The Pacing of Dialogue

Here’s advice on the pacing of dialogue from screenplay expert Michael Ferris. It originally appeared in my book Filmmaking Basics: Finding Your Creative Voice.

The West Wing
The West Wing
Credit: NBCTV

A script is not a play – your goal is NOT to have dialogue that looks like a bunch of monologues. Try to keep 95% of your dialogue to 3 lines or less on the page. Clever dialogue is found in quick back and forth exchanges, not prose-y speeches. Think about one of the best screenwriters known for his dialogue – Aaron Sorkin. Have you ever watched a scene from The West Wing? It’s not a perfect example, but it illustrates the point that if you keep it snappy, it keeps it moving. And a fast moving script, like a fast moving story, is entertaining and – sometimes – it can move so fast that you don’t have time to realize whether it’s great quality or not. You just know you’re entertained. So, use it to your advantage. Keep the dialogue short, quick back and forths, and you’ll reveal plot and character just as quickly.

Screenplay expert Michael Ferris began his career working for Oscar-winning producer Arnold Kopelson (Platoon, The Fugitive, Seven) and then worked for manager/producer John Jacobs (Blades of Glory, Beverly Hills Chihuahua).

My enemy became my teacher

Three years ago I interviewed Tom Magill, now co-founder and artistic director of the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC) in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Tom grew up in Northern Ireland in the time of “the troubles.” His violent behavior as a young man put him in a British prison.

In prison Tom was assigned to deliver food trays to other prisoners’ cells. One cell housed an avowed enemy, a leading republican IRA member. As Tom steeled himself to enter the cell for the first time, he found himself ready to kill his enemy.

What he found inside that cell was a starving man in the middle of a self-imposed hunger strike. Tom came face to face with this man’s weakness and vulnerability.

In that cell his anger turned to compassion. “Meeting my enemy in prison changed my life.”

The starving man in the cell told Tom he was wasting his young life. That night Tom visited the prison library. He began reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad, the main character, an ex-prisoner himself.

The company Tom went on to set up now uses the power of storytelling in drama and film to heal the trauma so deeply rooted within criminal justice and mental health settings. ESC works to enable those mired in brutal circumstances to understand and transform their lives through the creative process. The plays of Shakespeare, most prominently Macbeth, feature strongly in this healing process.

The power of story.

Read the interview here.

 

Decide what to do with your time

Last night I began reading Michael Connelly’s latest novel The Wrong Side of Goodbye. A well-written book pulls me right in. I can feel it in my gut – this is one of the good ones!

Contrast that with a book I started reading last week, written by an author new to me. The story grabbed my attention initially. After a few chapters it began to slow. Further in, I hit an entire chapter of backstory for one of the characters. It stopped the flow of the story cold. I stopped reading the book.

Connelly knows how to work backstory in gradually without killing the momentum of the story. There’s a constant forward movement. One skill that marks a great story.

I am at a point in my life where I will simply stop reading a book if it doesn’t hold my attention. A delightful poem comes to mind: Naomi Nye’s The Art of Disappearing. It concludes with the lines:

Walk around feeling like a leaf.

Know you could tumble any second.

Then decide what to do with your time.

Some books are not worth my time.

My last read of 2016

To end 2016 I read Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B. It offered hope for the transition from 2016 to the new year. At the end, after J.B. and his wife Sarah have endured heartbreaking tragedies, Sarah says:

Blow on the coal of the heart.

The candles in churches are out.

The lights have gone out in the sky.

Blow on the coal of the heart

And we’ll see by and by…

Good words as we go forward.

Reporter Meyer Berger’s New York

Author and writing teacher Natalie Goldberg insists that every writer have a mentor. When a student bemoaned the fact that she had no one to mentor her, Goldberg said, “(Authors) are your mentors… Enter their minds. Don’t let any obstacle keep you away.”

 Here’s a piece I wrote on opensalon.com back in November of 2010 about a writer I consider to be a mentor: Meyer Berger of The New York Times. His writing still shapes my own.

Camden shooter
Captured Camden shooter.

On the morning of September 6, 1949, a mentally unstable war vet, armed with a Luger pistol, walked up and down his own block in Camden, New Jersey, shooting men, women and children. He killed 13 people and wounded more before he ran out of bullets and police captured him.

Meyer (Mike) Berger, a New York Times reporter, got the story assignment just before 11 a.m. that morning. He jumped on a train to Camden, interviewed 50 people, wrote a 4,000 word story, and submitted it at 9:20 that night, in time for the printing of the first edition the following morning.

Berger won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for his Camden story.  The Pulitzer honored Berger for accurate reporting and skillful writing under pressure.

In the early 1960s I found a copy of Meyer Berger’s New York in the public library. The book featured many of Berger’s Times columns, published between 1953 and 1959.  Reading his columns taught me to look for the color, the detail, the small pieces that filled in a larger picture.

New York was the skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty, the subway, the crowds. But for Berger it was also a story on the birthday of the Tennessee pink marble lions that still guard the public library on Fifth Avenue. It was the story of the farm in the East River, on Rikers Island, where prisoners grew vegetables and raised chickens. It was the interviews with Canadian Indian steel workers, commuting each weekend between Montreal and New York, who helped construct much of Manhattan’s skyline.

Meyer Berger's New York
Meyer Berger’s New York

Berger tells of the gray-haired lady who painted daily on her third-floor terrace on Gracie Square, overlooking the East River. Her paintings of the river and its boat traffic grew so popular that passing tugboat captains would toot their horns in salute to her.

As a kid I grew up reading newspapers: The New York Journal-American; The New York Daily News; The New York Daily Mirror; and on Sunday mornings the huge New York Times (accompanied by bakery rolls and jelly donuts). I continue to read the papers daily, although always online now. And I will always go to the color stories first, the pieces that go behind the facts. Always look for the background details to a story. The map, the diagram, the chart, the interviews with witnesses and peripheral participants. No television news program will give me that.

Reporter and columnist Meyer Berger worked for The New York Times for 30 years until his death in 1959.