Dialogue that Sings: What Dialogue does for your Script

Dialogue is one of the elements that showcases a writer’s talent in a matter of minutes, portraying time period, plot, setting and characterisation. It also reveals the subtext and context of your film. Because it’s so difficult to do well, good dialogue demonstrates your unique voice and style in ways that bring your characters alive from the page, and shape an actor’s performance. Good dialogue is that which (perhaps ironically) doesn’t represent real-life conversation because it’s full of buts and ums and repetitiveness. Sometimes we don’t even realise just how much so. Dialogue needs to emulate the sense of what real conversations sound like, but eliminating those fillers we pepper our talk with.

This is because in a script, you’ve only got a few pages to get your character’s point across, so everything the characters say must move plot along as well as being poignant. This is probably why real-life conversation can go on for so long, because none of us have any plot to develop in a page!

When you’re writing the first draft of your script, don’t worry too much about getting it perfect, just get it down on top of a solid plot line and seamless characterisation. As long as you’re on a roll, that initial splurge is all about laying down the foundations of your story. Good dialogue itself is all in the rewrite. During the editing process, you won’t be so concerned with plotting, and you’ll have the time and the creativity to ‘listen’ to your characters and imagine how each of them talk, adding poignancy and quirks you might not have considered the first time around.

Characterisation

The things people say in real life reveal their traits, personality, education, and their background. In a way, the same goes for the characters in your script. Dialogue has to sound completely natural to your main character; there is no way out of this. We need to hear/see that the characters’ voices are different from one another, because in real life, nobody uses the exact same expressions, or displays the same kind of wit, sense of humour, accent or any other traits that are undeniably personal.

Powerful dialogue can show your character’s very personality through their words. This is why so many screenwriting moguls recommend you know your characters (and at the very least your protagonist) inside out. That you become them if necessary, if only to imagine exactly how they sound. There’s no use portraying your protagonist as a criminal drug lord from the Bronx, if he is then going to speak like a British politician (obvious, perhaps, but you get the point).

There are accents to be considered, slang words, expressions, what’s taboo in your character’s culture, what’s not, how their background shapes the way they speak, their speech patterns, tone, sentence structure, dialect, things they leave unsaid, and so on.

Casablanca is a good example. This is how Rick’s character is portrayed through dialogue.

Major Strasser

We have a complete dossier on you.
Richard Blaine, American, age 37. Cannot
Return to his country. Reason a little
Vague. We also know what you did in Paris, Mr.
Blaine, and also why you left Paris. Don’t
Worry, we are not going to broadcast it.

Rick
(reading dossier)

Are my eyes really brown?

Straight away we can see he’s a bit sarcastic and unruffled in the face of potential threat, and mostly through another character’s speech, which is genius, as we’re also handed his background, intriguing and mysterious, in a matter of seconds.

Plot Development

A good script is all about balance. A good balance of exposition, dialogue and scene changes. It’s about variety, but not so much that you get confused, and believable, poignant dialogue, but not so realistic it gets strung along for hours. No dialogue should go over the five-minute mark in one same scene without some exposition to break it up. The audience is expected to get bored if the development stays in one scene for too long. Your characters must tell the audience what is going on (in a very subtle way)

Nine times out of ten you won’t need these long explanations clogging up your script; the audience will understand it if it’s been put into the narrative, or a brief hint is always better than over-selling a character’s point. This is one of the biggest issues new writers learn to overcome: exposition and on the nose dialogue that explains all the plot points and essential developments when it is unnecessary, not to mention it hinges on the show-don’t-tell techniques so many new writers end up boycotting.

Dialogue can move your plot along by exposing backstory and plot (via flashbacks for example) and by building tension through climactic scenes (dialogue in action—does your character keep their cool in the face of danger, or do they squeal like a stuck pig?). Dialogue creates action by revealing a character’s decision, or portraying a relationship and/or connection between characters. This often helps the plot move forwards by creating and building tension towards the final plot resolution. A great example of this is in the film A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin, when tension is built between characters Jessup and Kaffee in the final court scene, in which Kaffee desperately tries to extract the information from Jessup that would end the case. Jessup’s outburst effectively heightens the tension and moves the plot forward by revealing the truth.

JESSEP
You want answers?

KAFFEE
I think I’m entitled to them.

JESSEP
You want answers?!

KAFFEE
I want the truth.

JESSEP
You can’t handle the truth!

And nobody moves.

