By Anthony Royle
If only I could be Quentin Tarantino. Master of witty and hyperactive talk. Criminals talking about sports, old TV programs, and foot massages. But how hard is it to write such dialogue and how does Tarantino get away with writing lengthy dialogue when we are constantly told not to?
My first answer is that we’re confusing style with content. Do you think John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s scene at the beginning of Pulp Fiction is about the conversation or where they are going and who they are?
I’m sure many writers can write lengthy, attractive, catchy dialogue but that’s just style. Style doesn’t fill the holes in your script but like Tarantino’s, enhances it. Style adds pace, suspense, relief, pauses, and emotion.
Now that we realize what part style plays in the dialogue process, what about content? To find this we have to go back to the core of screenwriting––conflict. This is where dialogue comes from. We often hear "show, don’t tell" and the best way to write dialogue is that we simply don’t write it. But I’ve never found anything that really helps us create good dialogue.
As we know there are three types of conflict––inner, personal, and extra-personal. How does dialogue relate to each one on an individual basis?
Inner conflict is split into three parts––body, mind and emotion. If we look at these three things in a screenplay we’ll find that if dialogue is produced from them––the characters are commenting on things we can already see.
It’s the same with two out of the three elements of extra-personal conflict––physical environment and social Institutions. We can also see the conflict so there is no need for dialogue. The third part of extra-personal conflict––individuals in society––ties in with personal conflict.
Dialogue is a form of interaction and unlike inner and extra-personal conflict, personal conflict gives us people to interact with––lovers, family and friends. This doesn’t mean that visual actions are to be ignored but, on the contrary, visual actions and dialogue form the underlay of your script.
VISUAL ACTIONS + DIALOGUE = CONTENT, CONTEXT AND SUBTEXT
Look at plays and soap operas and see why they are so dialogue orientated. It is because of the high personal conflict.
Another "talky" writer is Woody Allen. His scripts are filled with neurosis and opinions. I read Annie Hall and found the first 20 pages filled with them. But look how it’s used––it’s character revelation that pays off later on. It’s also coming out of personal conflict. Nowhere is it written that Woody or other characters turn around and give their opinions on the Middle East, middle age and life. A lot of scripts preach rather than dramatize. This is what they mean by "show, don’t tell."
So what does dialogue do? We know where it comes from, we know how to enhance it and make it attractive.
Dialogue is part of revealing information about a character or the story. I’m not saying a character has to say it directly but it depends upon the scene, character and context. Look at the difference between Chinatown’s incest revelation through dialogue and the revelation of the murder of Maximus's wife and child in Gladiator––which is visual. Look at how each film builds up to a payoff with visual actions and dialogue. Both are powerful revelations that move the story onward and upward.
Never write dialogue that gives information that has been shown visually, or show something visually that has been dramatized and revealed in dialogue.
My advice? With your first draft, write whatever comes naturally. It’s a way of getting all that information down on paper and then improving upon it. In your re-writes when it comes to dialogue, look at the information you have and see what works best visually and what works best with dialogue by building up to the revelation up and payoff. Also look at the source of your dialogue. Cut out anything that comes from inner and extra-personal conflict. Then add your style.
It’s also interesting to note that when adding inner and extra-personal conflict your minimizing your dialogue. This is evident with certain genres such as action with high extra-personal conflict and drama’s that contain high amounts of inner conflicts. But with genres like comedy where there are lots of personal conflicts you’ll have more dialogue––like Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen.
By knowing where dialogue comes from and understanding its limits and usage, we have DIALOGUE FREEDOM.
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