Chapter 3: Literacies across the disciplines
Plain Dealer Excellence in Writing award winner
There are many tools that make up a good screenplay: good plot structure, catering to the audience, creativity, and dialogue. Writers in film, unlike in other mediums such as books and plays, are rarely recognized or even acknowledged. Since most of their work is adapted by many, many people throughout the filmmaking process, it’s rare that their true importance is glaringly obvious. However, out of all the tools I mentioned above, dialogue is the exception to this idea. How the scriptwriter forms dialogue shapes character and story in ways that the audience cannot attribute to any other member of the film’s crew. The dialogue is mainly the work of the screenplay and is what makes or breaks the film.
To first understand the literacy behind dialogue in the screenplay, let’s explore concepts from linguist James Gee’s article “What is Literacy”. Literacy, as described by Gee, is having enough knowledge about the behavior of a particular community to where we have control over the way we perceive or enact this behavior (Gee 23). This coincides with discourse, which is a particular way of speaking, acting, and thinking that a certain group of people share (Gee 18). The community of screenwriters is an example of a discourse, since they have their own way of speaking, acting, and thinking within their medium. Each writer is knowledgeable about the literacy of writing screenplays. Specifically in writing dialogue, a screenwriter must understand the literacy within a particular character’s community to the extent to where they give a faithful adaptation of how said character would speak. Therefore, most of the time writers will do what’s called “writing what you know”, since it removes the complexity of being taught a completely new discourse. The most talented dialogue writers are those who successfully acquired language in their own life. Acquisition is the process of acquiring something subconsciously by exposure as a person needs to acquire said knowledge to exist functionally in their environments (Gee 20). This is why talented writers who are shut-ins or someone who failed to acquire the discourse of conversation will fall short in their dialogue, thus deeming their work as flawed. Specifically in screenwriting dialogue is more important than the description of action because it is what the audience consciously perceives as they watch the film. By this, I mean that a screenwriter can create a beautifully structured plot that will shape the film, but the audience won’t recognize this as their contribution in the same way that they will notice if their dialogue is poorly written.
In my first article “Character over concept: Writing dialogue in search of story” by Robert Greens of the University of Brighten, we will see how screenwriters use acquisition to write authentic dialogue. The article argues that there is importance in letting character, scene, and story be driven by the development of dialogue since this allows for more ease in the creative process and develops stronger characters/stories (Greens 39). Robert Greens uses examples from two screenwriting manuals: McKee’s Story (1999) and Snyder’s Save the Cat! (2005), as well as statements from successful writer-directors such as Noah Baumbach and his peers to come to his findings on the craft of story-driving dialogue. Said findings are that screenwriting manuals miss a more successful and effective technique used by famous writers to create award winning screenplays. This technique is screenwriting driven by dialogue in where the story follows what a character would do rather than pre-arranged plot structure (Greens 43). For example, Noah Baumbach says that he uses the deep and unconscious desires of his characters to drive the story, where these desires are revealed to the audience through how they talk in dialogue (Greens 47). The use of character driven story means that a writer would have to completely ditch what they were taught from screenwriting manuals. They would have to, in turn, exchange scene-by-scene outlining for spontaneous character decisions caused by dialogue. After the publication of this article, more studies need to be done on the way that screenwriting is taught today. Greens believes that “screenwriting manuals” should be re-examined as studying professional screenwriters and their practices are much more valuable than script gurus who claim to have the secrets to success (Greens 52). The whole point of the study is that the way the literacy of screenwriting is taught in books is unlike the actual way screenwriting is done by professionals. These professionals use the acquisitions a particular character has experienced in their life to drive a story. These acquisitions are the traits gained subconsciously as described by James Gee and as is vital in Noah Baumbach’s technique to screenwriting. This technique is the truly authentic way to creating story that creates attention around a usually overlooked screenwriter.
