Writing Dialogue: The Art of Listening

In many ways the screenplay is the most important part of the film-making process, for it is the blueprint in which the final product, the film, is ultimately constructed. One of the essential parts of any screenplay is the dialogue, or the act of two or more characters speaking to each other. John August and Craig Mazin, on their podcast Scriptnotes mention the importance of dialogue, specifically the concept of discourse markers- words such as FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)- that acknowledge the idea of listening; which is something that we do every single day.

The question is, why is this idea of listening so hard when it comes to writing screenplays? For new writers, dialogue between two characters, according to August and Mazin, is often one character speaking and an intersecting monologues. The fix for this problem is the act of listening: “…It’s the listening of dialogue, and the reacting and the incorporation and the adjustment; that’s the swordsmanship” (Episode 286: “Script Doctors, Dialogue, and Hacks”). The reason why this problem is so commonplace, as August and Mazin go on to say, is the inability of the writer to place themselves, and the words that they write, into their respective characters. In other words, dialogue has lost its naturalism and its lost its naturalism because writers have forgotten how to listen.

This is important to the film industry for a number of reasons, least of all the authorship of a good screenplay to sell to the industry producers. Writing dialogue is important because film, just like any industry, requires dialogue- not just between characters but between actual people as well; if writers can’t learn how to listen than the dialogue becomes flat, if the dialogue is flat than the screenplay gets thrown out and no film is made. Now, more than ever, dialogue in screenplays, and the acts of silence that accompany them, are essential, because it serves as the primary “voice” of the film industry, a voice that begins with the act of listening.

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