Monologue as ‘sales pitch’

September 23rd, 2014 by

I just concluded the Screenwriting Master Class one-week course Core V: Dialogue and as with all of my classes, I came away stimulated by the ideas that emerged in our online conversations.

For example in addition to the six lectures I wrote which were made available, I also posted six Dialogue Tips, techniques to help engender good dialogue-writing practices. One of them is Monologues:

Specific to dialogue, monologues are a valuable character development tool. For when you sit down in front of a computer or place pen onto notebook, close your eyes, and imagine the words you write are their words, at some point, they become their words.

You find yourself writing down their ideas. Thoughts. And the way they express their thoughts.

You see insights into who they are through their observations.

You begin to get a feel for the rhythm of their verbal communication.

You can start to see some aspect of their world view round into shape and come into view.

Don’t judge. Don’t critique. Just put yourself in their shoes and let their words flow through your fingers.

Whether you use the monologue in the script or not, it’s a great way to coax a character to ‘speak’ to you. In response to this idea, one of the writers in the class Jonathan Melikidse posted this:

It seems many of the most interesting monologues, and I notice this in many of those written by QT [Quentin Tarantino], tell a story, a metaphor of sorts, that encapsulates a key point to the story. This is not really “show don’t say,” but it feels kind of like showing by telling. The monologue is vivid. It puts you in the moment. It reaches your subconscious.

In sales, they teach you to connect with the buyer (create a problem), show them what you are offering them (the remedy), then remind why your offer is the best choice (the solution). These monologues often feel like one of the steps within a sales pitch.

Grab their interest. Show them why they are interested. Close.

That got me to thinking, so I posted this:

I’ve worked sales twice in my life: For four summers at a rug and carpet store in Va. Beach to help pay my way through college, the owner a real New York guy with the gift of gab. Before I went off to Yale for grad school, he actually offered me a top position with the company with the prospect of taking over the business someday. That is one of my parallel lives!

The other sales gig was for 7 months, working in The Guitar Center in San Francisco (1980-1981). My boss there Larry Thomas now heads up Fender, the guitar company. And he taught us, over and over again, the three stages of a sale:

Qualify. Pitch. Close.

That aligns with your thing:

Qualify – Learn the customer’s problem.

Pitch – Give them the remedy.

Close – Finalize the deal with the solution.

It would be interesting to check out Howard Beale’s monologues in Network per this three-part scheme.

He starts every speech by citing instances of the listeners’ lives, identifying their problems and thus, creating a connection to himself.

He then posits a form of action: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore.”

Then incites them to a response, basically closing the deal.

Of course, this all echoes Aristotle and his articulation of Beginning, Middle, End.

With that, let’s see if we can divide one of Howard Beale’s monologues from Network into the three parts of a sales pitch:

Part 1: State the Problem

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’

Part 2: Offer a Remedy

Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’

Part 3: Close With the Solution

So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”

Works pretty well, doesn’t it? Now check out the brilliant performance by Peter Finch and track the rhythm of the monologue:

Notice how the camera stops on a close-up just as he lurches forward with the line, “Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone,” accentuating the transition into Part 2. Especially noteworthy is what he does after he says, “My life has VALUE!” Beale stands up and starts moving toward the camera, marking the transition into his closing argument.

So this monologue, along with having three parts a la Aristotle, also works as a sales pitch. It’s an interesting touchstone, isn’t it, particularly for monologues in which a coach tries to inspire a team before a big game… or the leader of an army gives an inspirational speech on the cusp of a battle.

What other movie monologues can you think of that might fit this pattern?

Thanks, Jonathan for that observation and to all of the members of the Core V: Dialogue class. It was an excellent session where everyone – including myself – acquired new knowledge about this aspect of the craft.

UPDATE: As I think about it, isn’t it possible to use the three beats of a sales pitch as a metaphor for three act structure?

Act One: In setting up the story universe, the central problem of the story, particularly related to the Protagonist, emerges into view.

Act Two: The Protagonist faces a series of challenges which make clear what the remedy to the problem is.

Act Three: In facing the Final Struggle and succeeding, the Protagonist, in effect, closes the deal.

There’s even this: Notice how oftentimes a Protagonist begins a story with a specific goal in mind, but switches goals during the course of their journey? They think they want the big job promotion, but in the end what they really want is to be with their family. Part of sales is to take a customer through a process whereby whatever preconceptions they have shift to align with your pitch. So another bit of relevance.

Regardless of anything else, this idea confirms once again the value of the three movements in story as elucidated by Aristotle: Beginning. Middle. End.

The mysteries of writing dialogue

September 8th, 2014 by

There are many intangibles about the craft of screenwriting. Much of that derives from the fact that story itself is organic. Stories — good ones, at least — are not formulas. They are not widgets. Rather they are living, breathing entities with a heart, soul, and even will of their own. They slip and slide as we develop and write them, creating a series of challenges as we try our best to solve their mysteries.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than with dialogue. When I pose the question, “How do you write dialogue” to professional screenwriters, the most common response is basically this: I don’t know.

