Writing great dialogue is no easy task. But at the same time it’s not an extremely difficult one, when you understand story substance and character. What happens in the final stages of your story? What’s the main character arc and how do your scenes and acts turn, are the initial questions you should be asking yourself as a screenwriter. For the dialogue, DON’T write a word of it until your screenplay has been outlined and you know what your story is about. I would even go as far to say, write the entire action and story outline, before any dialogue where possible. This way your dialogue cannot dictate your story. You don’t want it to.
I suggest that you read the Character Design article as this area is pinnacle to writing great dialogue. Why is this important? Because to write great dialogue is to intimately understand your character’s fears and intentions. Their thoughts, the strengths and their weaknesses. How are your characters going to grow and develop in the story and what they say, should be a projection of who they are. In every exchange there will be an underlying intention coveted by the words and nouns they use to express that intention or communication. Bad dialogue only means bad characters and likely a bad story too. Most Directors and Producers only read the dialogue by skimming it quickly. By doing this, they can gauge how well you’ve written the entire script. Only by tapping into the characters world, you can understand their fears, choices and motives. You have to know your characters in godlike detail.
It is also essential that dialogue accomplishes a purpose, otherwise it shouldn’t be in your script. The dialogue should either be setting something up, paying it off, providing meanings or highlighting something important or essential to the story. If the dialogue has no purpose, cut it. If the dialogue is being repeated, cut it. If you are talking for your characters, then cut it!
How you start writing and planning your story will sometimes dictate its result and effectiveness. Do you start from the end and write to the first scene and act? Actions, locations and roles should start intimately representing only themselves and the concentrated characters you are writing. As the story deepens you create and introduce more characters and subplots to aid or create conflict with your main plot. So the dialogue too should have tempo and rhythm. Dialogue holds a play of words and meanings and you have to learn how to create an intimate story within the words, within the dialogue. A memorable scene is from Thelma and Louise, when Thelma and Louise create crisis in the rhythm of the final climax. “I say let’s go”… “Go? What do you mean go?”…. “Well, just go”… “You mean go?”…. This builds up stakes and we anticipate a tense moment as they choose death over imprisonment.
If you have read all of the previous articles, you should have a good hold on the craft, at least some of the basics and essentials. Once you’ve outlined and mapped out your scenes and acts, you should know who your main characters are, what makes them tick and what are their goals and desires. Not for the entire story, but for each minute scene. Each scene is a story in itself, and clusters of scenes make sequences that turn to make acts and pivotal points in your story.
To write flat dialogue is also to have flat characters. To write on the nose dialogue means your not understanding character arc and desires and ultimately changes in the character. To write wooden dialogue is not to understand people and therefore means you don’t understand story. Don’t look for the cliches. Again, what is your story? How can you breed this into your screenplay? Understanding people is to first understand yourself.
What is each character fighting for? In each scene, your character must be fighting for something. Who they are and their desires must be clear and specific. To understand this article fully, it’s imperative that you read the character and structure article first.
Substance of Dialogue
As we have discussed before, the blueprint of a film is the screenplay. It’s made up of beats, scenes, sequences and acts. Good dialogue must establish in the beats the intention and desires of your characters. What the characters want, what they are striving for. In the scenes, the obstacles to their goals must be established and in the sequences and acts, you establish what the stakes are. What will happen to the character if they don’t get what they want. Not all of this is conveyed with dialogue, but also actions and it’s sometimes knowing what dialogue not to write, to allow those actions to explode on screen. Thoughts, words, actions. We’ll get into subtext later but your story is conveyed through action, and enhanced with dialogue. Actions offer entertainment and hook the audience whilst good concise dialogue, not overused offers intrigue and sparks interest into the hidden world and story of each character.
Conveys the story and plot or has lots of exposition and what the character is going to do quite often. The character often says what they mean and the writer is usually talking for the characters that all have the same voice. The voice of the writer.
Establishes the character(s) intentions and desires, their personality/archetypes also their motives and choices. This must be congruent to the characters personality and structure and arc of the character and story. The character often hides their intentions or is not revealing themselves fully until they come into essence due to a fear, flaw or wound, weakness or false belief. Due to the merits and integrity of the story, each character has their unique voice. This writer understands people and character.
