The Perfect 10

Wednesday 25 March 2009, 13:20

Paul Ashton Paul Ashton

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Apologies for the late arrival of the next instalment, it's been extremely busy here... But here's number 8:

Exposition and Expression

Or in other words: dialogue. In truth, i think it's almost impossible to teach or learn how to have an ear for characters and their voices. It's perfectly possible to learn how to edit it, improve it, polish it up and make it leap off the page - but only if you have that instinct to hear it and voice it in the first place.

I've read a lot of scripts where the structure is tight, the story is right, the genre and tone spot on etc - BUT where the dialogue is wooden and without life and personality. And I've read scripts where the structure is loose, the story quite confused and all sorts of things are wrong with it - but where the characters step off the page immediately because the writer has really caught their voice. In truth, i think i'd generally rather have the latter kind of script. Because it really takes a true writer to do the latter.

Strong dialogue expresses character. It isn't just words - it breathes life into character. It gives them lines, sayings and sentiments that we remember for life and want to say back to people in order to impress them at parties, in the playground, in the office. (Around BBC Television Centre and Broadcasting House there are numerous walls and screens with great quotes from great characters - because the currency of that great dialogue is so strong.)

The converse of this, therefore, is that poor dialogue is there purely and simply to relate and explain information for the purpose of plot and story exposition. If this is the sole purpose of your dialogue, then you need to do something else with it - or something else with the scene. Often, expository dialogue tends to mask the fact that there is no real drama in a scene - so if you can find a push and pull, a conflict, a beat of story for your scene, then there will be a better dramatic reason for the dialogue to be there. Even better, the more ways you can find to put information across through action and story, the more your dialogue will be the sole domain and medium of your characters expressing themselves.

It sounds obvious - but real people don't tell each other things they already know in obvious ways, and neither should your characters. Real people also don't always say what they mean, don't always mean what they say, and don't always know what they mean and what they mean to say when they open their mouths to speak. Ordinary conversation isn't dramatic dialogue - but good dialogue should at least be able to take on board the idiosyncracies and complexities of real, ordinary people when they try to (or try not to) express themselves. Real people say the best lines that most writers could never conjure up, which is why many writers happily steal from real people.

Subtext is just about the hardest thing you as a writer will need to master. Because subtext is what is being said and expressed beyond, behind, below and in spite of the words actually spoken. Subtext is the silent language that people use when words either don't say enough or say too much. Subtext is story and character that can't simply be vocalised. If you can work meaningful subtext into a scene, then you are doing something really quite special.

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    Comment number 1.

    @) Paul

    I knew your name was familiar, I came across a letter the other day when unpacking some boxes forwarded from my agent in which you said...

    'I too have read the play and really enjoyed it. I think it would be good to meet up with Marc to discuss where next with the piece.'

    We didn't meet up but we talked on the phone and you sent the play to a producer, with whom I met and he didn't want to do it as an afternoon play, but as a series! Which we developed and put up for offers - sadly the series didn't get made, but the story cropped up on TV a couple of years later.

    So I for one am a big fan of yours and the writersroom!

    :)

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    Comment number 2.

    So you're thanking him for allowing your idea to be stolen? Writers really are an odd breed.

    But back to the blog and (good) dialogue is one of the most vital parts of any screenplay, for certain. The importance of it is well stated here, together with some very good markers, but you could have fifty pages on the role of dialogue in a script quite easily without repeating yourself. This is a good little set of rules to have but it really is very, very little. He's probably right in saying you can't teach someone how to produce good dialogue, but you can certainly teach them what not to do, and how best to develop your ear for or your judgment of good dialogue.

    The good news is there are many books on the market which claim to help you acheive this, and I would suggest browsing Am... the online bookseller and reading the reviews to find the ones which suit you.

    The only humble advice I would give anyone is 'Do not copy from other screenplays', as it will be quickly noticed (I know that a vast proportion of competition scripts get thrown out immediately for this common practice). It has to be first hand quotes from real life, as stated above, or ofcourse your version of it (this means it isn't really stealing, and it is also one of the most creative and enjoyable aspects of writing dialogue, and screenwriting overall - it has to be my favourite discipline).

    I would also say that once you develop an ear for good dialogue then you should try to quickly develop your style, or set of styles, to be more accuarate about it, as I believe a good dialogue writer is a good compiler of styles to suit appropriate characters. With this in mind, most valuable rule of dialogue writing - never give the same style of dialogue to all your characters.
    Your humble servant, SS.

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    Comment number 3.

    'So you're thanking him for allowing your idea to be stolen? Writers really are an odd breed.'

    Well I don't know you but this does seem to be an incredibly presumptive/smug/fatuous thing to say. I'll read on and see if you redeem yourself.

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    Comment number 4.

    Ah well.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    Yes it is possibly all three of those things, but you show me a seriously competetive amateur or pro in this game who isn't conceited and I will give you a trophy to place on your shelf and adore. I've met many, and it always makes me smile when they try to conceal their real feelings and their motives. Lets not be coy about it, Mr. P, most writers are self centred in the extreme, often disconnected from reality and sometimes plain spooky.

    All I have done is try to cut out the pretence with regard to my own comments on best practice to avoid those sickeningly false rejection slips and present my real self, as I know so few insiders do.

    Another thing I've attempted at least, whether you or others find it useful or unuseful, preachy or presumptuous,(unavoidable if you use plain, direct language as I hope I do) is to impart just a few titbits of advice learned the hard way, genuinely hoping others will avoid the many pitfalls that committed amateurs will encounter when trying to get their work noticed.

    No one will deny that it is a seriously hard business to get into, surely, so I just want to do my little bit to help with a few pointers. They are not above criticism or even ridicule if any others so wish to say what they think, but when I know from (my little) experience how hard it is to coax professional writers to actually just share their secrets of success, I just want to try and break the mould a little bit of the notoriously secretive and jealous world of the professional screen and script writer (in fact I'd like to smash it, to be brutally honest).

    Thank you for listening, it all helps with the recovery, ofcourse.

 

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