Common advice as to how to learn to write good dialogue:

* Listen to real-life conversations to get a sense of how people talk.

* Read scripts and watch movies – or better yet listen to moviesin order to grasp the feel and flow of film characters talking.

* Simply keep writing, that the more you pound out pages and knock out original screenplays, you will develop your ear for dialogue.

All of those are reasonable points. But aren’t there principles and practices we can learn to help bring into focus a writer’s ability to craft compelling, entertaining and effective dialogue?

That was my thinking when I sat down to create the fifth class in the Core curriculum – Core V: Dialogue.

As with everything I teach about screenwriting, it starts with character. Isn’t it obvious the more you know and understand about your story’s characters, the more likely their respective voices will emerge into your consciousness?

Beyond that, it’s not just about hearing them, it’s about choosing the most impactful dialogue to support the point of each scene and drive the plot forward.

Hence the fifth Essential Screenwriting Principle: Dialogue = Purpose.

In a screenplay, there is almost zero room for extraneous dialogue, rather every line should tie into the Plotline and/or Themeline.

In Core V: Dialogue, we dig deep into this subject through 6 lectures I have written:

Lecture 1: Introduction to Dialogue
Lecture 2: Finding Your Character’s Voice – Inward Journey
Lecture 3: Finding Your Character’s Voice – Outward Expression
Lecture 4: Subtext
Lecture 5: What Is Not Said
Lecture 6: Realistic Dialogue

In addition there are several Insider Tips, analysis of several movie scripts, opportunities to workshop dialogue in some of your own original scenes, a 75-minute teleconference, and much more.

A testimonial from a writer:

“Scott is so generous with sharing his knowledge and it’s a great blessing to those of us who are just starting off/been doing it for years/need a reminder/need inspiration. I just completed the Core Dialogue course and I can honestly say he delivers back your investment threefold.” — Sabina Giado

There is no right way to write. Every writer is different. Every story is different. And you can learn everything you need to know about the craft of screenwriting by doing three things: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages.

However if you want to explore the subject of dialogue in an immersive fashion and from a distinct character-based perspective, I invite you to join me for this 1-week online class which begins Monday, September 15.

For more information, go here.

Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 19: Thought and Diction

February 9th, 2014 by

As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.

For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To download “Poetics,” you can go here.

Part 19: Thought and Diction

It remains to speak of Diction and Thought, the other parts of Tragedy
having been already discussed. concerning Thought, we may assume what
is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more strictly
belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced
by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation
of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion
of importance or its opposite. Now, it is evident that the dramatic
incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic
speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance,
or probability. The only difference is that the incidents should speak
for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in
should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.
For what were the business of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed
quite apart from what he says?

Next, as regards Diction. One branch of the inquiry treats of the
Modes of Utterance. But this province of knowledge belongs to the
art of Delivery and to the masters of that science. It includes, for
instance- what is a command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a question,
an answer, and so forth. To know or not to know these things involves
no serious censure upon the poet’s art. For who can admit the fault
imputed to Homer by Protagoras- that in the words, ‘Sing, goddess,
of the wrath, he gives a command under the idea that he utters a prayer?
For to tell some one to do a thing or not to do it is, he says, a
command. We may, therefore, pass this over as an inquiry that belongs
to another art, not to poetry.

I may be taking a simplistic view here, but let me run with this and see what our Aristotelian experts have to say on Part XIX: Isn’t this simply Aristotle’s way of drawing a distinction between what screenwriters would call Dialogue and Action?

Dialogue: Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech [emphasis added].

Action: Now, it is evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic speeches [emphasis added].

Dialogue = Speech.

Action = Incidents.

Moreover, as in a screenplay, the impact Dialogue and Action may have on the plot is the same. Aristotle lists the “effects” as being proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite. In other words, make something happen.

As to the observations about Diction, I’m thinking this is an implicit nod to the nature of ancient plays which were, I am supposing, heavily dialogue oriented. They are, after all, considered to be “poetry,” not some other “art.”

Of course with the advent of motion pictures, especially during the silent film era, the emphasis switched almost entirely to visual storytelling.

Motion. Pictures. Both visual words. To this day, movies are primarily a visual medium. As screenwriters, our scripts may very well have a “command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a question, an answer, and so forth,” but whatever dialogue we write can be best served while maximizing the visual trappings of a scene.

In any event, the distinction between Dialogue and Action is an important one, reminding screenwriters to find a balance between the two, something that can differ genre to genre, story to story, but should always be a consideration in the writer’s consciousness.

Furthermore as Dialogue and Action occur in the physical realm of a movie, what we hear and what we see, there is an implied meaning in the psychological realm, what we interpret and intuit.

For Dialogue, we may call that Subtext. For Action, we may call that Intention.

A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.

How about you? What do you take from Part 19 of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.

“Bad movie dialogue speaks in complete sentences”

November 25th, 2013 by

“Bad movie dialogue speaks in complete sentences without any overlapping or interruption, and avoids elliptical speech, which is truer to how people actually talk.”

