We collected your questions from the AFF at Home: Dialogue page and social media for Amy Talkington for a virtual Q&A about writing dialogue.
For episodic, like Little Fires, if the actors have already been cast, do you still write the dialogue ‘blind’ or to the actor’s voice and performance?
We knew from the start that Reese and Kerry were going to play the Elena and Mia but we didn’t know exactly how they were going to play those parts. So, in the room, we did picture them as we wrote but we couldn’t write to their specific performances. We could only imagine how Reese or Kerry might inhabit these characters. But once we started shooting and could see the choices they were making, we definitely wrote to their performances.
When characters are being coy and/or not saying exactly what they mean, is it best practice to include parentheticals or action/description?
This is a style choice – it works both ways. I’d say my general rule of thumb is to put it in parentheticals if it fits because, at the end of the day, I’m always looking for any way to tighten up my script and save a line. And I find that, generally, unless it’s a complex thought that needs to be explained, it feels more cinematic to make it a parenthetical.
What is the difference between writing dialogue and writing a musical number?
When writing a musical, you need to make sure that your musical numbers advance your story and character development. In that way, a musical number is similar to dialogue. “Valley Girl” is a jukebox musical, so a lot of the “writing” of that script was in fact researching 80s songs and finding the right ones to help tell the story beat. In some cases, we had to get creative. For example, we use “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as a way to show the growing rift between Julie and her friends. We have Julie, who wants to have a life and a job, emphasize that she’s let loose “when the working day is done” while her friends try to tell her that “girls just want to have fun.” Later, we use a mash-up to express Julie’s heightened conflict with her friends. I won’t give details but let’s just say it involves spandex, Madonna, headbands, Depeche Mode and the pony.
Do you have any pet-peeves when you are reading dialogue in others work?
I hate to see clunky, overwritten, repetitive dialogue. Most first drafts are filled with that – all of my first drafts are. The key is to rewrite. I have to write a lot of bad dialogue to find the decent dialogue. So, I guess my advice is to not be afraid to have bad dialogue in your first draft – otherwise you’ll never finish it. But you must have the discipline to go back through the draft and make it better. My friend, the illustrator Christoph Niemann says it perfectly (he’s talking about illustration but it applies to writing): “be a more careless artist and a more ruthless editor” I actually printed that out and hung it over my desk. It’s great advice for a writer.
How often do you read dialogue out loud?
Hearing a script read out loud is invaluable. In TV, there is always a table read but Liz [Tigelaar, the showrunner of “Little Fires Everywhere”] wanted to present the most polished draft possible at our table reads so she had the writing staff do a pre-read. So, Co-EP Raamla [Mohamed, an AFF alum], the writing staff and I would read the draft amongst ourselves in the writers’ office the week before the official table read. Based on our notes, Liz would take a final pass. We found this was really useful because during prep you’re making tons of production changes but you’re not always thinking about how each small change will affect the rest of the draft. So here we were able to catch inconsistencies and repetitions – and occasionally find some new nuance or detail – and then present something closer to final at the official table read.
As a side note, I personally can’t evaluate a script while I’m reading it out loud – I get wayyyyyy too distracted by my terrible performance — so I wouldn’t read any parts in our pre-reads, I would only listen. Our intrepid assistants, script coordinator Tathiana and Raamla (who should have a side career as an actress… or dancer or choreographer for that matter) would read aloud.
How does research factor into your dialogue writing process?
Both “Valley Girl” and “Little Fires Everywhere” are period pieces so even though I lived through the 80s and 90s, I did tons of research for both. First, I like to make a pop culture timeline to ground myself in the period. The timeline will list major events from the preceding year (at least) and go through the time of the story. Then, I like to make a list for each main character. I’ll list all the things in pop culture that character would be obsessed with (and a list of things they probably hate). This helps me get to know a character (how can you know a character if you don’t know what music they listen to?!) and this can also be handy when I’m looking for a reference the character might use or something to spark a conversation. (It’s important to remember, of course, that a character’s obsessions aren’t necessarily from that time period. For example, my favorite band is still The Cure.) Liz asked me to do this for “Little Fires” which I did and shared with the room (though I’m not sure anyone else used them). But this is how we ended up with period details like Elena’s book club reading “The Vagina Monologues” in Episode 2 and a dinner table conversation around the “Million Woman March” in Episode 3. But, it’s important to note that pop culture references aren’t always appropriate. Even though it’s something I love to include, we ended up removing all the pop culture references from my episode, the finale, as they felt distracting from the drama.
How did the dialogue in the original Valley Girl influence the new film? Were there lines from the original that you knew you needed to include in the new version?
Yes. I had a handful of lines from the original that I tried my hardest to keep in the script. I had a few personal favorites but I also looked on IMDB to see what lines the hardcore fans of the original loved. I also emailed my childhood best friend who turned me onto the movie in the 80s. In her honor, I kept in: “Fine, but when they attack the car, save the radio.”
Questions submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
Have a question for a writer? Submit your questions for this week’s Virtual Q&A on Thursday 4/16 for AFF at Home: Setting and join the conversation on social media with #AFFatHome.