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How to Create Realistic Dialogue in Your Screenplay
Creating Dialogue in Screenwriting

With scripts and screenplays, the most obvious and up-front aspect of your manuscript are the lines of dialogue that each character will speak during the play. Some individuals, who will read your script, will hardly glance at the scene descriptions and go right on to the dialogue as if it were the whole story---probably because, on the page at least, the blocks of copy that make up the dialogue seem the most prominent.

Yet, there's a lot more to this part of writing screenplays than mere text. In truth, these are the words that trained actors will interpret and breathe life into, full of all the energy, pain, pathos, or humor they can find. Words fertilize the work with what audiences really love about a great film---the emotional connection, the human feelings, the portrait of humanity in transit through events that we all can share and identify with. Dialogue is the guts of your screenplay, so you need to get this part down.

You might try to think of a film where you felt the dialogue was superior. Writers like David Mamet in 'Glen Gary Glenn Ross' or Quentin Tarantino in 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction' give us plays where the interaction and expression of the characters seems to move us to another level. Other writers with dialogue we remember might include Edward Albee in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?' or some of Woody Allen's films, such as 'Annie Hall.' There are many, many writers, some we may hardly remember at all, who have given us film plays where the dialogue is simply outstanding. As with other aspects of screenwriting, if you can get your hands on these or other scripts and study the dialogue, you will certainly learn something.

Let's look at the mechanics of dialogue, in terms of its role in your script. Your two foremost goals with character speech are to reveal the characters and to move the story forward.

reveals character the same way it does in real life. The things people say tell us about their personalities---what they are like, what they are thinking, their education, background, goals, likes and dislikes, and so on. As you get into your scenes, use this yard stick with each line: tell us who your characters are by what they say. A starship captain speaks differently than a skid row hooker, and a Russian coal miner speaks differently than a Hispanic priest. Take the care to reveal these people through their lines of dialogue as realistically and as true to nature as you can.

Your other task is to move your story forward. In a complex script, each scene needs to tell the audience what's happening clearly and with enough information about the plot to prevent a confusion of meaningless images and happenings. Dialogue can accomplish this easily and quickly: "We've got to reach the missile base before the launch at noon or the transport is doomed." Now the audience knows what's happening and what all the running around is about. This is called 'expository' speech because you are 'exposing' the details of your story.

But the sticking point here is that you can't overuse this---too much and the dialogue doesn't sound natural:

"I know your mother is the head of a large corporation producing brassieres, and that her brother, your Uncle Peter, wants to take over the company with a clever stock-market maneuver, but I still feel our meeting yesterday with the new bikini fashion designer will be of no help at all when we attempt to convince her we're the best ones to lead her stop loss campaign in Brazil." ---Lots of information in this example, but crap dialogue.

Thus, you can move your story forward through dialogue by giving the audience just enough information that the characters are sharing with each other, but not so much as to feel 'clunky' or 'unnatural.'

Here are a few other dialogue tips:

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No long winded speeches. It's an easy mistake to make for a writer in love with words, but almost any modern film will die a horrible death if you fill your script with long winded, soap box type speeches, eloquent or not. Might work for Shakespeare, but modern audiences won't stand for it. Short and to the point is the rule

Three pages of dialogue are the limit for any scene.
You may have an extended court room scene where you need the dialogue in one set up to go on for five or even ten pages. But even for those, you need to break it up. The basic idea is that the audience will get tired if we stay in one spot too long---so by the time you reach three pages for that romantic scene in the coffee shop, you've had enough and need to move on. Three pages maximum and then a new scene.

Use the 'missing man' third person technique.
This is a way to heighten drama, suspense, or conflict by having characters in a two person scene, or even with more characters, discuss another person in the story who is not in that scene. Depending on the story, characters can have some very emotional comments about a person who is off-scene (such as the 'bad guy'). You keep the story tightly interwoven and move the plot forward. This also avoids dialogue that may be really interesting, but serves no story purpose.

Avoid cliche speech patterns and biases.
It might seem obvious that a wise writer will not stereotype Asian characters with poor English, black characters with ebonics, or any ethnic group or minority with a stereotype. Not all children are precocious darlings and not all Germans are Nazis. When writing ethnic characters, it's easy to fall into stereotypes, but do whatever you can to pluck them out of your garden like weeds. Too many of these can reflect very poorly on the writer and kill the project as racist, intolerant, or ignorant.

Make each character sound different.
As a writer, you have your own sense of the flow of speech interaction, based on your life experience. But if you do a lot of writing, character speech can become 'homogenized'---the tone and style of speech seems the same for every character no matter who they are. Be aware of this and give characters differing speech habits, quirks, phrases they repeat, or slang they use. Different characters can also have themes or certain ideas that they bring up again and again, and so on.

Write your dialogue quickly and go with the flow of it, then rewrite for more polish and detail.
As with real life, dialogue happens naturally and is not something that takes a great effort. Again, Shakespeare could toil over each line and word, but for your modern story, you want the flow and quality of real life. The 'sound' of the dialogue should be as realistic as possible. So, one technique is to work through writing your dialogue almost as quickly it would actually be spoken. Later, after a chance to set it aside, look at it again and rewrite to polish for nuance and effect.

Dialogue for screenplays is something you should never be satisfied with. Readers, producers, actors, and directors will always want changes, right down to the day of filming. Indeed, sometimes writers are brought to the set of the film to provide new lines of dialogue on the spot. It takes wit, a knack for word play, and a craftsman's knowledge of what it takes for dialogue to work on screen. Doing it well will earn you a paycheck and screen credit as the writer behind all those delicious lines of memorable dialogue.