We’ve heard so much about it, but subtext must hide or reveal fears, a false belief, character weakness or the flaws of the character. Subtext is its own story about inner desires. This is the unspoken language that comes through with action. True character choices are revealed when the character is facing true dilemma and conflict. We’ll look at this later in more detail but I am talking about cover ups and how dialogue can contrast actions. The character may say one thing and do something else, or you may have revealed before that your character is hiding something and is not being sincere. How does this play into your stories plot? I am talking about character intentions. Their reasons must also be revealed later.
Think of the movie Inception, when Cobb hides the fact that his wife was the first person he carried inception out on. It’s hinted when Cobb says “that’s not true”. He knows that inception is possible. When the B story with his wife Mal comes together, the A Story and the B Story merge. It’s then revealed and Cobb tells everyone who the first person is, that he carried out inception on. Now we know why he feels responsible for her death. Without the relevant dialogue from Cobb, and the clever plot from Christopher Nolan, the movie would not have been so engaging. A great recipe isn’t so much about the ingredients, but how those ingredients are combined. If you understand your story well enough, then you will also understand the characters dialogue and where it will be necessary to use subtext.
Well written subtext dialogue will get you noticed as a professional and it creates a pleasurable read. Before we jump into a deeper look, a few important points about subtext.
There are three key parts to subtext:
- The actual text/action.
- The deeper meaning.
- The point the deeper meaning is revealed to the audience.
The text/action is what is written in the script. The other two parts can best be illustrated through a scene from AS GOOD AS IT GETS. This scene falls in the first two pages of the script. Melvin is after his next door neighbor’s dog. My notes will show the subtext structure.
INT. APARTMENT BUILDING (NEW YORK), HALLWAY – NIGHT
The dog takes a snap at Melvin, but the man is much meaner and quicker than the dog — he holds his snout shut with his hand and reaches for the door of the garbage chute.
I’ll bet you wish you were some sort of real dog now, huh? Don’t
worry… this is New York. If you can make it here, you can make it
anywhere, you know? You ugly, smelly fuck.
And with that, he stuffs him in the garbage chute and lets go.
Here, we see the 3rd part of subtext — the meaning revealed. In this case, the writer chooses to reveal the meaning of the upcoming subtext BEFORE you actually read it. Remember, the meaning of subtext can be be revealed before, during or after the actual subtext dialogue. In this case, the audience is in on the deeper meaning before Melvin starts lying about it. You’ll see that below.
We hear a FADING SERIES of PLEADING “ANOOOOS” from the DOG fade to nothingness… as another apartment door opens emitting the loud sounds of a PARTY and SIMON NYE, early 30s. Simon has been born and raised with Gothic horror and it’s strange that what that stew of trauma has produced is a gifted, decent man.
INT. APARTMENT BUILDING (NEW YORK), HALLWAY – NIGHT
Frantic… he bolts into the hall… Melvin is just about to enter his apartment.
Verdell!?!! Here, good doggie…
He notices Melvin at the far end of the hall.
Mr. Udall… excuse me. Hey there!
(as Melvin turns)
Have you seen Verdell?
What’s he look like?
NOTE: Melvin just used a cover-up technique that we’ll get into in a moment. It is a question. A simple question, but it delivers the subtext quite well. This is the TEXT. Because we already know that Melvin stuffed the dog down the garbage chute, we know he is lying. This is important. Melvin’s dialogue (the text) says “What’s he look like?” and we interpret “Melvin is playing innocent, but he’s the one who did it” (the deeper meaning).
Imagine the same situation, but we don’t see Melvin stuffing the dog down the chute. Instead, it starts with Simon looking for his dog. Melvin asks the above question and we interpret that he is just being helpful. But later, it is revealed that Melvin really did it. At that point, we reflect back and realize that Melvin wasn’t being helpful, he was lying. Either way, the subtext works. It is just the point where it is revealed is different. So you can reveal the subtext before, during, or after the text. See that?
Melvin starts to walk back to his apartment door which is directly opposite Simon’s.
My dog… you know… I mean my little dog with the adorable face… Don’t you know what my dog looks like?
I got it. You’re talking about your dog. I thought that was the name of the colored man I’ve been seeing in the hall.
