Professor Christopher Bradley



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Professor Christopher Bradley

  • Professor Christopher Bradley


Constructing the Scene

  • Constructing the Scene

  • The Principles of Construction

  • Techniques for Construction

  • Writing Exercise # 10



The Function of Dialogue

  • The Function of Dialogue

  • The Characteristics of Good Dialogue

  • Techniques and Tips

  • Writing Exercise # 11



Lesson 12: Part I

  • Lesson 12: Part I



We think of dialogue as conversation between characters in drama or literature.

  • We think of dialogue as conversation between characters in drama or literature.

  • But in any fictional medium, dialogue isn’t really conversation – it is the illusion of conversation.

  • Real conversation is random, repetitive, and often pointless, while dramatic dialogue is ordered and purposeful.



Some screenwriters have a natural gift for turning a phrase, using humor or innuendo to deepen the meaning of a film conversation, most writers, though, need to work to achieve this.

  • Some screenwriters have a natural gift for turning a phrase, using humor or innuendo to deepen the meaning of a film conversation, most writers, though, need to work to achieve this.

  • A few strategies for success include actively listening to the patterns of speech that people use and developing an ear for words.

  • You can also take notes of exchanges as you hear them.



The role of dialogue in a screenplay is to:

  • The role of dialogue in a screenplay is to:

    • Advance the plot towards its climax.
    • Advance the audience’s understanding of the main characters.
    • Advance the audience’s understanding of the story by providing information which cannot otherwise be shown.
    • Set the tone for the film, especially comedy.


Film dialogue must be crafted within the context of character and conflict.

  • Film dialogue must be crafted within the context of character and conflict.

  • It must be what a specific character would say under a specific set of circumstances.

  • It needs to stay close to the main topic of the screenplay.

  • If a line does not serve one of the basic functions listed above, give strong consideration to cutting it!



What characters say and don’t say is one of the main ways they reveal and define themselves in film (and in life). How a person speaks can reveal geographic origins or educational level. It can hint at that person’s deeper nature or true intentions.

  • What characters say and don’t say is one of the main ways they reveal and define themselves in film (and in life). How a person speaks can reveal geographic origins or educational level. It can hint at that person’s deeper nature or true intentions.

  • Dialogue allows the audience to make distinctions between characters.



Physical action is considered the best revelation of character in a film, but sometimes only dialogue can expose the real character motivations.

  • Physical action is considered the best revelation of character in a film, but sometimes only dialogue can expose the real character motivations.

  • But be careful. “On the nose” dialog will ring false and lose impact, because people almost always talk around what they mean. Direct disclosures are rarely made, and then usually only under stress.

      • On Golden Pond


A film character should face extraordinary circumstances when he is compelled to drop his guard and reveal his innermost feelings.

  • A film character should face extraordinary circumstances when he is compelled to drop his guard and reveal his innermost feelings.

  • When character revelation of this sort is properly motivated, it provides a powerful comment on the character – all the more so when it portrays him in a radically different light from what the audience expects.

      • Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront


Generally, dialogue plays some part in conveying the main exposition.

  • Generally, dialogue plays some part in conveying the main exposition.

  • But as a film progresses, more information is needed as characters make discoveries. Many of these discoveries are visual, but often they need confirmation and elucidation through dialogue.

  • Information given in dialogue must be consequential to the story or characters. If it’s not, cut it!



When dialogue helps set the tone of a film, it’s usually a comedy.

  • When dialogue helps set the tone of a film, it’s usually a comedy.

  • A sense of foreboding or catastrophe is best achieved through visuals and drama rather than through poetic or dramatic dialogue.

  • Comedy relies on humor, funny lines, jokes and gags – visual and verbal. When dialogue crackles with quips and jokes, audiences respond with laughter and it can set the tone in seconds.



Lesson 12: Part II

  • Lesson 12: Part II



Again, dialogue isn’t real conversation, but the illusion of it – invented, contrived conversation that satisfies the demands of the scene.

  • Again, dialogue isn’t real conversation, but the illusion of it – invented, contrived conversation that satisfies the demands of the scene.

  • But it must sound real to work. If dialogue sounds stilted, false, corny or clichéd, it can destroy a worthy story.

  • Dialogue has the same characteristics in features and short films. It works best when it is clear, to the point, advances the tension and is subtle.



