5 things to include in your opening dialogue.

The opening lines in 127 Hours (screenplay by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy) are an answerphone message from Aron’s sister:

“Hey, Sonia here…again… I know you’re probably gonna be away this weekend, but listen… just think about what we’re gonna play, ‘cause we have to decide if we need to practice, it will be fun, anyway…oh…and, please call Mom, ‘cause, you know, she worries…”

These lines refer to 5 things:

1. Character Arc.

Why doesn’t Aron answer the phone? We see he’s super-busy preparing his trip, grabbing the bits and pieces he needs. And we all know how annoying phone calls are when we’re trying to get stuff done. But this preoccupation with himself shows us he is more focused on his own needs than his sister’s. The fact that Sonia emphasizes again tells us this isn’t the first time she’s called. And so Aron’s character flaw is illuminated – the flaw that will not only cause his extreme suffering but will also cause him to grow and change.

2. Foreshadowing.

‘Think about what we’re gonna play’ foreshadows a line of dialogue at the Act 2 Turning Point paid off when Aron apologizes to his sister for not being able to play the piano at her wedding. This apology tells us something way deeper and more important: that he has lost the battle. He is defeated. Michael Hague calls this the All is Lost moment. Blake Synder the Visit to Death.

3. Theme.

Sonia reminds Aron to call Mom as ‘she worries’. Later Aron realizes that if he hadn’t have been so selfish, if he had returned his mom’s calls, he would’ve told her where he was going and he would’ve been rescued. Major theme: interconnectedness + familial love.

So these opening lines not only foreshadow the Act 2 Turning Point before Aron’s do or die drive to survive, but they immediately point us to both theme and character arc.

SPOILER alert – please watch the movie before reading the rest of this post.

4. Endearing us to the Hero.

One of my favorite lines of dialogue comes where Aron meets the two lost female hikers. Aron rocks down the hill, superhero to the rescue, to help them with their map-reading. Realizing his mask is high on his face and he must look pretty scary, Aron jokes something about looking like Jason from Friday the 13th. Not only is this funny, and, as Michael Hague tells us in Screenwriting for Hollywood, funny always endears us to a hero, but it’s oozing subtext. Which brings us to –

5. Subtext.

Aron’s lines hiding a much deeper and far more sinister meaning. Check out his line:

Sorry about the Friday 13th thing. I’m only a psychopath on weekdays.

We don’t read much into it on first viewing. But actually it’s preparing us for – or foreshadows – the sudden Act 3 genre twist from family adventure drama to slasher/horror.

‘I’m not usually a psychopath,’ he’s saying (my paraphrase) ‘but stick around and later you can watch me hack my own arm off, Saw style.’

Are your opening lines of dialogue:

1. Pointing us to character arc?

2. Foreshadowing the climax?

3. Reflecting the theme?

4. Endearing us to your hero?

5. Harboring hidden meaning?

How deep is your dialogue?

3 comments

  1. Great article on dialogue. I consult on many scripts and it’s so tiring to read every character saying exactly what they mean with everything on the surface. I tell writers, “most times you should not have a character respond. It says volumes more than if the character said anything.” Dialogue can be very tricky to write. It also involves loads of subtext. Writers need to observe and listen and soak up experiences like a sponge. I like your five points that Act One dialogue should follow. I’m glad to have found your blog.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s