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Lessons From Film School: Dialogue

Not too many people in my current life know this about me, although in my old life it was common knowledge: I started out university as a film major. A film major at not just any film school either, at the University of Texas Radio-TV-Film school, which consistently ranked among the top five film schools in the nation. I wanted to be a director or a screenwriter — I hadn’t settled on which. Film school had not been easy to get into, and it turned out it was even harder to complete in any kind of reasonable time frame, full of upper level classes restricted to ten students out of fifty competing for slots. After I spent a semester studying abroad in China, I got bit by the expat bug and was hungry to leave the United States again, hungry and impatient. I changed my major to Asian Studies and never looked back.


Well, that’s not quite true. Sometimes I look back. I wonder what might have happened if I had stayed the course. One of my old cohort moved to L.A. after school and became a producer. Another stayed in Austin, but still in the industry. Perhaps, I too, could have made a career out of film, but I chose China instead. So, although I sometimes did look back, it was never with regret, because China changed my life and made me who I am. I probably made a good choice.


However, film school left me with some habits, and studying screenwriting taught me enough to know, as a writer, that fiction writing and screenwriting are two entirely different beasts. There is some crossover, though. Although I sometimes cringe when I read fiction writing blogs or internet posts that seem to draw their examples entirely from film, television and anime, my background in film wasn’t entirely useless to me as a writer. So, without anymore preamble, I present to you the writing lessons I learned from film school.


The most important lesson I learned from film school is probably the most obvious one — the importance of dialogue. As a former screenwriter, I learned to write lines and lines of snappy and concise dialogue, the kind of dialogue that is filled with subtext, that hardly needs any filler. In fact, I took the dialogue lesson so much to heart that there are times when I know that my dialogue more resembles the dialogue of a screenplay — spare with description, no dialogue tags — and I’ve had to go back and clean it up. Here’s the thing though — it is easier, in almost all cases, to add than to subtract. A writer who can learn to write tight, clean dialogue without all of the fussy descriptions can add in necessary descriptions and tags usually more more easily than the same the same writer can edit out or pare down descriptions.


But the lack of description isn’t what makes film dialogue unique. Good screenwriting conveys in dialogue only the necessary information, no filler, while still (and this is the important part) telling us precisely what kind of character we’re dealing with. Every line is leading us towards the inevitable conclusion. Take this exchange from Alan Sorkin’s The Social Network:

Eduardo Saverin:
They’re saying, the Winklevoss twins are saying that you stole their idea.

Mark Zuckerberg:
I find that to be a little more than mildly annoying.

Eduardo Saverin:
Oh? Well, they find it to be intellectual property theft. Why didn’t you show this to me?

Mark Zuckerberg:
[flippantly] It was addressed to me.

Eduardo Saverin:
They’re saying that we stole theFaceBook from Divya Narendera and the Winklevosses.

Mark Zuckerberg:
[trying to grab the letter out of Eduardo’s hands] I know what it says!

Eduardo Saverin:
Did we?

Mark Zuckerberg:
Did we what?

Eduardo Saverin:
Don’t screw around with me now. Look at me!

Mark Zuckerberg:
[Mark begrudgingly looks up at him]

Eduardo Saverin:
The letter says we could face legal action.

Mark Zuckerberg:
No, it says I could face legal action.

Eduardo Saverin:
This is from a lawyer Mark, they must feel they have some grounds.

Mark Zuckerberg:
The lawyer is their father’s house council!

Eduardo Saverin:
Do they have grounds?

Mark Zuckerberg:
The grounds are our thing is cool and popular and HarvardConnection is lame! Wardo, I didn’t use any of their code, I promise. I didn’t use anything! Look, a guy who builds a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who ever has built a chair, okay? They came to me with an idea, I had a better one.

Eduardo Saverin:
Why didn’t you show me this letter?

Mark Zuckerberg:
I didn’t think it was a big deal.

Eduardo Saverin:
[sighs before sitting down beside Mark] Okay, if there’s something wrong. If there’s ever anything wrong, you can tell me, I’m the guy that wants to help. This is OUR thing. Now, is there ANYTHING that you need to tell me?

Mark Zuckerberg:
[very pointedly] No.

The dialogue, even without context, is packed with subtext about the relationship between Mark and Eduardo, even foreshadowing the eventual downfall of the relationship that ends with Eduardo being pushed out of a company that Zuckerberg essentially saw as his and his alone. It tells us a lot about Zuckerberg himself — his way of pushing others away, his arrogance, he refusal to take any challenge seriously. It’s a brief exchange, but every line is essential.  


Not only is screen dialogue tight, it tends to be quite voice-y, giving important hints about character that cannot be delivered through expository detail. Is the character a cynical sort, full of sarcastic quips? A worrier? A nurturing type? Personality is often conveyed through dialogue in film because dialogue is, while not the only tool the filmmaker has to convey what kind of person the character is, it is perhaps the most powerful one. One of my favorite films in my film school days was P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The film tells the story of a sort of found family of pornography actors and directors and has probably some of the most memorable characters to come out of the rich cinema scene of the late 90s. The loveable screw up of a main character, a bright eyed teenager whose stage name is, ridiculously, Dirk Diggler, is brought to life entirely by Anderson’s dialogue, masterfully delivered by Mark Wahlberg.

One of my favorite quotes from the movie comes from a point in the film when Dirk is near his peak as a porn star, when his dreams are coming true and his ego is growing along with his fame: “What can you expect when you’re on top? You know? It’s like Napoleon. When he was the king, you know, people were just constantly trying to conquer him, you know, in the Roman Empire. So, it’s history repeating itself all over again.” The film never lets us forget — Dirk just isn’t that bright. He has more charisma, ambition and energy, than he has sense. How does the film show us this? Through Dirk’s words. The muddled historical allusions show us Dirk’s bluster, his need to be seen as a someone, his almost desperate desire to impress, to be a somebody (several times througout the film, Dirk repeats his mantra “I’m a star, I’m a star, I’m  big bright shining star.”). At the same time, the line reinforces the idea that, although Dirk may be at the pinnacle of his career, he is, for all of his aspirations, for all his bluster, nothing more than a porn star.


While film dialogue and novel dialogue are not always the same beast, there are lessons in dialogue writing that any aspiring fiction writer can take to heart. The ability to write tight narratives and dialogue that drives the story forward, rather than meandering along aimlessly is a skill that every writer, no matter the medium, must eventually master. In film, because of built in time constraints, this becomes absolutely imperative, but the novelist will also find that these lessons are not wasted on fictional dialogue either. Ultimately, as writers, or job is to push the story forward while building characters and creating atmosphere. Our characters own words can be the best tools to do just that.

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