Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Film Courage Plus: Individual Dialogue.

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me in 2014 and 2015 -about 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?


Dialogue is two things: what a character says (the meaning of their words) and how they say it (their character peeking out from behind the words). Many scripts get the first part, but you also need the last part. Even if your dialogue is witty and fun, if it does not expose character and is interchangeable with some other character’s dialogue, it’s *lacking character*. That is a serious script problem (no matter what your name is, Woody Allen). So let’s look at ways to make your dialogue character specific.

In the “Supporting Characters” Blue Book I explain my Barista Theory of attitudes and how they help define characters. The basic intersection between who a character is under their skin and how they speak is probably attitude. Because I write in coffee shops all over Los Angeles, I come into contact with many “baristas” who have the same basic lines of dialogue... yet all sound very different. One barista is unbelievably upbeat about everything and is the most sincerely positive person I have ever encountered. She will find the silver lining in any cloud. If you’ve just lost your job of 15 years, she’ll say, “That’s great! Now you can spend more time with your kids and family!” If you spill your coffee, “We just started a new pot, so your new cup will taste fresher!”

Another barista is all about himself, so if you order an iced tea with melon syrup, he’ll say, “I like the berry syrup.” No matter what you say to him, his responses are always focused on himself. If two hundred people just died in a plane crash, he would find the way to make that about him. “Yeah, a tragedy that all of those people died, and the news report pre-empted my favorite show, ICE ROAD PIZZA DELIVERIES.”

There are pessimist baristas, and needy ones who seem to want your approval, and baristas who see everything as a dig at them, and ones who *must* one-up you to show their superiority, and people who just don’t have the time for you, and ones who think everything is sexual (if you know what I mean, that’s what she said), and servers who are confused by almost everything, and ones who think their time is more important than yours, and people who are ultra-efficient and very detail oriented, and baristas who are amazed by almost everything, and ones who worry about the most unlikely things you can think of, and people who think everything is a question, and baristas who...

Each of these attitudes and traits are things that come out in the phrasing of the sentence, not the information in the sentence. This attitude influences the way they react and act and speak and everything else. Take the same event, and each reacts according to their attitude. So the key to writing great dialogue is knowing your characters. Knowing how they see the world. All of us look through a “lens” and see the world in our own way, which influences everything else. How they think, how they physically react to a situation. I have a Script Tip on creating characters for your horror screenplay that gets into taking these different attitudes of different characters and figuring out how each will *physically* react to finding a friend dead. Because that “barista theory” attitude isn’t just great for dialogue, it’s how this specific character reacts to the world around them no matter what happens in the scene. That’s just who they are!

Now, that might seem to be “surface characterization” to you, but it goes deep into who the character is, their past, and how they see themselves. Which brings us to ...


Imagine three baristas: One barely got out of high school and is working this job making coffee for people as a potential career because the coffee shop has health insurance. One went to college and majored in Music Theory and is working this job because it allows them to play in their band at night, and it will probably end up their career because it has health insurance. The third is a total brainiac who went to college and majored in science and is working this job at nights because their entry level science job doesn’t offer health insurance. How will each think about that melon syrup you asked for in your iced tea? How will each see a cup of regular drip coffee that someone orders? How will each’s education relate to making that pot of drip coffee? How they measure the coffee? How they pour the water into the coffee maker? Now look at how their education will come out in their dialogue. Not just their attitude, but their vocabulary, their phrasing, even their sentence structure. One of the things about being a writer is that you have to think using your character’s knowledge and experiences... which you never had! You need to use your imagination plus research to figure out how this character would speak. This character’s vocabulary might be entirely different than mine! I need to figure out how they would say this, not how I would say this.

Background is another element. Imagine five different Baristas: One from Seattle, one from the Southern USA, one from the North Eastern USA, one from Texas, and one who just moved here from Portugal. Not only do these locations influence the vocabulary and phrasing of how each Barista speaks their “lines”, those different backgrounds will also add regional attitudes and regional vocabularies. If you take your pessimistic barista from Seattle and your pessimistic barista from the Southern USA and have them speak the same “line” it’s going to be completely different! Their backgrounds will peek through and the exact same “line” about having a $5 pastry to go with your drink will filter through their geographical backgrounds and sound completely different - even though both will be tinged with pessimism.


