CRAFT: How to Write Dialogue – Walking The Talk

By Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein & Kristopher White

Originally published in Script magazine March/April 2005.

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Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby in Memento, written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan (story). Photo Credit: Danny Rothenberg

Hearing great dialogue is always thrilling— it’s also what sells movie tickets. Do you sit in movie theaters and marvel at how economical, insightful or real a piece of dialogue sounds? How did the writer come up with the dialogue? We all know when we hear it. It feels real. “Yeah,” we say to ourselves, “That character would talk that way.” “Sure, I know someone like that.” “Wow, did he just say that? What a jerk.” Film execs all over the world get a big smile on their faces when they hear the cha-ching of real-sounding characters.

A director friend once said, “If a blind person would understand it, then it’s not working.” Unless you’ve written a silent film, dialogue makes up about one-third of your movie’s story. So, why do so many scripts fall prey to inexcusable wooden dialogue, as if Gepetto carved it himself?

Take a moment to think about a memorable commercial, short or feature—often it’s the dialogue that has the staying power. Phrases from all forms of media creep into our slush pit of conversation: “Make my day” or “I want what she’s having” or “You can’t fool Mother Nature.” Sometimes it’s the actor’s delivery that helps the line stick. But, more often than not, it’s that snatch of unforgettable dialogue. Writers are often surprised about which dialogue finds its way into ad campaigns promoted to “stickiness” status. As the co-writer of this article, I’m amused when someone parrots back to me “Power perceived is power achieved” from a film I executive produced, The Substitute, co-written by Rocco Simonelli & Roy Frumkes. The truth is, if you’ve done your job as a writer (and/or filmmaker), there’ll be one or two moments of memorable dialogue in your script.

Well, there’s no easy wellspring from which to draw, no silver bullet on how to write great dialogue. Like all aspects of writing, creating great dialogue requires the courage and stamina to face your blank page. The more you write, the better you write. The main trick is to stay open as you evolve as a writer to see what works for you. For us, as writers and coaches of writers, here are 21 tips that can help you write the dialogue that snaps, crackles, pops and explodes on the screen!

TIP #1: GREAT DIALOGUE PLAYS

It can’t be said enough times: “Find the voice that works for you.” This voice is different from each of your characters’ voices. You as a writer will find your own style; you might even challenge the form while still staying commercial, as in Pulp Fiction or Memento. Your point of view is very different from “sounds like it’s the writer talking”—which is the sad situation where you superimpose a point you want to make on your character’s voice. Your job is to find a way to “use your character” to say what you want him to say as part of the “play” you are writing. Play is a huge concept, and we are talking about the unspoken rules of the creative sandbox. Play is the single most useful word when describing great dialogue; it plays.

TIP #2: GREAT DIALOGUE MEANS KNOWING YOUR CHARACTERS

Do your character homework. Clarify background. Make decisions about flaws, foibles and idiosyncrasies, likes, dislikes, looks and voice of a character. Is he a giver or a taker? Is he a listener or a talker? Does he interrupt because he likes the sound of his own voice, or does he kowtow to someone he admires? Does he use poetry in the way he speaks or prefer logic? Or, like one of the characters in Dead Poets Society, is he a closet poet who wants everyone to see him as logical and predictable?

Many writers use a number of techniques to get them moving with a character. Some days, improv might work. Other days, answering the mundane questions from the character worksheet might do the trick. But either way, great dialogue is irrevocably tied to an understanding of your character. Once you know your character inside and out, you may start to feel he is a living, breathing being.

TIP #3: GREAT DIALOGUE IS THE RE-CREATION OF THE SOUL

Dialogue, when it’s kicking, represents what the character is feeling. It gives a sense of time and space. It deftly contains subtext, underscores the goal of the character and gives backstory without being obvious. It is colorful, magical, entertaining, to the point and singularly works to come out of the mouth of the character for which it was written. It has to be emotional and let us into the growth process of a character. In short, it must contain the multi-dimensions of a real person, someone with a specific gravity and a soul.

