Dual dialogue: you’re doing it wrong

September 18th, 2011 | by | screenwriting


Dual dialogue — i.e., dialogue positioned in two columns side-by-side to indicate two characters speaking simultaneously — is another in the list of things that modern screenwriting programs do pretty badly.

Here’s what it’s supposed to look like:

          CHARACTER 1                        CHARACTER 2
We're both speaking at exactly     You're right!  We are!
the same time!

Except that getting it to look that way while you’re writing isn’t necessarily all that straightforward.

Final Draft, for instance, makes you first type both characters’ dialogue normally, as one speaking after the other. Then, afterward, you can choose to reformat them both as dual dialogue. The catch is that after you do that, you can’t edit it. No, seriously: changing it to dual dialogue makes it into some sort of static artifact that can’t be modified. Want to change what one character is saying? Fix a comma? You have to reformat it back to regular dialogue, edit it, then make it (non-editable) dual dialogue again. And then you still can’t search for any of the text within it.

Movie Magic Screenwriter, on the other hand, doesn’t even display dual dialogue side-by-side during editing. Instead, it staggers it like this:

          CHARACTER 1
We're both speaking at exactly
the same time!

                                             CHARACTER 2
                                   Even though it doesn't look
                                   like it....

Although it promises that when you go to print it, it’ll look like it’s supposed to — and at least it allows you to edit it. (But if the software is capable of rendering dual dialogue properly, why not do it properly from the start?)1

As for other screenwriting applications, something like Celtx doesn’t handle things any better than Movie Magic Screenwriter. In fact, Celtx doesn’t even stagger the dialogue: it leaves it all as a single column until printing. Other screenwriting programs, including Adobe Story, don’t even try to do dual dialogue.

The failure of a word-processing application to properly render text in its supported format and allow you to, you know, edit it is a pretty notable shortcoming in 2011. In fact it’s been pretty notable shortcoming since 1990 or so, back when Microsoft Word gave the world WYSIWYG columns.

From the beginning, Fade In Professional Screenwriting Software was designed to be highly flexible and extensible with regard to layout. The capability to handle things like dual dialogue has existed internally for a long time, but I’ve spent almost as long soliciting input from other writers as to the best way to implement it from a user interface perspective. I was most familiar (and most unhappy) with Final Draft’s way of doing it, but part of the goal with the software has been to do things in a fashion familiar to users of other screenwriting programs — except where those other programs do something so wrongly that to do it the same way would be a mistake.

Turns out that dual dialogue is one of the latter.

So now, when you want dual dialogue and you’re using Fade In Professional Screenwriting Software, you can just type. It looks like dual dialogue as you edit it — and you can edit it. Selection, cut-and-paste, moving things around, layout reflow: all work as expected. You can easily turn it on or off. And it looks exactly the same when you print it as it does on your monitor.2

And if you’re not using Fade In Professional Screenwriting Software, you’ll have to —

Well, wait.

Why aren’t you?

  1. There are a number of reasons why a particular program might not do it properly, ranging from the software’s architecture not being designed to handle it, to the programmers not knowing how to do it, to the company just deciding it’s not worth their time — even when you might’ve spent up to $250 for their application — but I won’t speculate on which applies to what. Suffice it to say that none of them are very comforting reasons when you’re talking about professional screenwriting software.
  2. And it took a whole two days to program once I decided how I wanted it to work. Perhaps those of you not using FI should mention that to whoever makes your screenwriting software.

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