How to create effective, believable dialogue for video productions.
A script is a story told with pictures - but silent pictures they're not. Since 1927, when the debut of The Jazz Singer transformed "moving pictures" into "talkies," dialogue has played a crucial role in making successful films and videos.
But with everything else you worry about as an independent videographermaintaining your equipment, getting the shot, getting paid-dialogue may be low on your list of concerns. Still, you don't want to underestimate its power.
Good dialogue works hard. It keeps things moving, ties individual segments together and unifies your piece. On the other hand, bad dialogue discredits your work, destroying your credibility and ultimately costing you your audience.
Whether you're shooting independent features, corporate image spots, local TV commercials oryour sister's wedding, what your subjects say can make the difference between an amateur show and a powerful piece of professional videography.
Here's how to make sure what they say works.
What Is Dialogue?
Any time you put words into the mouths of your on-camera subjects, you are writing dialogue. That definition includes hosts, commentators and spokespersons, as well as actors playing parts.
The primary purpose of dialogue is to move your story forward. It accomplishes this by revealing character, communicating information and establishing relationships between characters. It can also foreshadow events, comment on the action and connect scenes.
For example: in my script Sleeping Dogs Lie, the hero, Ray Sobczak, is a reporter working on a story that is annoying some very important citizens. Here, a local politico delivers a veiled warning.
What happened to you?
Zigged when I shoulda zagged. How's the campaign going?
Oh, I just love spending obscene amounts of my mother's money-and what your paper charges for ad space is truly obscene.
Something tells me your mother can afford it, Mr. Bockman.
My father, who could also afford it when he was alive, was Mr. Bockman. Call me Jamie.
Okay, Jamie. Think she'll win?
(ignoring him) How's the story coming?
Which story is that? (Jamie gazes out at the cluster of downtown buildings and the hills rising behind them.)
Salinas is growing, Ray. Over a hundred thousand at last count. But, underneath, it's still a small town.
This exchange probably won't go down in history as the most memorable in films, but it has many earmarks of good dialogue. It tells us something about the characters: Jamie is rich, has an ambiguous attitude toward his mother's campaign for mayor and has well-informed connections; Sobczak is tough, and won't let a bump on the noggin keep him from getting the story.
It foreshadows future events: people are watching. And it moves the story forward: this encounter gives Sobczak an idea, which leads him-and the story-in a new direction.
Keep It Lean
The above example also demonstrates another important quality of good dialogue: brevity. Good dialogue is a lean exchange between people, composed of short phrases. On paper, it looks like lots of white space; big blocks of type are definite warning sign that you are overwriting your dialogue.
"The good stuff is a dance of two and three-liners between characters," says scriptwriter Madeline DiMaggio. "It's a bouncing ball that keeps your audience riveted."
When it comes to writing dialogue, DiMaggio knows what she's talking about. She has written over 35 hours of episodic television for shows ranging from Kojak to The Bob Newhart Show to ABC's After School Special. A former staff writer for the daytime soap opera Santa Barbara, she is also a teacher and the author of How to Write for Television.
DiMaggio says the kind of close-to-thebone dialogue you want for your videos comes only through rewriting. "It doesn't happen on the first pass," she says. "At first your dialogue is cardboard-and that's the way it should be. It's only later, when you go back and take five lines down to two-and-a-half, and then two-and-a-half lines down to one, that you find the real gems."
DiMaggio says she plays a game with herself during her rewriting process: if she can whittle a piece of dialogue down to four lines, can she cut it to two? If she can chop it to two, how about one?
"If script writers were doctors," she says, "the best ones would be surgeons. Cut, cut, cut!"
Make It Sound Real
A tried and true technique for developing your ear for natural-sounding dialogue is to surreptitiously tape conversations and then transcribe them later.
I do this especially when I'm writing about types of people I don't know well. Ethical questions aside, this has worked well to awaken my sense of how people talk.
The first thing I noticed when I began doing this was how fragmented conversations are. The following is an example from my files.
Hey, what's up?
I dropped by the place. Thought I'd say hi, but nobody was, you know ...
I was over there yesterday and ...
... home. You know?
MAN #1 Nobody?
Man, I ...
That's because of the, you know, holiday 'n stuff, and her car was there and everything, but ...
What a piece of *#@*!, man, that car ...
Yeah, and, you know, I left like, a note.
On paper, this conversation looks like an exchange between two orangutans, but they sounded perfectly normal. That's why, unless you're making a documentary, you can't just transcribe tapes of real conversations and use them raw in your scripts. And even documentaries require judicious editing.
"If you went out to a coffee shop with a tape recorder," DiMaggio says, "and went home and put what you recorded into a script, it wouldn't work. Good dialogue isn't actually real. It just gives the illusion of reality."
DiMaggio says one of the best ways to learn how dialogue sounds is to record dialogue.
"That's how I got to know Santa Barbara," she says. "There were so many characters, and they all had their own voices! I would audiotape the show and then listen whenever I was driving. When you cut off the other senses, your ear becomes much stronger."
DiMaggio also recommends audiotaping shows to develop an ear for genre dialogue.
"Comedies, mysteries, dramas-it's an incredible way to learn," she says.
Good dialogue also has a spontaneous quality, as if your characters were speaking their lines for the first time.
"When the dialogue is stilted or too formal," says corporate video writer/producer Susan O'Connor Fraser, "the audience just laughs at it. When they start doing that, you've lost them."
O'Connor Fraser is the creative director for Tam Communications in San Jose, California. She's been writing and producing videos for Fortune 500 companies for the past 15 years. Her company produced a reality-based show on paramedics in San Jose, which aired on the local ABC affiliate.
"I don't think corporate video is that much different from features," O'Connor Fraser says. "Dialogue is dialogue, and every story has its own reality. Star Wars has a reality, and so does a corporate sales presentation. Everything must play and be believable within its own reality."
According to O'Connor Fraser, one of the most common dialogue errors she sees is characters addressing each other by name too often.
"I've seen it done in every passage, she says. "It's, 'Well, John Well, Lisa ... What do you think, John I'm not sure, Lisa.' It's just not real."
She says reading your script aloud is one of the easiest ways to spot dialogue errors.
"You're writing for the ear. So you need to find out how it sounds. You don't need actors, though they are a wonderful luxury. Just read it out loud with a friend, or by yourself while you're sitting at your computer. You'll hear many of the problems right away."
Next month: We continue with Stay In Character