Welcome to week three of AFF at Home! For those of you just now joining us – AFF at Home is Austin Film Festival’s way of promoting a sense of community, engagement, and creativity even in a time of distance and restrictions. Each week we’ll guide you through content and stories in hopes to inspire and motivate you to take your next creative step.
This week we’re focusing on Dialogue. As all screenwriters know, great dialogue can help a script find its rhythm. But how do you achieve those authentic conversations? How do know if you are “showing” not “telling”? How do use dialogue to distinguish your characters while also keeping up the pace? It’s easier said than done. But you’re in luck! Just like last week, we have five actions to help you improve your dialogue. We encourage you to go at your own pace and keep us updated on Twitter using #AFFatHome.
– Colin Hyer, Creative Director
Because film and TV are such visual mediums, it’s easy to forget one of your most important storytelling tools: good dialogue. Most of us talk to people every day, so why is putting it on the page so difficult? This panel from 2017’s Austin Film Festival features Jason Fuchs (co-writer Wonder Woman), David Lowery (writer/director A Ghost Story), and Kay Oyegun (writer This Is Us) for a conversation on when to “show” and when to “tell”, why dialogue is key to character development, and how it is crucial to shaping the world of your story.
Listen to the raw audio from these inspirational panels straight out the On Story Archive at the Wittliff Collections:
- The Craft Room Continues with…Craft Session #6 – Dialogue Writing Part 1 (1999) featuring Scott Frank (Get Shorty)
- The Craft Room Continues with…Craft Session #6 – Dialogue Writing Part 2 (1999) featuring Scott Frank (Get Shorty)
CONNECT WITH US
How will you apply this dialogue insight to your writing this week? Tell us on Twitter using #AFFatHome or in the forum below.
Q&A with Amy Talkington
Amy is an award-winning writer/director who currently serves as a co-executive producer and writer on Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere. She also wrote Valley Girl, MGM’s musical remake of the 80s cult film starring Jessica Rothe, Joshua Whitehouse, Alicia Silverstone, Judy Greer, and Rob Huebel. The film will be available to stream on May 8th. In 1998 her film Second Skin won AFF’s Best Student Short – she returned to the festival in 2016 to present a live reading of her script The Ice Queens with actors Alexandra Daddario and Zosia Mamet. This week Amy will be joining us for a virtual Q&A to help answer questions about drafting dialogue! Submit your questions here or on Twitter using #AFFatHome by 11:59pm on Thursday, 4/9 and we’ll publish her selected responses here on Monday 4/13.
MORE ABOUT AMY TALKINGTON
Amy Talkington is an award-winning screenwriter, director, and author living in Los Angeles.
Amy wrote Valley Girl (MGM’s musical remake of the 80s cult film starring Jessica Rothe, Joshua Whitehouse, Alicia Silverstone, Judy Greer, and Rob Huebel which will be available to stream on May 8th) and Undercover (currently in pre-production at Lionsgate with Steve Pink directing Zachary Levi and Cole Spouse). She has written numerous other studio features that are in various phases of development, including All Night Long currently in active development at Netflix, with Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher producing.
In the television arena, Amy has developed pilots for network, streaming and cable. She is a Co-EP and writer on Hulu’s hit series Little Fires Everywhere, starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, who also executive produce. And she is currently adapting Lawrence Wright’s book Saints and Sinners into an anthology series for HBO-Max.
Previously, Amy wrote and directed the independent feature film The Night of the White Pants as well as five short films which won multiple awards and played festivals all over the world, including Sundance.
Before making films, Amy wrote about music and film. She has written for Spin, Mademoiselle, College Music Journal, Interview, Seventeen and Ray Gun Magazines.
Originally from Texas, Amy graduated magna cum laude from Barnard College with a degree in Art History and earned an MFA in Film from Columbia University’s Film Division, where she won their top directing prize.
Submissions closed, read Amy’s answers to your questions here.
Student Screenwriting Corner
It’s important that your dialogue helps to distinguish each of your characters. Watch the short Pistachio Milk to see how writer/director Avram Dodson uses dialogue to not only distinguish between his two leading characters, but to help their personalities shine through on screen.