JESSEP
(continuing)
Son, we live in a world that has
walls. And those walls have to be
guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna
do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I
have a greater responsibility than
you can possibly fathom. You weep
for Santiago and you curse the
marines. You have that luxury. You
have the luxury of not knowing what
I know: That Santiago’s death, while
tragic, probably saved lives. And my
existence, while grotesque and
incomprehensible to you, saves lives.
(beat)
You don’t want the truth. Because
deep down, in places you don’t talk
about at parties, you want me on
that wall. You need me there.
(boasting)
We use words like honor, code,
loyalty… we use these words as the
backbone to a life spent defending
something. You use ’em as a punchline.
(beat)
I have neither the time nor the
inclination to explain myself to a
man who rises and sleeps under the
blanket of the very freedom I provide,
then questions the manner in which I
provide it. I’d prefer you just said
thank you and went on your way.
Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a
weapon and stand a post. Either way,
I don’t give a damn what you think
you’re entitled to.

KAFFEE
(quietly)
Did you order the code red?

JESSEP
(beat)
I did the job you sent me to do.

KAFFEE
Did you order the code red?

JESSEP
(shouting)
You’re goddamn right I did!

Silence. From everyone. RANDOLPH, ROSS, the M.P.’s, they’re
all frozen. JO and SAM are likewise. JESSEP seems strangely,
quietly relieved. KAFFEE simply takes control of the room
now.

Exposition/Narrative Balance

There are ways of integrating exposition into effective dialogue by mixing both narrative and exposition together. You can always have your characters talking about a specific issue whilst they’re doing something active, or have your main character as oblivious as the audience, so that the character finds out alongside the viewer, and things are explained to them, or exposed to them.

Bad expository dialogue is that in which the character is telling the character something he or she already knows for the benefit of the audience. It breaks the fourth wall in an unintentional and clunky way, breaking up the realism of the story. The rule of thumb to avoid this, is to ask yourself, does this make sense realistically? For example, picture a scene between two characters in a room together.

Ethan
I can’t believe you’re doing this.
Caroline
Doing what?
Ethan
You know what! Divorcing me, a forty-five-year-old neurosurgeon who works long hours and doesn’t take the weekends off to help you bring up our four-year old son, Mattie!

As you can see in this (false) example, the exposition is off the roof. It’s terrible. There are far better ways to seamlessly integrate all this information through dialogue and the description. In pilots, this is done a lot, but in a way that is not so on-your-nose storytelling. See the conversation between Joey and Ross on Friends, in the pilot:

Ross
Really, everyone.
I hope she’ll be very happy.
Monica
No you don’t.
Ross
No I don’t, to hell with her, she left me!
Joey
And you never knew she was a lesbian?
Ross
No! Okay? Why does everyone keep fixating on that? She didn’t know, how should I know?

 

This is a good example of integrating exposition into dialogue. Joey asking something that has probably already been explained to him before doesn’t make a whole lot of sense realistically, but the script still gets away with it because sometimes the audience do need plot points spelled out for them. You can still twist it in a way that is subtle (and you must).

The Festival Run

Finishing a film is always a great accomplishment. It is very rewarding to see an idea come to fruition through the coordinated effort of people working in team to achieve the representation of that idea. However, the last step to make that effort complete is to show the results of the hard work. And as if making the film wasn’t hard enough, showing it is likely almost as difficult, if not tougher. It is all very nice showing it to family and friends, but that won’t exactly yield any sort of professional recognition or prospects of career progression.

So, who should I show my film to and how? – you might be wondering. The answer is “festivals”.

What are film festivals?

Film festivals are events that provide the opportunity to showcase new talent and productions in the film industry. They are also great places to do business, network, stay head about new developments and even learn new things through Q&A sessions and workshops.

Simply put, a festival can be thought about as a film market. Filmmakers submit their films looking to catch the eye of people working in the industry. Executives, producers, directors, actors, distributors, press, critics, agents and many others attend to look for new productions, new deals in terms of rights, ideas or distribution agreements, opportunities to collaborate and uncover new talent.

Generally, it is possible to also attend festivals even if you don’t work in the industry or if your submission hasn’t been selected. You can buy tickets for most of them, however the more popular and prestigious, the more expensive and difficult it would be to get a pass. This can be nonetheless worth doing for big festivals, since these are a very interesting window to peak through to see how films are actually bought and sold. It is also a great experience and you never know who you can end up meeting.

