Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
It gets annoying, doesn’t it? All the “experts” giving you tips on how to write dialogue? As if it were actually possible that to teach dialogue-writing like you would a soup recipe or e= mc2.
Between Columbia College and Chicago Filmmakers, I’ve taught maybe a thousand students. Yet the question remains… aside from informing you on my own process, or the way more successful writers work, how exactly do I teach you that?
Here in Chicago we have The Second City Theater. Right along with the idea of teaching dialogue is the notion you can teach people to be funny. Do you believe that’s possible? Second City has built a dynasty providing students with tools to bring out their natural gifts, educating them in terms of those who came before you, improvisation exercises, etc. It’s arts and craft, or more specifically, the craft of the art. But can you actually teach funny? If that’s the case, forgetting for a moment about the scores of success stories they've had, how do we explain the tens of thousands of students who took the same classes and didn’t make it?
One of the dialogue exercises I use is to have students transcribe a conversation they heard that week into screenplay format. Take it from real life, lay it out on the page. When you look it real world dialogue you’ll see it doesn’t play out in straight noun-verb, perfect grammatical sentences.
Writing great dialogue is about finding the imperfection. Dialogue serves story and character. Why are you in the scene? Can you say it without saying it—i.e.: find the visual solution. No? Fine, say it in dialogue. But find subtext. Don’t verbalize everything. Let the actor fill in the emotional gaps between words. Start by writing it, and then speak it back to yourself. Do you buy it? A cop talking about the trajectory of a bullet. An astronaut talking about a propulsion system. Not convincing? Write it again. Get specific. Write the same passage 10 times until it sounds plausible. Then write it an 11th until it’s even tighter. Hear it.
What do you have in common with Quentin Tarantino, Shane Black, Paul Haggis, and Diablo Cody? You have two ears. That’s the good news. Writing dialogue is about hearing it. Write the scene. Read it. Does it sound natural? How can you tell?
What I’m about to tell you is painful, but… You need to listen to people—on the subway, on the line at Target. What you’ll learn is that screenplay dialogue isn’t a regurgitation of real life speech. It’s a stylized recreation. Movie dialogue isn’t perfectly formed noun/verb sentences: It’s repetition, lost thoughts, rhythms, pacing, stuttering, political outlook, educational background, tension and release, subtext.
Check out conversations submitted to me by students down through the years and you’ll see what I mean.
• RESTAURANT TALK
Setting: A restaurant, table for two, man and a woman eating.
WOMAN: What are you thinking about?
MAN: You, us.
WOMAN: Doing what?
MAN: Oh, we’re happy.
WOMAN: We’re always happy.
MAN: I know.
MAN: How’s your food?
WOMAN: Oh, it’s good.
MAN: I’ll have to order that sometime.
WOMAN: Yeah, you should.
THE TAKEAWAY: Great subtext. Think about how many ways the actors could play this dialogue. From straight-up superficiality--these are two bland people quiet content--all the way to these two utterly hating each other. Lesson? Subtext = say it without saying it.
• THE 51ST STATE
Setting: A party, two college kids locked in a debate about the 51st State. Saturday around 11pm, they are not drunk.
VINCE: I hate Canada.
DANNY: Yeah, it’s like the 51st state.
VINCE: No dumbass, the 51st state is Hawaii.
DANNY: Are you sure? What about Puerto Rico?
VINCE: Puerto Rico is not a state.
DANNY: Yeah, I guess. It’s a race like the Jews…they don’t have a country.
VINCE: You’re the one in college, you should know that.
DANNY: You’re right. Hawaii is the 51st state.
**THE TAKEAWAY: Stupid is funny? Columbia needs to up those eligibility requirements?
MAN 1: Yo, listen to this, yo. You heard about roofies, right? The date rape drug.
MAN 2: Oh, I didn’t know about that.
MAN 1: A’ight…peep this right…this kid, I was chillin’ with him, right…he was telling me—
MAN 2: Wait, roofies are for what?
MAN 1: A date rape drug. Makes you like…pass out, unconscious. Check this right, tell me this ain’t ill. Freaked me out. This guy met a girl down the club. She was like, ‘wanna go back to my place?’ He woke up in a bathtub full of ice, gets us…his whole side is stitched up. He freaks out and goes to the hospital and they x-ray him. They stole his kidney!!!”
THE TAKEAWAY: Urban legend? Speak it out and you’ll hear it pop with repetition and tone. It’s got interruption, black humor…it’s funny, long as it’s not my kidney they removed!
• ELEVATOR CHAT
Setting: An elevator. Older man in a business suit, joined by a middle-aged woman, waiting for the elevator doors to close.
WOMAN: Hi, Norman.
MAN: Hello, Denise.
The door begins to close. A girl sprints toward the elevator, reaching her hand through to stop them from closing.
WOMAN: We’re not going to play the save-late-people-from-waiting-for-the-elevator game, are we?
Girl enters the elevator, awkwardly squeezing by the Woman.
WOMAN: How’ve you been, Norman?
MAN: Fine. Tired.
WOMAN: I know, me too. I’m so done with this. Honestly, Norman, I can’t even handle the sound of my own voice any more. I hear myself rambling at the podium about the dumbest shit. And I’m thinking: ‘Is this what it’s come to?’
WOMAN: Christ Norman, I feel like a puppet, don’t you? What are we but giant puppets getting paid to spout off the most useless information? Don’t you feel like a puppet, Norman?
WOMAN: Do you ever think about giving it all up? I’m thinking about it. I’m serious about it this time. Do you ever think about it?
WOMAN: You should. You really should.
WOMAN: It was good talking to you, I have to get off. I’m late for class again and the TA never unlocks the door.
MAN: What are you teaching?
WOMAN: Children, Family, and the Community.
THE TAKEAWAY: “So good talking to you again!” The gag—which the audience gets— is it’s a monologue punctuated only by his grunts. The confined space helps, his pain in being trapped with this bore of a woman. You see this essential exchange in lots of TV and movies. Laughter in the selfishness of her POV, in his pain at having to deal with her. Pity the kids of that class!
- More articles by Paul Peditto
- SCRIPT GODS MUST DIE: Writing Dialogue - The Cut Instinct
- FREE Download of Dialogue Advice from Screenwriting Pros
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