Alex Freedman: Welcome to Paper Team, a podcast about television writing and becoming a TV writer. I’m Alex Freedman, @TVCalling.
Nick Watson: And I’m Nick Watson, @_njwatson.
Alex: And today we’re gonna be talking about dialogue in television. What is the point of dialogue? What defines good or bad dialogue and some common pitfalls to avoid.
Odds-and-ends: Review & Pitches
Nick: All right. And welcome again to our Hot Take segment, or Odds and Ends or whatever it is that we’re calling us.
Alex: Have we decided on a name?
Nick: We should probably figure out a name.
Alex: I think in the show notes it’s described as Odds and Ends. So I guess for now, we’re gonna be referring to it as Odds and Ends.
Nick: All right. Well, here’s an odd for you guys. We recently received somewhat of a mixed review on iTunes and we wanted to address the concerns that the person had left with us.
Alex: So this review was actually written by a person called MetaMotivation. I think he or she was very interested in Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. And he or she wrote, “Disappointing.” “There are several episodes which contain interesting or usable information and the hosts can be enjoyable to listen to. They also can come across as very young and green in the industry. They reference articles they read or other podcasts far more often than their own experience. This would be fine, except I sometimes hear them get things wrong. When the host of an informational podcast gets some fact wrong, it makes me doubt the rest of the information.” Now Nick, did you know that, despite the fact this is a podcast about breaking into TV, we are considered young and green in the industry?
Nick: Yeah. I guess we just wanted to say that that’s literally the point of our podcast, is that we’re also trying to break in. And that’s the point of view and the perspective that we wanted to make this podcast from, to share our experiences with other people. So therefore, we can’t draw from a long list of experiences to give to people. All we can tell you is what we’ve been through. So, the reason that we reference other podcasts and other people who are more experienced, is because that we’re learning things from them and we wanna share that with people and then we’ll communicate as much of our experiences as we can.
Alex: And also those references usually are references for a reason. These are not necessarily things that people question as resources, I think, at least. Showrunners and other professional writers who discuss their own writing process and how their rooms work, like Jane Espenson on Buffy that we…
Nick: I think it would be a lot worse if we didn’t reference anyone else, and we were just trying to tell you what we knew as individuals and what we had experienced, because as we have openly said, we’re still fairly new to this too, and so we’re just trying to give you as much as we know but also point you in the right direction of things that really helped us.
Alex: Yeah, I think it would be very pretentious to pretend that we’re… This all knowing entity that will give you all these answers.
Nick: That’s certainly not what we’re looking to do. To address the other point in terms of getting things wrong, I’m sure that we have gotten a couple of things wrong given the amount of stuff that we have been talking about and going over. And if anyone does spot those things, we’d like to know specifically what it was we got wrong so we can go back and correct ourselves, or even just know for our own information. So that would be more helpful if someone was able to tell us what it was, and we can go back and look at that.
Alex: Right. I think there’s a distinction between being wrong about a fundamental business element, and then mislabeling a show as being that story. And from what I understand, we did get a couple things wrong in terms of referencing. I think Snow White and the Huntsman in an episode…
Nick: Sure, yeah.
Alex: In reference to a specific fairy tale, but it’s disingenuous to discount the rest of the episode, or the show itself, just because of a misnomer of a reference instead of just a fundamental error in the conceit.
Nick: Yeah I mean, no one is perfect. I admit that we are going to make mistakes along the way, and anytime anyone wants to let us know what that is, we are more than happy to stop and correct that.
Alex: If MetaMotivation wants to send us an email [email protected] with the list of errors and mistakes or things we got wrong, we’d be more than happy to discuss them on the podcast as well.
Alex: So please do. Whoever’s listening to this, if you think we have done so much wrong that we deserve a stern email, then please go ahead and send it. Because I feel like we are an open podcast but we’re not open enough to discuss those things on air.
Nick: Absolutely. And we do appreciate any feedback whether it’s positive or negative, or criticism or praise. We’re always open to that. So, moving on.
Alex: Moving on. I know we got another email or question, Nick?
Nick: Yes. It was actually a tweet. I got a tweet from Jordan Giddins, and she said, “I just started listening to Paper Team podcasts by TV Calling and NJ Watson. It is chock-full of great information for television writers,” and then followed up with, “I’m happy to have found you guys. I’d love to learn more about pitching.” I said that we would put that on the list, and maybe we’ll do another episode going into a little more detail on pitching, but in the meantime, I thought we would do a little mini Hot Take segment element of “What are some pitches that have been done to death? What are some cliches, some tropes, things that are just been overpitched everywhere?”