TIPS #4 THROUGH #8: EVERY PIECE OF GREAT DIALOGUE …

• Gives information about the character

• Moves the story forward

• Develops theme

• Creates conflict

George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) returns home to his family after a journey of self-discovery in It’s a Wonderful Life, written by Philip Van Doren Stern (story, “The Greatest Gift”), Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett and Frank Capra, Jo Swerling (additional scenes).

TIP #9: SECRETS, LIES AND WOUNDS— GREAT DIALOGUE CONCEALS TO REVEAL

Robespierre said, “God gave man a voice to hide his thoughts.” Great dialogue reveals truth by pointing to the untruth. The celebrated acting teacher Uta Hagen said the last thing we say in conversation is usually the truth, but it’s actually the subject we wanted to discuss from the beginning. For example, there is a famous Jimmy Stewart line in It’s a Wonderful Life where he says, “I don’t want to marry you.” But, in his actions we see that he can’t bear to be away from her. In that case, the words express how he wished he felt. It allows us into his “headspace” and foreshadows actions he will soon take to remedy his unrest. Clue: Often a character says the opposite of what he is thinking and feeling. In a relationship, this behavior can be infuriating. Onscreen, it’s exhilarating.

Indeed, even the quiet moments and hesitations in your character’s dialogue speak volumes. What a character is hiding (and how he hides it) adds information about a character’s feelings toward his background, value systems, attitudes about sex, love, children, politics, etc.

TIP #10: LAYERING—THE TAPESTRY OF TRUTH

Layer, layer, layer! This work can be done before, during or after writing a scene. Layering is a topic that takes a while to peel back. Great dialogue is like a rich soup of textures. The ingredients at your disposal are the character’s words, thoughts, emotions and actions. Your character becomes cooked weaving these dimensions, adding depth, creating momentum, providing counterpoint and humor and revealing subtext. Layering can result from evaluating what your character’s dialogue may be protecting the audience or other characters in the scene from knowing. For fun, here are some examples looking at a Hollywood exec-type character:

1) You can trust me (meaning the opposite).

2) I’ll get back to you. (He isn’t intending to call you back ever.)

3) That film had great cinematography (meaning it sucked).

TIP #11: MULTITASKING DIALOGUE

Bad dialogue is often like that lazy employee. It does as little as possible to get by and generally doesn’t want to be there. So, take some advice from today’s corporate moguls: Trim your work force and make your employees work twice as hard for half the pay!

Dialogue should always multitask. This work is a bit like layering, but is more about what it can tell us about character and exposition. Dialogue can entertain. It can be moving. It can underscore theme. It can shift the story into high gear. But, it needs to be doing at least two out of five. Even with comedies, it’s rare you’ll have a joke for joke’s sake … and if it’s there, it’d better be truly funny—like the bean-eating scene in Blazing Saddles.

TIP #12: GREAT DIALOGUE AVOIDS OBVIOUS EXPOSITION

We’ve all experienced it … dialogue where characters say information purely for the benefit of the audience. “Hello, Sean and Sara, my neighbors and good friends of 10 years. Can I get you a beer, preferably your beer of choice, Molson Golden? The same beer we drank as freshmen at USC, remember?” None of the above would realistically come out of that character’s mouth. Upon further recollection, who cares?

Another worn and wearied variation of this exposition is bringing in a character that doesn’t know jack about Jack and have everyone else explain it to them. Boring. It’ll do in a pinch, but there are better techniques. Although, this technique can work, depending upon how interesting the world or situation is—look at the beginning of Minority Report when Colin Farrell’s character enters. We’re so fascinated with what’s going on, we’re more than willing to have someone explain it to us.

Great dialogue scores at the core of a character’s issues. In Sideways, the character describes a type of wine, its flaws and foibles and why he likes it. The audience (and his love interest) know he is talking about himself.

