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What is Dialogue Magic?

One of the thing’s writers ask me about the most is dialogue. The biggest challenge we, as writers, face is to make our dialogue feel natural rather than forced and to ignite the page with an interaction so engaging that readers are deeply moved and motivated to care about our characters and their circumstances.

At some point we must come to understand that great dialogue isn’t an exact emulation of how people speak to each other in real life, but more a streamlined, efficient form of conversation that reveals in covert ways the inner workings or depth of a character and/or key story elements not revealed through action. 

There is no denying that great dialogue can make or break a story. Whether it be a film or a book, if your characters speak, they must speak in a way that creates that elusive spark of true connection between reader and story.

One of the best things we can do in the initial draft phase of a manuscript is to fall in love with our characters and then let them speak for themselves. When I fall in love with a characters whose story I am writing, it is because I have “fleshed them out” to the point where they feel real to me, and when they become real I can simply let them talk and write down what they say. This, for me, is where the REAL MAGIC BEGINS, but it takes a while to get to this point. At least it did for me. Now, I look forward to writing dialogue just to learn more about my characters and the story that’s unfolding before my eyes.

Note: I mentioned that it is good to do this with the first draft only, because A) that is when you are most “in the flow” and B) because subsequent drafts are for editing, and that means economizing your dialogue. 

My Secret Source for learning how to be a great writer… 

When beginning writers ask me how I learned to write great dialogue and action scenes, or how to make a book a “page turner,” I tell them I studied the art of screenwriting for a few years before beginning my first novel. Truth be told, I still study it. I subscribe to Script Magazine (free) which offers a wealth of suburb advice and information that can easily translate to fiction writing. I highly recommend it.

Below are snippets of articles from Script Magazine that I think will help you write better dialogue. When I read the lines: “Never write dialogue that gives information that has been shown visually, or show something visually that has been dramatized and revealed in dialogue,” and “Dialogue is conversation well edited,” I knew I had to share some of the great advice from these 2 articles. Even if the above 2 sentences are your only takeaway here today, it will improve your writing!

Here’s to making all our books bestsellers!

Read on for a LIST OF 21 TIPS that can help you make DIALOGUE MAGIC!

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The following advice snippits come from:

 

“DIALOGUE FREEDOM: Getting Away with Writing Lengthy Dialogue” By Anthony Royle

• Don’t Confuse Style with Content

✔ Style:

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?

• Style doesn’t fill the holes in your script but like Tarantino’s, enhances it. Style adds pace, suspense, relief, pauses, and emotion.

How do writers such as Quentin Tarantino get away with writing lengthy dialogue when we are constantly told not to? by Anthony Royle | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction – Miramax Films

✔ Content:

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.

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?

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 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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HERE ARE 21 TIPS THAT CAN HELP YOU MAKE DIALOGUE MAGIC

The following advice snippits come from:

CRAFT: How to Write Dialogue – Walking The Talk

Written by Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein & Kristopher White

TIP #1: GREAT DIALOGUE PLAYS

It can’t be said enough times: “Find the voice that works for you.” This voice is different from each of your characters’ voices. You as a writer will find your own style; you might even challenge the form while still staying commercial, as inPulp Fiction or Memento. Your point of view is very different from “sounds like it’s the writer talking”—which is the sad situation where you superimpose a point you want to make on your character’s voice. Your job is to find a way to “use your character” to say what you want him to say as part of the “play” you are writing. Play is a huge concept, and we are talking about the unspoken rules of the creative sandbox. Play is the single most useful word when describing great dialogue; it plays.

TIP #2: GREAT DIALOGUE MEANS KNOWING YOUR CHARACTERS

Do your character homework. Clarify background. Make decisions about flaws, foibles and idiosyncrasies, likes, dislikes, looks and voice of a character. Is he a giver or a taker? Is he a listener or a talker? Does he interrupt because he likes the sound of his own voice, or does he kowtow to someone he admires? Does he use poetry in the way he speaks or prefer logic? Or, like one of the characters in Dead Poets Society, is he a closet poet who wants everyone to see him as logical and predictable?