This from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. While dialogue is a major point of attention in the rewrite stage — really digging into each character and their distinctive forms of expression, looking for set-up and payoff lines, cutting words, cutting lines, cutting sides, etc — we should always be mindful of it even in the first draft.

If you’ve done sufficient work in prep getting to know your characters, you should be ‘hearing’ them [more or less]. And what you’re hearing should be filtered through an understanding of how people talk. Contractions, idioms, slang, and as Anderson suggests interruptions among other dynamics.

That said, we have to balance out a desire for authenticity and naturalness with an awareness that dialogue is not just conversation, but characters speaking with a purpose. They have individual goals. They have underlying motives of which they may or may not be aware that shape dialogue as subtext. And then there is the purpose related to the overall flow of the narrative as dialogue, like action, occurs in sum to move the story forward.

This is not to get you hung up on individual sides of dialogue. Again you have a time and place for that kind of attention, during rewrites. But at the very least in the first draft, you can be trying to give your dialogue as natural a feel as possible.

So remember:

“Bad movie dialogue speaks in complete sentences.”

I encourage you to head to comments to discuss today’s questions. And for a related discussion on The Black Board, check out these topics:

The Quest” has entered Week 20! And so did Go On Your Own Quest, an opportunity for anyone to follow the structure of “The Quest” to dig into screenwriting theory [Core – 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep – 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages – 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Today and every Monday through Friday for 10 weeks, I’ll use this slot to post something inspirational as GOYOQ participants pound out their first drafts.

Why not use the structure of this 24-week workshop to Go On Your Own Quest? That was an idea that gathered energy among many members of the GITS community which I described here.

For more information on Go On Your Own Quest, go here.

Plus you can join The Black Board, the Official Online Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, another free resource to help keep you inspired and on target at you Go On Your Own Quest from FADE IN to FADE OUT on the first draft of your original screenplay.

Subtext

November 4th, 2013 by

So over the weekend, I posted this Great Scene from the movie Sideways:

                                     MAYA
                         Can I ask you a personal question?

                                     MILES
                              (bracing himself)
                         Sure.

                                     MAYA
                         Why are you so into Pinot? It's like 
                         a thing with you.

               Miles laughs at first, then smiles wistfully at the question. 
               He searches for the answer in his glass and begins slowly.

                                     MILES
                         I don't know. It's a hard grape to 
                         grow. As you know. It's thin-skinned, 
                         temperamental, ripens early. It's 
                         not a survivor like Cabernet that 
                         can grow anywhere and thrive even 
                         when neglected. Pinot needs constant 
                         care and attention and in fact can 
                         only grow in specific little tucked-
                         away corners of the world. And only 
                         the most patient and nurturing growers 
                         can do it really, can tap into Pinot's 
                         most fragile, delicate qualities. 
                         Only when someone has taken the time 
                         to truly understand its potential 
                         can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest 
                         expression. And when that happens, 
                         its flavors are the most haunting 
                         and brilliant and subtle and thrilling 
                         and ancient on the planet.

               Maya has found this answer revealing and moving.

                                     MILES
                         I mean, Cabernets can be powerful 
                         and exalting, but they seem prosaic 
                         to me for some reason. By comparison. 
                         How about you?

                                     MAYA
                         What about me?

                                     MILES
                         I don't know. Why are you into wine?

                                     MAYA
                         I suppose I got really into wine 
                         originally through my ex-husband. He 
                         had a big, kind of show-off cellar. 
                         But then I found out that I have a 
                         really sharp palate, and the more I 
                         drank, the more I liked what it made 
                         me think about.

                                     MILES
                         Yeah? Like what?

                                     MAYA
                         Like what a fraud he was.

               Miles laughs.

                                     MAYA
                         No, but I do like to think about the 
                         life of wine, how it's a living thing. 
                         I like to think about what was going 
                         on the year the grapes were growing, 
                         how the sun was shining that summer 
                         or if it rained... what the weather 
                         was like. I think about all those 
                         people who tended and picked the 
                         grapes, and if it's an old wine, how 
                         many of them must be dead by now. I 
                         love how wine continues to evolve, 
                         how every time I open a bottle it's 
                         going to taste different than if I 
                         had opened it on any other day. 
                         Because a bottle of wine is actually 
                         alive -- it's constantly evolving 
                         and gaining complexity. That is, 
                         until it peaks -- like your '61 -- 
                         and begins its steady, inevitable 
                         decline. And it tastes so fucking 
                         good.

And my comments on it were this:

So what is Miles really talking about? In the External World of this screenplay universe, he’s talking about wine, but in the Internal World he’s talking about — himself. “Pinot needs constant care and attention… only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it… tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities… only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential… coaxed into its fullest expression… the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient.” In that moment, this is Miles’ beatific expression of his own self-image, a misunderstood person, unappreciated novelist, and an unrequited romantic.

