Character Individuation Sets Your Script Apart
Some people just know how to write great dialogue. We’ve already mentioned the Coens and Tarantino, but I would include Paul Thomas Anderson, William Goldman, Nora Ephron, and maybe even Diablo Cody or Paul Schrader in that same class. All of these writers craft characters you never forget. They write lines you quote for years after you’ve last seen the movie.
I will hazard that if you follow the steps in Algorithms 7 and 8 with regard to subtext and exposition, you will naturally be 70-80 percent of the way to writing sharply individuated characters. There are, however, a few more tricks you can add to your dialogue bag… and a few more mistakes you can avoid.
We all know what a script with only one character voice in it reads like. We also know monotone scripts would all fail the character cue deletion test (82). What is not as obvious is how often scripts read with this “mistake” because the author hasn’t taken enough care to edit out her own locution patterns from those of her characters. Very often, five characters in the same script will have the habit of expressing surprise in the same way. On page 3 [of this hypothetical script] the character of Mattie will start a sentence like this:
Jesus, Eric… why don’t you…
This will be followed on page 7 with:
Jesus, Mattie… why don’t you…
And then on page 15 we get:
JACK (30’s) hates his job at the sub shop and takes it out on his customers whenever he can, hands Mattie her change as a
BREAKING NEWS ALERT
Flashes across the television mounted behind him. Pictures of destruction fill the screen.
Jesus… What is wrong with the world?
I call this mistake the “mass dilution of a specific verbal tic” and it kills the feeling of individual voices in a script every time. What is unfortunate about this mistake is that it’s actually a technique that really great dialoguesmiths use in order to increase the feeling of individuation (83) . It only becomes a mistake when the same tic spreads through all of the characters. At that point, it becomes a virus that makes a script boring and hard to read. Most of the time I feel like this way of speaking is natural to the writer, and that’s why she has trouble seeing it as an error.
So keep your verbal tics, just make sure you have one tic per character and don’t dilute that tic across a host of characters [unless you have some reason for doing it] (84) .
The only other suggestion I can give here concerns making sure the character you start with contains within her the possibility for uniquely individuated dialogue from the beginning. I mean, who do you think is going to be easier to write lasting, impressive dialogue for: Jack from my sub shop up above, or Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood?
Algorithm 9 (Character Individuation)
1. Make sure you give your characters unique verbal tics.
2. Make sure you do not dilute the effectiveness of the verbal tic by allowing it to show up in more than one character.
3. Begin with characters that have powerful drives and ambitions. If you’re not aiming at Daniel Plainview, why not?
Following the tips listed in the three algorithms I’ve devised for writing better dialogue isn’t going to instantly turn you into Quentin Tarantino. It may not even take you to an exceptional level after years of practice. Some of us [like the Coens, but unlike me] are just more gifted in this area than others of us.
What you can do, with the help of these tips, is write dialogue that renders aspects of the human condition realistically, amplifies those aspects for their deeper meaning, and then rebroadcasts your characters back to us as versions of ourselves.
We will see [as we continue through these articles] this three step process outlined in the preceding sentence become THE GOAL of our writing.
82 This is where you imagine removing the characters cues from a swath of dialogue and then seeing if you can attribute lines to the correct characters just based on what is said. This is a fantastic test for individuation if you can be honest with yourself as you use it.
83 William Faulkner is a master of this technique.
84 Fight Club-like codes would make a good exception here.