Dialog: Tips & Triks

Dialogue in film has always been a great mystery. What makes a good dialogue? And why is it so important what people say in a film? There has always been a certain fascination surrounding good dialogue writers.

Filmmakers Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino are a couple of the most famous dialogue writers. To write amazing dialogue, you need a good ear for dialogue, just like musicians who can naturally play by ear - but fear not if you don’t have these skills. There are other ways to improve your dialogue, and in this article we will present some of them, which will hopefully get you on your way to writing better dialogue.

Dialogue or story?

Good dialogue is often a big factor in a good screenplay. A huge part of the pleasure in reading the screenplay is based on the flow of the dialogue, since it often takes up quite a bit of space in most screenplays. This fact can cause great frustration if you are a writer and dialogue is not really your thing. An otherwise good screenplay can drop dead if the dialogue sucks - but on the other hand, it is also possible for a producer to be blinded by great dialogue and to forget to focus on the actual story - which in the end is what matters. Some producers simply cannot read a screenplay properly and in this case, dialogue is king, but be aware that these producers will often make films that will take you nowhere. Ultimately, if you can get both a great story and great dialogue in there, obviously that is best, but in most cases that is a dream scenario, so if you have to choose... Go for story. Dialogue itself can hardly make people cry. It is important to understand, that dialogue in itself is not a strong asset for storytelling. It is only together with and in contrast to the action that its real strength is exposed.

You can read it alright, but can you say it?

Dialogue is an element that serves a close link between the writers and actors, and therefore dialogue in film is not like dialogue in books. Some lines can read really good on paper and readers love them, but they tend to forget that actors eventually have to say the lines. This is one of the hardest things to master when dealing with dialogue, especially if it does not come to you naturally. When writing dialogue, always bear in mind that someone has to stand in a studio or a location somewhere and say the lines you are writing. Can you say them yourself? If you can easily say them yourself and it sounds natural, then there is a good chance that an actor can do it, too.



Dialogue is monologue

Another thing that makes writing dialogue difficult is the fact that dialogue will not work if it is written in the exact same way people actually talk in real life. When people talk, they often repeat themselves, make many mistakes, stutter, use a lot of adjectives and almost never get to the point. If you use these elements to the same extent in your screenplays, the conversations are going to get very long and probably boring, too. On film, everything has to be more direct and simple, because dialogue most of the time is an expression of the character’s wants (all characters in drama should have a want and a need, i.e. something they know they want and something they do not know they need). That is why dialogue in film will often work best as monologue between two characters each expressing their wants.

For example:

Jane

I wanna to go to the beach.

Joe

I’m thirsty.

Jane

Are we going today or not?

Joe

Can you get me a beer in the fridge, honey?

None of them responds to the other’s questions, but nonetheless it feels like a conversation and we get a clear idea of what the characters want - and it will be mildly exciting to see whether he gets something to drink and if she gets to go to the beach. If you want to add even more drama, the two characters' wants should be of a contradictory nature, so if Jane gets what she wants, Joe cannot get what he wants or the other way around.

Dialogue and intentions

A simple trick to create more depth in your characters is to let them say something and then do something else.

For example:

A woman is holding a gun to a man’s head.

Woman
I love you.

This will create a duality in the character, which the actors often need. Actors are often looking for emotions they can pick up and act on, and a lot of the time these are more easily made real if the emotions conflicts with the action. In that way, the actor can invite the audience inside the character's dilemma. In the example above, the audience will think “What’s going on? Didn’t she just tell him she loves him? Why is she pointing a gun at him then?”. Let's say in this example that the actress is also crying - then the audience can see that she is really being truthful about the love thing, but why is she holding the gun then? They are confused, but also excited about what is going to happen next. Will love prevail? And the audience is invited into the dilemma. What would you yourself do in that situation? In that way the dialogue contributes to and becomes a part of the story, taking it all to a higher level.

Commands and questions

Because dialogue mostly is and should be an expression of the character's wants, it will often be in the form of a command or a question referring directly to the character’s wants.

