Rewriting dialogue by identifying the function of it.

They say all dialogue should further understanding of the character or further the story. It also needs to convey distinct character voice, be entertaining, and convey the impression that the writer is worthy of being hired. It’s a lot, and people often get lost trying to do everything at once.

Here’s my trick:

  1. I like to write things that are boring and completely on the nose at first. That way it starts with clarity. You can always art it up later (and sometimes I remember to do that).
  2. Identify the function of the line, what is it actually doing. Once you know that angle, it’s easier to find a stronger line that sells the same underlying idea.

Take this scene from THE ROOM:

ORIGINAL

Mark: How was work today?

Johnny: Oh, pretty good. We got a new client and the bank will make a lot of money.

Mark: What client?

Johnny: I cannot tell you; it's confidential.

Mark: Aw, come on. Why not?

Johnny: No, I can't. Anyway, how is your sex life?

It’s pretty basic, but a good actor would look at the lines and find the underlining meaning so they could emotionally ground a performance. We can do the same:

FUNCTION

MARK: <Generic opening line for verisimilitude. Invitation for further conversation>

JOHNNY: <Vague humblebrag about my important job.>

MARK: <Request for more information.>

JOHNNY: <Blasé refusal to go into more detail.>

MARK: <Whiny request for more information in a way that communicates neediness and a lack of understanding of how the world works.>

JOHNNY: <Flat refusal. Awkward segue into sex talk.>

That’s my subjective take, and probably not what the original writer meant. Still, it’s better to write from a strong point of view. Any choice is better than no choice, and you can always make a new choice in the rewrite.

REWRITE

MARK: You look happy. Like you just fucked Marilyn Monroe without a condom.

JOHNNY: Let’s just say I scored at work. Big money. I’ll make VP for sure.

MARK: Oh? Which one? Rumor is you guys have been chasing Nakamura Industries.

JOHNNY: I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.

MARK: Okay, but it’d better be worth it.

JOHNNY: You’re pushing too hard. When was the last time you got laid?

A lot of times when people pitch me lines, they’re not great and I turn them down flat. But the more useful takeaway is to consider the ANGLE at which the line is pitched, the underlining meaning. Different angles yield different kinds of lines.

I’d call that better, but still not great. But it tells us a little bit more about the characters, advancing our understanding, making it easier to make the next draft even more specific.

If Johnny’s being casual about refusing detail, then we need the kind of thing casual people say: “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”

Or he could be <evasive because he’s fronting about imaginary success> so “Uh, it’s good. Real good. Lotta boring details, but profitable.” Might do the trick.

Or it could be <Setting up labored segue into sex life because I really want to ask about yours> in which case the better line might be, “Ugh, I’m just glad it’s over. I’ve been so busy working that I haven’t been laid in a month.”

William Goldman once said that screenwriting was structure. Valid point, but it’s not only structure, it’s texture to, the the difference between “They have sex” and “As Bob runs his tongue over her neck, Alice grabs at the bed sheet with her toes.” It’s the little details, cool visuals, quotable dialogue, neat moments of behavior that bring it to life. Without it, even the most “properly” structured story will just lie there, inert.

Those specific moments, the little things that register vary from writer to writer, from audience to audience. A hundred writers will have a hundred takes on the same basic scene. You want to make sure every line in a scene advances your story and sells your basic competence as a writer. The easiest way to do that is by understanding what each line is actually doing in the scene.

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Specificity in Dialogue

Mapping 3 Act Structure to Scenework

Finding Interesting Beats in Scenes

Five things to do after ‘finishing’ a draft (and before you show it to anyone).

Finishing a draft is always a heady rush.  My fondest memory is of finishing my first script, one month shy of my 16th birthday.   It was a 120 page, exhaustively researched World War One script.  It’s a shockingly boring piece of crap, but I was so proud at the time.  Teenage me rushed to the post office to mail it off to the William Morris Agency (an agency, which, like mail, used to be a thing).

Here’s what I should have done.

1.  Let the draft sit.
Give some time between completion and your reread.  2 weeks or more, if possible.  Put it in a desk drawer, give yourself some time so you can come at it with fresh eyes.

2. Think about where you want your career to go.  
Be honest.  This answer influences the next project you write.  “I want to direct my own film and put it on the festival circuit,” merits a different project than “I want to get into the NBC Writers on the Verge fellowship,” or “I want to write a gritty spec that gets a mid-level agent,” or even “I want to sell a spec for a million dollars and never work again,” (good luck with that one).  Once you have your goal determined, it’s easier to visualize the project that helps you accomplish it, be it an original pilot, a spec episode of Modern Family, a commercial feature spec, or a weird indie.

3. Start thinking of next projects.  
Keep a pad with you and jot down ideas for screenplays.  These may come from dreams, conversations, newspaper headlines, or troubling memories from the past.  Start putting these ideas into your trusted filing system.  Don’t rush into the nitty-gritty of  outlining/writing too quickly.

4. Watch movies, read.
You’ve drained a lot of your good ideas into your draft.  Now it’s time to recharge the imagination.  Watch movies that made you love film, projects in the genre you’d like to write next, or movies in a genre you’re not familiar with. Literacy (both filmic and in the book sense) gives sustenance to the imagination.  You’ll have new ideas to merge together in interesting ways.

5. Collect ideas for your rewrite.
While you’re off on your victory lap, watching movies and dreaming of future glories, you’ll inevitably have new ideas about your “finished” project.  Record these and file them so you’ll have them at hand when you’re ready to use them.