NOTE: Once again, because we know that Melvin did it, we are
experiencing every line he says as subtext. We get the deeper meaning and in this case, it does a great job of demonstrating who Melvin is. So we get Melvin’s character more by what he doesn’t say, than what he does. Do you see how Subtext dialogue can provide a deeper experience for the audience?
Dialogue Subtext comes in two types: The Cover Up & Subtext Pointers
What we saw above were cover-ups. Melvin was covering the real meaning, but we as an audience perceived it. A Subtext Pointer actually directs our mind toward a specific interpretation. Sometimes a cover-up is more powerful because it causes an audience to engage, interpret and enjoy the deeper meaning. Sometimes, a Subtext Pointer is more powerful because it causes the audience to experience a specific subtext.
But get this Subtext is not about trying to trick the audience. It is about delivering a deeper experience. If you trick the audience and make them feel stupid, your script will never become more than a paperweight. In fact, most good subtext has the audience immediately get the deeper meaning. Sometimes, we hide things from the audience if it will give a more profound experience later.
This is simply a method of covering the real meaning, while allowing the audience to perceive it.
METHODS OF COVER-UP:
- Silence: Person doesn’t answer when they should.
- Action incongruent with words.
- Change subject.
- Question them.
- Attack back.
- Complement them.
- Threaten them.
- Confirm something they already believe whether it’s true or not.
- Misdirection: Do or say something that sends their mind in a
- Inappropriate reaction to an emotional event.
- Make a joke of it.
- Continue the conversation as if nothing happened.
As with any dialogue or action, you want to pick the best line that is in character, is appropriate to the situation, and causes the audience to
experience the meaning the way you want them to.
Writing The Script
Excellent dialogue conveys the deep workings of each character, tells a story masterfully and at the same time sounds natural and fitting to each character in your story.
The dialogue you write has to be well thought through, but not necessarily as planned as your structure and characters. Don’t make your dialogue dictate your story. This is the process I follow. We’ll cover more of this in another article.
- Conceptualize the theme and story. Make notes on paper.
- What is the main conflict and what happens in the final stages of the movie.
- What are the three to four main turning points that take the story into a new direction. I use Blake Snyder’s beat sheet.
What is the story and character arc. Write a logline.
- What’s the main inciting incident or catalyst, and how can it be with contradiction to the main character
- What’s the substance of the story and world. Think about metaphors and the bigger picture. What truth are you sharing?
- Set pieces and good sequences that communicate the theme and story. Think of this commercially. Your script is like a business plan.
- Outline and map the story
- What are the character thoughts and desires. Who are the mirror and foil characters and how can supporting characters aid the story.
- Write the script and DIALOGUE NOW
- Rewrite the script and like a sketch, now define the outlines and enhance the story
- Find the cognitive effect and what’s the story about. Now rewrite the logline and a title.
Allow people to read the script and provide feedback. Wait a few weeks and now rewrite it. By following a similar process, your dialogue won’t bog your story down or its movements and rhythm. Anyone who is itching to write dialogue is a novice. Dialogue should be the last thing on your mind. Who we are as people sometimes has no resemblance to what we say or talk about. At least it’s that way in the movies. In archetypal stories, such as allegory, take Lord of The Rings for example. whatever the characters say is very much who they are, but you’re talking about a historian who based his story on similar events that took place hundreds of years ago. Maybe then, what people said, was very much what they meant.
We have talked before about conflict in a story. Actions and descriptions of scenarios much convey conflict, but then so should the dialogue. If the structure is the skeleton that supports the action and narration, then the dialogue must be the blood of the drama. In older much more classical films actions and dialogue was more poetic. Now dialogue must suite your theme and tones, and the bones and blood of your story. It must be a perfect marriage or encapsulation of story, character, structure, metaphor and dialogue. This is the beauty of film and art and you must fully understand and know the story that you are trying to tell and which voices you are using. This is why a Tarantino movie is very different to a Christopher Nolan movie. What aids and compliments the imagery and actions the most is the spoken language used in the film.
As an excercise find a film you like, one that you think has great dialogue. Turn off the picture in your television settings if possible and just listen to the audio. Great dialogue reveals deep character intentions, and advances the story and plot. If you’re a natural born writer, the dialogue you write will suit the story that you are trying to tell.