Alex: Literally done to death in some cases right?
Nick: That’s right. So speaking of that one, these are from my personal experience of working as sort of a development executive of a company and pitches that I’ve heard. So many heaven or hell or purgatory workplace comedies. Everyone’s like, “It’s Heaven Incorporated.” Or it’s like, “You’re working in a DMV in Purgatory” or it’s like, “This is Hell as a shopping mall.”
Alex: I think they’re big fans of Jean-Paul Sartre, where it’s like, “Hell is other people.” Well, we have what, the good place now, we have so many of those actual, factual successful comedies on air that deal with it that maybe you should get another idea.
Nick: Yeah, and look, I have written my own comedy that involves a lot of hell elements and Christian mythology and whatever so I’m no stranger to this. But really, it is such an overdone concept and there’s very little you can bring to it that’s new at this point, so I’d to avoid that for now. Continuing on that role, the second coming of Jesus as a comedy. I’ve seen that all the time too. It’s like, “Hey, Jesus is back and he’s a drop out stoner in Brooklyn or something.” Or, “Jesus is back and he’s a bad boss at an office building.”
Alex: Please tell me that one of those scripts had Jesus with the S replaced by the number two. Like it’s a “Jesus 2.”
Nick: Probably, Jesus is back as a millennial. All of it is just again, such an overdone concept and it’s very hard to do something clever and nuanced with that outside of the initial joke of the premise. Another one which I’m sure a million people have heard is a bunch of 20-something friends just trying to make it in life, or trying to make it in the big city, or trying to make it in the entertainment industry. Anything that’s just an amorphous blob of friends who are all… It’s basically writers usually writing about their own friend group and putting it into a script and they’re being like, “Hey, this is us and here’s all the funny things that happened to us one time, and we all lived in the same house.” And unless… Again, unless you have some kind of hook into that or some kind of genuine work on those characters, it’s so hard to do anything with that. Especially if you actually want to get it made. Usually the only way these things get made is if a very established showrunner is on board with it. Or because the script is just such a high quality, or you have big named talent attached, something like Happy Endings.
Alex: Yeah, there’s so many of those wannabe Entourages out there that it doesn’t make sense. Entourage worked because of Mark Wahlberg’s name, and then they got all those people attached to the project. But in the vacuum, if you’re nobody, nobody cares about your life story.
Nick: Yeah, just because everyone’s had that experience, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s gonna wanna read that script. So another one that we get a lot is, it’s a fake X who has to become a real X. So it might be a former TV cop now has to become a real cop or even in Psych, it’s like a fake psychic has to pretend to be a real psychic. It’s such… The grinder, a fake TV lawyer has to pretend to be a real lawyer. That’s been done a million times.
Alex: That’s half of Fox’s slate, right?[laughs]
Nick: Exactly, exactly. As amusing as that concept is again, it’s been overdone and just avoid that for a while. Everything is cyclical, I’m sure in another few years, there’ll be another rather wave of things in the way that time travel stories has been overdone recently, but for now avoid them. And the last one that I wanted to comment on is the classic middle-aged white guy just trying to get his life back on track, whether he’s recovering from alcoholism, or he’s just had a divorce, or whatever it happens to be. Again done so much, you’re not gonna do really a better job than Californication or something which has already run for nine seasons. It’s basically the older writer version of the young 20-something friends, is the middle aged guy just trying to make it work.
Alex: Wow, that’s sounds so riveting, Nick. We’ll be doing down the line another pitch episode but in the meantime…
Nick: That wraps up our little Odds and Ends segment, and let’s get on with the show.
1 – Purpose of dialogue
Alex: So let’s start talking about dialogue. Nick, can you tell us what is the point of dialogue.
Nick: So the purpose of dialogue and what you can use it for is to convey character and relationships, and also power dynamics. You can use it to convey exposition. You can use it to move the story forward. You can use dialogue to create conflict and obstacles. And you can also use it to provide humor and comic relief. You can really do almost anything with dialogue in terms of telling a story. Look at plays, you put two people in a room and you can tell a satisfying story almost entirely through dialogue. Should you do that in TV? Well, not usually. Visuals and action are just as important. It’s more of a visual medium, but many shows, especially comedies and multi-cam comedies, or say an Aaron Sorkin drama rely heavily on long reams of dialogue between characters. You’ll look at the script and see entire pages with barely an action line on them.
