Speech as Character - The Art
of Writing Dialogue - Part Two
by Charles Deemer (Sep-05-2001)

In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein asks four questions of dialogue, establishing the conditions it must meet:

  1. "What is the purpose of the exchange? Does it begin
    or heighten an existing conflict"
  2. "Does it stimulate [our] curiosity?"
  3. "Does the exchange create tension?"
  4. "Does the dialogue build to a climax or a turn of events in the story or a change in the relationship of the speakers?"

Stein also notes how interesting dialogue is often oblique. He gives many examples in his book. One is this exchange: "How are you?" "Fine." This is a boring, ordinary exchange. But when we change it to -- "How are you?" "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you." -- we create interest because the person does not answer the question, which establishes subtext. Something more than meets the eye is going on here. Ordinary speech is boring, and good dialogue is carefully crafted to give spoken exchanges tension and mystery, direction and conflict. What is not said directly but nonetheless communicated is "subtext," meaning under the literal surface of speech.

A pejorative term for poor dialogue that has come into fashion is "on the nose" dialogue, which is the opposite of dialogue. Russin and Downs define it this way in their book "Screenplay: Writing the Picture":

"When a character states exactly what he wants it's called on-the-nose dialogue. The character is speaking the subtext; there is no hidden meaning behind the words, no secret want, because everything is spelled out. But most interesting people, and certainly most interesting characters, don't do this."

Example of Subtext

Here, from the movie The Straight Story by John Roach & Mary Sweeney, is an excellent example of subtext. It's a very simple scene: before Alvin begins his incredible journey, riding a lawn mower to visit
his distant brother, his daughter goes to the grocery store to buy him supplies. Notice how she transfers her feelings of grief and fear, not wanting her father to make the trip, to a grocery item. This scene is not
about braunschweiger but about her anxiety over her father's trip. Rose takes items to the counter, where Brenda is the checkout girl.

   (a statement)
Havin' a party.

Oh ... Jeez I love parties.

Yah, me too.

So where's it at?

Where's what at?

Your party.

I'm not havin' a party. I thought you're havin' a party.

I am?

Well, yah ... look at all that braunschweiger.

Yah it's a lot of braunschweiger. It's for my dad ... for his ... trip. My dad ... He ... is going to ... Wisconsin.

Oh Wisconsin! A real party state.

I hate braunschweiger.

The most ordinary settings -- a checkout stand -- can serve as the arena for revealing emotional material. And such a scene doesn't take very much time at all when handled by a skilled screenwriter, so that every
line works, that the focus is tight, and that idle chit-chat doesn't dilute the scene's energy. In the hands of an amateur, this scene could be disastrous, full of small talk that goes nowhere. Here the progression is logical, direct, concise and efficient, all moving toward the "punch line," in which the subtext is, "I hate that my dad is going on this trip."

When you write dialogue with subtext, you are letting the audience discover meaning through the heart before they understand it through the head. Expository dialogue aims at the head, at understanding; subtext
aims at the heart, at feeling. It is more powerful writing to make your audience feel first and understand second.


Here are some things you can do to improve your skills at writing dialogue:

Read your script aloud! The written word is not the spoken word.

Even better, get your script into the hands of actors. Do a "staged reading" of your script (more about how to do this later). Your ear will tell you what your eye will miss when it comes to poor dialogue.

Listen to the speech of people around you. On the bus, in a restaurant, at a party. Listen especially for idiosyncratic rhetorical patterns that you can "borrow" and adapt to your work. However, do not make the mistake of believing that "real speech" is the goal. Dialogue is always crafted -- it is, in fact, more interesting than real speech (usually) but gives the illusion of being real speech.

Write with subtext. People normally don't speak as directly as characters do on a soap opera. Let them speak obliquely, around their true emotions, so that the listeners/audience will discover meaning through feelings, through the heart.

Rewrite your dialogue and read your script aloud again.

And again.

Charles Deemer is the author of Screenwright: The Craft of Screenwriting and the webmaster (since 1994) of the Screenwriters and Playwrights Home Page at www.screenwright.com. He teaches screenwriting at Portland State University.

"Speech as Character - The Art of Writing Dialogue - Part Two" Copyright 2001 Charles Deemer. All Rights Reserved.