It’s Way Too Much
I watched a terrible movie a few days ago. Called Murder on the Orient Express. The movie was appalling because 70% of it was dialogue. There’s no true science to this, but I prefer the movies that are around 4o% dialogue and 60% action. All the characters were revealing their motives and backstory through dialogue. Telling their own stories which were shown through flashbacks. It was all based in the past and offered no primal threat, mystery or intrigue apart from 2-3 scenes. A great movie is made of of at least two great Acts and in my opinion this was a poor one.
Take the world famous Columbo on the other hand. Character choices, motives and dilemma’s are visceral and are shown on screen as the suspect tries to hide their thoughts and intentions and escape their looming conviction. Dialogue and Action revealing story, intentions and primal desires. Therefore dialogue is not just about dialogue, it’s also about action. This is why you shouldn’t write a word of dialogue until your entire story is in the bag. Also if you save the dialogue until last, you won’t overpopulate the story and script with unnecessary dialogue. Redundant dialogue will weaken the characters and also the story. That’s usually why badly designed stories require so many rewrites and you often lose the essence and catharsis of what the story was dictating as it becomes diluted through rewrites.
Let’s Study Deeper
We’re going to study script which is not complex, but also quite contained, which was likely chosen for production because of its dialogue. No Country For Old Men. See the script attached below.
I suggest you open this as we go through the dialogue. Now, I watched this movie about two years ago, so I am just going straight off the script.
- Read the subtext in the first three pages, which is the voice over dialogue of the Sheriff. He starts on page 1 by being a proud lawman, a tradition in his family, and then ends on page 3 by not wanting to be part of the world, not wanting to understand the evil inside of men. This sets the tone and theme of the entire movie.
- From page 12, read the dialogue between Moss and Carla Jean. It’s almost comical, “if I don’t come back, tell Mother I love her”… “your mother’s dead Llewelyn”… “Well then I’ll tell her myself”. What character does the dialogue between Moss and Carla Jean communicate?
- Read the exchange between Chigurh and the Proprietor on page 19. This provides insight into Chigurh’s true character over something trivial, such as two people in a store of gas station. The scene is very important in creating character contrast, and if it was cut from the movie, ‘No Country for Old Men’ would be destroyed. The old proprietor is a nosy character and disrupts the temperament of Chigurh, who gambles with life of the gas station owner in a coin toss. This scene shows character dimension and contrast. There is meaning behind the people that Chigurh kills and in this scene Chigurh almost seems a man of principles.
- Now let’s jump to page 57 and read the dialogue in the OFFICE between the MAN and WELLS. Notice the layers of subtext in this dialogue.
For now, that’s it. You can continue to read the rest of the script at your own liesure. Let’s now talk in more depth about the workings of dialogue.
The Nuts and Bolts of Dialogue
Just as there are rules for layering and structuring a story and screenplay, there are also rules to creating effective dialogue. Writing the dialogue also takes serious planning, unless you’re a Pro. How do you make your dialogue sound natural, convey story and also make it as attacking or dramatic as possible? Saying “honey, I am starved, what’s for dinner?”, has to be “honey, you seen my rifle? I am going to find and kill a horse. Then eat it…” It almost has to be outrageous, but the key is to keep your dialogue consistent to each character. You have to plan and know what each character would say and how they are going to say it. In a way that echo’s their beliefs, personality and world view. At the same time, how can you make that line of dialogue exceptional? To know the nuts and bolts of dialogue, one must first know the nuts and bolts of story and character.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO MASTER DIALOGUE?
- An understanding of the patterns, structures, techniques, and rules.
- The ability to recognize and create opportunities for great dialogue.
- Practice so your mind is prepared to take full advantage of those opportunities.
- A total commitment to learning and mastery.
- An entire understanding of your story and the key character roles that you have devised.
Take any one of those out of the picture and your dialogue will never reach its full potential. This article should really help enhance your performance for writing great dialogue.