Alex: Right. I think the reason why those shows specifically rely so much on dialogue is because those multi-cam setups were traditionally more theatrical and then the conceit. Obviously television historically has been between radio and theater, at least originally was. There was so many shows that were filmed theater pieces, or radio plays just put on screen. And then you have those multi-cams as recent as maybe Friends. Friends is a great example of something that is heavily relying on comedy, but it also uses all the theatrical tropes. David Trimmer is a great example of an actor who knew that this was basically a theater being filmed, or a play being filmed in front of a live audience, that’s why he would be so physical with his comedy. But at the end of the day, dialogue is really about communication. And communication or language is about sharing something specific with someone else. How you phrase that thought illuminates who you are as a person. If you look at what people say in a conversation, it’s often about someone arguing their point. How exactly they go about it is the crux of who they are. Now some people will want to express detail stories about their life experiences to draw you in. And others may just give logical arguments like Spock. But whatever the framing is, that is how that person speaks and why dialogue is important.
Nick: So now that we know what dialogue is and what it’s used for, what makes good dialogue?
Alex: Good dialogue sounds natural. Even though when you’re looking at it specifically it really isn’t natural, but it should definitely make you think it is.
Nick: Yeah, it’s more efficient than real-life talk, which we’ll get into later. I think that good dialogue also feels true to the characters. It’s as though they are the only person who could or would say that. And it’s the classic covering up the names on the script trick and seeing if you can know who is who without seeing what the name is.
Alex: That ties also to it being entertaining. If a script is in a college essay or a class with people just monologuing to death about an argument or some fact, you want it to be entertaining.
Nick: I think good dialogue is also motivated. We understand why someone would say that in this situation or we’ve seen the plot and the character events leading up to this and understand, then how those things would make this person say that dialogue. And also I think it’s original, I think that things that are said and presented in a fun new way that we haven’t heard a million times before is often good dialogue.
Alex: Right, you may also wonder about the need of dialogue in a general way. I know the episodes Hush on Buffy, that we actually talked about a while ago and the BoJack Horseman Under the Sea episode were both celebrated and became iconic because of their lack of dialogue. But you have to keep in mind that those are anomalies. They’re exceptions to the rule, not the norm of what the show usually is. And they work because they’re in stark contrast to what people see in the rest of the show like some quirky written lines.
Nick: You can’t make an entire series like that. And you definitely can’t make that your pilot because you have to set the expectation with the series.
Alex: I will say this, if you’re successfully making a stunt pilot that is completely silent and it works, that will blow people’s mind. But I feel like in 99.9999% of the case it’s not gonna work.
2 – Specificities of dialogue: style and character
Alex: Let’s talk about the specificities of dialogue. First up, let’s discuss the distinction between natural dialogue and style-less dialogue.
Nick: Yes, as we were saying before, dialogue shouldn’t really read like everyday speech. People in real life are inarticulate; they ramble, they repeat themselves, they interrupt, and talk over each other constantly. And this will say a lot of pointless things and filler words like, umm. In television, you need to be efficient and effective; keeping in mind the pacing, the context, the character, the story, all that kind of thing. At the same time, you probably shouldn’t swing too far the other way into what I call Sorkinitis, where even the intern who brings them coffee is firing up zingers like Oscar Wilde.
Alex: It’s terminal, Nick.[laughs]
Alex: I would also say the distinction comes from the kind of story you are doing. Something like Mumblecore or, by the Duplass brothers will have a very different approach to dialogue than Sorkin, or even Shonda Rhimes. But whatever style you’re going with, in my mind I think it’s important to be consistent within your approach to that story. A character speaking like Cersei wouldn’t work in a world like Grey’s Anatomy for many reasons, including the cadence of her speech, or even what is being stated in the first place. Now on top of the style there’s also elements attached to the characters. Obviously what defines a character is what they do, but on top of that, it’s also what they say and how they say it.
Nick: Yeah, I’m curious to get your thoughts, what do think about writing accents and other idiosyncrasies into the dialogue? In the wording of it?
Alex: I mean, personally, unless an accent is intrinsic to the comprehension of a character, or rather the lack of comprehension to that character, then I usually won’t write it within dialogue lines. And the reason is simple: you still want the script to be legible. You probably don’t want your reader to try to decipher every line a regular character is saying, unless that is the intent within the story. Now, if someone is eating food and trying to talk at the same time, you can and I usually do it. You can write that in the dialogue, instead of saying, “Nice to meet you.” It’s like, “Nice to meet you.” whatever. And the same goes for someone mispronouncing a name, or word, in that case you may wanna write it phonetically. But those are specific, temporary examples. The only time I would consider writing out accents in a script on a line-to-line basis is if everyone within the story is equally struggling to understand that character specifically because of that accent. But as a reader I do believe it gets really annoying if you have to decide every sentence that character speaks.