Reasons to enter them

The main reason for filmmakers to enter festivals is therefore to get exposure. No one is going to come looking for you or your film, especially if they don’t even know you exist and make films. This is tied-in with trying to win awards, another reason to enter festivals. These are the main places to do so –even cash prizes- and this normally translates into recognition and press attention. Depending on the prestige and popularity of the festival, there can be high career development prospects – like getting on the radar for big productions or projects, or maybe having new opportunities for higher funding. Awards also look great on any personal filmography, and you might want to consider listing them on your CV since this could provide you with a boost that takes you to the next level.

Even if you don’t win any awards, most would consider getting accepted into any category of any respected festival, a great success. You can still get recognition and press attention just for being selected – and there could be as many prospects if your film appeals to the audience even though not so much to the jury.

Process

The process for the festival run starts by planning it right at the pre-production stage. In my previous article “Starting Pre-Production” I mentioned providing an allocation for festivals when preparing the film’s budget. This budget would be for submission fees, as most festivals are not free to enter, and in most cases, for preparing a submission package.

In order to get an accurate figure about how much to spend in festival submissions, it is necessary to carry out research that determines which festivals you are going to submit your film to. Knowing exactly this will save you a lot of time, money, effort and disappointment in comparison to just winging it.

Bear in mind the time that it will take to complete your film, not to overlay it with any deadlines. If you are thinking of submitting a film that is already finished, you don’t need to worry about this –however, you will need to check festival’s guidelines to see that your film is not too old to be submitted. Normally festivals have several deadlines: early bird, regular, late and sometimes extended. It might be an understatement, but the later you submit, the more expensive the fees will be, therefore you would want to aim for the early bird deadline especially if you are concerned about saving some money.

The next thing to do, as I mentioned above, is create a package to present your film when submitting – a requirement in many festivals. This would normally include a synopsis that talks about the film and its meaning, as well as a Director’s statement (you can check out this article on how to write one: The Director’s Statement: What to Write). You would also need to talk about the team, their aspirations and motives and what they have done so far previous to your film, especially about key roles such as Director, Writer, Producer or DOP and the main cast. You would also want to consider spending some of the budget for this package in still photographs both from the film and production, a poster of the film (or a few) and even some marketing and promotion efforts and distribution plans.

The last thing is applying and forgetting about it. This is where blunt honesty comes into play: it is very difficult to win at festivals, but not impossible. It might sound very bleak, but the safest –and healthiest- tactic to follow is not to expect to win or to even be considered. However, if it does happen, the reward is immense.

It may seem like a lot of effort for nothing in most cases, but the only certain way not to win anything is never submitting. You’ve got nothing to lose – you should consider your festival budget allocation as a loss if you hadn’t done that yet.

What festivals should I submit to?

Yes, there is nothing to lose, but no one said you cannot play it smart and possibly stack more odds in your favour. The way to do this is to be truly honest with yourself about your film, especially in terms of the end result and its level. By doing so and researching festivals, you will find that there will be festivals of the same level of your film, where it will be most suited. This way, you will definitely increase your chances at winning.

So don’t be discouraged if your film isn’t at a professional level or the level you wanted it to be – there’s nothing wrong with this since there will still be festivals out for there for you.

Another tactic is to browse festivals by genre – some festivals are broad and others are specialised. If your film is a particular genre, like sci-fi or horror, you will find that there are many dedicated festivals where your chances of winning might be greater. This also includes student or independent festivals.

Opposite to that, there are broad, very prestigious and popular festivals like Cannes or Sundance where it is almost impossible to be considered – for starters you most likely need to know someone in there to even have your film looked at and have a shot at being within the 0.74% acceptance rate. My recommendation is not to bother entering very famous festivals at first, but best of luck if you decide to!

So, how to research for festivals?

There are great websites like FilmFreeway, Withoutabox, Reelport or Shortfilmdepot where you can browse for festivals and apply directly – some will in fact, only let you apply through these websites.

A word of warning to conclude, make sure to include as part of your research some time to verify the legitimacy of festivals. An accurate rule of thumb is to check the festival’s website – see if it doesn’t look weird – the number of editions the festival has run for – the higher, the better. It is especially questionable if it is running for the first time – that it is organised by a trusted and reputed organization and even the location. Believe it or not, scammers also target festivals aiming to get hold of enthusiastic filmmakers’ money by setting up “festivals” which end up taking place in their living room or in the middle of nowhere!