A great book, that has tips for all types of writing, from novels to screenplays, is Writing Dialogue, by Tom Chiarella.

For screenwriters, there's no substitute for previous film credits where your next script is concerned. Every time out of the gate, the first thing a potential script buyer will consider are previous film credits. The only route to higher paying work and positions working on high profile films is to have something that has been filmed, distributed, and earned either a lot of money or critical accolades. As you'll often hear, that's the way the business works so you may as well accept it.

Thus, for the beginner, your only reasonable goal should be to earn yourself a few solid film credits. You can't go for the gold with a huge blockbuster hit film, even though you may have the goods artistically, because you're 'unknown'---no company with enough money to produce those films will give you a chance. Catch-22, right? But as with all apparently insurmountable challenges, where there's a will, there's a way.

For one thing, the film industry is moving simultaneously in two directions at once, at least as far as production values are concerned. In one direction, we see the budgets of huge films like 'Shrek,' 'Spiderman,' and 'Pirates of theCaribbean' heading towards $150 million. To put that in perspective, you could build 20 huge luxury hotels for the cost of producing one of these big films. Pretty pricey.

However, the other direction for film these days is where your opportunity come in. Because of the computer revolution and digital advances in lower cost technology, the novice filmmaker has a way in---with independent filmmaking. Making films is appealing to a wide variety of people with enough money to create some wonderful projects---it's fun, glamorous, exciting, and you can even turn a realistic profit. There's always demand for new films, including the direct-to-video market you see down at the video rental store. All kinds of people are getting into it---real estate people, doctors, lawyers, small video producers, Wall Street funds, technology companies, etc.

Look at a film like 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.' According to entertainment coverage on the development of this film, the artist involved started out creating much of the work himself using 3D digital imaging techniques on his home computer. He was able to impress enough professional producers, studios, and actors with his early work on the project that he got picked up for additional funds. He completed the film which was widely released. It did pretty good financially, too, and had some top talent for a cast---very little of it was actually filmed on sets or at 'real' locations. Following his success, this filmmaker suddenly had a career. Of course, the script was a big part of the whole thing.

Without a doubt, you can find more markets for your scripts, which never really existed before, if you start out with low budget projects and sell almost exclusively to independent filmmakers, who also want their first credits and a hit. Sell a few of these scripts, which get produced in the $100,000 to $500,000 budget range and happen to be cool films with your name on them---now you have credits, you're listed on the Internet Movie Database, and other jobs, at higher rates of pay, become possible for you.

Admittedly, this is a selling strategy, not an artistic one. Yet, writing scripts is a business, and if they don't sell, they'll gather dust on a shelf in your bedroom for the rest of your life. Start small, with low budget scripts; sell to low budget filmmakers, get your credits, and move up the ladder.

Another venue for beginners is to write short film scripts.
Many filmmakers want to get a 'reel' of material they have directed or produced to show their skill. To do this, they need scripts, which are acquired in much the same way as full length features. Short films are sometimes entered in festivals and competitions. Awards go just as far for the writer as for the filmmaker. You can create a short film script, around 20 pages, or even a few of them for this market. It's a great way to practice your scripting skills. A produced short film is a film credit and a foot in the door for greater things.
Here are some tips for making the most of your script selling strategy and getting your first screen credits:

Keep a list of every submission, with names and contact info for the producers and filmmakers. If you get a favorable reaction to a script, keep in touch with the potential buyer and send him new stories and ideas. This can open doors later.

Don't neglect markets such as videos, commercials, stage plays, radio, audio plays, animation, and others. Even minor script credits look good on your resume and can get you better gigs.

If you're writing 'spec' scripts, don't rely on just one. Finish each project and then try another one as you market the first. If you have four or five solid spec features available, you broaden your markets and opportunities for a first sale.

Network, schmooze, mingle, and make new industry friends. Whether it's a high level connection, a professional you happen to know somehow, a wannabe actor, a first time filmmaker, an agent, or development person---the guide here is that everyone in the entertainment business gets work this way. It's one big happy family, and a favor from you is a favor returned later. Be real and enjoy the process.

Promote and advertise your work and services. A website featuring your skills and credits is a great idea for a writer. Industry publications such as The Hollywood Reporter or Variety sell small classified ads to almost anyone, and if you have a project, it's not a bad way to hook up with buyers. The internet features hundreds of bulletin boards and message boards where you can inexpensively promote your work. Use all of these and any others you can think of in a realistic and non-exploitive way, and you can get results.

Send out numerous submissions and queries. Don't send out just one or two queries a month---send out 100 or 200. With computers and the internet, this is joyously easy to do----you keep copies of your query letters and synopsis, find as many potential buyers as you can identify, and submit again and again. It's a numbers game, and your chances improve with exposure.

Consider filming one of your own scripts yourself
. Why not? If you're any good with a camera, the same low cost technology is available to you. If you write a short script, it's not very difficult to assemble a cast of friends, find suitable locations, and put the whole thing on film. You can edit on your computer and copy to DVD. Voila---screen credit!

You'll probably find your own approach to breaking down the barriers and getting your first screen credits. If you're serious about writing for the screen, the modern tools available to you are truly revolutionary, including word processing software, the internet, e-mail, various sources of information, low cost filmmaking techniques, and other forms of technology. It's a wonderland for creative people, so get going and be the screenwriter you've dreamed of being!

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