TIP #13: GREAT DIALOGUE ADDS TENSION CLEVERLY

Putting your character in jeopardy can help layer dialogue and add tension while getting in exposition. For instance, you’d really want to hear what two nuns are saying if their car is hanging off a cliff. If they are just strolling down a garden path, we might not care, unless they’re talking about sex. The bottom line is that if you have to use a Shakespearean monologue or a taxi cab confession, do so in an intriguing and unobvious way.

TIP #14: GREAT DIALOGUE CONVEYS INFORMATION DISCREETLY

The idea here is to convey information without spelling it out. For example, instead of saying Charlie has a drinking problem, you can show another character chewing someone out for bringing a beer into Charlie’s house. Instead of saying Sean’s a law student, have him reading a law book. This approach also has the added benefit of layering information. We can learn not just what, but how a character feels about what. In the previous example, how is Sean reading the law book? Does he enjoy it or is it a real chore? It is okay for the audience to work a bit to figure something out.

Indirect exposition is essential when revealing deep character wounds to the audience. As mentioned earlier, people mask their wounds. Say, a boy’s mother died recently: Chances are he won’t go around openly declaring that he’s torn up inside. So, how do you convey the information to the audience quickly and effectively? It might come out more naturally if, when asked to play the piano, he refuses on the grounds that, “Daddy doesn’t like me to.” It reminds him of Mommy. Boom! We get the facts in a fresh, chilling way.

TIP #15: GREAT DIALOGUE GOES DEEPER

Great dialogue scores at the core of a character’s issues. In Sideways, the character describes a type of wine, its flaws and foibles and why he likes it. The audience (and his love interest) know he is talking about himself. So, take out that shovel and start digging. How can you make that piece of dialogue use what’s going on in the scene to reveal the innermost dreams, goals, thoughts and feelings of your character? Now, dig even deeper … make it the $6 million line!

how to write dialogueTIP #16: GREAT DIALOGUE GETS CUT TO THE BONE

Hopefully, during the initial writing phase, your inner critic has been slumbering. You’ve invited your characters into the room with you, and you can’t shut them up. But, once you get past the first stumbling blocks of character and story, it’s time to step back from your script and see what you’ve created. Then, assuming you’ve given yourself that distance, it’s time to go in and mercilessly edit the hell out of your dialogue. Cut everything, especially the stuff you like. Okay, you don’t really have to do that. But occasionally (or frequently) writers fall in love with a line of dialogue or a bit that really doesn’t belong there. You become married to it. This dialogue holds the story back, and it’s got to go. The refining phase “is the time to get that annulment.” Time to “kill your little darlings.” If the scene works without your beloved dialogue, pull the unsightly weed. You will find in most cases that you don’t miss the dialogue, and it will pick up the pace. Polish and it will shine!

TIP #17: GREAT DIALOGUE WORKS THE OPPOSITES (AND SURPRISES)

Every character, especially in a script, speaks for a reason. It’s only in real life that we aimlessly babble. If we did it onscreen, it’d be like attending someone else’s family gathering: boring. By analyzing what a character’s goals for speaking are, you can get a better grasp on what he needs to say and how he needs to say it. What is his objective? Is he trying to cajole, plead, seduce or just get a rise out of someone? Also, what are the mitigating factors involved? Can he just come right out and accuse someone, or is he afraid of this person? Does he want to insult someone but has to be nice? However, great dialogue takes this conflict further and creates a kind of counterpoint (or counterpunch) to the character’s intention.

Creating conflict is a sophisticated kind of layering that works best if it plays at crosspurposes to the character’s goals. Working the opposites can create tension by upsetting the apple cart with the unexpected. For example, our protagonist wants to borrow $20 but is also mad as hell at this same character. Suddenly, the dialogue becomes more interesting because the character is conflicted. It crackles.

