Talk is cheap: 13 Principles for Dialogue – GAPF Part 2
UCLA Screenwriting chairman Richard Walter offered an entertaining lecture about the art of Dialogue. The man has an impressive resume and not only masters his subject but also knows how to share his knowledge. In other words, if you get the chance to attend one of his lecture, go for it. Here are the thirteen points mentioned by Walter. For greater details, more examples and more information in general, there’s always this option .
#1 – ECONOMY
The goal is: little language, lots of meaning. The idea is that if you tell too much too easily, the audience will be turned off by your characters, whereas if you pull back people, the audience will come after you.
#2 – AVOID ON THE NOSE
It’s disengaging. Make sure that what your character say is different with what it means. In other words, have them imply and play between text and subtext.
#3 – FMPMT
Find the Main Point your Movie Tells
#4 – NO DIALECT
Don’t transliterate dialect, don’t spell the words the way you pronounce them.
#5 – RHYTHM
Rhythm of speech is almost more important than context. ‘You should considered every sentence to be a joke or a punchline.’
#6 – ARGUE
Every character should argue. The word selection and their arrangement are essential for the story to move forward in a dynamic way.
#7 – SILENCE
Silence can be a strong ally. Walter mentioned About Schmidt‘s first scene, where Nicholson waits behind his desk for 30 seconds, waiting for the clock to hit 5pm, and all the information we learn about the character during those 30 seconds.
#8 – NO REALITY
Don’t write the way people speak. ‘Offend me, provoke me, disturb me, but don’t bore me. And the way people speak is available for free in the street.’
#9 – NO REPEATS
If it doesn’t expand the story or give new information, then you don’t need to write it again. Never tell something the audience already knows.
#10 – NO CHITCHAT
Cut to the chase and avoid all the small talks that start and end conversations. I particularly like this advise and I think a great way to learn how to cut directly in the ‘action’ of the scene and to avoid chit-chat is to learn editing. Because it makes it easier to understand how to build a dynamic scene and how an artificial moment can feel real and will feel more real, if you nail the emotion. The chitchat is just a way to feel we are writing.
#11 – NO UNDERSCORE / NO PARENTHETICAL /NO ELLIPSIS
Walter pointed out that Shakespeare never underscored words that he felt needed emphasis because his writing was clear enough to convey emotions and because it’s the actors’ job to decide how to live the words. Same goes for parenthetical and ellipsis. In ‘History of the World Part 1‘, an annoyed Mel Brooks had one character literally saying ‘dot, dot, dot’.
#12 – AVOID FUNNY PUNCTUATIONS
Never use ?!!!
Rarely use !
#13 – NO BLOCK SPEECHES
The trick is to make it sound real and feel real, your characters will rarely need more than one or two lines to say what they need to say.
Walter started his lecture by saying that a screenplay is an elaborate list of two information: sight and sound. And a screenplay is integrated if every sight and sound move the story forward. If these two elements are integrated, then all the rules are off. But for the majority of the mortals, understanding these 13 rules will help a screenplay to get better.