A character’s individual voice is one of the most important ways by which he reveals himself. It reflects where he has come from and where he has gone.

  • A character’s individual voice is one of the most important ways by which he reveals himself. It reflects where he has come from and where he has gone.

  • It gives an indication of how he thinks, what’s important to him and some degree of his psychology.



Patterns of speech

  • Patterns of speech

  • Accents and dialects

  • Phrases and expressions

  • that indicate ethnic or cultural background

  • Grammar

  • Jargon

  • Slang (time and place)



Through dialogue, you can illustrate differences between characters. One character may be philosophical or literal, make allusions or be direct.

  • Through dialogue, you can illustrate differences between characters. One character may be philosophical or literal, make allusions or be direct.

  • A sense of humor can define one character while a lack of one can define another.

  • Emotion often forces people to revive speech patterns they had given up or hidden.

  • Pause the lecture and watch the clip from Pulp Fiction.



To understand how different people speak, you need to develop an ear for words.

  • To understand how different people speak, you need to develop an ear for words.

  • When you introduce characters whose backgrounds are different from yours, research becomes a true ally.

  • Research lends authenticity to a plot and milieu, but also produces a colorful and esoteric language that gives any screenplay authority and brings it to life.



In film, dialogue needs to be understood the first time it’s heard. You can’t rerun a passage in a film and take the time to think about it the way you can when you reread a book.

  • In film, dialogue needs to be understood the first time it’s heard. You can’t rerun a passage in a film and take the time to think about it the way you can when you reread a book.

  • The audience is listening to the dialogue and has to grasp its meaning before the film moves ahead.

  • The best dialogue is usually simple. It comes in short, ordered sentences that give the illusion of real speech.



In real life, people tend to talk in short sentences or sentence fragments, with simple direct words. They interrupt each other, repeat and overlap.

  • In real life, people tend to talk in short sentences or sentence fragments, with simple direct words. They interrupt each other, repeat and overlap.

  • These can be used very effectively in screenplay dialog, but use things such as repetition, interruption and overlapping dialogue for specific purposes.

  • And remember, clarity is your first priority.





Flashy, complex sentences can confuse the dialogue's meaning and make dialogue hard to follow – both listening and reading.

  • Flashy, complex sentences can confuse the dialogue's meaning and make dialogue hard to follow – both listening and reading.

  • This doesn’t mean never use flashy phrases, express complex thoughts or use esoteric language. This can be effective, depending on what kind character you are creating. But be clear.

  • Dialogue should strive for a combination of realism, music and purpose within the story.



Dialogue, like a scene, progresses to its most dramatic point.

  • Dialogue, like a scene, progresses to its most dramatic point.

  • In comedy, lines develop to a punch line, the funny twist that makes you laugh. Good writers save the joke until the end of the speech so as not to get in the way of important material.

  • Save the strongest lines for scene finales to maximize their impact.



The best dialogue is lean. Brevity is more valuable than amplification in a screenplay.

  • The best dialogue is lean. Brevity is more valuable than amplification in a screenplay.

  • As long as clarity isn’t compromised, cutting dialog back will strengthen it, not weaken it.



Long speeches work better in novels and plays than in films and in film you must have a good reason to include one.

  • Long speeches work better in novels and plays than in films and in film you must have a good reason to include one.

  • Any passage running more than four or five lines should be scrutinized for editing or removal. The writer needs to consider length and convey information quickly.

  • An exception is a long speech used for character revelation. Since this is often the point of the film, the writer can take time to maximize the impact of the speech.



When dialogue is too direct and too clear, it often rings false, especially when the speeches involve emotional issues.

  • When dialogue is too direct and too clear, it often rings false, especially when the speeches involve emotional issues.

  • In real life, most people have difficulty expressing or communicating emotions. Others don’t want to confront emotional issues and talk around them. People tend to want to conceal or deny emotions and dialogue should reflect that.



The art of screenwriting is to capture character’s indirection so that the audience grasps the true, deeper meaning of what’s being said, the characters’ true motivations.

  • The art of screenwriting is to capture character’s indirection so that the audience grasps the true, deeper meaning of what’s being said, the characters’ true motivations.

  • When characters imply, rather than state on the nose what they are feeling, it allows the audience to make associations and connect more deeply with the characters.

