"You think you can write dialogue like me? YOU think you can write dialogue like ME??"
I hope you don’t think you’re going to learn a lot about dialogue in this article. Dialogue is a constant battle for me. It’s something I don’t totally understand. The reason for this is that dialogue is the one aspect of screenwriting you can’t truly “break down.” You can’t divide dialogue into three acts. You can’t add a character arc to dialogue. You can’t give dialogue backstory. You simply write down the voices in your head. And while some people have interesting voices to draw from, others don’t.
The funny thing is, dialogue looks so damn easy from afar! In fact, it’s why most people get into screenwriting. They think, “I can write better dialogue than THAT!” So they dive in, write up 120 usually autobiographical pages (likely the crazy adventures of them and their friends – “Our life is just like a movie!!!”), show it to their inner circle, get a bunch of polite but suspiciously distant “I liked its” punctuated by one brave soul who’s willing to say what everybody’s thinking: “I don’t get it. It’s just a bunch of people talking.”
Ohhhh. You learn your first lesson. Dialogue actually has to have a POINT! It actually has to move the story forward. Why didn’t somebody tell me? Quentin Tarantino has ten minute scenes about Royals with Cheese. Why can’t I do that? Because you’re not Quentin Tarantino. You’re you. And “you” has to learn that within every scene of dialogue, there must be a purpose. In fact, you should be doing SEVERAL things with your dialogue at once. And that’s where we learn just how difficult dialogue is. Sure, if all you had to do was have characters talk, dialogue would be easy. Instead, there are five main things that need to be accomplished whenever characters speak. Let’s take a look at them.
MOVE THE STORY FORWARD – Every scene should have a point. It should be moving the plot along in some way. If a problem is introduced into your story and a scene goes by without the characters attempting to address that problem, guess what? You’re not moving your story forward. So when your characters are talking, make sure the majority of what they say centers around pushing their own goals and needs along. You do that, you’ll be pushing the story forward. If no one wants anything? If characters just talk about life and stuff? Your dialogue isn’t doing its job.
REVEAL CHARACTER – You want to use your dialogue to tell us more about your characters. Screenplays are short. They’re not like TV shows where you have hundreds of hours to delve into a character’s life. Therefore you have to sneak character development in wherever you can. Dialogue certainly isn’t the only way to do this, but it’s one way. If a character says he just spent three hours at the gym, that tells us he’s a workout freak. If a character always talks about his ex-girlfriend, that tells us he’s not over his ex-girlfriend. One of the big ways to reveal character through dialogue is to identify your character’s fatal flaw and keep hitting on it throughout the script. Look at Rocky. Here’s a character who doesn’t fully believe in himself. So we get a scene where he expresses fear at the idea of fighting Apollo. We get a scene where he nervously flirts with Adrian. We get a scene where Mick tells him he’s a bum. The dialogue is constantly reminding us that Rocky doesn’t believe in himself yet, which is a key part of his character.
EXPOSITION – Exposition is the worst. It’s hard enough to make dialogue sound good on its own. Now we have to waste it on logistical story elements every 8 minutes? It’s like trying to pick up a girl and then her disapproving friend walks up. The words just don’t come out as easily. This is why the trick with exposition is to simplify what you need to say and convey it in as few words as possible. Exposition is always going to trip up your dialogue a LITTLE bit. But at least this way you minimize the damage.
KEEP IT UNDER 2 PAGES – To me, this is one of the hardest things about dialogue. If we had 5-6 pages for every conversation, dialogue would be as easy as accusing Justin Bieber of fathering your baby (baby baby ohhhhh...). But the average film scene is 2 minutes long. 2 MINUTES! That’s only 2 pages for your characters to say everything they gotta say. This is why new writers hear this critique so much: “Cut cut cut cut cut.” You gotta cut everything down to its bare essence because you don’t have time in your scene to include all the bullshit. Sure, some scenes are longer than others. A five minute dialogue scene is not unheard of. But it's still rare. Which means learning how to scrunch all your dialogue into a very small space.
ENTERTAIN – This is the scariest part of all when it comes to dialogue. After you do all that stuff – the story, the exposition, the characters, the minimizing – the dialogue still has to entertain us! It still has to sound like two people talking in real life, even though in real life, every one of these conversations would probably go on for more than an hour! That means going back, smoothing it all out, editing it, rearranging it, adding a joke or two, and continuously asking yourself, “Does this sound like two people really talking?” Until the answer is “Yes,” keep rewriting it.
Now that we know the stipulations working against us for writing brilliant dialogue, let’s talk about the tools you can use to fight these inhibitors. I don’t have all the answers. I fight against dialogue every day. That said, I know these five tools help improve dialogue.
