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.

RELATED

Specificity in Dialogue

Mapping 3 Act Structure to Scenework

Finding Interesting Beats in Scenes

Don’t Write Generic Dialogue. Speak to the specific complaint.

I hate generic stuff, momentsthat show something basic: the kid loves his mom! The cop works at a precinct! The couple is fighting! Any hack could write that, and it’s the screenplay’s job to show off what’s special about your writing style. You want to sell people on the idea of you.

Here’s a very generic scene:

INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT
A HUSBAND and WIFE are fighting.

HUSBAND: You’re driving me crazy!
WIFE: You’re driving me crazy!
HUSBAND: You’re crazy!
WIFE: You’re crazy!

Okay, I get it. Their marriage sucks, but I don’t know anything about the characters. It’s just a bland fight. When I read scenes like this, I’m reminded of something an improv teacher once taught me: scenes should speak to a specific complaint.

That’s a fancy way of saying that dialogue should specifically highlight WHY things are happening. If someone says “I love you,” do they say it everyday or does they want something today? If a husband and wife are fighting, who’s fault is it?

The characters become more clear if a scene becomes more specific:

HUSBAND: You’ve been snapping at me all day, and I’m sick of it!
WIFE: Get a fucking job! I’m sick of carrying you. I should have married John.
HUSBAND: Fuck John. Let him deal with your shit. I’m sick of you hitting on any guy with a six pack!
WIFE: You’re one to talk! You’d fuck mud if you thought it would wiggle!

This is a little on the nose, but at least we know a little more about the two lovebirds. If we wanted to further refine it, we’d have to think about what we’re trying to say about these people and the best way to manifest that broader truth in a few specific lines.

By making dialogue more specific, you get to show off your chops and you make your characters more distinct.

Improv for screenwriters – a sketch exercise that’s useful for scene work.

This is the exercise:

  1. Pick a situation that would happen in life.
  2. Identify five typical things thats would ordinarily happen in that situation.
  3. Pick an unusual thing.
  4. Apply that unusual thing to the list you generated in step 2.

Example: A lady goes to a gym to see a trainer.

Unusual thing: the trainer is the most pervy guy ever.

You want to find things that show him being pervy, but also relate to personal training. So wesk ourselves, what would a normal personal trainer do? That’s the base reality, the world of the familiar.

  1. Greet client at desk.
  2. Ask about fitness goals.
  3. Run through stretches.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical.
  5. Spot the client on weights.

Now we want to filter through the pervy trait.

  1. Greet client at desk. “What’s your sign?”
  2. Ask about fitness goals. “I think losing 7 pounds is your sweet spot. Lose that, keep the rack.”
  3. Run through stretches. I see him crawling under the client in suggestive ways.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. He puts a porn DVD on the LCD screen.
  5. Weights. “Snatch, clean and jerk, baby. This remind you of anything?”

You can generate sketch ideas off the personal training specifics with different adjectives. Fatherly, religious, paranoid. You get the idea.

ISN’T THIS FORMULAIC?

Yeah, kind of. But it’s a general framework for a kind of sketch writing. Think of it as an exercise, simplified but illustrative of a more useful idea.

It’s only as formulaic as you make it. You could choose a more complex trait for the trainer, you could make the client a memorable character in their own right. But even at its most simplistic, this exercise drills pure creativity. Any hack can fill out a template like this. It takes a creative person to fill this out creatively, populating a tired old frame work with a surprising, understandable pattern, amazingly lifelike dialogue, beautifully rendered specifics.

HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO SCREENWRITING?

Movies will always have a premise,  a character, and a setting (world). Given that all of these will have wonderful specifics, it’s pretty easy to list what’s ordinary, than layer over what’s special and specific about your story.

World: Science fiction, ten years in the future.

  1. Greet client at desk. Maisie walks to the desk. A scanner grid covers her body, rendering her form on the hologram pad. VOICE: Hello Maisie. You have gained three pounds.”
  2. Ask about fitness goals.VOICE: It looks like you haven’t done much… cardio lately. Would you like to do more… cardio? Maisie ignores the voice as she breezes through the turnstile.
  3. Run through stretches. Maisie stretches. She puts on a VR headset. Suddenly, she sees a yogi master guiding her through her positions.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. A zero-gravity upside-down elliptical.
  5. Weights. She straps into an electrical iron maiden. It works out all of her muscles. A 30 seconds later, she stumbles out. She looks ripped… and exhausted.

Premise: Ordinary world, Claire is a trainer who spent last night helping her best friend hide a body.

  1. Greet client at desk. Oh shit. It’s a Sheriff’s deputy.
  2. Ask about fitness goals. She asks about fitness goals. He replies, but she’s sweating badly, she can’t follow along. She’s going to get caught. She knows it.
  3. Run through stretches. As she helps him stretch out his back, her leggings ride up. She’s got dried blood around her ankles. She hides it.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. The deputy reveals that the Sheriff is going to be checking out a storage locker that could incriminate them.
  5. Weights. She sends a secret text to her friend. “Get to that storage locker now!”

Character: Bob is a nice, Fundamentalist Christian people pleaser who’s wife left him last night.

  1. Greet client at desk. Everything is hunky dory!
  2. Ask about fitness goals. “You have to have goals. Without a plan you’re lost and alone.”
  3. Run through stretches. They talk about church. The client brags about his happy marriage. Bob pushes the client too far, hurting him.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. Bob runs alongside the client. He pushes himself hard. Scary hard.
  5. Weights. Bob is about to bring over a plate for the bench press. He collapses, sobbing. His wife has left him and the world, once friendly and happy, seems cold. Is god really there? Everyone looks at his destruction, unnerved.

