Penny Penniston at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

Not Just Talk: How Writers Think About Dialogue

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Many people come to screenwriting because they have a good instinct for dialogue, but it is important to look beyond the instinct and understand the theory behind dialogue. If nothing else, this understanding is useful in helping the writer communicate with other artists so that you can articulate why you wrote a specific line a certain way, rather than simply standing there scratching your head saying “I dunno”.

Dialogue vs. conversation: Most people think writing dialogue is easy, Penniston says, because they are under the delusion that dialogue and conversation are the same thing. They are not. In comparing words to the keys of a piano, she loudly showed that conversation is noisy and discordant, while dialogue is musical, it is precise and crafted, it presents voices and themes.

Dialogue gives clear direction to the artist interpreting it, but it also gives the artist a chance to interpret the words in his or her own way, to show off his or her talents.

Like music, you have to develop something of a muscle memory for dialogue through repetition; however, understanding the theory behind dialogue will allow you to step back and analyze your writing with a certain distance.

Using visual cues, Penniston suggested that your story is much like an aerial shot of the Grand Canyon, with long, sweeping turns and deeper and shallower canyons. Dialogue, however, is more like someone kayaking through white water, experiencing the eddies and whorls of the currents and avoiding the rocks where possible.

Forces: Characters, she says, are very lazy. If left to their own devices, they won’t do anything. We need to get them to move and we do that by applying a force on them, which in physics has both a direction and magnitude. You can use physical forces, evolutionary forces (e.g., against death or for sex), cultural or societal forces (e.g., need to conform), or psychological forces (e.g., need for love or respect).

And these forces should be defined in very specific ways, again offering a sense of direction and magnitude. The strongest of all the forces on a character will drive your scene, but she stresses, the other forces are still important. This landscape of forces, she says, is the character’s situation in a scene.

Text and subtext: You want to be sure you put your characters in interesting situations with a network of multiple forces pushing and pulling your characters in different directions. You should always feel that your dialogue is adjusting and moving as these forces shift in strength and direction. A good line of dialogue, she says, manifests the sum of all of the forces acting on the character at a particular moment (e.g., personal baggage, setting, other characters).

In text, only one force acts on your character. In subtext, however, more than one thing is happening at one time. Subtext, she warns, is not the result of something being left unsaid but rather that so many things are trying to be said, but aren’t. It can manifest itself as an odd word choice given the superficial context or self-interruption and rephrasing.

When the forces converge and cancel each other out, she suggests, the character remains silent, unable to communicate anything. The character will look static, but he or she is not. It is a moment of paralysis (in physics, potential energy). And the line after a lengthy silence can be very interesting, she argues, because it is the first sign of which of the forces won. At the same time, she warns that we should look for lengthy pauses within our screenplays that do nothing for the scene or the drama. Those pauses aren’t based on reactions to forces.

Story beats: For Penniston, a story beat transitions when the balance of forces in a scene shifts, and for as a writer, you want to be very clear about the point at which this shift occurs. You should be able to point to the specific line in a scene.

Memorable lines, she says, come when the tension of a beat breaks. She harkens back to the Rule of Threes, suggesting the scene beat should occur in three steps: establish the tension, heighten the tension, and break the tension.

And wonderfully, she suggests, with change, you get an opportunity for surprise, such as the punchline of a joke. These lines can’t come out of left field, however. They must fit the context of the scene, but they can still be unexpected.

Writer Tricks: Create interesting situations in which your scene plays out. Pick a discordant place, person or circumstance. And avoid beat repetition. A specific combination of forces should never occur twice or you’ve just gone back to a previous beat and eliminated the reasons for everything that occurred between them.

Find interesting things within your situation. Add and/or explore details within your scene. Assign random elements and figure out how to make those elements work within your scene. Get insights from others and look for opportune moments to create truly memorable lines that encapsulate your character or the situation.

Tell your story as clearly but as efficiently as possible to avoid distractions. Only add narrative if it is revelatory or adds something new, and don’t direct. Although, she says, if you’re writing for studio readers, you may want to err on the side of too much narrative to make sure your story gets across.

(Aside from being a professor at Northwestern University, Penniston is also a playwright and author of the book: Talk the Talk: A Dialogue Workshop for Scriptwriters)

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