Now let’s look at Maya’s monologue to see who she’s really talking about: “It’s a living thing… continues to evolve… actually alive… constantly evolving, gaining complexity.” Again these words resonate about the speaker as Maya works as a waitress, however she’s evolving by taking college courses, learning about wine, and has aspirations about taking that up as a career.

In dialogue, subtext is where characters talk about Subject A (in the External World), but mean something about Subject B (in the Internal World). This scene from Sideways offers one of the best examples of subtext in recent memory.

In comments, Kalen wrote this:

This is, without question, the best Daily Dialogue article I’ve read on this site. I know you’ve written a lot, Scott, and I know many are really good. But this one, this one is money — BECAUSE IT’S SO FREAKING TRUE!

Think about how often we have these types of conversations in real life, where we’re talking about something on the surface but only using it as a facade to mask the subject we’re really talking about, which is often our inner battles and emotions that exist inside our heads. We’re constantly trying to express ourselves but more often than not we’re either not entirely comfortable with just coming out and saying it, or we don’t know how because we’ve never done it before. Using an external, everyday subject to underhandedly talk about another deeper, moral issue is, in my opinion, one of the hallmarks of great writing. This scene exemplifies that.

To which I responded with this:

Thanks, Kalen. In the dialogue class I teach as part of the Core curriculum, I spend a great deal of time talking about subtext. It’s easy to say, “Hey, write more subtext,” but how? The key is, as you might expect I’d say: Go into your characters. Specifically find out what their unconscious needs are and WHY they are unconscious. Also their CONSCIOUS needs, but why they may restrict themselves from expressing them. That’s one key to subtext, simply discovering what it is that lies hidden within the character.

Another thing: Creates obstacles that restrict a character from expressing their feelings directly and clearly. They can be INTERNAL obstacles, primarily of a psychological or emotional nature, or EXTERNAL obstacles, social circumstances which prevent on the nose speech.

A third thing: Look for BOBs (Bits Of Business) character can talk about and through which the subtext can emerge, such as the Sideways wine example. Characters can project their feelings onto the object. It’s like a talisman in a way, a physical object with a symbolic meaning.

Those are three ways to approach writing subtext.

So with all that, I figured why not a larger discussion on subtext. Why do you think it’s important? How do you go about writing dialogue with more subtext, less on-the-nose dialogue? See you in comments!

Dialogue Paradigm

October 16th, 2013 by

One of the great aspects of the screenwriting courses I teach is the contributions of the writers involved. Case in point, John Hörnschemeyer recently took my Core V: Dialogue class which led him to this epiphany:

Another intense, thought-provoking, and dare I say, inspiring week, the fifth, of Scott’s Screenwriting Master Class, and we hit the wall of, “Dialogue”.

Dialogue… what exactly does it constitute in the whole of a medium that vaunts ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’? It is not, as Scott likes to stress, a simple question of conversation, but rather one of communication; a tool to be used with parsimony and precision, in order to move a plot forward through insights and revelations. This said, and despite the fact that plot will invariably impose a particular tone or direction, dialogue is nothing without the characters and their individual voices. Scott pushes us to explore deeper. Do we know our characters? What lies behind the mask? What made them who they are? Why are they in this situation? What are their needs? Abandoning the comfort of our certitudes, we delve into the shadowy alcoves of our characters’ psyche… opening our own minds to an evidence: Only by totally identifying with a character’s persona can we hope to express their voice in terms that impose both uniqueness and credibility.

There still remains, however, the small matter of applying the voice to a realistic dialogue that corresponds to the needs of a scene. Over and above the simple requirement of the plot, imposing an identifiable goal, why do characters express themselves in a specific manner at a specific moment in a scene? A character’s persona will not only impose an internal need, be it consciously or at the level of the subconscious, but it will also influence the nature of the character’s dialogue, balancing somewhere between the extreme limits of explicit directness and oblique subtext, and not forgetting, of course, silence.

Taking example from other paradigms that Scott had proposed during the course, I suggested the following paradigm for dialogue. It may appear simplistic, yet at the same time, I think that it clearly identifies the major components that influence realistic dialogue in the context of a screenplay. A character’s voice may remain constant, but the type of dialogue within the paradigm is constantly shifting, responding to the pull of the influences, reinforcing the writer’s need to have a clear and deep understanding of not only the requirements of the plot, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the persona of the character.

Dialogue Paradigm small

Paradigms can be helpful as visual metaphors. Not rules, but tools. And one thing John’s paradigm puts into view is the elasticity of dialogue. It’s not just text. It’s not just subtext. Rather there are multiple layers of potential ‘stuff’ going on with every line.

Sometimes a character’s words are more ‘realistic,’ their intent clear and up top.

Sometimes a character’s words are more ‘subtext,’ their meaning shrouded by the character’s interior feelings and thoughts.

Sometimes a character’s words are more directly tied to events as they happen in the External World, helping to drive events as they unfold in the physical realm.

Sometimes a character’s words are more reflective of what is happening in the Internal World, originating from the character’s psychological core.