In the second article, “An overview of the linguistics of screenwriting and its interdisciplinary connections” by Monika Bednarek, we’ll discuss the nature of TV dialogue and its relationship to the audience. This article was written not only to connect linguists and television screenwriters but also in the hopes of promoting further awareness of linguistic study on TV dialogue. Bednarek found that most of the emotional language written for TV was done for the audience’s entertainment (Bednarek 10). This seems obvious that a writer would focus on how dialogue can benefit the watching experience of television, but it’s much deeper than that. One page in the article is entirely full of a chart giving examples of actual dialogue from television and explaining how it benefits the audience. For example, having the characters speak on the phone about how far away they are from a certain location can identify time and space (Bednarek 9). Dialogue can function as anything from helping the audience understand the plot to creating suspense that’ll make them come back for the next episode. By using an understanding of linguist’s work, dialogue can be written with language devices that calculatedly invite certain emotions from the audience (Bednarek 10). If linguists get a hand in screenwriting theory, they can teach certain tools from their own discourse to help benefit the screenwriting discourse. In James Gee’s “What is Literacy”, he explains that it is inevitable for someone to be a part of multiple discourses and for them to conflict. This isn’t always the case, and Bednarek’s idea to combine the knowledge of both groups is evidence of this. Unfortunately, in the end, TV language is written as is taught in screenwriting manuals (Bednarek 10). This brings us back to the previous article where Greens argued against script gurus in favor of learning from actual writers. Both Greens and Bednarek understand that there are different and possibly more effective ways to learn and execute screenwriting. Yet again, another article proves that there needs to be more study on screenwriting. I blame this lack of academic research on how overlooked screenwriters are. In television, their power is much greater than in films, yet they still lack the awareness that leads to proper education on their subject.
Our last article, Aline Remael’s “Mainstream Narrative Film Dialogue and Subtitling”, details how social psychology discourses overlap with the function of screenwriting language (specifically dialogue) before going on to discuss how verbal exchanges play out in subtitling. For the purpose of this essay, we will only focus on her writings of dialogue and avoid her discussion on subtitling. Contrary to the previous article, Ramael chooses to argue in favor of studying social psychology over linguistics when trying to formulate and examine dialogue. There are two types of communication going on when dialogue is happening on screen. There’s ‘horizontal communication’ shared between the participating characters and then there’s ‘vertical communication’ between those characters and the audience (Remael 3). Horizontal communication is a term that describes discourse between members of the same social level. Vertical communication is the opposite where there is conversation between members of different social levels. In the case of the characters inside a film, they share the same type of experience since they exist strictly within the realm of their story. Us viewers, on the other hand, have an omniscient power over these characters, giving us more control and thus a higher social status in this situation. Further, there is often an unspoken understanding between characters in their socio-cultural environment during conversation that impacts the way the viewer learns and understands their back story (Remael 4). This coincides with Gee’s understanding of a discourse, where members of said discourse have an identity kit; a way of behaving and thinking that is shared. Members of onscreen dialogue will understand each other’s subconscious or unspoken behavior as they would in real life. For dialogue to function, there must be a degree of symmetry between both parties, but there also must be a degree of asymmetry between them for the plot to move forward (Remael 4). The importance of symmetry is for the characters to share enough say in a conversation for it to be dialogue and not just a monologue. However, there needs to be at least one participating character who has a slight edge of control over the others in the conversation. Without this, the conversation would not be motivated and would thus have no purpose. These are all very important factors that screenwriters need to think about when they write dialogue.
Overall, there is much for the academic community to think about when it comes to screenwriting. More focus should be placed on the medium, especially in today’s age where film and television is of heavy importance to society. I find that dialogue is a very important starting point for this conversation as it is the most direct communication between screenwriter and audience. Screenwriters should think about outside discourses such as linguists and social psychologists for the most effective dialogue. They should also let dialogue drive their storytelling more often, as it creates more authentic stories. Film is only in its second century as an artform, being one of the youngest. Let us not overlook it, especially with how much of an impact it has on pop culture.
Gee, James. “What is Literacy.” Journal of Education (1989): 18-25.
Greens, Robert. “Character over concept: Writing dialogue in search of story.” Journal of Screenwriting 8.1 (2017): 39-54.
Bednarek, Monika. “An overview of the linguistics of screenwriting and its interdisciplinary connections, with special focus on dialogue in episodic television.” Journal of Screenwriting 6/2 (special issue on writing for television) (2015): 221-238.
Remael, Aline. “Mainstream narrative film dialogue and subtitling: A case study of Mike Leigh’s ‘Secrets & Lies’(1996).” The Translator 9.2 (2003): 225-247.