Though that Seattle Barista and the Southern USA Barista will have different words they use to address customers, darlin’, those common words that we use every day like “Yes” and “No” need to be personalized to fit the specific character. This is one of those places where your vocabulary becomes important, because as the writer you are speaking for everyone! Even though I can usually “hear” my characters, I create a “cheat sheet” for each of them for when I have to do a rewrite later and might not hear their voices as clearly... or when I wake up still asleep but have to write 5 pages to make my quota and my deadline. So all of the common words and phrases that a character will say throughout the story - yes and no and right and wrong and hello and goodbye and anything else you can think of that will be said by multiple characters in your story: go on a “character sheet” with this character’s character oriented words they use to those common words. Hey, one character might say “Yes” and “No”, but the others all have to use some other words that mean the same thing - that *show their character*. There are dozens of words that mean “No”, and the character who says “Nope” or “I don’t think so” or “No way” or “Negative” or “I think I’m going to have to pass” or “Not on your life!” or “Negatory” or an of the dozens of other ways to deny or refuse will not only offer variety but make each character an individual... and memorable. So give each of your characters and *character specific* word for any common words that may pop up in your screenplay. Think of how *this character* would say “No” that tells us something about them.

Let me tell you something about “Pet words” and those words that people use all the time. A good example of this is Paul Newman in HUDSUCKER PROXY” who says, “Sure, sure” as his answer to any question - whether he agrees or not. It’s his way of dismissing others. Real people often have these words and phrases that make up a big chunk of their dialogue - sometimes a word or phrase that they use while they think up the actual answer, sometimes a word or phrase that pops up at the end of many of their sentences, Friendo. Sometimes, well, it’s what I like to call a “weasel word” that, well, a character uses to give them time to, well, think of a good lie. (Which brings us to something I wasn’t going to talk about on this article, sentence structure, like Captain Jack Sparrow in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies who speaks in long convoluted sentences meant to make you think that he’s said something important while making you forget whatever question you just asked him. He speaks in a way designed to both confuse you and impress you. Think about sentence construction, too!) “Let me tell you something” prefacing a sentence is a pet phrase that a character might use. We are trying to find distinctive and interesting ways for characters to speak that show us character. This is not what they say, but how they say it.

In the Dialogue Blue Book I talk about how I realized that I had a favorite swear word. I read one of my screenplays and it was all shit! Every single character had the same swear, which is my swear, and I may have broken a record for the amount of shit in a screenplay. Not only did all of my characters swear exactly the same, they amount of “shit”s in that script made all of them meaningless! This is a problem with F Bombs - if you use too many they eventually don’t matter. I’ve written a couple of U.S. Navy Co-operation movies, and rule #1 is that sailors can not “swear like a sailor”. Swearing is against the rules, and a sailor can be punished for it - and in a co-op movie you will have to show the punishment... or lose that day shooting on the aircraft carrier with Billy Dee Williams. So I had to find ways to do PG swearing. Which made my swears unusual and interesting. But in *any* screenplay, if you want your F Bombs to be explosive, think as if you are writing a PG movie and only get one or two of them. Find other swears for the rest - and finding character specific swears will make your dialogue more interesting and distinctive. There are plenty of PG things that are vile and disgusting and work just as well as an F Bomb. Spielberg got away with having one character call another “penis breath” in a family film... when you know what they really meant.

So be creative with your swears and make sure that each character has their own personal favorite swear that fits their character. In one of my scripts “Kitty crap” was a character’s individual swear, and everyone I met with on that script (48 studio meetings) loved that character’s distinctive dialogue and that swear.

Think of how every line of dialogue is specific to the character speaking it, and they way they say it tells us something about the character. You want to be able to cover the “character slugs” in a screenplay and still know exactly who is speaking, because nobody else in the story speaks that way. Think about how your dialogue is an extension of the character’s attitude and education and background and everything else about them. It’s *their dialogue*. Make it sound like them, and only them.

“Who said that?”

- Bill



50 Tips On Dialogue!

*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Kindle!


Expanded version with more ways to create interesting protagonists! How to remove bad dialogue (and what *is* bad dialogue), First Hand Dialogue, Awful Exposition, Realism, 50 Professional Dialogue Techniques you can use *today*, Subtext, Subtitles, Humor, Sizzling Banter, *Anti-Dialogue*, Speeches, and more. Tools you can use to make your dialogue sizzle! Special sections that use dialogue examples from movies as diverse as "Bringing Up Baby", "Psycho", "Double Indemnity", "Notorious", the Oscar nominated "You Can Count On Me", "His Girl Friday", and many more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 160 pages!

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Thank you to everyone!


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