COME IN LATE, LEAVE EARLY
This was mentioned in the comments the other day and it’s a great tip – especially for beginners. Come into your scene as late as possible and leave your scene as early as possible. In other words, only give us the meat of the scene. Not the fat. Say your characters are meeting at a coffee shop. Tom is getting the coffee while Sarah waits at the table. Tom says, “What do you want again!?” “A double mocha decaf!” “Large?!” “Uhh, yeah, large!” Tom waits, grabs the coffees, walks over, sits down, a moment for the two to get settled, they ease into a conversation…and then SOMEWHERE around here they actually start talking about the story. UHHHHHHH…NO! Why the hell would you include all that irrelevant nonsense?? Start with them ALREADY AT THE TABLE WITH THEIR COFFEES. Catch them five minutes into their conversation, right when they’re talking about the important stuff. That’s what I mean by “Come in late.” Then, as soon as you’ve met the point of your scene, get out. Once Obi-Wan and Luke agree on a transport fee with Han in the Cantina scene, they don’t sit around for another five minutes chatting about the weather on Kashyyyk. We cut away. Now obviously there’s some flexibility in this rule. Sometimes you want William Wallace to take his time riding through the village, building up the suspense, before he BEATS DOWN the English. But for the most part, coming in late and getting out early will keep your dialogue focused and on point. You won’t write a bunch of boring shit if you only include the meat.
The best dialogue scenes are set up ahead of time by carefully building up your character’s goals, secrets, motivations, etc. You then place them in a scene (preferably with something at stake), and watch the dialogue write itself. For example, Joe and Jane talking about their friend’s wedding is boring. But if we find out beforehand that Jane plans to kill Joe in this scene, talking about that wedding becomes a lot more interesting. Paul meeting his potential father-in-law is mildly entertaining. But if Paul’s girlfriend tells him beforehand that she’ll never marry someone her father doesn’t approve of, now Paul meeting his father-in-law is SUPER entertaining. Watching Mick beg Rocky to be his coach is a strong scene no matter where it is in the film. But the reason it’s a classic is because we watched Mick kick Rock out of his gym and tell him he didn’t believe in him earlier. So if a scene isn’t working, go back in your script and see if you can set it up better. Once you find the right situation, the dialogue will write itself.
This is one of the best ways to improve your dialogue. Give one character a secret. Give both characters a secret. Or tell the audience something the characters don’t know. If you do any of these things, you’ll create subtext, unspoken words beneath the text. If we know that Frank plans to break up with JoJo, then anything they talk about before the break-up will have subtext. If Julie secretly likes Tom and the two accidentally get stuck in the bathroom at a party, anything they talk about (Math class, bird watching, dinosaurs) will have subtext. There are other ways to achieve subtext (which you guys are free to highlight in the comments section) but this approach tends to create the most powerful dialogue situations.
STAY AWAY FROM ON THE NOSE
When we first write dialogue for a scene, we often think literally. If a character asks, “Are you thirsty?” We might have the other character respond, “Yes. Could you get me some water?” That’s a very literal on-the-nose response. Most people talk in and around what they’re trying to say instead of saying exactly what they’re thinking. They use slang, sarcasm, manipulation, indifference, caution – any number of things – to keep the conversation off-center. Rarely does dialogue go down a straight path. So let’s ask that question again. “Are you thirsty?” A more interesting response might be, “No, my lips always dry up and bleed like this.” Your characters are not robots. Nobody speaks literally. So make sure you’re mucking up the dialogue and that no one is speaking on-the-nose.
KNOW YOUR FUCKING CHARACTERS (KYFC)
Writers hate doing character biographies because it takes so much damn time, but holy hell does it work. Why? Because the more you know about your character, the more specific you can make their dialogue. Bad dialogue is usually general – vague, non-specific. Rick comes home late one night and spots his roommate, Jed, on the couch. “What’s up man?” “Not much. How’d your day go?” “Shitty. I’m exhausted.” This is the most general boring conversation EVER. Let’s say I did some character biographies ahead of time though and found out that Rick is an aspiring actor and Jed is a compulsive gambler. Let’s try this again. (Rick stumbles in) “I’ve got two words: Fuck Stanislofsky.” “I need to borrow money.” Rick gives Jed a look. Jed: “What?? How was I supposed to know Vick would tear his MCL.” “I’m not giving you any more money.” “Come on. The Raiders are a sure thing.” It ain’t going to win any Academy awards but it’s certainly better than “How’d your day go?” Why? Because it’s SPECIFIC. It reveals character. It has the people in the scene saying things only they would say. Do your homework on your characters. I promise it will pay off.
And that’s all I got my friends. I know it’s not the end all article on dialogue but the truth is I don’t know everything about dialogue. Which is why I’m turning to you. Please. I want to learn. Tell me how YOU approach this aspect of screenwriting. What tips and tricks help you? This is the least defined area of screenwriting. Let’s try and crack it.