Many writers use a number of techniques to get them moving with a character. Some days, improv might work. Other days, answering the mundane questions from the character worksheet might do the trick. But either way, great dialogue is irrevocably tied to an understanding of your character. Once you know your character inside and out, you may start to feel he is a living, breathing being.

TIP #3: GREAT DIALOGUE IS THE RE-CREATION OF THE SOUL

Dialogue, when it’s kicking, represents what the character is feeling. It gives a sense of time and space. It deftly contains subtext, underscores the goal of the character and gives backstory without being obvious. It is colorful, magical, entertaining, to the point and singularly works to come out of the mouth of the character for which it was written. It has to be emotional and let us into the growth process of a character. In short, it must contain the multi-dimensions of a real person, someone with a specific gravity and a soul.

TIPS #4 THROUGH #8: EVERY PIECE OF GREAT DIALOGUE … 

• Gives information about the character

• Moves the story forward

• Develops theme

• Creates conflict

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) returns home to his family after a journey of self-discovery in It’s a Wonderful Life, written by Philip Van Doren Stern (story, “The Greatest Gift”), Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, Jo Swerling (additional scenes).

TIP #9: SECRETS, LIES AND WOUNDS— GREAT DIALOGUE CONCEALS TO REVEAL

Robespierre said, “God gave man a voice to hide his thoughts.” Great dialogue reveals truth by pointing to the untruth. The celebrated acting teacher Uta Hagen said the last thing we say in conversation is usually the truth, but it’s actually the subject we wanted to discuss from the beginning. For example, there is a famous Jimmy Stewart line inIt’s a Wonderful Life where he says, “I don’t want to marry you.” But, in his actions we see that he can’t bear to be away from her. In that case, the words express how he wished he felt. It allows us into his “headspace” and foreshadows actions he will soon take to remedy his unrest. Clue: Often a character says the opposite of what he is thinking and feeling. In a relationship, this behavior can be infuriating. Onscreen, it’s exhilarating.

Indeed, even the quiet moments and hesitations in your character’s dialogue speak volumes. What a character is hiding (and how he hides it) adds information about a character’s feelings toward his background, value systems, attitudes about sex, love, children, politics, etc.

TIP #10: LAYERING—THE TAPESTRY OF TRUTH

Layer, layer, layer! This work can be done before, during or after writing a scene. Layering is a topic that takes a while to peel back. Great dialogue is like a rich soup of textures. The ingredients at your disposal are the character’s words, thoughts, emotions and actions. Your character becomes cooked weaving these dimensions, adding depth, creating momentum, providing counterpoint and humor and revealing subtext. Layering can result from evaluating what your character’s dialogue may be protecting the audience or other characters in the scene from knowing. For fun, here are some examples looking at a Hollywood exec-type character:

1) You can trust me (meaning the opposite).

2) I’ll get back to you. (He isn’t intending to call you back ever.)

3) That film had great cinematography (meaning it sucked).

TIP #11: MULTITASKING DIALOGUE

Bad dialogue is often like that lazy employee. It does as little as possible to get by and generally doesn’t want to be there. So, take some advice from today’s corporate moguls: Trim your work force and make your employees work twice as hard for half the pay!

Dialogue should always multitask. This work is a bit like layering, but is more about what it can tell us about character and exposition. Dialogue can entertain. It can be moving. It can underscore theme. It can shift the story into high gear. But, it needs to be doing at least two out of five. Even with comedies, it’s rare you’ll have a joke for joke’s sake … and if it’s there, it’d better be truly funny—like the bean-eating scene in Blazing Saddles.

TIP #12: GREAT DIALOGUE AVOIDS OBVIOUS EXPOSITION

We’ve all experienced it … dialogue where characters say information purely for the benefit of the audience. “Hello, Sean and Sara, my neighbors and good friends of 10 years. Can I get you a beer, preferably your beer of choice, Molson Golden? The same beer we drank as freshmen at USC, remember?” None of the above would realistically come out of that character’s mouth. Upon further recollection, who cares?

