Writing Better Movie Dialogue: Wendall Thomas
Writing Better Movie Dialogue:
In Conversation with Wendall Thomas
The June Writers Room invited LA-based writer, lecturer and script consultant Wendall Thomas to draw upon her twenty years of screenwriting experience to discuss how the effective use of dialogue can create tension, develop character and add to the dramatic element of a film. With some prompting from guest MC Tim O’Brien (NZFC development executive), Wendall shared some practical advice on how to make a ‘good’ script ‘great.’
Creating a unique voice
Creating a distinctive character can be easier said than done and Wendall began by offering some helpful hints. An investigation of a character's background can create a unique voice. "There are a couple of questions you can ask your characters, even something as simple as where are they from? Is it a place that has a particular vocabulary? You want a voice that feels real. How do they feel about where they are from?" Wendall referred to Audrey Hepburn's most memorable role as the naïve courtesan in Breakfast at Tiffany's. "Holly Golightly is a great example -she tries to lose where she's from to obtain this sophisticated dialogue - she's not really sophisticated so ends up making up her own words. All those things together are where her voice comes from."
Wendall explained how the various elements of a voice can be combined to form another level of distinction, "A good way to make a unique voice is to take where someone's from and then add that to their profession. Give them a profession that has more of vocabulary. An example of that is Chris Cooper's character in Adaptation - a red-neck dialect with all these (intellectual) phrases, or Marj in Fargo who has a Minnesota accent but she's also a cop."
One audience member suggested that differentiating similar characters could create an obstacle,and Wendall recommended exploring the power dynamic in a relationship. "One of them is going to be dominant. You're gonna be better off in a buddy movie if they're polarised somehow. If in the story, one of them is in trouble and the other one is responsible for it - that can separate their language as one has a more accusatory tone and one would be more defensive. The dynamic can be changed with personality traits like introvert/extrovert, pessimist/optimist." Wendall suggested looking into the family background as a way of creating distinction between many similar characters in a film, "If you look at the kids in Stand By Me they're all the same age and from the same town, their family backgrounds can separate it and distinguish their voice -if ones the oldest child and the other is an only child."
Wendall highlighted the significance of identifying how a character reacts under stress. "Reaction to stress is the first place I would go - if one person can handle it and the other can't - there's tension right there. If you really don't put your character in a series of extremely stressful situations in a script, it's really not a very good script."
Wendall acknowledged tension in dialogue as an effective and affordable way to add to the dramatic element of a film. "Tension in dialogue is great for low budgets. One of the best ways you can create that tension is to have a secret underneath - that way there's going to be a lot of tension between the text and subtext. If someone doesn't want something to be revealed, that's how you can really work that. If you can have a variety of voices on top of the secret, then it's really cooking."
Never say "Never"
Tim mentioned how story devices such as voice-overs and flashbacks have often been scorned by the scholarly among filmmakers as a filmic faux pas. Wendall challenged this view. "In terms of voice-over, which I'm passionate about, when they say never do it - it's kind of like 'never do it? Never?' There are quite a few movies that use this technique successfully: American Beauty, Sunset Boulevard. It can be extraordinarily effective but you have to know why you're doing it." She referred to films made famous by scenes that broke conventions. "Apparently you're not meant to do meals - like dinner parties. They say 'don't write a meal because cinematically, it could be quite boring' - but it can be stunning. Like the meal in Reservoir Dogs, or the deli scene in When Harry Met Sally. Dialogue can be powerful in creating another level of conflict on a level where it wouldn't normally be there."
Sound or silence?
An audience member asked Wendall if she had any thoughts about why people talk to each other. Wendall responded in jest, "That's a big question, you have to pay me more money to answer that!” and continued in a broader philosophical context by saying, "I think we all need to make a noise to announce that we exist. But also everybody wants some kind of connection and talking is one of the ways we can do that." Wendall then referred the question back to dialogue writing. "Everything in a film should serve the story - dialogue is there to serve the story. Such as (NZ director, Robert Sarkies') Out of the Blue - talking in that film would be in the way. But (director Woody Allen's) Annie Hall should have some talking. If you're going to have dialogue, the less you have the better it has to be. If you think about the really cinematic filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, they all have voice over - they don't have a lot of dialogue - but somebody's talking. It's also making the choice of not using it as well."
Tim raised the difficulty of sustaining a sense of liveliness in dialogue after numerous rewrites (drafts). Wendall said read-throughs work for her. "One of the things I always do is when I get to a certain part of the script, I ask very generous actors to come and read it for me - it can bring your dialogue back to life. It's not hard to get people to come around. I also think you have to be careful when cutting your dialogue - a lot of the time you can be too quick to cut and that's when you start losing voice, such as cutting repetition, which may be a part of their voice. I would say wait for the dialogue, polish a few drafts down the line."
Wendall strongly advised focusing on the story before touching the dialogue. "Rewriting's like a pyramid. You start with story and then character and tone. When you say you're going to do a rewrite you're really saying I'm gonna do a fiddle - you're afraid to take it apart. But if what's wrong is that your structure is lacking or you don't have a mid point or your characters are boring, then fiddling with the dialogue isn't going to fix it. I don't fix dialogue until I've nailed my story and tone."
Breaking into the ‘Big Time’
An audience member asked Wendall how a writer living in NZ could break into the Hollywood market with a script. Wendall recommended entering contests that can be found over the internet and suggested the Nicholl Fellowship Awards and Writers Guild of America websites as useful ones to check out. "It's a lot easier if you win one of those contests, as a lot of agents troll those lists for clients. The second way is to make friends with all Americans that come to New Zealand because someone's uncle or brother knows someone in the movie business. Networking is sadly the best thing you can do, but with the internet you can get in touch with people easier than in the past. If there's a company or a producer that you really like, you could send them an email. It's a town that doesn't mind pushing. Do the contests if you can and if you can get into a film festival with shorts that you've made, it's helpful."
The write way
Wendall offered scriptwriters some advice on 'what not to do'.. "Don't ever try to be clever in your descriptions. The second biggest no-no is: don’t use anything in your film description that you cannot see or hear on screen. You cannot describe feelings. Words like 'wonders', 'considers', should not be in the script." Wendall’s overall advice was to ‘keep it simple’. "Don't put storyboards in your script or any drawings or anything like that. Let your story speak for itself - don't try to be flashy or different".
Wendall stressed the importance of proofreading. "If there is a typo, I already think the person is an idiot. Get three people to proof read it. Simple things like formatting and proofreading are really important." Simple mistakes are distracting to readers and can be crucial to the overall evaluation of the script, "What it comes down to is … it’s your job to engage us in your first five pages. Simple mistakes can make or break."