Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Secret of Writing Great Dialogue

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

-William Faulkner

I’m a Facebook junkie, which is hard for me to admit because I don’t have an addictive bone in my body. I’m not a drug addict or an alcoholic. I don’t smoke cigarettes and I don’t like coffee. I don’t play video games and I rarely gamble. (Poker’s not gambling, right?) But when it comes to Facebook, I’m hooked. I’m embarrassed to admit it but I check it several times a day; almost as often as I check my e-mail. Not for long periods of time, but just long enough to empty my inbox, update my status and maybe play a quick game of Bejeweled.

Facebook has become this generation’s watering hole. It has lifted us out of the virtual darkness and allowed us to network with millions of people we would never have had the opportunity to connect with if it didn’t exist. Like Glenn Benest, for example. For the last several months I’ve been receiving messages from Glenn on a weekly basis. Mind you, we’ve never met in person and I probably wouldn’t know him if he walked up to me on the street and asked if I could change a dollar. But Glenn has become an asset to me as a writer since we were first introduced on Facebook. Each week I receive an update from his Secrets of Screenwriting Group, one of the best groups I belong to on Facebook. The most recent communication is part 21 in a series called, Writing Great Dialogue. It’s been a fantastic tool and since I’ve enjoyed it so much I figured I’d give Glenn an chance to share some of his tips with my readers. If you want to learn more, you can always find him on Facebook. I did, so how hard could it be?

Glenn is an award winning screenwriter/producer with three feature films and four television movies to his credit. He also teaches professional level screenwriting workshops in the Los Angeles area. Five feature films have been launched from his workshops - the latest is 'Niloofar," which just screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and Cannes. For more information about his classes, please go to his website at: or contact him directly at (323) 912-9195 or

Jeffrey Berman: How do you define good dialogue?

Glenn Benest: Each character has a different voice, the repartee is clever and sharp with good pacing - good dialogue has a music that is pleasing to the ear.

JB: Can writing good dialogue be taught or is it a talent a select few are born with?

GB: Good dialogue can definitely be taught. There are many dialogue techniques that I use in my workshops to make dialogue "sing." It's also important to point out "on-the-nose" dialogue - that is dialogue that is too obvious, where characters are saying exactly what they're feeling. Bad dialogue like this doesn't allow the reader or viewer to participate in the scene because the characters are simply spilling their guts. We want to figure out what someone is actually feeling. There are a number of techniques to overcome this kind of dialogue.

JB: Are there any secrets to making your characters sound real, natural and spontaneous?

GB: The real secret is to remember that people will do everything they can to protect themselves from hurt or betrayal or embarrassment. So no one wants to let anyone but their closest friends know what they're really feeling. Therefore we use humor, cynicism, and other defense mechanisms to protect our feelings. Truly put yourself into the beingness of your characters and write from their point-of-view, rather than have them spout things you want them to say. Characters will then surprise you - say things you didn't expect or do things you didn't expect them to do. This is when characters really come alive.

JB: Why is it so important to write dialogue that is not on-the-nose and are there ever any times when it’s okay to break that rule?

GB: We try to avoid on-the-nose dialogue at all times. But there are obligatory scenes in a movie, when characters break though their self imposed limitations and speak directly from the heart. These moments are rare but turning points in a character's development. At these times, it's quite alright for a character to say exactly how he or she is feeling. Almost all romantic comedies have scenes like this at their climactic moments.

JB: How important is subtext when writing dialogue and why?

GB: Subtext is what good dialogue is all about. Subtext is what's happening under the words the characters are saying. This is dialogue that is not on-the-nose. Characters are saying one thing but we sense something else is happening emotionally that isn't being said. A man and a woman are taking shots at each other but we sense they're actually very attracted to one another but for some reason cannot express these feelings. This is great stuff in a movie because we get to participate in the scene - it's up to us to figure out what are the real emotions being expressed.

JB: What advice would you offer writers to help them become better at writing engaging dialogue?

GB: Buy great film scripts - Study the dialogue. Try to pinpoint exactly what makes the dialogue work. Where do you see examples of dialogue that is not on-the-nose. Study the pacing of the dialogue. What do we mean by the music of the repartee? Notice how most dialogue is spare. No matter how serious a subject is, pay attention to the use of humor in all good dialogue.

I would also suggest joining a writing workshop; get your dialogue to be spoken out loud by the other members of the workshop so you can actually hear it out loud. There is no better way to actually experience if you're dialogue is working or not. Listening to it in your head is not nearly as effective as hearing it out loud.

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