  • Pause and watch the clip from Casablanca.





Once you basically know what a scene is about, rough it out, without censoring any thoughts or dialogue. Let the characters speak in order to find the heart of the scene.

  • Once you basically know what a scene is about, rough it out, without censoring any thoughts or dialogue. Let the characters speak in order to find the heart of the scene.

  • One or two lines will usually say everything necessary – you can toss the rest.



Always read your dialogue out loud! The best indication of how it will sound is how it rolls off your tongue. We write dialogue to be spoken and it must sound natural.

  • Always read your dialogue out loud! The best indication of how it will sound is how it rolls off your tongue. We write dialogue to be spoken and it must sound natural.

  • This will also help you determine if all the characters sound alike. You want individuals.

  • Saying the dialogue aloud can also indicate whether or not the emotion builds properly to the scene’s climax.



Remember that not all communication is verbal. Some “lines” are non-verbal actions.

  • Remember that not all communication is verbal. Some “lines” are non-verbal actions.

  • Keep them to a minimum, but you can include gestures, facial expressions, and other body language to express actions and reactions.

  • Remember! Don’t direct the actors!



For example, you want to avoid action description that “directs the actor” such as, “She opens the yearbook to Cameron’s picture. The tears begin gushing down her cheeks. She squeezes her eyes shut and stretches her mouth into a silent scream.” But saying, “She opens the yearbook to Cameron’s picture. She runs a finger along his cheek,” might work. The touch takes the place of a line.

  • For example, you want to avoid action description that “directs the actor” such as, “She opens the yearbook to Cameron’s picture. The tears begin gushing down her cheeks. She squeezes her eyes shut and stretches her mouth into a silent scream.” But saying, “She opens the yearbook to Cameron’s picture. She runs a finger along his cheek,” might work. The touch takes the place of a line.



Characters normally don’t address each other by name and names do not need to be used right away in a screenplay. Wait for a natural moment.

  • Characters normally don’t address each other by name and names do not need to be used right away in a screenplay. Wait for a natural moment.

  • When writing a scene with multiple characters you may use – but not overuse - dialogue cues to suggest who is talking to whom:

  • RICK

  • (to Ilsa)

  • You’re being cheated.



Dialogue is best in face to face confrontation. Avoid phone scenes for major conflict if possible. Avoid email! We don’t want to read email onscreen!

  • Dialogue is best in face to face confrontation. Avoid phone scenes for major conflict if possible. Avoid email! We don’t want to read email onscreen!

  • Don’t overuse profanity/name-calling.

  • Soliloquy and asides don’t work well in film.

  • Avoid clichés. Or, if you use them, turn them on their heads.





Watch the short film from the lesson, My Name is Lisa, and analyze the ways the screenwriter conveys the story through dialogue. For example, what are the characters “talking around”? What is clearly happening in the story, but is never said? What action or actions take the place of lines in the story?

  • Watch the short film from the lesson, My Name is Lisa, and analyze the ways the screenwriter conveys the story through dialogue. For example, what are the characters “talking around”? What is clearly happening in the story, but is never said? What action or actions take the place of lines in the story?



Compare and contrast the dialogue in the clips for Casablanca and Pulp Fiction in terms of the concept from the lesson. How is the dialogue different in the two scenes? For example, you might contrast how direct are the characters with each other about what they want? Or contrast how the characters in each scene express feelings of betrayal without actually saying they feel betrayed.

  • Compare and contrast the dialogue in the clips for Casablanca and Pulp Fiction in terms of the concept from the lesson. How is the dialogue different in the two scenes? For example, you might contrast how direct are the characters with each other about what they want? Or contrast how the characters in each scene express feelings of betrayal without actually saying they feel betrayed.



Write a paragraph for each of the main characters in your film describing his or her voice, making sure you apply the concepts on voice we learned in this lesson. Then go back to your script and begin to tweak the dialogue to reflect this new detail.

  • Write a paragraph for each of the main characters in your film describing his or her voice, making sure you apply the concepts on voice we learned in this lesson. Then go back to your script and begin to tweak the dialogue to reflect this new detail.



Next Lecture: How Do I Embed Theme in My Story?

  • Next Lecture: How Do I Embed Theme in My Story?




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