Nick: I think the same with writing stuff in foreign languages, just write it in English and then use the parenthetical brackets in Urdu, or whatever it happens to be, instead of making us go to Google Translate.
Alex: Now what are your thoughts on ellipsis, hyphens, italics, kind of the stylistic choices of dialogue?
Nick: I think with those they all have their place, but as always less is more. It’s totally fine to use any or all of those, but once you start to overdo it, each of them lose their meaning and their effectiveness, so I would try not to have more than two on a page of those different kind of little tools. Be careful of ellipsis and hyphens dictating how the actor should deliver a line. And technically, I think they’re meant to be used to indicate someone trailing off or being interrupted in their dialogue, but very often they’re used to add a little mini beat to a line either before or at the end of it or have something seen more sudden, which again is valid but should be used sparingly or maybe only when it would negatively impact the readers’ understanding or enjoyment if it wasn’t used.
3 – Finding your dialogue
Nick: Let’s talk about the process that we each used to find that dialogue, how do we decide what’s gonna come out of this character’s mouth.
Alex: Well, I read The Secret.[laughs]
Alex: For me the first step is usually about listening, reading and ingesting everything. The stories that I tend to write are so specific within their particular worlds that I tried to consume content directly related to that perspective and get to know how people in that world think or talk. For example, when I wrote a pilot set during World War II, I obviously did my research reading about what happened but on top of that, I was also watching movies both set in that era as well as movies written in that era. Now I did both because there’s a distinction in the style of writing dialogue over the past six years obviously. Now the same idea applies with contemporary settings, although I may watch some historical footage here or documentaries there about a specific business or setting to hear how people talk about their own world. And after that, I can find my own take on those ideas down the line but I find that knowing the short hands of the vernacular of those industries is critical in approaching how people living and working there speak.
Nick: What was the biggest surprise to you doing that research that people didn’t say, or do back then that you couldn’t put in? Any particular word or way that people spoke?
Alex: I think it’s the slang, the slang is the biggest thing. And whether it is a procedural or a peer piece, it’s those weird sentences or phrases or words that you’re not gonna be using in the 21st century. To go back to that example of the legal procedural that was set in a very specific area of the law, the judges for example are not called judges, they were called surrogates and if I only knew sort of that cursory level of that law, just based on watching a bunch of legal dramas, I wouldn’t be using judges instead of surrogates. That’s a very different approach. Now, in terms of writing dialogue for each scene, I will often start out by writing the basic version of the exchange in a notepad, whether it’s a physical notepad or a digital notepad. And they’re there to literally help me figure out the pacing of the story and the dance of that exchange. Maybe two characters are talking very fast and bouncing off each other at a say in speed, or maybe it’s someone monologuing about something for a page. But whatever the case may be, I first worry about what people want to say, and then try to slowly work my way to how they say it. They say you have subtext versus text.
Nick: Yeah, a lot of time for me, once I sit down to write, it’s just the first thing thing that comes into my head. As I’m writing a scene, the cogs are working, and sometimes it’s like a runaway train, I’m just trying to catch it and get it all down. So, I’m rarely sitting there searching for like, “Hmm, what should Jessica say?” Especially in comedy, you just have these comedic reflexes and instincts that go, “Boom” and you need to be quick about that. But that being said, what comes in your head first is not always the best choice. Often when I’m re-reading a scene, I’m like, “Oh, actually they wouldn’t say that. That character doesn’t sound like that,” or “We don’t even need this line here.” And where you can get caught is sitting there stuck on one line going, “But what would they say or what’s a funnier joke here?” And you can spend 10 or 15 minutes trying to figure it out, or going back and forth to the writing partner. And that point, I find it’s just useful to put a placeholder in there and star it and come back to it later. Don’t waste time trying to make it perfect when you can just be getting more work done later in the script and come back to it with fresh eyes.
Alex: Do you think it’s easier to write a joke or a good line of dialogue?
Nick: I don’t know. For me, there’s not as much of a distinction. I think that a joke is always a good line of dialogue like a joke should never be removed from the story that it’s just like, “And here’s a useless pun for a line.” It should always be involved in what the characters and people are doing. With comedy, we have this great barometer of whether something is working or not, and that it doesn’t make you laugh. Laughing is an involuntary reflex, so when you hear something and these people in the writer’s room or you and your writing partner and you laugh out loud, you know something is there. Drama, it might be a little bit harder ’cause I imagine when you write a good line, you’re not always crying at it are you, Alex? Sorry.
