Every writer is different, but if you're looking for time-tested hits while writing dialogue, this list is for you.
You did everything you were supposed to. You've all seen formative films, made notes about the world around you, read other scripts – maybe you've even taken some courses. You lived with the idea for your script for a while and turned it from a desperate spark into a campfire that all you have to do is write. You may even have hung out on the blog here and worked your way through Dan Harmon's storytelling. You are ready to write.
There are several critical aspects of a good script that we could talk about, but cramming them all into one place is no good. Let's think about it one by one. In this case dialogue.
How do you write a dialogue that doesn't suck?
Nobody wants to go to the tremendous effort of writing a script only to have an amateurish dialogue in the end. If you are hoping to put your script in someone else's hands, the worst possible scenario is no one paying any attention to it. If your plan is to get this thing into production yourself, you may be wasting a lot of time making a pretty, well-edited movie that no one can stand to listen to.
Dan Harmon's "Story Circle" takes you through eight steps to turn an idea into a full-fledged story that speaks to your audience. Image via Darin Bradley.
It's okay to write a terrible first draft. Giving yourself that freedom is one of the first smart steps you can take. As a guy who's worked as a screenwriter and writer, I can tell you that trying to write a perfect first draft is about as helpful as chasing the lost city of gold. If you can bring the material down so you can shape and weave it together (a tough task that you can do effectively), you can come back, follow your queues, and write a really good draft. (The third, fourth, and fifth drafts are also a good idea, but that's neither here nor there.)
So let's look at a few things to consider when you're ready to turn your precious (terrible) design into something we'd all love to see.
1. Arrive late, leave early
This sounds simple, but it's a little more difficult to put into practice than it seems. When we first write scripts, we tend to absorb more information than we should. We feel that we need to set up or explain or contextualize this or that situation, or that the scene we are trying to show you doesn't make sense. The first way you can help yourself arrive late and leave early is to stop asking if something makes sense (at least first). Things may not make sense to you (the creator of the story) if you leave out information, but a more important question (at least again first) is: is this interesting?
Precision is mostly the name of the game in powerful scriptwriting (more on that in a minute). Sure, someday you too could do meandering, three-hour character explorations and make a boatload of money for it (think about the little folks if you do), but to do it effectively, you need to practice a lot to get it on get the point and pack as much history in as few minutes as you can. Once you've mastered this, we can talk about stretching your legs and getting involved a bit more – without boring us all in tears.
2011 & # 39; s Drive is a powerful film known for the economy of its dialogue in script. Image via FilmDistrict.
So conciseness means that we have to do as much as possible with our story and our characters at every opportunity. That said, whenever you think a scene should start, it's probably too early. And whenever you think a scene should end, it's probably too late. Start your scene as close as possible to the important action – in this case, a dialogue exchange. By framing your dialogue as contained elements in the larger context of the scene, you can ensure that you don't waste time on lines that, while representative of the way people actually speak, don't resonate in a movie. Most movie characters don't speak like real people for a reason. We don't pay good money to show up and watch people talk.
Think of your dialogue as part of the scene. There will be contextual elements of the diegetic world that you can rely on to communicate information instead of storing it in boring lectures from your characters. Conversations like characters don't exist in a vacuum. So think of your attitude as an additional speaking role – even if you enjoy playing charades or using props instead of actually speaking.
2. Write twice
Subtext makes the dialogue really interesting, and the best approach to working with subtext is to write your script twice – at least at the beginning. As you gain experience with including subtext in your dialogue, it becomes more natural and you can introduce it at any time. However, once you master the skill, it can be difficult to introduce subtext organically into lines of dialogue if you have not even written the full script and therefore are not familiar with all of the subsequent emotional and narrative revelations of your dialogue scenes.
Get your scenes ready and use more or less the beats you want to hit in the conversations. Then add some lines of placeholder as you work your way through the rest of the script. When you've completed your first draft and are ready to begin the second, you'll have a full experience with the characters. This means you can revisit your dialog and crop and rewrite as needed – and introduce subtext.
Like movies, conversations aren't always about what we think they're about. The disaster movie genre is a good example. Supposedly these films are about bad things and some heroes have to survive. But when you see enough of it, they're usually not about thrills and chills at all. Most of them are about reuniting broken families and turning the entire disaster itself into a giant metaphor. Families struggle, a disaster tears them apart, they realize what they have almost lost, and they reunite, stronger than ever. Check out a few. Well wait . .
San Andreas 2015 is a textbook example of the disaster film as a means to family redemption. Image via New Line Cinema.
