bethany Lape for having me, and for the work the good folks at CSN do in serving the Chicago screenwriting community. Here are some notes on dialogue from the lecture, hope they help…

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So, you’re ready to roll. You’ve got the story outlined. You’ve worked the characters, got basic bios on your Protagonist, Antagonist, and key secondary characters. You worked up a basic backstory and figured out how each character sounds, what their day to day world is, how they interact, setting up A to Z character arcs along with your structural outline. You are so damn prepared! Guess that leaves just only thing to do…

Write the damn thing! Give yourself a chance. This means not writing at 11pm after a 10-hour workday. It means not writing an hour on Saturday on the back porch before the kid’s soccer game. Is this script a priority or what? I know, you want it to be a priority, but life intrudes. The inconsequential matters of making money, issues with the family. I hear ya, but you’ve got to carve out a time. Great dialogue will never happen if you don’t give yourself a chance. Write with energy, carve out script writing time.

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Kill the Perfectionist in you. Remember the Salieri scene in Amadeus, looking at Mozart’s manuscript pages. Not one change. The music has been written by God’s own hand. Guess what—you ain’t Mozart. Want to know how to not write great dialogue? Try to make it perfect the first time. New screenwriters make the mistake of rewriting the first 30 pages over and over, going for perfection. Don’ts do it. Rough draft dialogue, even in a fully outlined script, will probably be little more than placeholder. Don’t sweat it. Push out the rough draft, get it on paper, and then rewrite. Can’t nail that joke down? Write: INSERT HILARIOUS JOKE HERE, and move on. Kill the perfectionist in you.

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Never trust the first solution. You’re in the shower when you hear it--the dialogue for the scene you’ve been struggling with—primo dialogue! You drop the Shay Butter soap and run out to write it down. Great stuff, right?! Maybe, maybe not. If I were you, I'd be wary of the first solution, the first choice that comes to you. Sure, write it down, maybe you’ll even use it in the end, but dig deeper. Try not settle for the first impulse. Why? Recall Robert McKee in his book Story: The first thing off the top of the screenwriter’s head: Cliché.

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Plausibility: What would you do in that situation? One of your characters says something—do you buy it? Will an audience buy it? Only way to know is to be truthful and inhabit the character. Attempt to write inside the character by shutting out your “God-view”. You’re in the character’s head, knowing no more than the character. Fully motivated only by what they want. The difficulty here is bouncing back and forth between the inside (character) and outside (writer) views. What would you do if you were facing the same choice as your character? How would you react?. If it’s truthful to you, there’s a decent chance it will ring truthful for a reader, or an audience.

My Plausibility Problem

10-5-2-0: Finding the visual solution: You’ve got 10 lines of dialogue in a scene and it’s time to rewrite. See if you can write it with five lines. If you’ve got five lines, try to do it in two. If you’ve got two, can it be done without a single line of dialogue? Always look for the visual solution. Understand why you’re in the scene. Get in late, get out early. Accomplish what you have to accomplish, move on.

Avoid direct responses. “Who won the Super Bowl?” “The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl.” “They beat the Bears, didn’t they?” “They beat the Bears, yes.” “You being a Bear fan, guess it kinda sucks being you.” Bears fan pulls out a gun, shoots Packer fan. “Not as much as being you.”

Beware exposition: “Hi Phil! How about this weather, huh?” “100 degrees… Reminds me of when we were rolling through Baghdad…” Followed by Phil’s five-minute monologue on the Iraq War. “What’s your problem, Mary?” “My problem? I’m glad you asked…” Followed by a three-minute monologue about problems with her husband. On and on like this. Five full pages of expositional blather that crushes subtext. Don’t do it.

Write it, Read it: Many times, after reading student material they seem amazed: “I can’t believe it took that long!” What I can’t believe is that they never took the time to read it when they created it. Read it as you write it, every page of it. Some things are better read than said. How it looks on the page isn’t the same as how the thing will read. These are words that will come from an actor’s mouth. What’s that sound like?

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Subtext: Say It Without Saying It: Think of dialogue as railroad tracks. Two rails: One, the said. One, the unsaid. Subtext is saying it without saying it. No, I’m not trying to be a pain in the ass. I’m talking about the intention behind the scene. When you write in every thought in a character’s mind, you kill subtext.