Alex: Always, yeah. I’m shedding tears reading my own scripts, that’s what usually happens.[laughs]
Nick: Yeah, but aside from that just riffing style, often when I do sit down to a scene, it’s like, “What needs to happen here and what are the main… ” For example, three points that need to happen in the scene, it’s like someone needs to get to this point and this needs to happen and then we need to get to here, and then so that would just be a good overarching structure in my head as we’re playing around.
Alex: Do you often just write out jokes in those first draft stages?
Nick: Only if it comes to us. I’m not trying to push a bunch of jokes in there. I’m more than happy to write it as a fairly straight scene and then re-visit it later and make it funny. It really just depends on what kind of comes to us as we go.
Alex: Now what are your thoughts on finding dialogue in other places?
Nick: I often find it helps to picture a particular actor or a comic in the role, and then just go with what you think they would say or do, or how you think they would react here because you know their kind of personality so well from TV or from movies. And you can also do that with using inspiration from people you know in real life, your friends, your family, just as long as you have a rock solid concept of who this person is, and then how they interact with people and the world around them, rather than just using this character as an empty vessel for a writer’s lines in the story that are coming out.
Alex: I definitely agree that as a writer, it’s very important to learn about different cultures and different people. And as an immigrant, I had to adapt to another language and culture, so I had to figure out why certain people talked a certain way. And I’m actually right now learning Mandarin not because of some immediate practical reason, but just because I was interested in the syntax and how that language works on a structural level. It’s just another way of approaching language and dialogue that I found interesting to look at.
Nick: And definitely, it opens up different parts of your brain and gets you thinking about things.
Alex: Honestly it doesn’t even have to be as cerebral as studying new languages. I actually love watching the live feeds of Big Brother because you hear people from across America talk about everything in a very kind of naturalistic way.
4 – What makes bad dialogue and how to fix it
Alex: We’ve talked about the basics of good dialogue and our own approaches with dialogue but what makes bad dialogue?
Nick: You often hear this term used that something is clunky, that it’s a clunky line, or that was a clunker. So, when you’re talking about that, some people might also call it bumping or pulling the reader out of something, so that’s when a line is just clearly there to serve a functional purpose. Maybe it’s exposition, maybe it’s a segue to another topic, or it’s some kind of forced conflict that’s being put in there. I think that at that point, we stop believing that this is a real thing that a person is saying, and we see the writer there, pulling the strings and we see all the cog work moving in the script. And for me that usually happens because it’s maybe out of character, it doesn’t sound like them, or as we said before, it’s something you’re not motivated to say or just feels like far too convenient. Another term people use for this is it feels contrived or forced.
Alex: Yeah, I think one of the symptoms is this idea of speechifying it. It’s something that a lot of shows and movies love to do, and that is to have someone make a major speech, to rally the troops before some climatic moment in the story. And although it can definitely be a cathartic worthwhile moment, it can also run the risk of using that concept in other parts of the story that don’t really need it. So for example, a character is pontificating about their perspective, just so that the audience can learn what they’re thinking or want to do, or maybe they’re just shutting an argument of another character just so that the story can move forward. And if it is and warranted by the character themselves as in they’re not usually the kind of character that would be making a speech at that point, then they should not be saying those things in the first place. There needs to be a consistency in the dialogue on that way.
Alex: And I think another aspect of that is the subtext where there’s text element that I mentioned earlier and an example of that is the opening scene of the news room which is another Aaron Sorkin show where you have this character pontificating for five minutes about the values of America and whatever his beliefs are, and I actually find that scene very annoying because this is a clear example of Aaron Sorkin just pontificating about his beliefs on screen for five minutes with no real narrative need. It was literally just there to basically jerk himself off, I feel like.
Nick: Yeah, I know you’ve said before that you’re not a big fan of the way Game of Thrones handles a lot of their thematic stuff and their subtext ’cause it’s literally just someone standing there, quoting the theme of the show or whatever. Spelling it out for everyone.
Alex: Yeah, one of the scenes is I’m sure I’ve mentioned it again but the Littlefinger scene in the second season where he talks about the “ladder of chaos” to Varys and there’s just two characters literally watching the physical throne and talking about the themes of the show and the episode which is just climbing the ladder of chaos over a montage.
Nick: It would be like in True Detective if they were just driving and didn’t say anything to each other and he just turns around and he’s like, “Hey, you know what, time is flat circle.”[chuckle]
Nick: ‘Do you wanna hear more about what I think about that?” But instead, they’d managed to frame it within a personal conflict of these two different people’s beliefs and then tie it into the stories.