LEARN MORE ABOUT WRITING DIALOGUE
“The constant refrain around AFF is the mirror-shattering trumpeting of writing and storytelling. Through AFF at Home we intend to showcase every extension of what Austin Film Festival aims to champion in its community, including our vaunted film competition alumni. We are delighted to represent the legacy of our alumni base through the WATCH section of the AFF at Home campaign; by curating incredible titles that are now available to stream in your living room, shower, wherever. Come join us in celebrating some festival competition favorites, and marquee film titles from our Writers Conference heavyweights.”
-Casey Baron, Senior Film Program Director
AFF FEATURE Now Streaming Pick:
Hand-picked past competition films from the AFF film department
Wild Honey (2017)
There’s a curious thing I realized as we continue our journey through AFF at Home, and that’s the unique way topics elegantly dovetail into each other. Consider some of your favorite characters you’ve seen conveyed through moving images, whether a crooked cop by the name of Alonzo or a Doughboy questioning his mother, dialogue plays a key role in our idolization of these characters and the worlds they lived in. Last week we spent some time on the touchstone of character, this week as part of our focus on DIALOGUE we’re delighted to look back on the AFF24 selection WILD HONEY. One of the things I find so fascinating about the film is that our protagonist Gabby, portrayed with a vibrant nature by the incredible Rusty Schwimmer, stands as such an antithesis to our typical rom-com heroine. Part of the way writer/director Francis Stokes achieves this is through the dialogue and character decisions of Gabby. From taking on the occupation of a phone-sex operator as a middle aged woman, to the snappy quips and dry remarks regarding the “good” of a swet potato, this all coalesces into our protagonist. In some moments, the craft choices pertaining to what isn’t shared verbally is just as important to consider as what gets written onto the page. But you know what, I think someone much more insightful and interesting can share his thoughts on building the dialogue for the film, so here’s AFF Film Competition alum and friend, Francis Stokes.
– Casey Baron, Senior Film Program Director
Gabby’s life is on hold. She’s living with her mother and more miserable with each passing hour. One day, while aimlessly and unsuccessfully working as a phone-sex operator, a mysterious man named Martin calls. They hit it off and Martin becomes Gabby’s first regular customer. He leads a glamorous life as a Hollywood sci-fi screenwriter and resides in the same city as Gabby’s estranged and successful sister. Gabby begins to fall for Martin, and in a moment of spontaneity, decides to fly to Los Angeles to meet him, dropping in on her unsuspecting sister.
READ MORE ABOUT WRITING DIALOGUE FROM WRITER, FRANCIS STOKES
Film is a visual medium. As writers we’re constantly being reminded, “Show, Don’t Tell.” But great dialogue that crackles or surprises me or makes me laugh or adds some subtle shade of color to a character is often my favorite part of a movie.
A lot of indie films today are loosely written or completely improvised, capturing a character or situation in an almost documentary style. I attended the Ashland Independent Film Festival with “Wild Honey,” which is in a super charming little hamlet nestled in the Oregon mountains. Hanging out in the filmmaker’s lounge, the festival director said to me, of all the narrative films, “Wild Honey” stood out to him because it was completely scripted, which is harder to pull off. Maybe so – I’ve never directed the improvised kind of indie flick. But, dialogue is the primary way your specific writer voice comes through.
I personally get caught up in little obsessions, like the tow truck guy saying “I’m takin’ this Elantra” in a thick Chicago accent, which cracks me up every time. I had to have an Elantra. By pure luck, my sister’s friend drove a Sonata, and fortunately they look the same, because “I’m takin’ this Sonata” just isn’t funny.
In terms of Gabby’s dialogue, I personally don’t have much experience with phone sex hotlines… (honest!) So, I ended up listening to a lot of YouTube videos. The movie isn’t really about being a phone sex operator anyway, it’s a device. What I found out from my research, I found fascinating. Even in this age of web cams, there are a ton of people just like Gabby out there, still doing that for a living.
For Gabby’s backstory, I spoke a lot with the actress, Rusty, who is an old friend, about what I had in mind, and I based some bits in the movie on stories she told me from her life. For example, the taco truck scene where the sisters speak their own gibberish language. My sister and her childhood friend, when they saw the movie at the premiere, were convinced I based it on them! I have memories of playing that game myself as a kid, thinking others would believe you’re really speaking a foreign language. It’s a classic childhood memory, and it really captures the bond the sisters once had.
