Since Ben Affleck was announced as the next Batman, I’ve been thinking a lot about just what goes into making an acting performance excellent. I’ve decided that that most of it comes in the direction and, especially, the editing. It would seem that, in the end, very little of an actor’s performance is dependent on the actor anymore.
One factor in an actor’s performance that never seems to come up is the writing. Writing is where an actor’s performance first starts to take shape, many times long before anyone is cast in the role. The writing tells the filmmakers and the actors who and what are character should be. There are many opinions on what makes for good writing in movies. So here’s my two cents:
In film school, I was taught that character is revealed through action, not words. I bought into that, because, well, my teachers knew a helluva lot more about writing than me. Now that I’ve had some time to form my own opinions and figure out what I really think, I realize that speaking IS an action. Dialogue helps reveal a character’s attitudes and beliefs. It helps us understand how he/she deals with his/her world. Often times, it helps establish the likability of a character, especially if said character is funny. We always like a character better if they make us laugh.
The problem is that dialogue writing has become a lost art form in big-time Hollywood movie making (and, judging by some of the books I’ve read, in novel writing as well). Filmmakers are kicking good dialogue to the curb in favor of jaw-dropping visual spectacle. Most movie characters now a days either say what they need to to advance the plot or they spout stupid catchphrases marketers hope they can put on t-shirts. I guess that’s what happens when the bulk of your audience is teenage boys.
What is good dialogue, you may ask? Well, in my opinion, it either needs to sound believable and realistic or it needs to be witty and interesting. If you can mix those qualities, then you’ve probably written a pretty good script. And one thing that kills a movie for me is to hear characters give long-ass speeches about big universal themes like good and evil or the nature of heroism. Which might explain why I think Iron Man is so much better written than The Dark Knight.
Need more? Here’s a couple of examples. Let’s take the lake scene from Attack of the Clones and the scene where Holden spills his guts to Alyssa in Chasing Amy. Both scenes involve a guy confessing his feelings to a girl. Both involve relationships that aren’t likely to work because of social stratification (Clones) or sexual preference (Amy). One of these scenes is well written and the other is not.
First up, the lake scene in Clones. First off, it’s hard to imagine two people speaking in such flat, passionless terms to each other. Worst yet, who in their right mind would ever compare someone they dig on to sand?! And we in the audience are supposed to buy that this line works. That makes us respect Padme a little less. After all, if she gets turned on by being compared and contrasted to sand, she may not be such a good girl, right?
Now, the Amy scene. This scene is set in a car, a is two people just talking to each other. Holden dishes his feelings in a long soliloquy that starts and ends with a reference to a painting Alyssa just purchased. It may not be realistic to have a speech like that on the tip of your tongue, but you can actually imagine a real guy saying those same types of things to a real girl. Better, the dialogue sounds just a little better than real life, as if it’s how we wish we sound when we confess our feelings to someone. Great scene.
Over the years, I’ve picked up a few tips on dialogue. I’m no expert, but following these guidelines has definitely help my writing.
- Say things the most interesting way you can. I.E., if your characters have to cross a river, don’t have them say “We’ve got to cross that river”. Something like “If we don’t cross that river, our asses are grass” might work a little better.
- If you’re laughing, crying, or having any sort of emotional reaction to your dialogue, you’re probably on the right track.
- In some settings, stilted, lame dialogue is okay. If you’re writing fantasy, for example. Lord of the Rings probably wouldn’t work if Gandalf told Frodo something like “You gotta roll up on Mt. Doom and toss this bitch-ass ring in the lava”.
- Try reading your dialogue aloud. Sometimes a line works better on paper than it will if someone actually says it.
- Pop culture references are great. They help the characters seem real and help us relate to them.
- Above all, have fun with it. One of the most fun things for me in any sort of format is to tell my characters what to say. Maybe I have some sort of God complex…
Anyway, those are just a few things I’ve learned over the years. I definitely don’t know everything about writing, but this stuff has always helped me.