Crafting Your Character's Dialogue in Your Screenplay

A well-crafted verbal exchange is like a catchy song. Diction provides the lyrics; music provides the tune. Dialogue relies on the sounds of words as well as their definitions, on the rhythm of a conversation as well as its meaning. If you block the literal significance of a discussion and isolate the sounds that it's made up of, you discover a rhythm holding the entire exchange together. Shakespeare wrote in the unstressed-stressed pattern of iambic pentameter. Why? Because it mimics the cadence of natural speech. It's lilting. The dialogue of David Mamet and Oliver Stone explodes off the page. Why? They use explosive words in an explosive way. The result is verbal fireworks.

Compare these two examples. The first is from Under Milkwood, a radio play by Dylan Thomas. The second is from Sam Shepard's Cowboy Mouth.

"It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched courters-and-rabbits wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishing-boat bobbing sea."

"I don't need no black baby lamb with a bell in its tail and I ain't gettin' no cradle for no dead crow. I have a baby! My own baby! With its own cradle! You've stolen me away from my baby's cradle!"

Out of context, these passages may make no sense, yet each one has a distinct sound and rhythm. The first one is not unlike a lullaby, lilting and slow. The second passage uses hard consonants and repetition to drive its meaning home. Both selections are held together not by the choice of words alone, but by the sound of each word in conjunction with the others, by the felt melody those sounds create together. They're held together, in part, by music.

The music component of dialogue is responsible for any mounting tension or emotional undercurrent in a scene. After you know what types of phrases your character utters, rework them with an ear toward melody and percussion. Which voices enhance each other? Which are combative? What is the character's state of mind at the time he speaks? How can you convey that state of mind through sound alone? Joy, fear, anger, grief, awe — these emotions have unmistakable rhythms; listen for them around you, examine their form, and then try to recreate them on the page. Like a catchy song, eventually, they'll stick with you.

Sound 101: Using poetry as a guide

The terms alliteration and assonance are often used in poetry, where an ill-chosen sound can make or break the piece. Alliteration refers to the repetition of consonants and the effect of that repetition on the listener's ear. Imagine a tiny percussionist sitting inside each word, matching an instrument to each consonant and sounding them in succession. Perhaps he pounds the hard "d's" out on a kettledrum and taps the "t's" out on a snare. Maybe he selects wood blocks to create the "ch" sounds and shakes a rain stick for an "sh." In any case, he repeats the sounds of each word in such a way that they produce an audible rhythm. That rhythm is alliteration.

Consider these examples:

"Hollywood is jam-packed with professional people pounding on doors." The repeated "p" here creates the sound of those people in action.

"The wind whistles through the willow tree." The "wh" sound here becomes the wind.

"Terrific, I say. Terrific. It's utterly and totally terrific." This sentence is explosive in part because of the resounding "t's."

Alliteration is helpful when you want to punch a line or emphasize it for your audience. It also tends to speed a line up. Alliteration can produce the biting anger of Don Corleone or Michael Palin's stutter in A Fish Called Wanda.

If it's punctuation or percussion that you're after, alliteration's your approach. If you're trying to produce a specific tone, it's assonance you're after.

Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound within a phrase. Assonance creates the pitch or timbre of a conversation.

When repeated in direct succession, vowels can mimic the human voice. A sentence full of vowels may produce a subtle moan, wail, squeal, or cry. In this way, assonance helps to create an emotional soundscape for a phrase, a speech, and possibly an entire conversation.

Consider these examples:

"Don't go. I won't know what to do with myself all alone." The long "o's" in this sentence underscore its mournful request. They help the request linger long enough for the other character, and, therefore, an audience, to hear it.

"It rained on my birthday. A cold rain that refused to abate until the guests had gone away." The long "a" sounds here emphasize the sadness of the speaker.

"I will fly higher than ever before. I will fly until your eyes cannot detect me and I become the sky itself." The repeated long "i's" here accentuate the speaker's determination. The phrase has the sound of a victory cry.

If alliteration speeds a sentence up, assonance slows it down. If alliteration provides a backbeat for the conversation, assonance heightens the mood. Together, they help a writer generate a distinct palette and rhythm for a character's voice.

Fascinating rhythm: Crafting your script's pulse

Clichés abound depicting the body's physical response to a grand emotion. When struck by love, hearts beat wildly against the chest, and knees grow weak. When scared, a person's pulse begins to race, and her mouth goes dry. Angry people stomp and growl and spit, or they stare coldly ahead with little or no expression. All these responses are easy to see, but what if you close your eyes? Would you hear them as well? Chances are that you would because every emotion has an accompanying verbal pulse — a rhythm that gives it away.