Alex: That’s a good example. I’ll bring it up, next time we’re driving up north, Nick. “You know what?”
Nick: “Have you ever thought about the meaning of like… ” [chuckle] Let’s have this conversation for no story reason. Well let’s get into some common pitfalls that people can avoid in terms of what’s gonna make it bad dialogue.
Alex: One of the main pitfalls is starting the scenes too early or ending it too late, and I specifically relay that to dialogue. For example someone saying, “Hi Mark.”
Nick: Oh, “Hi Mark.”
Alex: All those kinds of pleasantries. And the reason why nobody says, “Hello” when answering the phone on TV is because it’s redundant and useless. You want to be efficient by conveying what the character is intent on saying and nothing more. The filler only works when you’re doing it purposefully. For example an awkward first date where the two people have nothing else to say besides, “Hi, hi, how are you?” “I’m fine. How… ” You know, it’s really awkward, Nick. I feel like there’s some awkwardness between us, right now.[chuckle]
Nick: Is this is a first date? You didn’t tell me.[chuckle]
Alex: On Episode 51, it’s our first date. And on the flip side, there’s also this idea of just writing dialogue, heavy scenes for dialogue’s sake, thinking that that is the main entertainment, kind of like what Tarantino does. “Oh, let me just write this awesome fast paced dialogue scene between two people in a car talking about McDonald’s.”
Nick: I think that’s really common in scripts particularly with pop culture references. Maybe we can call this one Tarantinoitis. I don’t know. I guess he’s so much in scripts like someone’s just standing there talking to someone like, “Did you ever see that movie where this guy did X? What an idiot.” For example in like Clerks they were talking about the contractors on the Death Star. Even though it’s kind of clever. That kind of stuff, typically it’s kind of thing that belongs like a standup set or on an episode of Cracked’s web series After Hours. Not in the middle of the script, unless it’s something that kinds of pays off or has some relation to the character or the themes, or if that’s just your voice or your schtick like Quentin Tarantino on Kevin Smith but they beat you to it and they do it better that you.
Alex: That immediately brought to mind the scene in X-Men: Apocalypse when the mutants just came out of Return of the Jedi, and they were complaining about how the third movie is always the worst and it seemed a little bit too meta, relating it to Apocalypse.
Nick: Right. But at least it had some meta joke to it and wasn’t just like, “I could get some really funny dialogue in here from this character if I go off on some rant that sounds like it should be in my Improv 101 show.” So another thing we talked about before subtext, bad dialogue is when a character states exactly what they want or feel on the surface, specially feels. If someone’s like, “I’m so angry right now.” They say that out loud, there’s a much better way that you can handle that.
Alex: The secret to that is just always be green.[laughs]
Nick: Yes, and the other thing is obvious and unmotivated exposition; telling each other things that they already know about the world or the story or each other. Like, “Jimmy, we’ve been friends for 20 years. I was the best man at your wedding.” Even when you try to fit that into him being like, “So you can trust me,” it still feels forced.
Alex: That’s basically the same as repeating people’s names, right? Nick.[laughs]
Nick: Yes, Alex. When people repeat dialogue like that Alex, it sounds really silly. Doesn’t it, Alex?
Alex: Yes, Nick. It really does, Nick.[laughs]
Nick: Again like cliche and trope lines especially famous lines from other movies, sometimes people will use them in a script as an homage or direct reference but even then it’s questionable. If your character says, “You’re tearing me apart… ”
Nick: That’s either a cliche or a reference to the room and in either way it’s like… It just bumps the reader out of that emotion. Another thing that is a common mistake is character’s talking to other characters about action or events the audience has already seen on screen. The audience doesn’t need a recap or retelling of these events ’cause they just watched that entire scene. Just because that character wasn’t there it doesn’t mean that we have to sit through it again or someone explains it you. Then you can just cut in on them having finished telling them what happened if that’s important to you.
Alex: Unless it’s a CBS show and it’s the third act.[laughs]
Nick: Yeah, if you’re coming back from an ad break, by all means please repeat the information because the network needs you to. Another thing is thinking about the context of the dialogue so if you’re writing dialogues when it’s too formal or too casual it doesn’t match the situation. In real life people do this thing called code switching and that’s the way that you talk to you parents and the way you talk to your buddies in the football team is very different and even though you are a consistent self and person, in between these two situations, you’re going to talk differently and you’re going to act differently. As a result, characters’ dialogue should adapt to the context in the situation around them while still retaining their fundamental character. Unless of course you’re playing it for comedy in which case a very formal British Lord speaking in a… Very properly in the middle of a pub full of soccer hooligans is probably a good choice. Also another thing that’s important to understand is how one character speaks to another, it can convey the power dynamic between them. So in a situation where everyone should be respectful, if someone’s very dismissive then that tells you something about those two characters, or if they’re being casual or that kind of thing.
