Look Who's Talking - Part Two

TypewriterKeysStay in Character

When I write, I become the characters I'm writing about. This is pretty easy when I'm writing about thirty something white guys from the Midwest. But what about when the character I'm writing dialogue for is a New York cop, or a Southern doctor, or a black female Vietnam veteran with a Harvard MBA, two grown children and a neurotic obsession with alien abductions?

You simply cannot write dialogue that rings true unless you acquaint yourself with the kind of people appearing in your video. This is where real world research is essen­tial. I'm talking about stuff you can't find in the library. But that doesn't mean that you have to spend a week on a fishing boat in Alaska or infiltrate the local Jaycees to get the right slang and jargon for your script, though those are tried and true approaches.

"If I don't have any personal experiences in my own life I can draw on," says O'Connor Fraser, "I track down the kind of person I'm writing about and take them to lunch." In her corporate work, she tends to deal with a limited number of "types," mostly from the high tech world; after 15 years she knows them well. But she still checks her "voice" with face-to-face interviews-especially when she's writing a script for an on-camera presentation by a company executive.

"When I go out and interview a presi­dent or vice president who will be on cam­era," she says, "I listen very carefully, so I'm really hearing them talk. I don't want them to sound like they're reading from the inside cover of an annual report. I want them to sound very natural and comfort­able, as though they were talking across the table from someone.

"Interviewing your clients is also one of the best ways to pick up the buzz words of their professions. Listen closely and make a list of unfamiliar words or phrases. Ask for clarification so you understand them in context. When you sit down to write your script, your list will prove invaluable."

Many writers just write the dialogue as best they can and then give it to someone from that character's walk of life to read. DiMaggio says she works on her dialogue, "until I'm not ashamed of it," and then turns it over to a person with whatever special knowledge her characters would have. In her TV movie script, Belly Up, for example, one of her characters was a man who gambled on the golf course.

"I wasn't about to take up golf to hear how guys gamble on the golf course," says DiMaggio. "So I sent the script to my brother. He gambles on the golf course all the time. In five minutes he told me things I couldn't possibly know unless I was out there. I made some changes in the script and all of a sudden it sounded absolutely real. One producer told me I wrote like a man, which, under the circumstances, I took as a compliment."

In one of my own scripts I created a character who was a professional crop duster, but I had never met a crop duster in my life. So I picked up the Yellow Pages, and a few lunches later I knew everything I needed to know to create a believable character. (And I now know to call them agricultural aviators.)

Go for Subtext

Syd Field, author of several well-known books on scriptwriting, including the now classic Screenplay: The Foundations of Screen writing, calls dialogue one of the "tools of character." That's because what people say says a great deal about them. But what they don't say often says more. The best dialogue is not only about what your characters are saying, it's also about what they're not saying. This is subtext.

"Subtext is what's happening beneath the surface," says DiMaggio. "It's the key to truly great dialogue."

Examples of subtext abound in films like the 1944 film noir classic, Double Indemnity. One scene in particular comes to mind, in which insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) puts the make on a client's wife (Barbara Stanwyck). They fence back and forth in a conversa­tion about cars and speeding, but driving is the last thing on their minds.

Subtext enlivens good writing every­where-even commercials. We've watched that couple in the Taster's Choice com­mercials meet, woo and bed in Paris-all while talking about coffee.

Subtext probably isn't as important in most corporate video situations; still, you ignore it at your peril. Human beings talk around things. Dialogue that's too "on the nose" won't sound natural. Even the dia­logue in infomercials has subtext.

Write the Right Voice Over

Voice-over narration isn't really dialogue, but many of the same principles still apply. This is especially true if the nar­rator is a particular character, as in the case of a host, or one of the actors, such as the Holly Hunter character in The Piano or Walter Neff, who narrates Double Indemnity.

You write voice-over narration like you write dialogue-for the ear. It should sound conversational. Even if your narra­tor is an omniscient voice, that voice must conform to your audience's expectations of human communication.

"When I'm doing voice overs," says O'Connor Fraser, "I still get a character in mind and write for him or her. Of course this is really important if the narrator will ever appear on-camera, but I do it even if they won't. That way, the voice is consis­tent throughout."

Voice-over narration can be even harder to write than dialogue. "If you think dia­logue has to be lean," DiMaggio says, "voice overs have to be the best of the best. It has to be very, very thrifty. The real gems. Otherwise it turns into an excuse for fail­ing to write good exposition."

Practice, Practice, Practice

Writing authentic, believable dialogue is a special skill; it takes practice. But with some effort and more than a little patience, you'll get it (Figure 23-3).

"You have to realize that the script you write today won't be as good as the script you write next year," says O'Connor Fraser. "And that's okay. I'm a much better writer now than I was a year ago. I learn something with every script I write."

"We're all students, really," says DiMaggio. "No matter how long you do this, there's always something to learn. I think that's the good news. It's one of the things that keeps this work interesting."

In the end, creating good dialogue is more about listening than it is about writ­ing. Once you begin to hear the rhythms of human conversation, the dialogue you write for your videos will improve dramatic all y.

So keep your ears open.