When strength training, you always warm up muscles through light cardiovascular activity and during the actual lifting stage, weight is slowly added until the final repetition where weight is stacked to fully fatigue the muscles. The same can be said when writing screenwriting dialogue. Script dialogue must follow a specific format to effectively tell your story, convey emotions and drive progress without being too wordy. By allowing the last line of your dialogue to be the strongest, to hold the most weight, you provide the necessary force to progress the story – either vocally or through actions.
Carefully formulating your dialogue takes times and countless revisions, but when this technique is accomplished, dialogue is engaging, truthful and progressive.
The Hierarchy of Dialogue
In order to successfully accomplish this technique, you must change the way you view dialogue. Don’t simply think that dialogue are words necessary to tell the story. Rather, these words are the means in which the audience perceives the personalities, world and objectives of each character. Therefore, in order to maintain attention and interest, remember not all dialogue is created equal. Moreover, the placement of information within your dialogue is critical.
Ground Level – The first level of dialogue hierarchy revolves around setting the scene. While you must use your narrative descriptions to set the environment and physical/visual elements of a scene, the first several lines of dialogue assists this establishment while building its own personality pole for the specific character. While there are exceptions to this rule, never deliver the “BANG” of your dialogue at the beginning of an interaction. Use several lines to set up the scene – even if these lines are rich with emotion and drama.
Second Floor – Traveling up the stairs, you reach the second floor of dialogue hierarchy. This is the moment when a character begins to amplify his current emotional state and his primary objective. Even if he is trying to conceal both, the lines following the ground floor level provide an insight into the deeper thinkings and desires of a character. However, not everything is spilled into these words. They are used to hint, not give away.
Rooftop – The rooftop level of this tri-level hierarchy is the rarest. This is where genuine information and emotions are revealed. Again, you may not choose to fully reveal an emotion or objective, but these lines, delivered immediately before the scene closes, pushes the story forward through its weight and amount of energy.
The aforementioned dialogue hierarchy formula is not set in stone, and you’ll likely encounter a scene where it is not appropriate. That being mentioned, in most circumstances this formula or a close variation will consistently produce interesting scenes full of rich and vibrant dialogue.