HOW DOES THIS WORK?

This comes from UCB, which is focused on “game,” which, put simply, is that which makes entertainment (UCB’s game is all comedic because it’s a comedy school. But you can use game for horror, romance, etc).

The trainer specifics are the base reality. It’s the ordinary world, the frame of reference that grounds us to the material. Even in the future example, we know how gyms work, so the future gym, while different, is relatable and subliminally illustrates truths about the world and time it exists in.

The responses to the specific are the game moves. They each form a pattern, and taken overall, they communicate one main point in a variety of interesting ways. (1. The future is different in the following ways… 2. Claire’s ordinary job is now super complicated by the premise… 3. Bob’s character traits are illustrated by watching him do what he does…)

You want to start with a base reality, something that a normal human can relate to. Then you want to heighten it with the specifics of your plot, characters and world. You can have characters react to new information, but then the scene can keep moving, setting you up to illustrate the next specific point.

BASE REALITY IS IS IMPORTANT

In a scene you can have a crazy character, a crazy world, or a crazy plot, but not all three. Something on screen has to be understandable to regular folks, otherwise we get lost and lose the ability to relate to whats on screen. But relatable gets predictable and predictable is bad. You want to provide some break from the expected because your telling a story. But make sure that you  break from the reality. More importantly, you want to find a way to get back to the reality, setting it up again so you can knock it down again.

Let’s say you’re doing a scene where the new king gets crowned, but that king is actually a nervous imposter. You might want to show as much of the coronation as possible so you can mine that characters discomfort before he inevitably gets exposed (or worse, named the ultimate dictator of the land).

If you ever get stuck in a scene, ask yourself what would typically happen in an ordinary reality or a genre. Return to expectation until you find another way to subvert expectation.

This is based on an improv training exercise by Nick Mandernach. Used with permission.

How to lose a reader on the first line of a script.

DISCLAIMER: I take script confidentiality incredibly seriously. I will never talk about the specifics of someone else’s script to anyone else because I’m being asked for discretion as much as my opinion. The one exception is if someone posts a screenplay in a public forum like Reddit to solicit free opinions. In that case, I’m delighted to have the opportunity for a teachable moment.

                                              Fade in:

EXT. PLAYGROUND -- AFTERNOON
Two very YOUNG BOYS are seen playing around various bits of the PLAYGROUND. They’re playing war and swinging SWORDS made of TOILET PAPER ROLLS around.

I’m going to ignore the right justified FADE IN*: and discuss the first scene description/action line about the two young boys.

I actually like the implied opening IMAGE of this script, it’s vivid and relates to the theme. my problem is chiefly with the way the line is WORDED because the verbiage makes it harder to see the image, not easier.

Your first line is a first impression. As a reader, all my brain wants to do is convert the written line into a mental picture so I can imagine stuff happening, and yet the language in this line precludes me from doing that.

  • I have no idea what a VERY YOUNG BOY is. Why not just tell me their age?
  • “Are seen” is unnecessary here. Implicitly, everything in scene description is seen.
  • What are various bits of a playground? Are we starting with a montage? Even if it was, why not just tell me they’re in the sandbox? Or by the swings? Or on the monkey bars? Your first sentence is filled with two variables. I don’t want to think in variables. I want to be presented with a picture. Don’t trust the reader to imagine. Make them see what you want to see.
  • What is playing war? Is that a different game from swinging around a fake sword? If it’s not, why include it at all?
  • How does one you make a sword out of toilet paper rolls? I’m trying and failing to imagine how you could connect toilet paper rolls in a way that would enable a kid to swing it around. I guess you could glue them to a stick, but then why not just use a stick. Did the writer mean a cardboard tube, like you’d ship a poster in?

The toilet paper roll sword is me being pedantic, but it’s an example of a line that raises questions. Details are great, but you don’t want the details to be confusing. If the boys are swinging cardboard swords, I’ll trust that they’re sturdy enough to swing. If the boys are swinging swords made out of macaroni/kitten whiskers/or human sadness, I’m going to have some questions.

You don’t want the reader to have questions this fundamental, especially not on the first line. You want them paying close attention, and they can’t do that if a lack of clear details is nagging at their subconscious.

It’s entirely possible that the remainder of the script is brilliant, but the first line doesn’t augur well for that possibility because the vague writing suggests that he hasn’t looked at the form from the point of view of another human being who isn’t, y’know, the writer. That’s a bad sign, because it’s a failure of imagination (the reader is important, consider their needs and POV).

The lines waste a first impression. Writing is a seduction. You want to hook the reader with your first line and keep them hooked till the end. First impressions matter, you don’t start a stirring speech with the word “Um…” The passage here communicates that they don’t know that or don’t care, neither answer gives me confidence in there wherewithal to keep me entertained for the next 100 pages.

Professional readers will grimly read the entirety of a script because it’s their job. Even execs might give it a couple pages before they toss it aside. But a weak first line is like the guy who shows up to a date with spinach in his teeth – he can overcome that misstep, but he hasn’t put himself in a great position to succeed.

Write strong first lines that show your confidence and skill. Ably communicate a clear picture and mood. It’s much easier and it positions you for success.

* Footnote:

I hate the fade in, too. It’s formatted like a transition, but now I’m running through my memory trying to remember if there’s any rules on whether that’s supposed to be left justified or right justified.

And you know what, it doesn’t matter. Someone’s going to chime in with a screed about how there are no rules. But what does matter is it’s a line that doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t matter if we fade in, start with a picture, or hear the kids playing over black. It’s an arbitrary choice so why are you making me read it? It’s like starting a stirring speech with a phlegm-clearing cough.