And all points in between.

As a writing tool, one could use this paradigm to ask any character in any scene, Where are they emotionally and psychologically at this precise moment? In other words, if you could place a dot on the graph, where would you put it?

Then you can bring that awareness of the character to the feeling-state you have when you write the scene, helping you to shape the dialogue to be more of a reflection of where the character is in connection to the story universe in that moment.

As with all ideas about writing, if you find it helpful, great. If not, no sweat. Move onto the next thing. But in my view, John’s paradigm is a helpful visual reminder that dialogue can originate from multiple layers of a character’s being.

Dialogue as “character communication”

October 4th, 2013 by

In another great discussion in my current Dialogue class, one of the writers in our group Diana Ford had an interesting revelation to my lectures:

On another point, since it’s really conversation-writing that is difficult for me (just as conversation-speaking is for me, LOL), it helps me to know I am really charged with writing communication, not conversation. And, basically, character communication. The psychology of speaking styles is an easier approach to dialogue for me. Rather than “OK, now what should she say,” it’s  “How would someone with her personality respond to that.” Much easier.

My response:

Yes, that’s the point in some ways: From the perspective of the writer, Dialogue = Purpose implies not only What do I need to accomplish in this scene and how can the dialogue support that, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a similar question from the perspective of the characters.

If you look at them in macro, what the characters’ general psychological natures and arcs (if they have any) are, there’s that.

Then there’s also a more micro view: Where are they at any given moment in the story re their psych evolution (how the events of the Plotline are impacting them).

Now take both of those points of awareness with you as you think about each character when writing each scene: What are their respective goals in this scene? Where are they generally in their psych journey? Where are they specifically as in right now re this scene?

Just having a clear sense of their psychological mood and emotional state should help you zero in on at least the tone and tenor of their dialogue, and hopefully put you in touch with your characters so they ‘talk’ to you.

As noted previously, there is no formula for writing strong, effective dialogue. Some writers are born with a knack for it. However by grounding our focus in the nature, concerns, backgrounds and goals of each character, we circle in on the area where dialogue can emerge from the characters themselves — not so much conversation-writing, but character communication.

Tarantino, Sorkin and Dialogue as Purpose

October 2nd, 2013 by

In my current Core V: Dialogue online class, we’ve had some really enlightening discussions including this one about two masters in this arena: Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino. Both of them are known for the occasional long dialogue-laden scene and we might be tempted to interpret these as just being about entertainment. Read this excerpt from my first lecture which precipitated the online conversation, considering the screenwriting principle Dialogue = Purpose:

The first 8+ pages of The Social Network script would appear to be the very epitome of purposelessness. Apart from introducing two key characters — Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Erica (Rooney Mara) — the dialogue zigs and zags from one topic to the next, a confused quilt of references and observations. Here is a list of topics in the scene:

  • People with genius IQs in China
  • How to “distinguish yourself” amongst people who got 1600 on SAT’s
  • A Capella choir, rowing crew, inventing a “25 dollar PC”
  • Final club
  • World class athletes rowing crew
  • How girls like cowboys
  • Exclusivity
  • Various final clubs at Harvard with the Porc being the “best of the best”
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Mark’s friend Eduardo made $300,000 betting on oil futures
  • Predicting weather and the price of heating oil
  • Spat about Erica asking which final club is the “easiest to get into”
  • Spat about Erica calling it “finals” club
  • Spat about Erica calling Mark “obsessed,” he says he’s “motivated”
  • Mark thinks Erica speaks in “code”
  • Mark says “I need to do something substantial” to get the “attention” of the clubs
  • Mark: “Because they’re exclusive. And fun and they lead to a better life.”
  • Mark: “You should be a lot more supportive,” benefits for her if he was in a club
  • She tells him she is no longer his girlfriend
  • Mark says Erica used to sleep with the door guy of the club they’re drinking in
  • Erica gets angry and says she’s leaving
  • Mark tries to apologize
  • Erica says dating Mark is “exhausting”
  • Mark disparages B.U. (Boston University) where Erica goes to college
  • Erica delivers two “stingers” and leaves him

8 plus pages. 111 sides of dialogue. Where is the purpose in this scene?

Dialogue conveys exposition: If we define exposition as information, data, and backstory, we can see how Sorkin laces a lot of it into these pages:

Information: Mark attends Harvard; Erica attends B.U.; the Porcellian is the most exclusive final club at Harvard; Teddy Roosevelt was a Porc.

Data: The number of geniuses in China; Eduardo made $300K last year.

Backstory: Mark got 1600 on his SAT; Mark and Erica have been romantically involved; Mark thinks Erica used to sleep with the door guy.

This exposition is key in establishing the story’s setting (contemporary Harvard) and some of the basics of the Protagonist (Mark) and Attractor (Erica) characters.

Dialogue reveals a character’s inner life: Through text and subtext, Sorkin conveys important aspects of both Mark and Erica’s thoughts and feelings:

Mark: He is looking to distinguish himself; he feels pressure to do “something substantial” with his life; his reaction to Erica’s comment about the easiest final club shows he has personal insecurities; he thinks she should be more supportive of his desire to join a final club; Mark is dismissive of B.U. as an academic institution; his goal is a “better life.”

