In Too Deep – Deepen Your Dialogue

Here’s the third post of the “In Too Deep” series. Paul Attanasio, the executive producer of the television series “House” once claimed that since cinema is primarily a visual medium, dialogue is the soundtrack in that it augments the images. Slash and burn, cull and chop away the excess fat. So make each element of your dialogue count.

How do we strengthen dialogue? By using screen writing steroids of course.

  • VERNACULAR – Look at speech patterns of the people your characters represent. I recently found out what “dang” meant. Some say “damn”, some say “bugger”, some say “screw it” and some say things that would make a sailor blush. Consider the expression “it’s a wrap”. It suggests the character is involved in film or television production. It adds authenticity to a scene. Alternatively, consider what “pregnant” means. It’s one thing to a woman of child bearing age and another to a studio executive who’s greenlit a project. Also consider the Aussie who says ‘G’day” (we don’t always), clippered speech such “kill ’em”, Cockney rhyming slang such as “Taking a green tea” which means taking a pee, teenage slang such as “totally”, “awesome” and “shut up”. You shut up! We’ll never forget the colourful language in “Brick” or the droogs in “A Clockwork Orange”. Accents are a great tool also, ja.
  • BLURTING – These are intense emotional moments when the painful truth emerges. Consider a scene in which a woman is planning the wedding while the man can’t get her to listen to him. Eventually he’ll blurt out something like “I don’t love you”, “I’m gay”, “I’m already married” or “I’m dying”. That’ll get your characters and audience stirred up.
  • LYING – One of the seven deadly sins. This device creates so much tension in scenes, especially if the audience or the characters know the truth. Consider a scene where a woman is about to confront her philandering husband. She asks him if he’s having an affair and replies negatively. We know what’s going on, he knows what’s going on, and she knows what’s going on, or does she? Lying can also serve comedic uses. Imagine the ubiquitous scene where a woman asks her husband if a particular outfit makes her look fat. You’d better know that there’s only one correct answer to this. I’ve got the bruises to prove it.
  • SILENCE – Silence is golden because it can be deafening. The complete absence of words adds so much tension to a scene because the conflict transcends words. Consider the previous example of the philandering husband. No answer says so much about a character, especially if coupled with body language. Silence can also add to a scene if it is enhanced such as a long, pensive pause prior to answering a question, or short pause such as when we ignore a question. An action can also replace dialogue. Consider the scene when the husband confesses “Honey, there’s someone else”. She punches him in the face without uttering a word. Ouch. Silence is also useful after a rhetorical question is asked such as “But the company’s in good financial shape, right?”
  • UNEXPECTED RESPONSE – Consider our philandering husband again. It’s judgment day and his wife confronts him with photographic evidence of his dalliances. She asks if he’s having an affair and he responds with “I feel like chicken tonight”.
  • ANSWER QUESTION WITH QUESTION – A nifty device used extensively in “40 Year Old Virgin”. If a character doesn’t know something and wants to hide the fact,  is calling a bluff, or evading the real issue, answering a question with another question can be quite handy.
  • TONALITY – The variance of inflection, cadence, tone, timbre and volume can add so much to dialogue. The exact same words can have wildly different meanings depending on context. Consider our couple driving. The man slows down at the amber lights and the wife yells out “Don’t stop”. Consider the same couple getting intimate and the wife (or husband) screams out the same words. Tonality is usually punched up in later drafts. Add variety. Too much yelling and screaming can disengage your audience.
  • CLASHING – Useful in arguments when two parties have diametrically opposing views and won’t back down. Consider the said couple. Wife demands a baby. Husband insists the time’s not right. And so it goes.
  • HINTING – Going back to our said couple, consider the following scene when the woman’s maternal instincts are in overdrive. She’s out grocery shopping with her husband and stops at the baby section. She holds up a jumpsuit and asks “Isn’t this cute”? He responds with “Not as cute as those chicken wings in the freezer section”. Or consider the scene where the wife needs to tell her husband she’s crashed the car. Hubbie comes home from work and the wife asks if they’ve renewed their car insurance. Double entendres or double meanings are useful too. Many have sexual connotations, but not always. It keeps your audience connected if they have to work a little rather than having every story element delivered to them.
  • REPETITION – No. No. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. We repeat ourselves for added emphasis. When we know we are right and the other party just doesn’t get it. Calling out someone’s name repeatedly is often used as a conflict management tool when a colleague is yelling and won’t let you get a word in. The four pillars of the school were repeated in “Dead Poets Society” or Robin Williams told his students to “seize the day” on numerous occasions. Given the importance of Carpe Diem in defining this film, repetition is warranted. This is not the same as repeating character or plot information.
  • INTERRUPTION – When one character refuses to deal with an issue or thinks their issue is more important. This is a power play and audiences love it, especially when one character has been deflected and returns to their topic later on in the conversation. Don’t you love it when each character has their own agenda and they are yelling over each other to get their points across. No listening, just conflict. How can that be boring?
  • TANGENTS – Yet another avoidance technique to heighten tension. It can be a form of subtext when neither character wants to face up to the real issues. “Honey, I want a baby”. “Do you think beige for the bedroom walls, or off white?”
  • LANGUAGE ACCORDING TO RELATIONSHIPS – Consider the manipulative child who politely addresses the babysitter as  “Mrs” when the parents come home, whereas the same child used the babysitter’s first name when they were alone. Language can alter depending on how well you know someone and is a powerful indicator of intimacy. You may or may not address your boss by a nickname or a secretary might start calling her boss “Jimmy” rather “James” as she “gets to know him”.

I hope these tools will come in handy. Just because all these tools are in your toolbox, you don’t have to use them all at once. Screenwriting tools are like a buffet. Eating everything at once is unbecoming.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. This is a fantastic post. I loved reading this and thank you so much for sharing this.

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      i share knowledge so that the standard of screenwriting improves. you’d be surprised at the drivel i am forced to read that passes as a script. our writing will only get better if we walk with the gods. make sure you use it and tell your friends.

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