For instance, Lost In Translation. For me, one of the best directors for subtext is Sophia Coppola. Here’s a scene on an elevator with Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson. It’s 3 a.m., they’re drunk. He desperately wants to sleep with her, she’s not so sure:

INT. ELEVATOR- NIGHT

CHARLOTTE: 54?

He nods, she pushes 54 for him, 56 for herself. They look at each other across the empty elevator, both leaning against the walls.

The elevator stops at 54, he leans in to kiss her good-night. They kiss like you would on the cheek, but it’s closer to the mouth. The door shuts--he missed the floor. The elevator continues up, and stops on her floor. They kiss good-night again and she gets out before the door closes.

He watches the door close on her as she makes her way down the long beige hall.

Wonderful. One line of dialogue, so much more conveyed.

Then, of course, the movie's ending, where you don't hear what Bill Murray whispers to her. How about that for a choice?! You don’t have to say everything in dialogue. Actors fill in the emotional gaps between words. Next movie you look at, start looking at the subtext—the meaning, the emotion between the words.

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Write a million words: The photo ascribes it to Henry Miller but I’m not so sure he created this expression. How do you find your voice? Outwork the other 50,000+ people who registered scripts with the Writer’s Guild last year. Then add in that we live in a Marvel Universe where just 75 spec screenplays sold last year. How can you stand out?

Work your craft.

As a playwright, I used to hate readings. I’d put in months of work, and then have actors read my stuff in front of an objective audience. When the lights came up, the criticism began. I was expected to go back to the drawing board, spend another two months with no pay to fix what these folks—who had spent a grand total of two hours in my world—thought was wrong. It suuuucked!

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This is the exact wrong attitude. If you break out in a rash when asked to rewrite, you might want to stop writing screenplays. Scratch that—you should get out. There’s no avoiding rewriting. The tough love comes with believing that rewriting is necessary and beneficial. No doubt this will depend on who it is giving the notes.

Seek out good council. Develop an inner circle of people you trust; find a writer’s group; seek out professional critique if necessary. Filter the comments; see what makes sense and what doesn’t. Then write the second draft. Then start your second screenplay. And your third. And your fourth. Control what you can control. Outwork everybody. Make your dialogue so authentic that an audience recognizes it as compelling and true.

Write a million words.

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Research: Public Domain and the gathering of bullets: I wrote a 1921 stage adaptation of Ben Hecht’s A Thousand And One Afternoons In Chicago. The play was based on a book compilation of Hecht's columns for the Chicago Daily News. Early on it occurred to me that the publisher had only used about a hundred of the 300+ articles Hecht wrote. So where were the rest of the columns? This sent me hunting in the microfilm room at Harold Washington library. I spent months hunch-backed over the broken down and antiquated microfilm machines at Harold Washington, but here was the upside: 1921 Chicago Daily News material is public domain. Meaning I could use it—dialogue, scene ideas, characters—at no cost. Should anyone ask, of course I would attribute it to Hecht, but if it’s public domain, if you dig it out, you can use it.

Sure, I could have tried to create—from scratch—a scene with a 1921 Flapper-girl in the Green Mill. Or I can go to the pages of the Chicago Daily News, pull a story about the Green Mill with dialogue directly from the mouths of the patrons who were at the club that night. Out of dry and dusty microfilm Limbo springs forth “fresh” dialogue, and probably 100X better than anything I could have dreamed up.

The writer needs authenticity—the appearance of being an expert in matters in which he is not an expert. It’s not required but wouldn’t hurt the authenticity of your words if—before you write that spec Chicago Code episode–maybe you ride with a Chicago cop for a day or two, or interview a Chicago firefighter for their POV. Research is critical for dialogue.

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Steal Well. “Bad artists copy, great artists steal.” –Picasso. I’m not advocating plagiarism. But as with everything else in life, this is a matter of interpretation. For instance, the color of red Picasso uses in those painted curtains may have been a favorite of the painted curtains of Matisse. Picasso saw that red and said, yeah, in that goes into his own stuff.

Kinda like Tarantino... One of the most original writer/directors of our time! How can you talk shit about him?! Tarantino, a thief?! What bull-crap…

Or is it?

There is thievery and there is re-interpretation. One doesn’t have to be a plagiarist to steal well. Using someone’s concept but bending it for your own purposes, changing it enough to make it your own—that’s been done, and some of the culprits are American Film Institute Hall-Of-Famers, believe it. Steal well, but carefully, O ye hearts of larceny! And remember: You didn’t hear it from me!

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