What’s Your Character Saying
There must be a level of character or character traits conveyed in the dialogue. I don’t mean random traits and tricks, I mean something relevent to the story. Remember when we looked at A Simple Plan, it was an Accountant who decided to keep the money, but it was the very nature of him being secretive and keeping the money secure and in order which led to the chaos. How is your character going to be tested, and how does what they say reveal that? Like the well known addage goes, when you cover the names up of the characters in a well written script, you still know who’s talking. Again, as Blake Snyder says “give them a limp and an eye patch”, now not visually, can you do that in the dialogue. Can you differentuate each character by not only what they say, but how they say it and keep it relevent and congruent to the story and all of the characters.
TO WHAT DEGREE do you use character traits. If you want your characters to be unique, interesting, and attractive to A-list actors, you’ll want their character traits to stand out in their dialogue. They key is to pronounce they characters well, through the dialogue they speak. That provides background into who the character is and what they are thinking.
Let’s look at the dialogue for a moment from the movie TOMBSTONE. The Earp brothers (Morgan, Wyatt, and Virgil), are relaxing on a porch after being in a shootout that resulted in the death of two Cowboys. The Cowboys are the gang that rules the town. Ringo is the toughest of the Cowboys…
EXT ALLEN STREET/ORIENTAL NIGHT
Just then Morgan sees Breakenridge passing by in silence.
Hello, Billy. I say hello, Deputy.
(turns to them)
I don’t want to talk to you. Those men you killed were my friends.
I’m just a nothing, but if I wasn’t I’d fight you, I’d fight you right now. So I don’t wanna talk to you.
NOTE: In one quick exchange, Breakenridge gives us two of his character traits — Loyal and Weak. Throughout the movie, you’ll see him presenting these traits but here, all three sentences he says demonstrate one or more of those traits.
He hurries away, eyes tearing up. The Earps look on in amazement.
All they ever did was make fun of him.
NOTE: I’d say that one of Wyatt’s traits is Compassion. Here, he shows compassion for Breakenridge. You’ll see it many times in his dialogue. He’s constantly trying to understand the other side in this weird city of Tombstone.
Sister Boy should’ve stuck around.
They turn. A liquored-up RINGO stands behind them on the sidewalk like an apparition, murder in his eyes, hands thrust into the pockets of a long black buffalo coat, ivory gunbutts peeking out.
What d’you want, Ringo?
I want your blood and I want your Souls and I want them both right now.
Don’t want any more trouble, Ringo.
NOTE: There it is: Another of Wyatt’s traits. I’m going to call it “Reluctant.” Throughout most of the movie, Wyatt is holding himself back from fights, from love, and from becoming the law in town. It shows up in his dialogue (as above) and in his actions.
And Ringo: Three traits are clear in this one line of dialogue: Killer, Poetic, and Demonic. BTW, these are my labels for these character traits and you may have different ones. They also may not be exactly what the writer thought. But let me justify one of these — Demonic. At different places in the script, Ringo is referred to by others as a “devil,” as someone who came from Hell, and even above, as an “apparition.” Notice in his line, he says “…and I want your souls…”. This is one way to make a character really stand out. Give him or her ONE character trait that goes to an extreme for that character. My bet is that Ringo was a part that lured an actor.
(steps up to Wyatt)
Well you got trouble and it starts with you.
I’m not gonna fight you, there’s No money in it. Sober up. Come On, boys.
NOTE: Once again, Wyatt is Reluctant. And here, we have a hint of another trait — Moneymotivated or Entrepreneurial. But, in this case, Wyatt is using that as a justification.
Wyatt turns into the Oriental. His brothers follow. Ringo howls:
Wretched slugs, don’t any of you have the guts to play for blood?
NOTE: Ringo even does name-calling through Poetic language. “Wretched slugs.” In this short scene, we see traits from each character’s profile.
Breakenridge: Loyal, Weak
Wyatt: Compassionate, Reluctant, Entrepreneurial
Ringo: Poetic, Demonic, Murderous
The secret is to not use more than 3 or 4 traits to represent your character. Don’t over do this with ten traits as your character will actually become diluted and weaker and no actor will actually understand who your character is.