Another worn and wearied variation of this exposition is bringing in a character that doesn’t know jack about Jack and have everyone else explain it to them. Boring. It’ll do in a pinch, but there are better techniques. Although, this technique can work, depending upon how interesting the world or situation is—look at the beginning of Minority Reportwhen Colin Farrell’s character enters. We’re so fascinated with what’s going on, we’re more than willing to have someone explain it to us.

Great dialogue scores at the core of a character’s issues. In Sideways, the character describes a type of wine, its flaws and foibles and why he likes it. The audience (and his love interest) know he is talking about himself.

TIP #13: GREAT DIALOGUE ADDS TENSION CLEVERLY

Putting your character in jeopardy can help layer dialogue and add tension while getting in exposition. For instance, you’d really want to hear what two nuns are saying if their car is hanging off a cliff. If they are just strolling down a garden path, we might not care, unless they’re talking about sex. The bottom line is that if you have to use a Shakespearean monologue or a taxi cab confession, do so in an intriguing and unobvious way.

TIP #14: GREAT DIALOGUE CONVEYS INFORMATION DISCREETLY

The idea here is to convey information without spelling it out. For example, instead of saying Charlie has a drinking problem, you can show another character chewing someone out for bringing a beer into Charlie’s house. Instead of saying Sean’s a law student, have him reading a law book. This approach also has the added benefit of layering information. We can learn not just what, but how a character feels about what. In the previous example, how is Sean reading the law book? Does he enjoy it or is it a real chore? It is okay for the audience to work a bit to figure something out.

Indirect exposition is essential when revealing deep character wounds to the audience. As mentioned earlier, people mask their wounds. Say, a boy’s mother died recently: Chances are he won’t go around openly declaring that he’s torn up inside. So, how do you convey the information to the audience quickly and effectively? It might come out more naturally if, when asked to play the piano, he refuses on the grounds that, “Daddy doesn’t like me to.” It reminds him of Mommy. Boom! We get the facts in a fresh, chilling way.

TIP #15: GREAT DIALOGUE GOES DEEPER

Great dialogue scores at the core of a character’s issues. In Sideways, the character describes a type of wine, its flaws and foibles and why he likes it. The audience (and his love interest) know he is talking about himself. So, take out that shovel and start digging. How can you make that piece of dialogue use what’s going on in the scene to reveal the innermost dreams, goals, thoughts and feelings of your character? Now, dig even deeper … make it the $6 million line!

how to write dialogueTIP #16: GREAT DIALOGUE GETS CUT TO THE BONE

Hopefully, during the initial writing phase, your inner critic has been slumbering. You’ve invited your characters into the room with you, and you can’t shut them up. But, once you get past the first stumbling blocks of character and story, it’s time to step back from your script and see what you’ve created. Then, assuming you’ve given yourself that distance, it’s time to go in and mercilessly edit the hell out of your dialogue. Cut everything, especially the stuff you like. Okay, you don’t really have to do that. But occasionally (or frequently) writers fall in love with a line of dialogue or a bit that really doesn’t belong there. You become married to it. This dialogue holds the story back, and it’s got to go. The refining phase “is the time to get that annulment.” Time to “kill your little darlings.” If the scene works without your beloved dialogue, pull the unsightly weed. You will find in most cases that you don’t miss the dialogue, and it will pick up the pace. Polish and it will shine!

TIP #17: GREAT DIALOGUE WORKS THE OPPOSITES (AND SURPRISES)

Every character, especially in a script, speaks for a reason. It’s only in real life that we aimlessly babble. If we did it onscreen, it’d be like attending someone else’s family gathering: boring. By analyzing what a character’s goals for speaking are, you can get a better grasp on what he needs to say and how he needs to say it. What is his objective? Is he trying to cajole, plead, seduce or just get a rise out of someone? Also, what are the mitigating factors involved? Can he just come right out and accuse someone, or is he afraid of this person? Does he want to insult someone but has to be nice? However, great dialogue takes this conflict further and creates a kind of counterpoint (or counterpunch) to the character’s intention.