Alex: And again I think a lot of it is about contrast right, it’s because you have those clearly defined dynamics between these characters, and that is why it works either as a comedy device or as a dramatic device. For example, if you know someone says, “father” and this other character says “dad” then that obviously illustrates their dynamic. There’s also on Star Trek, if you look at Star Trek, the way certain aliens speak is very specific to the characters. Spock for example never uses contractions. So that’s something to look out for in your dialogue as well as, what are the specificities.
Nick: Another thing is not trimming the fat in your dialogue when you’re repeating that same information twice in a scene, or even in a line sometimes. Once a character has made their point or something has been communicated to the audience, it’s rarely necessary to repeat it at least in the exact same way.
Alex: If you leave the same sort of arguments be bounced back and forth, that’s just a wasted space especially when you have that ping-pong type exchange between two people, you still want to keep that argument compelling instead of just repeating yourself just to fill up that whatever, like 60-page limit. If nothing new is being said or nothing exciting is happening within the action, then chances are you can actually substantially tighten the entire scene.
Nick: It’s like when you’re writing an essay in college and you either didn’t know what you were talking about, and you needed to make a word limit and you just start repeating things in different ways and rephrasing it on the page.
Alex: We all know that feeling.
Nick: Yeah, don’t do that in screenwriting. I often find when I’m writing that I’ll get into a flow and be like, “Yeah.” And then she says this, and he says that. Especially when you’re writing with a partner and you’re bouncing off each other you’re like, “And then this happens and then this happens.” And we stop and realize that we have two pages of conversation and we only really needed one, or we only really needed half a page to achieve what we wanted. So often when you’re in that flow, characters are just responding for the sake of responding or taking turns, or we thought it’d be funny if this person said this here. But when you go back through, you can just strip a lot of that away. You can cut lines entirely or you can replace them with an action or a visual instead. All right, so if you read through the script and you realize that you’ve got some real clunky dialogue there, how do you start to fix that? Or what are some tips and tricks?
Alex: The first thing, and that’s actually even in the first draft, is to start with a bad version and work from there. If you’re stuck and can’t quite find the rhythm of the scene or exactly how your characters express themselves, then don’t worry about either of those things, and just write out the actual subtext as text of the dialogue. Then you have something to work with that you can edit, reverse, and transform into subtext instead of characters outright stating what they think.
Nick: That’s a really important thing to learn as a writer is just to be able to write something you’re unhappy with, so that you have it on the page, and then be able to fix it later. Another little trick that you can use with bad dialogue or something that feels clunky is to turn it into a conflict instead. So if two characters are disagreeing on something or they have different wants, and so they say things to each other in pursuit of some goal or hitting against an obstacle, then it grounds whatever this exposition or whatever this thing we need to get out is in character and personal and emotional stakes.
Alex: And the way to express that is in the dialogue flow. You need to have some flow within the dialogue because writing dialogue is a bit like composing music. There’s a certain rhythm to how the characters express themselves as individuals and as an ensemble. If two characters are yelling at each other in quick succession, and suddenly one of them starts monologuing about their feelings, the sudden change of pace will be extremely jarring. Again, this isn’t a good or bad in of itself, but this is something you want to keep in mind as being intentional instead of just an accident.
Nick: Another little thing you can do is to make whatever this piece of dialogue, that’s currently not working, is something that another character needs to know, especially exposition. If one character needs something from the other one, for example, it’s a cop and a suspect in an interrogation room, then the process of getting this information out is actually going to be dramatic and not just conveniently stated to the audience for no reason.
Alex: Lastly, and this goes back to the whole flow of it, you want to read out loud your script either to yourself or have some table read. Hearing the script is important to understand the pacing of it. Just because the line looks great on paper, doesn’t mean it will sound good. Reading, speaking, listening to your dialogue is a key part of writing, that’s why TV shows and movies have table reads before shoot.
Takeaways and Resources
Alex: All right, Nick. What are some takeaways this week?
Nick: Number one, dialogue is about communication. Whether that’s communicating story, character, conflict, or any of the other elements at your disposal.
Alex: Number two, good dialogue is motivated true to character and sounds natural while still being efficient and effective.
