The best advice on writing dialogue that I can give you is; don’t waste your time sitting in coffee shops listening to other people’s conversations. Contrary to what some experts will tell you, listening to people talk will not teach you how to write dialogue, it’ll only give you an insight into their private lives, (and a craving for more coffee). That’s because dialogue “on the screen”, sounds nothing like dialogue in real life.
Film Dialogue is Compact
Dialogue in a screenplay is filled to the brim with information, meaning and subtext. Not a single word should be wasted. In quality dialogue writing, each word has been selected to combine very carefully in a manner that expresses some very specific details, messages and clues to the audience, in the shortest possible time.
In real life that kind of focus and compression simply doesn’t happen when we speak naturally. We mumble, stumble and jumble words – often in meaningless sentences, often taking an age to express an idea effectively, and often not managing to make sense at all.
The skill of writing good dialogue is to cram meaning into as few words as possible, in a manner that allows an actor to deliver them in a way that sounds realistic and regular. The ability to achieve this is in the writer understanding the art of acting, and the actor respecting the words of the writer – the end result is after all collaboration between the two.
“If you want to write great dialogue, the first step is letting go of the conception that dialogue is something characters SAY to one another. Instead, I want to encourage you to think of dialogue as something characters DO to one another.”
Dialogue is Never Delivered in a Vacuum
The meanings of words are affected by the emotional state of the character speaking, the relationship they have with whoever they are talking to, and the context in which the words are said. The old adage; “Actions speak louder than words” is very true when writing a screenplay, and so dialogue should always combine with the action to communicate the message. Keep in mind that the action could be big or small and anything in-between… a huge explosion, or a quick wink and half smile.
Take the following two lines for example;
There are so any ways to play this scene. Does Lesley really care? Is fine sarcastic? Are they at home in the living room or lying on the floor after an explosion has taken out a building they just left? Did either of the characters smile or wink? Keeping the dialogue, but giving the smile and to each of the two different characters would give the scene two different meanings. What is the relationship between them? Mother and daughter would carry a different subtext to two male co-workers.
A writer has to rely on an actor to deliver the lines they write. When you write dialogue, give them space to deliver the lines realistically, but also give them enough clues as to how to deliver the meaning behind the words.
On the Nose
In real life people can’t usually say exactly what they mean (for one reason or another), and so when they do in a screenplay, it reads as unrealistic. Dialogue that is “on the nose” means that it is forthright, direct and literal. If it’s too obvious and has neither restraint nor sensitivity it is probably on the nose.
We all know the expression “out of the mouths of babes”, often used to cover up an embarrassing moment when 4 year old Jonny tells the mayor “You’ve got a big nose!” That’s “on the nose” dialogue. No subtlety, compassion or tact. Of course some characters are designed to be direct, blunt and “on the nose”.
Superior dialogue mostly benefits from an indirect approach, one where characters lines are not too invasive, yet the meaning is clear. If characters are not too direct, and use words that belie the meaning bubbling below the surface, the writer is subtly able to reveal clues as to the true nature of their character.
If the dialogue is what an actor says, then subtext is what the character means. Subtext is a fabulous tool that can (among other things) be used to create tension, reveal intension and expose character.
We’ve all seen it… the characters are talking about one thing but actually mean another. An example that I like to quote is in the 1960 version of the film “Spartacus” directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Dalton Trumbo, the scene takes place between Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier) and Antoninus (Tony Curtis).
To further clarify, subtext is not the result of something not being said. It is rather the result of what is being said, having a different meaning within the context of the situation the characters find themselves in.
In this extract from Spartacus, they are of course discussing sexual preferences, not their favourite types of food, which is why it was cut from the first release of the film, as it was considered too risqué for the day. The action and state of undress – Antonidus, wearing only a tight pair of shorts, gently bathing a nude Crassus, rubbing his bare body down with a cloth… and the location – they are both in a large Roman bath… give some additional clues as to the meaning behind the words.
Silence is also Dialogue
When a character says to a loved one “I love you.” and their partner answers “I don’t love you.” that would be “on the nose” dialogue. But no answer at all, has another meaning. It leaves room for interpretation. The audience has to figure it out, and at that point you’ve got them hooked. They’re intrigued and captivated and ready to experience the ride.
Questions are a Useful Tool
You can use questions to injecting subtext into a scene. Sometimes you can say more by having a character not answer a question than by them answer one … or by answering a question with another question … or by having them changing the subject.
Understatement and Irony
This is a tool you can use when characters (in your first draft) make absolute statements, or ask yes – no questions. Instead of having them answer with the obvious, allow the character to reveal a different truth about themselves or the situation.
SHORT DIALOGUE WRITING EXERCISE
Write a short scene between two characters who are brothers. The one has been sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime that the other has committed. They have just two minutes together, watched over by a prison guard. You are not allowed to let the guard –who is listening in – know what’s happened, or give away any incriminating evidence.