Alfred Hitchcock had a famous quote to the effect that you should be able to understand the entire story of a film without sound. There is no doubt that a film should strongly convey its story through images. But what would a film be like if you couldn’t hear those famous words… “And this one time, in band camp…”? How many witty dinner moments would never have been without “you just pucker your lips and blow”? “You talking to me?”, “I drink your milkshake!”, “Why so serious?” These are all great movie moments specifically because of the dialogue. A movie without dialogue is like a tree without leaves, retaining function, but not nearly as pretty.
Dialogue is an integral part of the storytelling process. It’s about information flow. It should reveal plot, character and/or theme without appearing to. The correct balance between what we see and what we hear in a film is what marks a world-class script.
What makes the difference between good dialogue and bad dialogue?
THE ILLUSION OF REALITY
One of the most common mistakes screenwriters make is they try to write realistically. No one talks in real life as they do in the movies. Conversely, if film dialogue accurately reflected how people really carried on most conversations, you’d be instantly bored. You are not writing reality, you are writing the illusion of reality. And this goes for Avengers: Infinity War as well as Moonlight. Drama or fantasy, it’s not real because people don’t talk like that – period.
What you are trying to capture is the essence of a moment, the core of it. You’re attempting to make us privy to a sort of articulate shorthand between characters that would never occur in real life. Try this: once you finish your dialogue read it into a tape recorder. If you can listen to it without grimacing (or being bored) then you’re on your way to creating good, strong “realistic” dialogue.
SHOW DON’T TELL
A cardinal tenet in film making is the art and craft of showing something not telling about it. In a lot of low budget films, you get more dialogue scenes telling about a situation rather than showing it because the filmmakers can’t afford shooting background scenes. Television also uses this “talking head” approach to storytelling. Plays are all “talking (or singing) heads.” A good film should show and tell in balance.
An extreme example of show and little tell (and one that worked wonderfully) is A Quiet Place where
the characters couldn’t talk to each other much.
How does an article on dialogue use a movie that has hardly any? The dialogue you do get in A Quiet Place is tight, to the point, and by the time it comes, you’re hungry for it. Now that’s great dialogue even if it’s rarely heard. I guess sign language counts as showing.
ADD A SPOON FULL OF ACTION
If you haven’t seen The Terminator or haven’t seen it recently, review the brilliant scene between Reese and Sara Conner where he has to fill her in (and the audience) as to who is chasing them and why. While he’s being shot at, chased by cops and the Terminator, and Sara is trying to escape from their speeding car because she thinks he’s a maniac killer, Reece is shouting out the entire backstory plot about the destruction of mankind by robots, who the thing chasing them is, and who he is and why he came to the past from the future to save her. Whew! This is a wonderful example of how you can get in a ton of exposition by just creating some action in the scene.
The brilliant movie Truly, Madly, Deeply has a scene where two people have just met but it’s late in the film. The filmmakers need to establish a rapport between two characters quickly. We don’t need this info, but the characters do. Anthony Minghella hops on one foot while they give this very bland information. Sounds odd but it works. You’re distracted enough with this hopping thing that you don’t really notice you’re basically getting this somewhat dull info (that you don’t really need) along the way.
Characters walking, running – even hopping – makes a visually interesting backdrop for information. Always try to put your words in motion.
MAKE ME UNCOMFORTABLE
In the wonderful Green Book, there is an amazing moment where Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali have an extended dialogue scene in the pouring rain. Had that scene occurred in a coffee shop or restaurant it would have never grabbed anyone the way this setting did.
Putting scenes in static environments like restaurants or coffee shops should be avoided. There are very few memorable restaurant or coffee shop scenes that don’t involve violence or sex. There is almost nothing dynamic about these scenes.
Truly great dialogue is possible if people are hungry for it.
In the film Black Panther Killmonger is an enigmatic character who obviously knows something we don’t. He finally reveals the entire story when he confronts T’Challa in the royal chamber.
Killmonger: Ask who I am?
Shuri: You’re Erik Stevens. An American black operative. A mercenary nicknamed Killmonger.
Killmonger: I am N’Jadaka, You ain’t the son of a king. You’re a son of a murderer.
Uh, oh. Now the plot really thickens.
SHOCK AND AWE
“Luke, I am your father.” ‘Nuff said.
Okay, so actually that’s a misquote: “No, I am your father.” is the actual quote but point made. Revealing something momentous is a great way to make people pay attention.
BLAH, BLAH, BLAH
I had a teacher who would use that phrase to convey nonsense he didn’t want to express or hear. Use the blah, blah, blah rule to form good dialogue. For example, never have a character just say “yes” or “no”. This doesn’t help the story one bit. It’s blah (and blah, blah.)
In the wonderful Pope of Greenwich Village Charlie, played by Mickey Rourke, asks a bookie about his irresponsible cousin, Paulie, written and played beautifully by Eric Roberts.
Charlie: Did Paulie make his payment this week?
Bookie: (disgusted) Paulie who? (Meaning no and he’s done this before.)
Instead of saying Yes or No, the Bookie character responds with a funny line that both reveals character and adds to the storyline.
UNDER THE SURFACE
The insanely tight movie The Fly starring Jeff Goldbloom and Geena Davis has a scene that stands out as being a stunningly good example of subtextual dialogue.
