Jack Brislee reviews “Writing Dialogue for Scripts” by Rib Davis
A & C Black Publishers Ltd. London 2008. 206 pages.
Price: US $16
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rib Davis is a playwright, oral historian, author, director and community arts worker. Sixty of his scripts have been performed on stage, screen and radio and he has written two books and edited a number of others. As a British playwright and oral historian he has an excellent ear for regional accents and some of his examples show how an understanding of regional differences can add depth to a script.
As Davis quite rightly points out, dialogue has generally been forgotten by screenwriting gurus. “In one well known book on screenwriting, just half a page is devoted to dialogue.” While he is too polite to name the culprit, a quick flick through the indexes of many “how to” books indicates that he is right.
FILLING A VOID
The late Blake Snyder’s instant-classic, “Save the Cat” tells us nothing about dialogue, even though its subtitle is “The Last Book on Screenwriting that you will ever Need”. Tobin’s “The Screenwriting Formula” is also silent on the subject. Linda Seger’s “Making a Good Script Great” has four pages devoted to dialogue; J. Michael Straczynski’s “Scriptwriting” has seven. Clearly these authors believe that dialogue is either irrelevant or unteachable.
This is a strange attitude considering most screenplays are at least 50% dialogue. Perhaps the rules “show don’t tell” and “film is a visual medium” have been hammered too hard into the heads of these writers.
Davis has a lot to say about dialogue. His 13 chapters contain 94 sections, most of which impart vital information about the subject. He makes a number of interesting observations about dialogue and gender. A group of men will use language as a tool of competition; a group of women will use language as a tool of co-operation. Turning these generalisations on their heads often makes for interesting writing.
A group of men will use language as a tool of competition; a group of women will use language as a tool of co-operation.
Social codes and conventions play an important part in dialogue. In the American comedy series, “Friends”, much of the humour associated with Phoebe arises from her interpretation of social conventions. She never seems to quite understand the rules, and this makes for charming and funny dialogue sequences.
He uses an excellent example from an episode of Ricky Gervais’ “Extras” to illustrate the difference between laughing at and laughing with. This extract on pages 170 to 173 is alone worth the price of the book.
One small criticism of “Writing Dialogue for Scripts” is the lack of good examples from great dialogue writers. There is only one Woody Allen example; nothing from David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin, Alan Ball, Tom Stoppard, Billy Wilder or William Goldman.
Most examples come from second string playwrights. Many are from Davis’ own works. They are useful, because Davis can tell us what was on his mind when he wrote them, but I would have preferred an in depth analysis of the dialogue of established screenwriters at the peak of their game.
Characters […] must never tell each other what the writer feels he or she needs to tell the audience.
One of his most important points can be found on page 59: “Characters must only tell each other what they feel they need to tell each other; they must never tell each other what the writer feels he or she needs to tell the audience.”
Once again, Davis is too polite to illustrate his point using poorly constructed dialogue from a substandard script. A less scrupulous critic might have suggested “Titanic”. The script abounds with inappropriate dialogue where James Cameron uses the characters to tell us what he thinks we need to know. Take the scene in the Palm Court Restaurant, where Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, introduces the ship’s designer.
[scrippet]INT. PALM COURT RESTAURANT – DAY
Close on J. BRUCE ISMAY, Managing Director of White Star Line.
And our master shipbuilder, Mr. Andrews here, designed her from the keel plates up.
He indicates a handsome 39 year old Irish gentlemen to his right, THOMAS ANDREWS, of Harland and Wolf Shipbuilders.
WIDER, showing the group assembled for lunch the next day. Ismay seated with Cal, Rose, Ruth, Molly Brown and Thomas Andrews in the Palm Court, a beautiful sunny spot enclosed by high arched windows.
Well, I may have knocked her together, but the idea was Mr Ismay’s. He envisioned a steamer so grand in scale, and so luxurious in its appointments, that its supremacy would never be challenged. And here she is… (he slaps the table)…willed into solid reality. [/scrippet]
Dialogue can show who is in control. It can indicate status. It can be natural or stylistic. It can have many meanings and many strands of subtext. But it must always be consistent. In many cases it can be unnecessary. For example, there is no need for a character to say, “Is that your green eyed, blonde, younger sister crossing the busy dual carriageway over there?”
A line is either for you or against you.
In Chapter 12, “Things to look out for”, Davis provides an excellent 19-point checklist, emphasising that “a line is either for you or against you. It is either contributing positively, or it is merely holding things up. Be brutal.” His checklist and harsh advice is one of the best features of the book.
“Writing Dialogue for Scripts” is not an in depth study of screen dialogue, but it does provide many useful tips. It fills an area often overlooked by other screenwriting gurus.
More examples, especially examples of bad dialogue, would improve the book, but overall it is a very useful aid for the serious screenwriter.
– Jack Brislee
He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.