Dialogue is one of the elements that showcases a writer’s talent in a matter of minutes, portraying time period, plot, setting and characterisation. It also reveals the subtext and context of your film. Because it’s so difficult to do well, good dialogue demonstrates your unique voice and style in ways that bring your characters alive from the page, and shape an actor’s performance. Good dialogue is that which (perhaps ironically) doesn’t represent real-life conversation because it’s full of buts and ums and repetitiveness. Sometimes we don’t even realise just how much so. Dialogue needs to emulate the sense of what real conversations sound like, but eliminating those fillers we pepper our talk with.
This is because in a script, you’ve only got a few pages to get your character’s point across, so everything the characters say must move plot along as well as being poignant. This is probably why real-life conversation can go on for so long, because none of us have any plot to develop in a page!
When you’re writing the first draft of your script, don’t worry too much about getting it perfect, just get it down on top of a solid plot line and seamless characterisation. As long as you’re on a roll, that initial splurge is all about laying down the foundations of your story. Good dialogue itself is all in the rewrite. During the editing process, you won’t be so concerned with plotting, and you’ll have the time and the creativity to ‘listen’ to your characters and imagine how each of them talk, adding poignancy and quirks you might not have considered the first time around.
The things people say in real life reveal their traits, personality, education, and their background. In a way, the same goes for the characters in your script. Dialogue has to sound completely natural to your main character; there is no way out of this. We need to hear/see that the characters’ voices are different from one another, because in real life, nobody uses the exact same expressions, or displays the same kind of wit, sense of humour, accent or any other traits that are undeniably personal.
Powerful dialogue can show your character’s very personality through their words. This is why so many screenwriting moguls recommend you know your characters (and at the very least your protagonist) inside out. That you become them if necessary, if only to imagine exactly how they sound. There’s no use portraying your protagonist as a criminal drug lord from the Bronx, if he is then going to speak like a British politician (obvious, perhaps, but you get the point).
There are accents to be considered, slang words, expressions, what’s taboo in your character’s culture, what’s not, how their background shapes the way they speak, their speech patterns, tone, sentence structure, dialect, things they leave unsaid, and so on.
Casablanca is a good example. This is how Rick’s character is portrayed through dialogue.
We have a complete dossier on you.
Richard Blaine, American, age 37. Cannot
Return to his country. Reason a little
Vague. We also know what you did in Paris, Mr.
Blaine, and also why you left Paris. Don’t
Worry, we are not going to broadcast it.
Are my eyes really brown?
Straight away we can see he’s a bit sarcastic and unruffled in the face of potential threat, and mostly through another character’s speech, which is genius, as we’re also handed his background, intriguing and mysterious, in a matter of seconds.
A good script is all about balance. A good balance of exposition, dialogue and scene changes. It’s about variety, but not so much that you get confused, and believable, poignant dialogue, but not so realistic it gets strung along for hours. No dialogue should go over the five-minute mark in one same scene without some exposition to break it up. The audience is expected to get bored if the development stays in one scene for too long. Your characters must tell the audience what is going on (in a very subtle way)
Nine times out of ten you won’t need these long explanations clogging up your script; the audience will understand it if it’s been put into the narrative, or a brief hint is always better than over-selling a character’s point. This is one of the biggest issues new writers learn to overcome: exposition and on the nose dialogue that explains all the plot points and essential developments when it is unnecessary, not to mention it hinges on the show-don’t-tell techniques so many new writers end up boycotting.
Dialogue can move your plot along by exposing backstory and plot (via flashbacks for example) and by building tension through climactic scenes (dialogue in action—does your character keep their cool in the face of danger, or do they squeal like a stuck pig?). Dialogue creates action by revealing a character’s decision, or portraying a relationship and/or connection between characters. This often helps the plot move forwards by creating and building tension towards the final plot resolution. A great example of this is in the film A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin, when tension is built between characters Jessup and Kaffee in the final court scene, in which Kaffee desperately tries to extract the information from Jessup that would end the case. Jessup’s outburst effectively heightens the tension and moves the plot forward by revealing the truth.
You want answers?
I think I’m entitled to them.
You want answers?!
I want the truth.
You can’t handle the truth!
And nobody moves.
Son, we live in a world that has
walls. And those walls have to be
guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna
do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I
have a greater responsibility than
you can possibly fathom. You weep
for Santiago and you curse the
marines. You have that luxury. You
have the luxury of not knowing what
I know: That Santiago’s death, while
tragic, probably saved lives. And my
existence, while grotesque and
incomprehensible to you, saves lives.
You don’t want the truth. Because
deep down, in places you don’t talk
about at parties, you want me on
that wall. You need me there.
We use words like honor, code,
loyalty… we use these words as the
backbone to a life spent defending
something. You use ’em as a punchline.
I have neither the time nor the
inclination to explain myself to a
man who rises and sleeps under the
blanket of the very freedom I provide,
then questions the manner in which I
provide it. I’d prefer you just said
thank you and went on your way.
Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a
weapon and stand a post. Either way,
I don’t give a damn what you think
you’re entitled to.
Did you order the code red?
I did the job you sent me to do.
Did you order the code red?
You’re goddamn right I did!
Silence. From everyone. RANDOLPH, ROSS, the M.P.’s, they’re
all frozen. JO and SAM are likewise. JESSEP seems strangely,
quietly relieved. KAFFEE simply takes control of the room
There are ways of integrating exposition into effective dialogue by mixing both narrative and exposition together. You can always have your characters talking about a specific issue whilst they’re doing something active, or have your main character as oblivious as the audience, so that the character finds out alongside the viewer, and things are explained to them, or exposed to them.
Bad expository dialogue is that in which the character is telling the character something he or she already knows for the benefit of the audience. It breaks the fourth wall in an unintentional and clunky way, breaking up the realism of the story. The rule of thumb to avoid this, is to ask yourself, does this make sense realistically? For example, picture a scene between two characters in a room together.
I can’t believe you’re doing this.
You know what! Divorcing me, a forty-five-year-old neurosurgeon who works long hours and doesn’t take the weekends off to help you bring up our four-year old son, Mattie!
As you can see in this (false) example, the exposition is off the roof. It’s terrible. There are far better ways to seamlessly integrate all this information through dialogue and the description. In pilots, this is done a lot, but in a way that is not so on-your-nose storytelling. See the conversation between Joey and Ross on Friends, in the pilot:
I hope she’ll be very happy.
No you don’t.
No I don’t, to hell with her, she left me!
And you never knew she was a lesbian?
No! Okay? Why does everyone keep fixating on that? She didn’t know, how should I know?
This is a good example of integrating exposition into dialogue. Joey asking something that has probably already been explained to him before doesn’t make a whole lot of sense realistically, but the script still gets away with it because sometimes the audience do need plot points spelled out for them. You can still twist it in a way that is subtle (and you must).
Elena Alston is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She writes about technology, screenwriting, culture and travel–and has a knack for bringing brands to life with words. There are two things she can’t live without: books and the sea. Not necessarily in that order.