For example:

Joe

What is going on? (He wants to know what is going on.)

Jane

Mind your own business! (She does not want to tell him.)

A good rule of thumb for checking how much of your dialogue is like this is to run through your screenplay and check for question marks and exclamation points, to tell you how much of your dialogue is questions and commands. If you have some dialogue that is not really working, sometimes converting it to a question or a command can solve the problem.

Skip the general statements

Statements are often a no-go in drama.

For example:

Joe

It’s cold outside.

So what? What does this tell us? Why do we need to know this? How cold is it? Does our character care about this? Is it important to him? Converted to a more specific line that refers directly to the character’s want will often give the dialogue more meaning.

For example:

Jane

I’m freezing.

What does this tell us? Our character is not feeling comfortable. She wants to go somewhere else, maybe. It does not really matter if it is actually cold or not. What matters is what our character is feeling. If we can see it is very hot outside, and everyone is sweating like pigs, then why is our character freezing? It gives her a problem she has to act on. Something must be wrong. We are excited to find out.

Chop, chop and chop

When writing a first draft of a screenplay, the dialogue is almost always over-written and needs some serious cutting. This is because you often do not know where you are going in those early stages, but as soon as the first draft is done, you will have a much better idea and then you can start chopping. Don’t be afraid to cut too much as long as you have a safe copy of the screenplay somewhere. Often you will need to cut more than you think. Audiences these days are smart and do not want things to be over-explained.

Improvising

If you're not good at writing dialogue, and you are almost certain you are never going to be, then improvisation might be the way to go. This is obviously best if you are involved in the directing of the film. Just write the most basic dialogue in the script that indicates what you want it to express. For example, what is the character's want? How is he feeling? And so on. Then when you talk with the actors, when they have read the screenplay, you could try out some different lines that they come up with or you come up with together. Now you can hear right away if it works or not. Write the good things down or if you are a bolder director, you might already be on set at this point. Then make sure you shoot a lot and get the good stuff in the box. This method can also be used to improve existing good dialogue. Even the best dialogue can create problems on set and needs to be fixed. It is always a good idea to have a reading with the actors before any shoot, to go through the dialogue and fix what needs to be fixed, before you are under massive time pressure on set.

Humor in dialogue

It is an often encountered mistake to think that dialogue in itself is funny. Jokes, funny lines etc. are often not very funny out of context. Dialogue becomes funny when it is put in context and in action, and very often it is actually the action that is funny and the dialogue is only a side-kick comment to throw some more wood on the fire. That is why most humor in comedies are based on the almost mechanical action in for example Charlie Chaplin films, Meet the Parents and American Pie.

Reference to the real world

A lesser known trick when writing dialogue is to refer to real life. Tarantino uses this to a wide extent. For example, in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, where the dialogue is about everything from burgers to Madonna, the topics are based on something we all know and have an opinion on. This will do two things: It makes the film universe real, since we can see that the characters are living in the same conditions, with the same restaurants, the same actors, the same singers and so on, as we are. It also involves the audience in the dialogue. If, for instance, two characters are talking about Madonna, almost every person knows Madonna and will have some sort of opinion on her and then we will start to compare our own opinion to the characters' opinions. Obviously this often works best if one of the characters has a more far-out take on a subject - like Steve Buscemi's character who does not tip waitresses in Reservoir Dogs, because he thinks tipping is for the birds. If the waitress is not making enough money from her monthly paycheck, she should just quit and not bother him with her begging.

A final word

That was just about it. We hope this will give you a better understanding of dialogue, and why and when it works. Mostly, we hope this will get you on your way to writing better dialogue in your future screenplays.

Related content:
Tips for the screenwriter
Some synopsis examples
Know your 3-act structure
The screenwriter's "What is?"



Links:
Watch "Mr. Pink on tipping" from Reservoir Dogs
Tips on dialogue at About.com
Effective dialogue at Filmmaking.net

Skrevet av Kim Blidorf