Dialogue expert?

I recently tried my hand as a linguistic consultant for a screenwriter. Through a listserv, I learned of someone in New York who was seeking assistance from a dialogue expert on his movie script. I’m a sociolinguist; I firmly believe my in-depth training in linguistics and, in my case, discourse analysis in particular, is applicable in any field. Language (this includes visual representations of communication) is how humans relay our thoughts. It is how we build societies, communities, establish relationships; it is the medium through which we love, fight, debate, negotiate and share our lives. There are many types of language experts (as a speechwriter, for instance, my husband is an expert in political and commercial discourse). My expertise lies in the mechanics of social discourse: I approach conversations in context to identify what specific discursive moves reveal about underlying norms and expectations.

So when I finished my PhD recently and had time during the job search, I reached out to the screenwriter. I made clear that I had no experience working on movie scripts, but that, as a discourse analyst, I had many years experience applying my skills in a range of fields, lending insight into various institutional interactions, including education, healthcare, and legal communications.

The meeting with the screenwriter was itself a rich interaction for potential sociolinguistic inquiry 😉 Clearly we were trained in different fields and voiced very different perspectives. He was an artist. Having just submitted my dissertation the previous week, I noted some similarities between his commitment to his script – which had also taken him years to complete – and my own manuscript. He was adamant that none of the characters be changed in any way. His goal seemed straight forward: he wanted good, dynamic dialogue and he was aware that the speech of the characters was a critical aspect to their portrayal as distinct and compelling individuals. Of course, a movie script has a format specific to the movie industry, and thus I expressed concern for how much room there would be for me to apply my knowledge of “real” discourse while still respecting the medium, in which I had no training whatsoever.

We decided I should read some of the script for Thelma and Louis, which this writer felt had similarities with his own film, and then attempt edits on his script after I had familiarized myself with movie script dialogue. I love the way the characters speak in Thelma and Louis, a movie I have seen many times, and it was fascinating reading the written representation. I kept wondering how true the recited lines remained to the script, though, and how much room there was to add or subtract pauses, hesitations, discourse markers….the things I knew to be integral to building discourse and representing relationships. Was this the job of the actors, or should linguistic idiosyncrasies – important for character development – be highlighted in the script?

I worked on about 20 pages from the middle of the movie script the writer sent me. He had made the characters clear to me in our meeting and he had written a good screenplay. What I felt it needed in order to really portray the personality traits and relationship details he had told me about, were the tiny discursive details: a “well,” here to show the next speaker was not quite in agreement with the first, a quick “um”-filled pause to highlight this character’s uncertainty, etc. I really enjoyed the work and I accompanied my suggestions with a page of notes explaining why I made the specific suggestions. I share a few of my notes here:

  1. I would have Character Y use almost all assertives and directives. Based on what you told me about her, she should almost always use the first-person; everything is from her point of view and assessment. I think it’s great she speaks for Character X on page #. It is a good verbal representation of her attempts to control/position X in the day-to-day. I would perhaps have her do this more often. I also like that she talks about “we” in reference to Character Z even though they are not, in fact, united.
  2. The three girls’ speech is a bit too evolved, especially X’s. Based on how you described her to me, I would have her use a lot more “I don’t know”s and “just”s – hedging her responses – except maybe with Y, with whom she is struggling for more independence (this is the small way in which she rebels, pushing back and asserting herself verbally a bit more than she does otherwise). 
  3. And the “kids” should be using more casual forms of speech, especially with one another (e.g., “yeah” and not “yes”)
  4. It seems X should repeatedly refer to the general “unfairness” of things. She’s still young and powerless and does not have a whole lot of other recourse for expressing her displeasure or articulating WHY it’s unfair. 
  5. I have added in more “response markers” – indications of how a next speaker is receiving and reacting to what the other person just said and how their statement is meant to align or disalign with that (i.e. yeah, but, I know, well, hmmm, etc.). This can also be done with gestures. People do this throughout conversation and it’s a critical part of building understanding (and probably for giving the audience insight to intentions as well).

While I enjoyed my hour or two working on character dialogue, I am perhaps more interested in the screenwriter’s response to my suggestions. Mostly, that our brief collaboration reminded him of what he was taught in graduate school: that film dialogue is not real speech – but instead is “more terse, effective and direct.” He emailed me that my changes did not adhere to this format. In addition, he felt that my suggestions required making changes to the characters (even though I had made the suggestions based on his character descriptions). He took time to think and told me we might meet to try again. I think what he is looking for is a movie dialogue expert – either a fellow script writer who has a knack for great movie dialogue or collaboration with a gifted actor known for their versatility and convincing approach to dialogue on screen, neither of which is “real” discourse. This experience reminded me how linguists constantly have their work cut out for them to clearly communicate how we are different from other types of language experts and how our types of expertise are best applied outside academia. I still believe I could be valuable to this screenplay process once we have established a clear understanding of “real” discourse in the context of movie dialogue.

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