Erica: She thinks Mark is “obsessed” with final clubs; she has a difficult time following Mark’s way of thinking and talking; she gets angry at Mark’s insensitivity (i.e., door guy accusation, derision of B.U. and by extension her own intellect); she finds being with Mark “exhausting.”

The purpose of this facet of the scene’s dialogue is to go beyond exposition and provide readers a deeper insight into the inner workings of these two pivotal characters.

Dialogue distinguishes one character from another: In what they say and how they say it, Sorkin creates a clear sense of Mark and Erica’s individual identities:

Mark: He is extremely, almost excessively verbal; he is kinetic, his ideas spewing forth; he carries on his own internal conversation that often loses Erica; he is essentially humorless.

Erica: Less intelligent, but smarter socially; she tries to use humor to make points (“You don’t care if side effects may include blindness, okay, just do it,” “What part of Long Island are you from–England”); she is primarily reactive to him; she does not waffle in her decision to break up with him.

There is also this subtle distinction between them. Whereas Erica is actually hurt by Mark’s derisive comments, unintentional though they may be, when Erica dumps him, Mark doesn’t feel distress so much as shock, as if it is unfathomable she would have any reason to terminate their relationship.

At this level of purpose, Sorkin not only distinguishes the two characters in terms of the text of their words, but also the subtext, the deeper emotional meaning under their words.

Dialogue moves the plot forward: Within the realm of a story universe, perhaps the single most important purpose of dialogue is to advance the plot. On the surface this extended exchange between these two characters in The Social Network seems precisely like a conversation with little or no substantive part to play in terms of the narrative. A closer examination reveals the scene moves the plot ahead in two ways: (1) The scene itself has a clear Beginning, Middle and End; (2) Its end point is a critical event that sets into motion everything else that follows in the plot.

Scene structure: The Beginning of the scene revolves around establishing Mark’s powerful desire to get into a final club. The Middle involves Erica calling into question Mark’s obsession while Mark challenges her to support him, and in so doing provides one dismissive comment toward her after another. The Ending centers on Erica breaking up with Mark.

Point of the scene: It’s the break-up and specifically Erica’s final lines to Mark as she leaves [P. 8]:

ERICA
Listen. You’re going to be successful and
rich. But you’re going to go through life
thinking that girls don’t like you
because you’re a tech geek. And I want
you to know, from the bottom of my heart,
that that won’t be true. It’ll be because
you’re an asshole.

And then this final parting shot [P. 9]:

ERICA
And you’re never getting into a final
club.

The point of the scene is two-fold: (1) Erica breaks up with Mark. (2) Erica’s parting shot becomes a verbal talisman to inspire Mark to make something of himself and join a final club. The scene’s ending dialogue caps off this key purpose of the scene tied to the plot.

Mark Walker, one of the writers in the Core class, responded with this:

I think that is a key observation that those new to screenwriting (like myself) need to get into their heads. I think, when I started out, I was probably of the mind that dialogue wasn’t as important as the scene description and visual “delivery” of the film.

As I have wised up a bit (there is still a lot of room for further improvement) from reading books and blogs, and the SMC, it has become clearer just how powerful good dialogue can be, let alone great dialogue. it is interesting to watch films knowing this and think about how the dialogue works so well.

Scott’s example clearly shows this, and how it is an art to make it look like conversation when it actually isn’t. To throw all that stuff at you that you probably don’t recognise as character building and exposition until later in the movie when you get those call-backs that relate to some of that conversation and it all clicks into place, is a vital skill.

In the spirit of the Dialogue Death Match, I would compare this to Tarantino introducing Jules and Vincent as they approach the building where the guys with Marcellus’ brief case are waiting. An excerpt:

EXT. APARTMENT BUILDING COURTYARD – MORNING

Vincent and Jules, their long matching overcoats practically dragging on the ground, 
walk through the courtyard of what looks like a hacienda-style Hollywood apartment 
building. We TRACK alongside.

                                     VINCENT
                         What's her name?

                                      JULES
                         Mia.

                                      VINCENT
                         How did Marsellus and her meet?

                                      JULES
                         I dunno, however people meet people.
                         She usta be an actress.

                                      VINCENT
                         She ever do anything I woulda saw?

                                      JULES
                         I think her biggest deal was she
                         starred in a pilot.

                                      VINCENT
                         What's a pilot?

                                      JULES
                         Well, you know the shows on TV?

                                      VINCENT
                         I don't watch TV.

                                      JULES
                         Yes, but you're aware that there's
                         an invention called television, and
                         on that invention they show shows?

                                      VINCENT
                         Yeah.

                                      JULES
                         Well, the way they pick the shows on
                         TV is they make one show, and that
                         show's called a pilot. And they show
                         that one show to the people who pick
                         the shows, and on the strength of
                         that one show, they decide if they
                         want to make more shows. Some get
                         accepted and become TV programs, and
                         some don't, and become nothing. She
                         starred in one of the ones that became
                         nothing.