Nick: And number three, whether it’s an unwarranted monologue or just filler, bad dialogue is often repetitive, inconsequential, or it breaks your immersion with the story.
Alex: And what are some resources for our listeners?
Nick: A book that I like is one called Dialogue Secrets from William Martell or Bill Martell. He has that screenwriting…
Alex: Of the Martell house.
Nick: Yes, of the Martell clan. He has that screenwriting book series called The Blue Books, and I think we’ve talked about one or two of them before on this podcast. They are very well written, they’re nice and concise and you can go and get them on Kindle or physical copies on Amazon and we’ll give a link there as well.
Alex: This was actually gonna be my resource this week because this book is amazing, but Nick stole it from me. We’re having a conflict right now and I can’t express myself. Anyway, I also have an additional recommendation, and that is whatever you’re working on right now try to find people from that world talking about that world. It’s what I was referring to earlier in the episode about my own approach to finding dialogue. So if you’re writing a cop procedural set in Louisiana, find a way to hear what cops working in Louisiana sound like and what they talk about. Maybe it’s you watching a documentary, maybe it’s footage from some car chase, maybe it’s literally spending a weekend over there. And even if you’re writing something completely foreign about made up alien cultures, nothing exists in vacuum. You probably based some of their customs off existing human cultures or something like that, so what is some content related to those that you can find? I think any field, any world, any person, any character, what have you, there’s always content out there that will indicate some speech pattern or some language you can learn from. Basically get your ear out.
Nick: And on that note, we would like to thank all of our listeners for taking the time to tune on in and listen to Paper Team.
Alex: You can get all the show notes for this episode at paperteam.co/51. And also next week probably, you’re gonna be able to get a transcript for this episode @paperteam.co/51transcript.
Nick: And we would also love if you could leave us some reviews, you can do that at paperteam.co/iTunes. And as we have been doing, we’re gonna read out a couple of reviews that our listeners have left.
Alex: And the first one is by Chas Fisher of the Draft Zero podcast which I believe is an Australian fella.
Nick: He is, yes. The Draft Zero podcast is fantastic. If no one’s listened to it, you should definitely go check that out, I’m big fans of them, Chas is a great guy, I’ve chatted to him before online.
Alex: Chas wrote a review entitled “Perfect for Emerging Writers.” And he wrote, “Great mix of craft as well as business side in aimed at below the “do you tip the studio valet” level and with a nice focus on TV.” Thank you, Chas.
Nick: Yeah, we appreciate that. Maybe in the future we’ll do a little collaboration with Draft Zero.
Alex: That would be amazing.
Nick: The other review that we also… I should note that we recently discovered that there are other versions of iTunes than just the US one, so we’ve found a couple of these in the Australian and Canadian and other iTunes.
Alex: Yeah, there’s like a meta review website that takes all the reviews from the different shops around the world’s… The iTunes stores around the world using those reviews and I think we had about five additional or six additional reviews that we never knew about going all the way back to like August, 2016.
Nick: Yeah, so we apologize to anyone if we have missed your review, we just found them and we’ll get around to reading them.
Alex: Speaking of…
Nick: Here’s another one from Australia by a reviewer entitled “Olympic comedy, great for new writers moving to or living in LA.” And they say, “This is a sensational podcast from two young writers in the thick of things in LA. As a young comedy writer myself, it’s great to hear from two people at the same stage as I am, full of great tips and tightly produced.”
Alex: Well, that is awesome, thanks for the compliment.
Nick: And as always, if you would like to leave us one of those reviews, that would help us get more new listeners and build our little community up. And of course, once again, we would like to thank our sponsor, the Tracking Board’s Launch Pad writing competitions. Paper Team’s listeners can save $15 at the next purchase, just use the code PAPERTEAM at the checkout to receive your discount. You can learn more about all of the Launch Pad’s current and upcoming writing competitions by visiting tblaunchpad.com, and I know that their feature competition is open now, I believe the first early deadline is July 9, but you can submit after a month or two after that, so throw your stuff in there and see what happens.
Alex: Yeah, and the code is PAPERTEAM, all one word and all caps. And as always I’m on Twitter @TVCalling.
Nick: I’m @_njwatson.
Alex: If you have any thoughts, feedback, interesting lines of dialogue you wanna share, you can send them at [email protected].
Alex: And next week we’ll be at Comic-Con 2017. Last year I did an episode with Maggie Herman on the road back from STCC, and Nick and I are doing something similar with another friend of ours, Lily Cabello who’s been working as a research analyst for network, she’ll be telling us everything you need to know about Nielsen ratings among other things. So see you next week.