Wednesday, 23 November 2016

SCREENWRITING FUNDAMENTALS #17 DIALOGUE FORMATTING


Today's post comes back to the common mistake of the writer directing from the page. 

In descriptions, it's very common for amateur writers to unnecessarily direct the actor and the camera.

But this error is not limited to descriptions. One of the most common mistakes I see are writers directing how an actor should deliver their lines.

This is a huge no-no for various reasons.

The main one being that it's a huge insult to your actors. 

The second being that, while you think you're helping the actor to deliver their lines, what you're really doing is making it more difficult.

Let's look at some examples... 

DON'T WRITE IN PAUSES.

I.e...

JOHN
Hi, Michelle, it's been such a long time.
(beat)
I missed you so much.

Here's a RULE for you - never ever write '(beat)' in dialogue. 

Let your actor find their own natural pauses. 

When you write in where you want the pauses in dialogue to go, what you're really doing is stifling and limiting the actor's creativity. 

Take a look at the way Christopher Walken delivers his lines.

His oratory style is unique. His timing is unlike any other actor.

To write in pauses in dialogue for Christopher Walken would be to ruin one of the greatest aspects of his performance.

Never write a beat in dialogue - EVER.

Before writing a screenplay it is a really good idea to spend at least one day studying acting. 

See what it's like to be an actor reading a screenplay. 

When you see what an actor looks for in a script then you are better equipped to write an actor-friendly screenplay.

Another thing that actors dislike in a script is broken up dialogue. 

I.e...

JOHN
Michelle, I was wondering what you think about...

John opens his desk drawer and takes out a sheet of paper.

JOHN
...this. Run your eyes over it, tell me what you think. 


Actors HATE dialogue written like this.

WHY?

Because it breaks their flow. 

They don't want to read part of a line, then have an action forced upon them, then have to pick up the line after the action. 

UNLESS it is imperative to the plot to have the action take place mid-sentence, have the action take place BEFORE or AFTER the dialogue.

I.e...

 BEFORE 

John opens his desk drawer and takes out a sheet of paper.

JOHN
Michelle, I was wondering what you think about this. 
Run your eyes over it, tell me what you think. 

OR

AFTER 

JOHN
Michelle, I was wondering what you think about this. 
Run your eyes over it, tell me what you think. 

John opens his desk drawer and takes out a sheet of paper.

Having the action before or afterward doesn't really change the scene at all, but it does allow the actor to have all their dialogue together in one byte. 

Other forms of pauses in dialogue are '...' - also known as - ellipses.

JOHN
Michelle... I was wondering if you could take a look at...
You know what? Don't worry about it.

DON'T use ellipses in dialogue ever.

It's pretty much the same as writing (beat). You're telling the actor how and where to find a pause.

A much better way to write is...

JOHN

Michelle, I was wondering if you could take a look at,
you know what? Don't worry about it.

Just use commas and let the actor decide how they want to deliver the line. 

Here're some more tips for dialogue.

NEVER EVER use

Underline.

Italics.

Bold.

CAPS.

ALL THREE OF THESE AT ONCE!

WHY?

Because, again, all of these are directing the actor, which is an insult to the actor and stifles their creativity.

When you underline a word in dialogue you're asking the actor to emphasize that word.

Same with bold and italics.

When you write something in CAPS - you're essentially asking the actor to YELL those words.

What if the actor feels the line would be better delivered in a whisper? 

LET THE ACTOR DECIDE HOW THEY WANT TO DELIVER THEIR LINES.

This brings us to...

HOW TO USE PARENTHESIS or BRACKETS.

Far too often I see amateur writers put how they'd like the dialogue delivered in parenthesis.

JOHN
(angry)
I told you not to go in there.

Never ever do this.

If the tone of the dialogue is not clear from the context of the scene, then you need to re-write the scene so as the context is clear.

What if the actor doesn't want to deliver the line with anger - what if they want to switch up their delivery and surprise the audience by delivering their line in a different way?

Let the actors do their thing.

The best use of parenthesis is to direct WHO the dialogue is being delivered to when it is unclear.

When you only have two people in a scene it's clear who is talking to who. 

Or is it?

What if an actor speaks to themself?

In this instance, you can write...

JOHN
(sotto to self)
And hell might freeze over.

Sotto is short for 'sotto voce' - which means, 'a spoken remark in a quiet voice.'

OR, 'intentionally lowering the voice for emphasis.'

The best use of parenthesis is when you have more than two people in a scene and you're not sure who is talking to who.

In this scene, we have JOHN, MICHELLE, and MIKE.

JOHN
(to Michelle)
You don't have to do it, you know?

In this instance, without the parenthesis telling us who the dialogue is directed to, we're not sure if John said that to Michelle or Mike.

Writing screenplays is all about clarity. 

Use parenthesis to help make your story clearer.

THE TAKEAWAY...

Go to the screenplay you're working on.

Do a dialogue-pass focusing on the main issues I've highlighted here.

1) Remove all the (beats) from your dialogue.
2) Remove all the ellipses from your dialogue.
3) Remove all the bold, caps, italic and underlines from your dialogue.
4) Only use parenthesis to help clarify WHO a piece of dialogue is spoken to. 
5) Remove any instances where you have one piece of dialogue broken by an action that could just as easily come before or after the dialogue.

After making these changes your dialogue will read clearer and better.