Conversations work the same way, both in the real world and on screen. How many times have you asked a friend, "Are you okay?" Just to hear, "I'm fine" when they clearly aren't fine? Have you ever argued with someone about something you really don't care – but carried around a beef that just finally broke through? Or have you ever withheld information to protect someone physically or emotionally? In these cases, the conversations you end up having are not related to what you want to address. People do that. We talk about what we mean, especially when we avoid conflict.
But sooner or later the truth boils over and the real conversation begins. The same goes for your dialogue. Your characters are struggling with something (usually themselves) that's bigger than the storyline you put them into. This fight will affect everything they say. So use this to get duplicate meanings and secrets out of your lines. Let your characters frustrate each other with subtext. Let them argue about it. The human drama is the dynamic behind most films. So don't swim upriver.
3. Avoid bob
“As you know Bob” is one of the classic mistakes. It does have its uses from time to time, but they are very specific. First, let's find out why Bob isn't our friend.
The As You Know Bob device has several names, but all of them stem from a character telling something to another character that both of the audience know the audience doesn't. It's a shortcut to bringing an exposure to the scene – much like downloading a pilot program for a B-212 helicopter. In theory, these lines are very effective (as I said, they have their uses) and have been more popular in the past. For the most part, however, these types of lines indicate that the world of film history has not conveyed the contextual information your audience needs well enough. So it is up to the dialogue to do the trick. That should be your first red flag – whenever storytelling dialogue comes down, there are other ways you can ask yourself if dialogue is necessary. The answer may be yes, but the important thing is to ask.
(The first episode of Game of Thrones gives us a "As Your Brother".)
If you need to tell us what we need to know in order to even participate in the on-screen conversation, drag us through this story and not guide us. This won't end well unless you are purposely trying to do something weirdly bad.
Procedures and medical dramas often need to find creative ways to get around this, such as explaining technical information to laypeople or interns. And in military thrillers, reports between soldiers and their superiors often fulfill this role quickly and effectively. You can get away with it every now and then in critical situations, but you need to earn that use by doing the majority of your dialogue with an early, early exchange that the audience can relate to as you spice up your narrative world through production design, Intuition and inference. Remember: your audience is smarter than you think. If you're not sure whether your exposure should make the cut, it probably shouldn't.
4. Get to the point
Let's go back to precision. We used to talk about how to arrive late and leave early, but that's really when you need to start and end a dialogue exchange (or an entire scene). Precision is about the meat of your script – every word you want to include in your dialogue.
To be concise means to get to the point. When it comes to content and communication, Conciseness is a tool that can help you stand out from the competition. For example, if you have two different instructions that both describe how to make a bologna sandwich, but one is 1000 words long and the other is 500 words long, give each to a different reader, the recipient of the 500. The word recipe learns faster and makes sandwiches sooner than the reader with the 1000 word recipe. When communicating information, the fewer words we can use, the better (which means fewer opportunities for misunderstanding or confusion).
The Matrix Revolutions brought us the character of the architect. While he's a fascinating character, he's far from succinct, which is why his looks are a rare flourish rather than the norm. Image via Warner Bros.
Wait you say That writes. What about literature? We don't shave every creative writing process into a technical manual to repair your lawnmower. What about style and tone and texture? Yes to all of that. Style, tone, and texture are crucial. It is you who make your succinct writing on the page sing. However, the content of your dialogue in and of itself is not the entire Scripture. They are only part of the overall story – the script. The script is your creative odyssey. It is the work of art that connects your viewer with the human condition in a way that only you can see. This means that the dialogue as part of a whole must function like a well-oiled machine with all the other elements of an effective script.
You already know not to waste your viewers' time. You also already know that dialogue is not the only way to convey information or tell your story. Now if you go back to your first draft (remember, your first draft should be as precise as you need it to be – whatever it takes to complete the draft) you can cut the fat off. You want your dialogue to be a tennis game between your characters. Or under other circumstances a dialogical stalemate at the O.K. Corral. Either way, you don't want excessive idioms, descriptions, or monologues to slow down the pace of your exchanges. It's tempting to take your viewers on a dialogical magic carpet ride, but this should be the exception, not the norm.
Get to the point and get there quickly – there are other aspects of this script that take time to get the job done.
