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Speech as Character I

Contributed By Charles Deemer

Screenwriting is the least writerly of writing forms. In no other narrative form will a writer be less penalized for weak writing skills, as long as he or she has strong storytelling skills.

For writers who aspire to stylistic brilliance, who hold up as models such prose stylists as Henry James and William Faulkner and James Agee, screenwriting will be a disappointing field, rather like an Olympic runner joining the grade school track team. Strong writing skills, in the traditional sense, simply are not as important to a screenwriter as strong storytelling skills.

A minor exception is the writing of dialogue. Strong dialogue, which requires rhetorical skill, will elevate a script and set it apart from the masses. Writing dialogue is the primary area in which a screenwriter gets to show off a little a mastery of language.

But dialogue is written in a special kind of language, and in my university classes I am struck by how many students enter with no knowledge of this. They are writing dialogue as language to be read when in fact dialogue must be written as language to be spoken and heard. Those two universes are light years apart.

People Speak in Fragments and Contractions

For example, picture a scene in which one student roommate asks another if he would like to go out for a beer. A beginning screenwriter might write something like this:

ED I am thirsty. I need to get out of here. Do you want to come with me for a beer? Joe I have been struggling with an essay for my history class. I cannot afford to take the time to join you for a beer. I am sorry.
I hope you immediately agree that this is poor dialogue indeed. Why? For several reasons. At the level of rhetoric, this language is too formal. Spoken language is much more informal than written language. Spoken language is filled with sentence fragments and word contractions, the sort of things that are frowned upon by English teachers expecting formal written prose. Often the better the student in terms of English skills, the worst the dialogue that they write because they are trained so strongly in writing formal prose, which is seldom appropriate for dialogue. A more informal, spoken translation of the above would be:
ED I'm thirsty. I gotta get out of here. How about a beer? JOE I got an essay to write. I can't take the time.

Giving Dialogue an Attitude

Much better.

But we can still improve this dialogue by making it more personal, making it more a revelation of character. In a screenplay, dialogue must serve at least one of two purposes: it must move the plot forward or it must reveal character.

How do we personalize dialogue? By giving it an attitude, in the sense that dialogue becomes a verbal imprint of individual character. Hence:

ED I'm as dry as that bitch I dated last week. How about a brew? JOE If I don't finish this essay, man, my grade is for shit, and if that happens my old man pulls the plug, and I'm back changing oil at Texaco. How long you gonna stay out?
See the difference? The first rewrite improves the rhetoric by making it informal, spoken speech, but the dialogue is still primarily informational. In the second rewrite, we've infused the dialogue with attitude, wrapped the information in the point of view of the character. We begin to learn something about who the characters are by the way they speak.

"Lines with an attitude" is a good way to describe dialogue that reveals character, and it's a major key in writing unforgettable spoken language.

Also essential is the concept of "subtext." This will be our focus next month.

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