 They enter the apartment building.

 INT. RECEPTION AREA (APARTMENT BUILDING) – MORNING

 Vincent and Jules walk through the reception area and wait for the elevator.

                                      JULES
                         You remember Antwan Rockamora? Half-
                         black, half-Samoan, usta call him
                         Tony Rocky Horror.

                                      VINCENT
                         Yeah maybe, fat right?

                                      JULES
                         I wouldn't go so far as to call the
                         brother fat. He's got a weight
                         problem.  What's the nigger gonna
                         do, he's Samoan.

                                      VINCENT
                         I think I know who you mean, what
                         about him?

                                      JULES
                         Well, Marsellus fucked his ass up
                         good.  And word around the campfire,
                         it was on account of Marsellus
                         Wallace's wife.

The elevator arrives, the men step inside.

INT. ELEVATOR – MORNING

                                     VINCENT
                         What'd he do, fuck her?

                                     JULES
                         No no no no no no no, nothin' that
                         bad.
                                     VINCENT
                         Well, what then?

                                     JULES
                         He gave her a foot massage.

                                     VINCENT
                         A foot massage?

Jules nods his head: "Yes."
                                      VINCENT
                         That's all?

 Jules nods his head: "Yes."

                                      VINCENT
                         What did Marsellus do?

                                      JULES
                         Sent a couple of guys over to his
                         place.  They took him out on the
                         patio of his apartment, threw his
                         ass over the balcony.  Nigger fell
                         four stories. They had this garden
                         at the bottom, enclosed in glass,
                         like one of them greenhouses – nigger
                         fell through that. Since then, he's
                         kinda developed a speech impediment.

 The elevator doors open, Jules and Vincent exit.

                                     VINCENT
                         That's a damn shame.

I think we get all four of Scott’s purposes in that conversation which, on the surface of it, sounds like two guys just chewing the fat about work and shit. But we hear about (amongst everything else):

  • Vincent being in Amsterdam – he has been away and missed some stuff
  • We get banter about their weapons which tells us they are gangsters/hitmen….dangerous
  • Jules is catching him up about the guy that gave Mia foot massage
  • This tells us their boss is a hard man not to be messed with
  • We hear Vincent has been asked to “take her out” while Marcellus is away – setting up the next part of the story.
  • Jules concern in relation to foot massages tells us more about their boss and theor perception of him.
  • The dialogue tells us about the suitcase Macguffin.
  • We get to learn that Vincent and Jules are very different – Jules is respectful and more refined than Vincent who is a little more brash – all found from a conversation about giving foot massages

We get everything; exposition, inner life of the characters, we learn how they are different from each other and  plot moves forward with regards the macguffin. By the time we are ready to kick the door down we know exactly who these two guys are, what they do for a living and who they work for, as well as a bit about their past and what is in store for them (or at least Vincent) in the next chapter. None of the dialogue is “wasted” or “filler” – like everything else with screenwriting – if it doesn’t serve the story, does it need to be cut?

My response to Mark:

That example you cite from Pulp Fiction works as entertainment straight-out, thus if we don’t look closer, we may assume it’s just QT riffing with dialogue, pure and simple. But if we do examine the content, we see, as you pointed out so well with your analysis, Mark, that there is a purpose to the conversation, in fact, several of them, in effect setting up a few important subplots.

A comparison of this scene and the opening to The Social Network reveals that everything hangs on the dialogue’s tie-in to and advancement of the plot. In fact, if one were to boil down each scene to the single most important contribution each makes to the plot, it’s right there:

* Pulp Fiction: To establish the upcoming ‘date’ Vincent is going to have with Mia and the pressure he will be under to handle that properly re Marcellus and his temper. That sets everything in that subplot into motion including Vincent scoring the heroin as a way of taking the edge of the date which leads to Mia overdosing on it (thinking it’s cocaine), and so forth.

* The Social Network: The breakup of Mark and Eric which, as the denouement shows [even though the entirety of their subplot is only 4 beats], provides one big fat motivation on Mark’s part to succeed: To prove he has worth in response to her rejection of him.

Takeaway: Dialogue = Purpose. This is true even if you go off on a riff a la Tarantino and Sorkin. Tie the dialogue to those four markers, but most especially to the advancement of the plot.

I don’t care how good you are with dialogue, if you write a scene in which the dialogue has zero impact on the plot, you should consider reshaping the scene to make it relevant to the plot or drop the scene entirely as being extraneous.

What are your thoughts about how important dialogue is to plot?

The mysteries of writing dialogue

September 23rd, 2013 by

There are many intangibles about the craft of screenwriting. Much of that derives from the fact that story itself is organic. Stories — good ones, at least — are not formulas. They are not widgets. Rather they are living, breathing entities with a heart, soul, and even will of their own. They slip and slide as we develop and write them, creating a series of challenges as we try our best to solve their mysteries.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than with dialogue. When I pose the question, “How do you write dialogue” to professional screenwriters, the most common response is basically this: I don’t know.

