One of the things you will have to look out for as your script takes shape is all of the possibilities that get lost along the way. You may find yourself looking back at earlier stages where you made crucial decisions, some of which is necessary when you find that pieces of the plot need a little more substance, but don’t forget that the nature of refinement is filtering out ideas that might have otherwise found their way into your script. Once you’ve got what you need, don’t look back. Turn that exploratory eye toward a deeper and better story through the choices you have already made. If you try to cram all of your ideas into one script it will lose its value and it’s focus. So, stay true to your original vision and don’t let it get away from you. Once you have your story outlined in a series of sequences and broken them down into actual scenes, it’s time to start a talking dialogue.
There are a lot of points to go over with dialogue. You’ll often hear in film school and read in books and blogs that film is about showing not telling. While this is true, it isn’t usually explained in the way that makes sense and it seems to downgrade the role of dialogue in a film. What screenwriters ought to understand is the value of how visuals shoulder much of the responsibility of storytelling. Dialogue has an important role, but that role is not to tell the story. If you tell too much of whats happening through dialogue you are both misusing the medium and the characters. The script will be viewed as amateur and even if it does get made– as Redbox has shown us that bad scripts often do– it will be acknowledged as a low-budget, poorly developed film. The direction in films with overburdened dialogue will be uninspired, because they have nothing inspiring to show, and the actors will bear the worst of the criticisms for not being able to convincingly say what nobody actually would.
There are two matters to look at with dialogue. One is what to say, and two is how to say it. It isn’t a question of substance vs. style. It’s a question of striking a chord with both. The substance of the dialogue is going to be complex because you are dealing with the exchange of words and those words have hidden meanings beneath their surface meaning. Rarely does anyone really say what they mean until the climax. In the meantime, the characters’ true thoughts and feelings get bottled up and pressurized until they finally explode. Dialogue is how the characters connect and relate while the story pushes them forward. What they say is not without consequence, but it does not need to be directly tied in with the plot as long as there is a visual means to convey information the audience needs.
Every scene is about getting something and the end result, regardless of whether the goal is reached, is what pushes the story into new territory for the reader or viewer. The motivation of the characters is the heart of the scene and is usually hidden, hence the popular question from an actor “What’s my motivation?” You’ll use those needs to set up an obstacle course. the motivation becomes a through line. Each obstacle in the scene will mark a change in tactics or tone signaling a beat. Actors need to dissect scenes like this to get to what they are playing. A beat to a writer is like a brick laid to make a path. If you have a character who has guests at his house, but is anxious about going out and greeting them, you may have a friend whose motivation is to convince him to go out. What they talk about will be a tug of war, manipulating the situation for the benefit of one over the other. The more you know about your characters the better off you will be when it comes to pulling from their experiences to create discussion.
A good rule of thumb is that in your script, the plot must feel as though it comes out of the discussion and not the other way around. If the dialogue seems forced you may need to rework it and try another way to give exposition. Dialogue does propel the story by promoting tension and revealing peripheral elements of the story that give baring to the circumstances and unfolding events. Think about what your characters have between them to talk about. Think bout what they want and where you want to take them. Think about the characters’ reactions to the direction you have them facing. You may end up writing a good couple of pages of dialogue before you get to the part of the scene that matters, and you will have to cut that stuff out when the time comes in order to fit it into the context of the complete script.
The substance of the dialogue will come from what the scene is about and what needs to happen, played against the personalities involved. If the energy is not bouncing from character to character it will fall flat. The energy is the motivation and if motivations are not engaged the scene will not be engaging. Here is a sample of a scene I have memorized from Batman:
Brought you a snack Eckhardt.
Why don’t you broadcast it?
Shut up and listen. Harvey Dent has been sniffing around
one of our front companies.
That’s my territory. If there’s a problem I deal with it.
Your problems are our problems.
I answer to Grissom not to psychos.
In the scene, police lieutenant Eckhardt is taking a payoff from Jack Napier, who later becomes the Joker. Jack is playing Boss, believing he is the true backbone of the “tired old man” Grissom’s whole outfit. Eckhardt shows his loyalties are with the current boss Carl Grissom. Later, Jack’s betrayal results in Grissom and Eckhardt staging a bust on the front company Axis Chemicals in which Jack and his team become targets. While important plot information slips out during the scene, it isn’t forced out and is not the focus of discussion. In the meantime the conflict is set up here in an alley, where the two players try to show each other who’s on top. That’s what makes it interesting.