Every scene was shot to script, with rare exceptions. My favorite is the scene in Martin’s kitchen where he gives Gabby the jar of honey. It’s a pretty long scene, and it ended up being a technical nightmare, because we were shooting so many scenes that day, and we were relying on ambient sunlight that was rapidly fading. We had an HMI outside the window, but we were on the second story, and the light stand was about three feet too short. It was sunlight, or no light. So, I gave up on the script. I told them, we’re going to shoot it all in one shot, and encouraged them to focus on the moment that transpires between them. We got one take, and they nailed it. Having a few little beats like that in your movie, where the familiar and reliable rhythm of scripted dialogue get momentarily broken up, helps make the whole film feel more raw and immediate.
What are my overall thoughts about dialogue? I guess, it’s equal parts character and tone.
1.The characters need to be believable, which doesn’t mean we have to understand everything that they say. But we need to believe that they believe what they’re saying.
2. Plus, tone: the thing that makes your movie unique. The thing that brings out your personal voice.
A side note on that “believable” point: If your characters are scientists in an expedition that gets stranded on the moon, the stuff they say should sound like what we think scientists would say. It’s really nice if it actually is what they would say, but professionals always like to nitpick when a movie gets some tiny thing inaccurate. If you’re writing a movie about scientists stranded on the moon, your target audience isn’t “scientists.” What an actual scientist says might not make a good story.
Most importantly, you want to be authentic to your own voice as a writer. Dialogue makes your script yours, and no one else’s. Keep in mind: Clever description won’t make it into the final movie. When I’ve done script coverage, I’ve often given the note on a particularly funny or insightful bit of text, “Put this in the dialogue.” Otherwise, you’re wasting it!
AFF Short Pick:
Hand-picked past competition films from the AFF film department
Second Skin (Amy Talkington’s 1998 AFF Short)
Most great writers get their start with a short film. Amy Talkington is one of those great writers. We are honored to have Amy as a film competition alumnus, winning the Jury Award for Narrative Student Short in 1998. Strong dialogue balances what characters choose to say, to whom, and when they are impulsed to say it. Take a look back in our archive and watch Amy’s winning short Second Skin.
On Story Movie Night Pick:
Screening with a postshow On Story conversation
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Looking to learn dialogue from a master? Look no further than the snappy, comedic back-and-forth in Nora Ephron’s writing. This week take time to fall in love with When Harry Met Sally and then check out our ON STORY episode to learn how Ephron’s dialogue and stories inspired current romantic comedy writers Tess Morris (Man Up) and Scott Neustadter (The Spectacular Now).
On Story: Deconstructing Nora Ephron
CONNECT WITH US
Which movie or show did you watch? Did it inspire your writing? Spark the conversation on Twitter using #AFFatHome.
Dialogue can be one of the toughest aspects of writing a script because the voice in our heads often sounds far different than how someone actually speaks. Even reading aloud, to ourselves, can evade our full grasp of how it will sound coming from an actor. This is why it’s paramount to have someone, even if they’re not Viola Davis, read your dialogue back to you. So, at some point this weekend, ask a friend, your writing partner, or Ryan Gosling (if you know him) to read your dialogue aloud. If you’d prefer to do this on your own, recording yourself and playing it back can be just as effective.
This exercise will not only expose pieces of dialogue that may not make sense, but will also show you the consistency of your character’s personalities, speech patterns, and overall development across the story. It will also reveal how complete your scenes may or may not be. Below are a few questions to keep in mind as your impromptu actor reads aloud:
- Is there any information you’re missing that was intended to come through the dialogue? If so, make note of where these are so you can adjust what’s needed.
- Are there any parts that feel unnecessary?
- Too much exposition through dialogue is a common mistake; are there any sections that could be conveyed through character behavior or subtext?
- How distinct does each character sound from one another?
- How does the dialogue inform the scene’s pacing?
Be sure to take notes as you listen so you can easily return to the section you’d like to adjust. Finally, be patient with yourself; dialogue can be one of the more time-consuming aspects of writing a script because creating something that’s supposed to sound spontaneous often takes a lot of effort and refinement.
– Sage Kosiorek, Script Competitions Director
Congratulations on another week of AFF at Home! By now you’ve established a writing routine. You’ve learned what it takes to develop a character. And this week you’ve mastered the art of dialogue – one of the most important aspects of any screenplay. When the lights come up at the theater and the credits start to roll, it’s those lines that are replaying in your head.