Wednesday, February 01, 2006


My barber wants to make a film. He wants to write a screenplay, so he wants to know the format. He figures that once he knows the format, he’s set. There is nothing else to know, right? As he said to me, “I already know what I want people to say.”

Most people are under the impression that scriptwriting is coming up with dialogue. Most critics seem to think this as well. They will go on and on about dialogue, but they know nothing about drama, or how it is structured.

I feel like dialogue is talked, and written about, way too much. It is the writing that people can see, so they focus on it. Of course, you know, now, how much more there is to story construction. But I suppose I must write a little about dialogue.

Remember that invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words. This invisible ink keeps the audience’s brains active. Subtext is a kind of invisible ink. The dialogue exchange that follows is something I heard at a friend’s house, over a Christmas breakfast, between a mother and her grown daughter.

Mother: You sound hoarse.

Daughter: Yeah, I had a cold. It’s going away, now.

Mother: You should take care of that. How long have you had it?

Daughter: I’m fine. It hung on for a while. I’m fine.

Mother: It’s going away? You taking anything for it?

Daughter: I’m okay.

There is nothing unusual about this conversation. But here’s the thing: The daughter’s husband had recently died of AIDS. The daughter also had AIDS, but was not yet showing any signs of the disease. Read the exchange again with that in mind. That’s subtext. That’s invisible ink. Lots is being said, but not spoken.

Subtext is all in the set-up. Once you establish that two characters hate each other, for instance, all you need to do is put them in the same room together and have them talk about the weather—the audience will do most of your work for you.

Dialogue is a tool, and just like any tool, you use it when you need it. It can be used to define your armature, give essential plot information, or reveal character. If it isn’t doing that it isn’t doing anything.

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