Writing Progressive Dialog

I have a project.

I acquired the script a few years back and I dug it back up. I had fallen in love with the story but, for one reason or another, it got shelved in the creative process.

As I started reading the most recent draft of this project that I had been so passionate about I started to think… “YUCK!” So I stopped and wondered why I had thought it so right before and so bad now.

I broke it all down and took the emotion out of it.

  • The beats were still there.
  • The story was unique and fun.
  • The characters were true individuals with their own voice.
  • The dialog?

OMG! (That’s my inner school girl talking).

It was horrendous. It was so bad, so on the nose, that if I didn’t personally love the version that I had in mind (skewed as it obviously was) I would have tossed this sucker in the trash.

So I pulled up my emails and story notes. What had I been thinking?

All my notes were about story elements, character development, beats… and then I saw it: “We’ll work on dialog with the next pass.

Whew, at least I wasn’t an idiot back then and just didn’t notice it. I had known the dialog was horrible, but my memories weren’t as 20/20.

Fixing dialog is considered part of the polish… and something that is not necessarily worthy of a screenwriting credit. More precisely, it gets left up to arbitration. According to the WGA Screen Credit Policy:

For example, there have been instances in which every line of dialogue has been changed and still the arbiters have found no significant change in the screenplay as a whole. On the other hand, there have been instances where far fewer changes in dialogue have made a significant contribution to the screenplay as a whole.

Story is key, words are extra. Although the words coming out of the actors mouths can pull you right out of the film. So why is this?

Well, if you’ve ever been on a movie set, the words spoken are changed constantly. Sometimes by the actor. Sometimes by the director. Suggestions fly, especially when something is not working. Actors ad lib with what feels right. Its a creative process.

But that’s no excuse for BAD DIALOG.

Good dialog needs:

Subtext!
A good use of metaphor, insinuation, hints, sarcasm, allusion… you know, the way people actually communicate with each other. The word is a “that’s what she said” joke waiting to happen.

No Exposition!
Listen to conversations between people. Even when they are talking about their day the words don’t tell the story, they are the story. In a movie, that’s even worse. We can WATCH what’s happening, so don’t tell me.

Grammar!
Or, in this case, lack of grammar. People do not speak grammatically correct unless they are teaching a class on proper use of grammar. People use short cuts, implications, hints… yeah, subtext. So don’t spell it out.

And a whole lot more.

Best way to write good dialog? Go hang out in public places and eavesdrop.  Really LISTEN, to people’s conversations. Friends speak differently than strangers. Lovers speak differently than enemies. Different age ranges communicate differently within their cohort than with people that are not.

I guess I have a lot of notes to still give.