Common advice as to how to learn to write good dialogue:

* Listen to real-life conversations to get a sense of how people talk.

* Read scripts and watch movies – or better yet listen to moviesin order to grasp the feel and flow of film characters talking.

* Simply keep writing, that the more you pound out pages and knock out original screenplays, you will develop your ear for dialogue.

All of those are reasonable points. But aren’t there principles and practices we can learn to help bring into focus a writer’s ability to craft compelling, entertaining and effective dialogue?

That was my thinking when I sat down to create the fifth class in the Core curriculum – Core V: Dialogue.

As with everything I teach about screenwriting, it starts with character. Isn’t it obvious the more you know and understand about your story’s characters, the more likely their respective voices will emerge into your consciousness?

Beyond that, it’s not just about hearing them, it’s about choosing the most impactful dialogue to support the point of each scene and drive the plot forward.

Hence the fifth Essential Screenwriting Principle: Dialogue = Purpose.

In a screenplay, there is almost zero room for extraneous dialogue, rather every line should tie into the Plotline and/or Themeline.

In Core V: Dialogue, we dig deep into this subject through 6 lectures I have written:

Lecture 1: Introduction to Dialogue
Lecture 2: Finding Your Character’s Voice – Inward Journey
Lecture 3: Finding Your Character’s Voice – Outward Expression
Lecture 4: Subtext
Lecture 5: What Is Not Said
Lecture 6: Realistic Dialogue

In addition there are several Insider Tips, analysis of several movie scripts, opportunities to workshop dialogue in some of your own original scenes, a 90 minute teleconference, and much more.

A testimonial from a writer:

“Scott is so generous with sharing his knowledge and it’s a great blessing to those of us who are just starting off/been doing it for years/need a reminder/need inspiration. I just completed the Core Dialogue course and I can honestly say he delivers back your investment threefold.” — Sabina Giado

There is no right way to write. Every writer is different. Every story is different. And you can learn everything you need to know about the craft of screenwriting by doing three things: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages.

However if you want to explore the subject of dialogue in an immersive fashion and from a distinct character-based perspective, I invite you to join me for this 1-week online class which begins Monday, September 30.

For more information, go here.

Dispatch From The Quest: Troy Klith

August 21st, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Troy has a revelation about The Quest writing exercises:

The focus of this week’s lectures was dialog, with the great summation that dialog = purpose. One of our writing exercises was to create a scene with subtext, which everyone found to be a challenging task. It’s hard enough to create a scene with a decent beginning/middle/end, but when there’s an added requirement that it be laced with subtext? Eeesh. I wasn’t excited.

So I began with some reluctance. How would I pull a “subtext scene” out of the air? I started to comb my undeveloped story for opportunities. Were there any places, objects, or concepts that connected to a character’s goal, or to the story’s underlying theme? As I pondered this question, my anxiety morphed into that much sought after creative flicker. All sorts of ideas materialized – most not good, some not bad, but a few that were promising. Ultimately, the exercise forced me to not only think about subtext within scenes and dialog, but also allowed me to look at my entire story concept from a new perspective, which I think is always helpful.

I’ve now come to think of these writing exercises as an athlete might going to the gym. I think they’re working my narrative muscles in prep for the big game. It’s tempting for a football player to say “I’d rather not hit the weights, I just want to play ball,” but it’s probably not an approach that will lead to success.

I also realized that those exercises I suspect are a diversion might end up being the most useful. The next time I resist tackling one of them, I hope to identify this reluctance signals opportunity. If I suspect the exercise will be difficult, it’s probably because it’s forcing me to do something new and that will likely lead to fresh insights.

Troy is onto me. The Quest does have writing exercises. And while it may feel to a writer like they are suddenly back in a college creative writing class, there are much more practical reasons why I have the Questers doing them:

* As Troy has discovered, I want them to work those writing muscles, develop those chops week to week.

* That process ought to help them get into a groove of pounding out pages.

* Since each exercise has a due date, that, too, has a benefit in compelling writers to meet deadlines.

* The exercises put theory into practice, each one tied to that week’s lecture contents.

* The exercises work to compel each writer to engage their creativity in new and different ways.

* They also force the writers to dig into their stories and experiment with the raw narrative material.

There are other reasons which I’ll leave unspoken, a mystery box for Troy and his compatriots to discover.

The Quest is not an academic exercise, rather it is a comprehensive approach to give a writer the best preparation possible in the event the script they write enables them to break into the business. Because once you’ve gotten that break, you need to know how to deliver the goods, project after project, in order to continue to work as a writer in Hollywood.

As I say, “It’s not just about writing a screenplay, it’s learning how to think and write like a professional screenwriter.”

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Troy: Born Midwesterner with heart in San Francisco, but nothing beats NYC. Entrepreneur. Writer. Lover of the underdog. Grateful father of 3. @troyklith.