TIP #18: GREAT DIALOGUE CURVES THE CLICHÉ

Cliches became cliches for a reason. They’re true but so overused that they lose any impact and, instead, have become mockeries of their former selves. Take a look at the phrase “Something’s gotta give.” Beneath it lies an intelligent observation: A standoff can only be solved by someone’s taking the first step and giving of himself. But that’s not what we hear or think when that phrase is uttered. We think, “Geez, not another cliche.” If you ever want to know if a phrase is cliche, go to cliche-finder at Westegg.com/cliche. Type in the word “dog,” for instance, and suddenly you’ll find 50 used, tired phrases.

A slight twist on the phrasing can often cure these problems. The placement of an adjective or selection of a synonym can make a phrase feel fresh yet familiar. Instead of “Come on, man, throw me a line,” we get, “Come on, man, I’m pulling a Titanic over here.” Simply put, honor what you want to say, just find another way to do it.

TIP #19: GREAT DIALOGUE ESTABLISHES TONE, TOWN AND TIME

There are many factors that can determine your character’s speech patterns. The three most basic ones can be summed up: tone, town and time. The three “T’s”.

“Tone” refers to the genre of the film and style of your character. The dialogue in a realistic drama like Fried Green Tomatoes would be different than a balls-out comedy like Old School. Tone also comes into play with the individual character within your script. What is his approach to the world?

“Town” simply asks where and when did your character grow up? Where is he living now? A little research here will go a long way in lending your dialogue verisimilitude. Think of Woody Allen in any nebbishy comedy role. He has that insecure, Jewish New York patter down. Someone from the Georgian South will sound distinctly different from a Bronx native. If he doesn’t, your wonderful script could end up in the trash can disposed of by a savvy producer from Georgia.

If your character has some special skill or background, like growing up in the coal mines of the American Iron Range, a dialect tape can help you. Or, interview arriving passengers at your local airport, train or bus station to collect gems carved from real lives. Does your character thrive on sports? Sprinkle this territorial passion using sports references. Sparkling dialogue lives in the rhythms of life.

“Time,” of course, refers to when your script takes place. The colloquial language of the 1960s is a lot different from the 1800s, clearly. Subtle shifts in time will affect your characters’ choices of words.

TIP #20: GREAT DIALOGUE DRAWS LARGER THAN LIFE FROM LIFE

People think that you can borrow from life verbatim and throw it onto the canvas that is your film. Direct translation from real life doesn’t begin to echo the layers and

Every character, especially in a script, speaks for a reason. It’s only in real life that we aimlessly babble. If we did it onscreen, it’d be like attending someone else’s family gathering: boring.

depth that artfully crafted dialogue can. Great dialogue is tied to theme and your character’s transformational arc. It is not on the nose, but subtly rings with everything your character is about.

Sometimes, you will hear a great phrase or piece of dialogue from life. You will tear through your script looking for a spot for that memorable one-liner. Although we can find some great phrases out of the mouths of people in real life, it is rare that these phrases step up to the plate. In other words, translation of a real piece of dialogue or phrase into your film requires that you transform it appropriately for your character. You had better write an argument between your characters that is 10 times more clever, riddled with subtext and suspense than the one you had with your best friend last night.

TIP #21: SILENCE IS GOLDEN, SO LISTEN ALREADY

Finally, we’d like to leave you with the most important technique no writer can truly do without. That is the ability to listen. That’s right. The most important thing you can do as a writer is SHUT UP. Once you start truly listening to everyone around you, all sorts of character types and speech patterns will be filed away in your great brain—just itching to come back out the next time you write. So go out and socialize, just don’t say a word.

Remember: Dialogue is conversation well edited.

For more on DEVORAH CUTLER-RUBENSTEIN, KRISTOPHER WHITE or The Script Broker … helping writers succeed in the marketplace, go to thescriptbroker.com, a division of Noble House Entertainment, Inc.

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Learning how to write dialogue that pops can turn a simple story into a hit. Take Juno for example. The premise itself is fairly simple yet add Diablo Cody’s snarky, funny dialogue to it … and BAM! Oscar win!

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