Goldbloom is turning into a giant fly creature. Davis still loves him and is emotionally shattered because she wants to help him. He looks at her and says:
Goldbloom: Have you ever heard of insect politics?
Gena Davis shakes her head.
Goldbloom: Neither have I.
Bam! Drop the mike. He means if you stay and I continue to transform into an insect. I will eat you. Humans are political – insects not so much. GREAT sub-textual dialogue.
Not every question requires a response. Not every moment requires a piece of dialogue to bridge it. Use silence whenever possible to cover certain moments. In the film Gallipoli, an Australian film about a WWI battle that’s every bit as surreal as Apocalypse Now, two soldiers on a boat see their first scenes of battle as they approach the battlefield at night.
One of them is excited, smiling, obviously thrilled to be on the way to this battle. The Mel Gibson character is worried, confused and unsure. The scene has no dialogue, only visuals, but it’s as clear as if the two soldiers had delivered their viewpoints in a ten-minute soliloquy.
Learn when not to use dialogue and it makes your other dialogue even stronger.
A LEAP OF FACE
How well do you know your characters? Writing believable and interesting dialogue involves a deep understanding of your characters. In The Natural, Robert Redford’s character meets up with Glenn Close’s character after not having seen each other for sixteen years. They had been close as children and closer as young adults, nearly engaged to be married. Although they hadn’t spoken to each other for years, the first thing Redford’s character says when he comes through the door of the diner and sees Glenn Close sitting at a table, waiting for him, is “Why aren’t you married?” This implies that he knows her so well, the anticipation of this event has been played out so long in his mind, that he can cut all the introductory nonsense. Without blinking an eye she answers him, implying that her character is comfortable enough with this man to go directly to that obviously painful question. It’s a marvelous bit of understated filmmaking.
IS IT ALL THAT?
We tend to (unconsciously) write dialogue that mimics our speech patterns. This is okay for one or two characters but not for them all. One of the ways you can really make dialogue soar is to use language rhythms and nuances that are unique to your character. The Coen Brothers do this extraordinarily well. In O Brother Where Art Thou? the George Clooney character has a “citified” way of speaking that sets him apart. His contention to his wife, played by Holly Hunter, that marrying another man “…puts me an awkward position vis-a-vis my progeny. I am the paterfamilias.” certainly wouldn’t work with most characters, but is pitch perfect for him.
The nuanced speech patterns and phrases that Francis McDormand uses in Fargo identify her as a very unique character indeed – especially when she delivers the line “You betcha!”
Viggo Mortensen’s character’s speech pattern in Green Book is in direct contrast to Mahershala Ali’s proper and well-enunciated words. It helps define the characters as much as anything.
Slang, culture-appropriate terms, period-appropriate terms, and insight into your character’s background all help shape your dialogue.
EXPRESS YOURSELF – OR DON’T
The movie Deerhunterfeatures probably the most inarticulate characters ever written. Most of the time they don’t even know what they are talking about. One great dialogue moment takes place when the Robert DeNiro character is out hunting with a buddy who is never properly prepared for anything. The buddy asks for DeNiro’s spare boots and he refuses. When the buddy asks why, DeNiro says, “Stanley, you see this?” He shows the buddy a .30/06 rifle shell and continues. “This is this. This ain’t anything else. This is this.”
DeNiro’s character confuses his friend because the friend can’t figure out that DeNiro is talking about Stanley’s inability to focus on the here and now – but it’s brilliantly clear to us. Plus, the DeNiro character, in that moment, is expressing some of the existential themes of the movie: isolation in a 1970’s world we no longer understand, but had to be prepared to live in every day. Good stuff. It both expresses the DeNiro character’s unique attitude and insights, and layers in the theme of the film but keeps everything in the strict perspective of these wonderfully inarticulate characters.
At the end of this troubling film, the blue-collar characters sing “God Bless America” instead of verbally expressing the pain and sorrow they feel. It’s a perfect representation of how these deal with their everyday lives when words just aren’t appropriate.
GIVE YOURSELF THE FINGER
I know this is going to sound strange, but it works. A producer I worked with once held me to a strict standard: if the dialogue I was writing was thicker than her index finger, it was too long. I railed against this arbitrary rule she imposed but I had to do as she was asking because she was paying me. She was right. The “finger rule” kept the pace rapid, the dialogue interesting and me involved in the process by challenging myself to make it work.
WRITING IS REWRITING
Don’t groan at this old saw. It’s true. Take Academy award winner American Beauty. Alan Ball wrote many terrific moments in the original script, but the rewrite was even better.
Original: One of the scenes between Ricky Fitz and his father, as written, involves a talk about the movie Top Gun. It’s meant to foreshadow The Colonel’s closet homosexuality.
Modified: The scene becomes a painful struggle for The Colonel to communicate with the son he loves, but with whom he can’t be real. It goes to honest emotion, and the walls we build between ourselves which is part of the film’s theme. Much more satisfying and much more revelatory.
Like anything in writing, dialogue is a process. The more you work with it, the better it gets.
Keep it tight, shorter rather than longer, in the moment, deeper than the surface, and moving – and you’ll come out a winner every time.