Of course, every sentiment sounds slightly different in different mouths, but something about the way a character speaks should eventually suggest the way that he really feels. As you eavesdrop on conversations around you, listen for a few key rhythmic elements:

  • Punctuation
  • Repetition
  • The use of silence

Punctuation

Punctuation, or lack thereof, is often considered the key to realistic-sounding dialogue. First consider interruption, which appears in your script as a dash. People often interrupt themselves mid-sentence. Why? Perhaps they're excited over something and get ahead of themselves as they speak.

"I can't begin to tell you how wonderful it all was — did I mention the food, oh the food was just — and the wine? Out of this world — and the service?"

You get the picture. The speaker can't relay the information as fast as her brain recalls it. Another form of interruption occurs when people think ideas through as they talk:

"It's best if the reception starts at noon, yes noon — or maybe one. That might be better. And the cake should be chocolate — oh, but Sal can't eat chocolate, better make it vanilla. I called the musicians — wait, did I call the musicians?"

The more thoughts that occur to them, the more interruptions occur. Speakers also commonly interrupt or overlap each other, especially when in the throes of some grand passion. One person's thought is triggered by a word or phrase directly before it. The tendency is to speak immediately upon hearing that trigger word, regardless of whether you interrupt someone to do so. In this following dialogue example, see if you can identify which words trigger the next line.

"So, I had lunch with Daphne the other day, and —"
"Daphne. I haven't seen her in, well I can't think of the last time we —"
"She mentioned you hadn't called. I told her you were busy and —"
"Of course she did. She always was one to keep track of those sorts of —"
"Now, now. There's no need to start in on —"
"Really though. What right has she to talk about our friendship with —"
"The same right as you, I suppose."

Each line has a trigger word. Can you sense them? The urge to speak generally occurs well before the current speaker is finished talking. Following that urge usually results in an interruption.

A trail off, represented in a script by an ellipses (. . .) also punctuates everyday conversation. The trail off is generally used when a person forgets what she's trying to say, is searching for just the right phrase, or is trying to buy herself some time. If your character frequently trails off mid-thought, she may also be a dreamer.

The punctuation and grammar of your dialogue need not be technically correct. Phrases that look like questions may end forcefully with an exclamation point or a period. Nouns may replace verbs in sentence structure and vice versa. People speak in fragments; so will your characters. So don't dot all your i's or cross all your t's. Unless your character's an English buff, a refined aristocrat, or a robot, doing so will sound unnatural.

Repetition: You can say that again

Repetition is a valuable and multifaceted tool. It may be used to emphasize a point:

"We get the job done, do you hear me? We get. The job. Done."

Or it may be used to create the stutter of confusion, love, or fear:

"What I meant was, what I meant to say just then, was to ask, that is I would like to ask, to know, I would like very much to know if you might consider, just consider mind you, going out sometime."

It may be also be used to portray eagerness or demand:

"Did you get it? Well? Did you? Did you get the job?"

As a writer, you must find a way to create heightened and carefully selected dialogue under the guise of naturalistic conversation. Punctuation and repetition make that task considerably easier.

The sound of silence

Dialogue isn't made up of words alone. Silences are as important and, sometimes, more important for conveying intent on-screen. If words are implied, a silence may take the place of an entire conversation.

There's a distinction between a natural pause in conversation and the beats or silences that you'll use sparingly throughout your script in place of words. If you wrote in every natural pause, you'd add at least ten unnecessary pages to your screenplay. Leave natural pauses to the actors. If your scenario is strong enough and your character voices clear, a good actor will know how to say the line.

Beats are faster than silences. Both tools let a writer do one of two things:

  • Emphasize the last line spoken.
  • Suggest to readers and audience alike that some nonverbal exchange is taking place.

If your last line is a humdinger, if you want your audience to remember it, take a beat after it. This beat allows the line to linger briefly before the next action directs attention elsewhere. If two characters are engaged in some nonverbal exchange, use a silence. This type of pause is your way of saying, "There's a scene going on; you just can't hear it." Composers use grace notes throughout a score to let the music breathe. Writers use silence.

Practice rewriting generic or otherwise neutral dialogue with these three musical elements, or layer them into a scene from your script. You should be able to say essentially the same thing with different emotions in mind and, therefore, with varying rhythms.

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