5. Conflict is power
Power is control over resources, and most of the history of human conflict has been to gain control over those resources. Whoever controls the water, hoards the gold, has the most workers / soldiers / citizens (all in turn paid for with resources or resource markers) has the most power. Sure, a weightlifter may be more powerful than you, but when you have ten of your own weightlifters who stick to every whim, for example because you live in a barren wasteland and have all the food and shelter I offer you. . . Then who is more powerful, you or the lonely weightlifter?
This is the original struggle: collect the things we need to survive and then gather in groups to band together and fight the others who want our resources too, so we hate them. At some point it starts tracking down things like luxuries and items that represent this control of resources (most people don't really know what to do with a gold bar, but they know they can get other things that they want from people if they want have such a bar).
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) is not only a good example of subtext, but also of two characters whose dialogue is defined by different categories of conflict. Image via 20th Century Fox.
What does all of this have to do with dialogue? Everything. People and the characters in our stories are in a constant state of conflict. We are at odds with one another, with those we love, and even with ourselves. Our civilizations and the relationships we build within them are layered on top of this primordial struggle. Everything we've become as a species, all the art we've produced, all the buildings we've built is somehow a new chapter in the story of sourcing resources and taming the world. Keep this in mind in your dialogue.
The most interesting conversations are those where characters compete against each other (pun intended), even when they're partners or in love or something similar. The real world is full of talking about our basic conflicts in order to live happily (or at least cooperatively). You don't need your characters to actively fight each other on every line, but if you consider them alive in the constant pursuit of power, they will have more to tell you about themselves and the situations you put them in than they do would if you only use them as mouthpieces.
Remember: everything is fair in love and war.
6. Characters exist in contexts
We like to think that good characters shape our experience of the narrative world in a film. In reality, the narrative world writes the character – the character does not write the narrative world. Characters can exist in a vacuum as you first develop your ideas. However, once they start living on the page, they exist in context, not in theory. Your dialogue should reflect this or you will never feel like they really fit into the film.
One way to think of it is this: Everything we do as humans is a reaction to something else – usually something else. Things happen in the world around us that affect our state of being, from a car racing towards you at an intersection to microscopic organisms in your bloodstream that affect your health and behavior. There are myriad variables and stimuli and possible actions at any given moment, and the particular overlap of all of them leads us to make the minute-by-minute decisions that make up our day – even when we say something and why we say it.
Devs (2020) showed us a world exploring determinism and free will – everything affects everything else, and reality unfolds like a river following a course. Image on the 20th television.
Keep this in mind when writing a dialogue. Sure, characters mostly react to what other characters are saying, but everything from the temperature in the room to whether or not someone is shooting a gun will affect how your character speaks. When you combine this with the underlying nature of human conflict, you end up with an unfriendly world, even if it looks good on the surface. Every word your character speaks is a decision about the state of the world and how that story unfolds.
Make good decisions.
7. Don't sweat the little stuff
Don't get stuck in the details. Highly technical explanations, complicated backstories, or intricate schedules can be part of the foundation of your film, but that doesn't mean you have to spend your time on them. We often think that if the audience doesn't know every minute detail of the world we're creating, they won't understand the story the way we intended. If you're writing a science fiction story about a generation ship and its propulsion problems, don't mind. There are established ideas that you can draw on instead of taking us through a talk on astrophysics. If your vampire has lived for 2000 years, we don't need to know everything.
Primer 2004 explores a complicated approach to time travel, the full explanation of which would disarm the entire experience of the film. Image via THINKFilm.
Your characters live in a world that you break up into pieces and put together into a coherent whole. That means cuts and transitions and missing sections of their lives that are not necessary for the condensed whole. (In the theoretical world, we'll call that fable and Syuzhet – give it a try if you want to sound cool at your next dinner party.) If conversation sections or queues are hindering delivery of powerful, contextualized, and motivated lines, then attracting doesn't bother me.
Do not try to rethink the viewing experience of the film – there is no way anyone can receive it exactly how you intended. Instead, focus on providing all of the narrative ingredients for a solid experience, and let your viewers bake the cake however they want.
Do you notice a topic here? Yes – less is more.
There you have it. Seven tips for writing dialog that don't crap. It is important to note that these are not rules. There are no rules. You can write what you want, but you want to write it. These guidelines are more like your first set of tools. We want you to master some screenwriting principles that have been found to be effective in storytelling. When you've seen what they can do, it's time to choose which ones you like and which you don't. We're not here to tell you, you have to do it this way. If you're wondering, how the hell do I start the dialogue? We believe that if you consider these practices, you stand a pretty good chance.
But the world is your oyster. Prove we're wrong – we love it.
Cover photo from Parasite via CJ Entertainment.
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