As a task you can write a scene where two of your main characters are in conflict, either with each other or another character. Use this exercise to allow your characters to express their traits to the fullest. Make each line profound in some way and can your characters also express their world view also. Now look at the dialogue you’ve written in a previous script, cover up the names. Can you recognize one character from another? Now do the same for the new dialogue you’ve just written. You’ll notice a big difference. Just as mapping and outlining a story, you have to be selective and carefully plan the dialogue, thoughts and emotions for each of your characters.
You can use a monologue where you have one character introduce their world. Or you can create a more complex scene where their World View shows up. Whatever you do is fine. Just present one character with a full World View. Don’t worry about whether the scene fits your movie right now or not, just do it to get a new view of your character and how they speak. What this will do is provide a new level of depth to your characters and their dialogue.
In summary then, your dialogue must do the following things
- Convey character personality and traits (those that will enhance the story)
- Convey character situation (what’s your characters weakness/ wound or false belief?)
- Create Intrigue (what does the audience want to know about your character(s))
- Convey backstory and relevant exposition (keep it to a minimum) a visual scene showing this would be better
- Create Anticipation about a future event (what predictions, consequences or warnings can be conveyed in a verbal exchange).
- Emphasise Threat (typical for thrillers and crime movies, what’s the reputation of your antagonist or villain in the story)
- Tell a story with subtext dialogue (why are things being hidden, what are the character’s intentions/ motives or fears)
- Create metaphors through dialogue (metaphors can work with symbolism or themes for example “if it bleeds, we can kill it”. They are being hunted – Predator/Hunter.
- Create dialogue cover ups (What are the actions and reactions from what your characters are saying?)
- Use colourful dialogue that contrasts the tone to enhance it. (If you’re writing a serious scene or a shocking scene, like that one with Quint, in Jaws. You could make the dialogue humerous, light and bantering, as the overall horror of the shark attack will be more shocking.
These are some simple pointers, there are more, but I don’t want to over complicate this or make it too scientific or forumalic. The main thing is, that dialogue must be relevant, enhance the story and convey inner character choices and motivations that create intrigue and carry the story forward. If you can make your story more interesting by introducing metaphors that enhance the theme, and create anticipation, and at the same type make the dialogue sound natural. You’re on the way to writing great dialogue.
Read a more eloquent screenplay attached below called Gattaca and identify the 10 above qualities in the dialogue. This one is for those who are serious about writing extra special dialogue. That’s what usually gets you noticed as a screenwriter.
10 Things To Avoid When Writing Dialogue
- Keep It Short – don’t write more dialogue than absolutely necessary. Don’t just put it in there because you think it sounds good.
- Wooden Dialogue – to avoid this you have to really get into the moment and know your characters and know their thoughts.
- On The Nose Dialogue – “were you in college two years ago Danny? Danny: “Yes Marty, I was in college just exactly two years ago actually”…
- Let The Actors Act – give space and don’t over use parentheticals unless absolutely necessary. There’s nothing more awkward than writing lines that can’t be acted because you’re trying to tell the audience how the lines are being said.
- Don’t Be Ordinary – Make your lines extra special or even outrageous in some way. “Are you tired honey?” “Yes, I am Darling”… Instead “Outta gas tonight?” “Hell yeah, but that doesn’t mean I am not playing tonight pigtails!”.
- Distinct Voices – there’s nothing worse than all of your characters sounding like one person or the writer.
- Talking The Plot – this will make the read very painful and boring if your characters are echoing the past or talking about what’s going to happen. It’s done more sparringly in novels, but is a big no in action live screenplays.
- Dull Dialogue – Make your characters use an array of dialects, accents and vocabulary, not only to make them unique, but so your characters stand out.
- Unncessary Dialogue – if characters don’t need to say anything, sometimes silence is a killer, don’t make characters over talk or swear obsanity just to convey anger or frustration. Make the dialogue count and mean something. Make it mean something deeper if you can.
- Character Names – don’t overuse character names. I learned something when taking a course on influencing for business purposes and if you use someones name more than three times in a dialogue exchange, they lose trust with you. It shows them that you don’t care. Also, don’t always make your characters call each character by their name, especially if they have a close relationship.
So there we have it. We’ve covered some basics finally and also covered several advanced details about dialogue. If you ask me, the trick is in the process. Make sure you outline and map your story and have written detailed monologues for each character, and their journey outlines in the story. Then enhance the script by using killer dialogue!