Creating conflict is a sophisticated kind of layering that works best if it plays at crosspurposes to the character’s goals. Working the opposites can create tension by upsetting the apple cart with the unexpected. For example, our protagonist wants to borrow $20 but is also mad as hell at this same character. Suddenly, the dialogue becomes more interesting because the character is conflicted. It crackles.

TIP #18: GREAT DIALOGUE CURVES THE CLICHÉ

Cliches became cliches for a reason. They’re true but so overused that they lose any impact and, instead, have become mockeries of their former selves. Take a look at the phrase “Something’s gotta give.” Beneath it lies an intelligent observation: A standoff can only be solved by someone’s taking the first step and giving of himself. But that’s not what we hear or think when that phrase is uttered. We think, “Geez, not another cliche.” If you ever want to know if a phrase is cliche, go to cliche-finder at Westegg.com/cliche. Type in the word “dog,” for instance, and suddenly you’ll find 50 used, tired phrases.

A slight twist on the phrasing can often cure these problems. The placement of an adjective or selection of a synonym can make a phrase feel fresh yet familiar. Instead of “Come on, man, throw me a line,” we get, “Come on, man, I’m pulling a Titanic over here.” Simply put, honor what you want to say, just find another way to do it.

TIP #19: GREAT DIALOGUE ESTABLISHES TONE, TOWN AND TIME

There are many factors that can determine your character’s speech patterns. The three most basic ones can be summed up: tone, town and time. The three “T’s”.

“Tone” refers to the genre of the film and style of your character. The dialogue in a realistic drama like Fried Green Tomatoes would be different than a balls-out comedy like Old School. Tone also comes into play with the individual character within your script. What is his approach to the world?

“Town” simply asks where and when did your character grow up? Where is he living now? A little research here will go a long way in lending your dialogue verisimilitude. Think of Woody Allen in any nebbishy comedy role. He has that insecure, Jewish New York patter down. Someone from the Georgian South will sound distinctly different from a Bronx native. If he doesn’t, your wonderful script could end up in the trash can disposed of by a savvy producer from Georgia.

If your character has some special skill or background, like growing up in the coal mines of the American Iron Range, a dialect tape can help you. Or, interview arriving passengers at your local airport, train or bus station to collect gems carved from real lives. Does your character thrive on sports? Sprinkle this territorial passion using sports references. Sparkling dialogue lives in the rhythms of life.

“Time,” of course, refers to when your script takes place. The colloquial language of the 1960s is a lot different from the 1800s, clearly. Subtle shifts in time will affect your characters’ choices of words.

TIP #20: GREAT DIALOGUE DRAWS LARGER THAN LIFE FROM LIFE

People think that you can borrow from life verbatim and throw it onto the canvas that is your film. Direct translation from real life doesn’t begin to echo the layers and

Every character, especially in a script, speaks for a reason. It’s only in real life that we aimlessly babble. If we did it onscreen, it’d be like attending someone else’s family gathering: boring.

depth that artfully crafted dialogue can. Great dialogue is tied to theme and your character’s transformational arc. It is not on the nose, but subtly rings with everything your character is about.

Sometimes, you will hear a great phrase or piece of dialogue from life. You will tear through your script looking for a spot for that memorable one-liner. Although we can find some great phrases out of the mouths of people in real life, it is rare that these phrases step up to the plate. In other words, translation of a real piece of dialogue or phrase into your film requires that you transform it appropriately for your character. You had better write an argument between your characters that is 10 times more clever, riddled with subtext and suspense than the one you had with your best friend last night.

TIP #21: SILENCE IS GOLDEN, SO LISTEN ALREADY

Finally, we’d like to leave you with the most important technique no writer can truly do without. That is the ability to listen. That’s right. The most important thing you can do as a writer is SHUT UP. Once you start truly listening to everyone around you, all sorts of character types and speech patterns will be filed away in your great brain—just itching to come back out the next time you write. So go out and socialize, just don’t say a word.

Remember: Dialogue is conversation well edited.

For more on DEVORAH CUTLER-RUBENSTEIN, KRISTOPHER WHITE or The Script Broker … helping writers succeed in the marketplace, go to thescriptbroker.com, a division of Noble House Entertainment, Inc.