To the novice screenwriter, dialogue is a maddening conundrum. It has to be spare but expressive, sound natural, fit the characters and allow for insights and revelations. The most skillful dialogue on film also achieves a structural dimension. It can shape the narrative just as surely as the plot does.
Dialogue can take any number of forms. It can become a map of the lead character’s emotional journey, a smokescreen for the plot to proceed behind or a storm cloud of oncoming disaster.
Some films are filled with chatter, the great lines you wish you’d come up with, unwitting thoughts blurted out loud, or a series of lies that the action unmasks. Others use dialogue like spare poetry, allowing a character to express the virtually unspeakable.
In films as diverse as The Constant Gardener, Juno, and The Visitor, the dialogue helps delineate the worlds in which the characters operate and trace the transformations of those characters through the story.
In The Constant Gardener (2005), a political thriller written by Jeffrey Caine about industrial crime in Africa, the dialogue between the lead characters, Justin and Tessa, skips past the formalities and double-speak of the diplomatic circles Justin runs in to zero in on emotional truths. In a landscape where the objective truth is a constantly moving target and the most trusted alliances are a lie, Justin’s and Tessa’s verbal exchanges form a pure core where trust is implicit and love is unassailable.
Just days after their meeting, Tessa asks Justin, her lover and a mid-level British diplomat unused to sticking his neck out, to take her with him to Africa. Justin replies, "We hardly know one another." Tessa insists he choose. "You could learn me. Yes or no?"
As the plot takes us into increasingly dire territory, the dialogue between these two represents a small lantern of integrity against a terrifying darkness.
Near the film’s conclusion, when Justin is spurred by tragedy to take a courageous stand, he returns to that pure center, which the dialogue continues to express. Urged to drop his dangerous investigation and return home, his reply is both simple and final. "Tessa," he says, "was my home."
Juno (2007), written by Diablo Cody as a comic take on teen pregnancy, uses lead character Juno’s witty, irreverent patter as a nearly impenetrable shield against a non-negotiable situation that she is determined to control. Sixteen and pregnant, all Juno has is attitude. That attitude, expressed with an inventive modern eloquence, will prove to be her greatest strength.
The shape of the dialogue allows the film to do exactly what the character, Juno, hopes to do: Keep the decisions to be made about her pregnancy on an entirely practical level, and hold the emotional repercussions and political implications of her choices entirely at bay.
After sharing her baby’s sonogram with prospective adoptive mom Vanessa, Juno unleashes a torrent of irreverence: "You should have gone to China. You know? ‘Cause I hear they give away babies like free iPods. Just put them in those T-shirt guns and shoot them out at sporting events."
With humor both fresh and classic, dancing on the edge of chaos, the dialogue in Juno allows the audience the illusion of a similar imperviousness to trouble in their own lives.
In The Visitor (2008), written and directed by Tom McCarthy about a middle-aged college professor and widower, Walter, whose life is awash in loneliness, dialogue at first represents the faint scratching of humanity, the barest signs of life on the screen.
In the early scenes, it barely punctuates broad swaths of visuals and silence. We watch Walter escape an awkward interaction with the piano teacher who comes once to his home, and share a lunch with colleagues in which his dutiful nods almost replace speech. In each situation, Walter’s voice is reduced to the briefest exchanges.
Surprised to find two young illegal immigrants, Tarek and Zainab, a musician and jewelry artist, living in his New York apartment, Walter responds with short, uncomfortable lines of dialogue that reflect a man tiptoeing through a lost life.
"If you don’t mind, I think I will come," says Walter in tentative agreement to accompany Zainab and Tarek to Tarek’s gig at a bar.
Soon after, Tarek convinces him to try the drum himself. "Now, Walter, I know you are a very smart man, but with the drum, you have to remember not to think. Thinking just screws it up."
As Walter becomes more involved with Tarek, Zainab, and their troubles, his stark lines lengthen. The gradual evolution of his flat, plain, unemotional statements to emotionally connected speech perfectly reflects his achingly slow journey back to life.
In The Visitor, the dialogue ends where life resumes for Walter. After the sudden and irreversible loss of his newfound friends, Walter finds that life has been re-lit within him. Words disappear, just as they did at the beginning of the film. But this time, they are replaced by the freeing power of his exuberant drumming.
Lisa Rosenberg is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran story consultant whose credits include independent features, television, home entertainment, and Internet narrative and documentary productions. Currently, she is seeking production opportunities for her feature, Crawl Space, based on Edie Meidav’s novel, and consulting privately on screenplay projects. She has written articles for Film Arts magazine, the Oregon Star Film & Video News, and the French edition of Vogue.
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