When we hear good dialogue in a film it sounds natural. The words spoken are believable, convincing, and never take you out of the story. Good dialogue in conversations, monologues, and even simple one-liners come off as effortless and we never second-guess what was spoken. At the other end of the spectrum is the obvious bad dialogue. When bad dialogue flies out of a character’s mouth we cringe. It’s usually flat, out of character, a poor use of language, and in most cases unnecessary. For something we do every day- talk- why are most writers speechless when it comes time to writing speech for their characters? Film dialogue isn’t a representation of the conversations we have with our co-workers or the cashier at the grocery store. What your characters say should be a condensed version with very specific goals and meanings just under the surface. Here are some important things to consider when learning how to write dialogue.
When it comes to dialogue, how you disclose information through dialogue can be summed up as either exposition or subtext. When poorly used, exposition in dialogue comes across as stating the obvious, giving way too much information. When your characters are stating exactly how they feel or what’s going on it’s called writing on the nose. It doesn’t sound natural and doesn’t feel right. How often do you walk into a room and tell everyone what’s going on and how you feel? Maybe if you’re Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but most of us use a filter before we open our mouths. Remember in The Goonies when Mama Fratelli and her sons threaten to put Chunk’s hand in the blender if he doesn’t start talking? Chunk shares more than they bargained (or hoped) for.
We want the truth! Spill your
guts! Tell us everything!
(hysterical, blabbering, exploding like a bullet)
Okay…okay…in third grade, I
cheated on my History exam…In
fourth grade, I stole my uncle’s
toupee and glued it on my face when
I played one of the Wise Men in our
school Christmas play… In fifth
grade I pushed my brother down the
stairs and blamed the dog…I…
So, if our characters can’t say everything, what do they say?
Subtext is one of the most important elements of writing great dialogue. Subtext is the unspoken message- what the scene is really about. This can be translated through nonverbal cues or dialogue that doesn’t quite match up with our gut feeling about the scene. Have you ever had someone tell you everything was fine, they’re great, but are obviously shaken up? Would you shrug it off and take their word or would you read between the lines? This goes back to the idea of show and don’t tell.
The movie Drive is lean on dialogue but heavy in subtext. When Carey Mulligan’s character gets a phone call before going out with the Driver she’s taken over by a look of dread. Later on their date she tells Driver it was her husband’s lawyer. He’ll be out of prison soon. This scene is very quiet and subtle but the subtext is deafening. They’ll never have a relationship. The time they’re spending together is coming to an end.
Not every word your character speaks will be coded. Sometimes exposition is necessary. You just need to be creative on how you use it. If you need to reveal necessary story givens make sure you reveal the information in an interesting way. Instead of having two characters plot out a complex art heist at the kitchen table over coffee, show them plotting as they case the museum while pretending to be tourists.
A character may also use exposition to really drive a point home. Sometimes stating the facts can be as painful as a knife in the back or as beautiful as sunset, but there’s no beating around the bush about the message. In Casablanca Isla doesn’t pull any punches when she lets Rick know she was a married woman while they were involved in Paris. In Diablo Cody’s Juno, sixteen year-old Juno needs to break it to her dad and step-mom that she’s pregnant. When the adults are taking guesses at what Juno needs to tell them Cody could have dragged this scene out with Juno trying to avoid spilling the beans and making excuses. Instead, Juno cuts to the chase and drops the bomb that she’s pregnant. You think that changed the tone of the conversation? You better believe it.
If you’ve developed interesting characters, their voices should be unique. They should speak as differently as they live their lives. Your 80 year-old Grandmother is not going to speak the same way as a drunk sailor looking for a fight at a dive bar. There’s no way you’re going to confuse the words of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kawalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
If you’re on the fence about whether or not your dialogue is working you need to look at the big picture. Here are some things to consider when you’re working on dialogue:
Does it serve a purpose? Can the information be translated to the audience through subtext or imagery? Think of the little robot hero in Pixar’s Wall-E. Aside from his robot noises and the ability to say his own name he doesn’t say too much.
Less is more. Next to silence, brevity in dialogue is golden. People speak in fragmented sentences- avoid long-winded monologues. The Artist, although a silent film, communicates dialogue through title cards. Even then, the words exchanged are brief and to the point.
Keep it honest to the characters and to the situation. If the characters have an established relationship they won’t be addressing each other by their names every time they speak. Nor will they rehash their relationship in detail. (How weird would that be if one of your friends always prefaced how long you’ve known each other and how you met?)
Condense conversations. Rule out the obvious small talk. In real life you can blabber on forever about the weather but your characters have goals they need to accomplish in 90-120 minutes on average. We can’t have our hero chatting away about what he had for lunch when there’s an asteroid hurling towards Earth. Time is of the essence!
Most important, keep it natural. Listen to other people and how they communicate with one another. Is a break-up in a coffee shop going to sound different than the words exchanged between ex-roommates who are barely on speaking terms? It’s not just what they say, but how they say it – and how they SHOW it with subtext.
The best way to improve your dialogue is to hear it out loud. Many times what looks good on the page doesn’t sound that great when it’s spoken. Stage a reading of your script with actors. Sure, you’ve been mumbling through these lines as you’ve been writing but you need fresh eyes and voices to read your words aloud. Actors will also bring their own ideas to the table. If a scene isn’t working, work through it. Try new things and see what works. Trust your gut. If it doesn’t sound right, work on it until it feels right.