“You talkin’ to me?” is probably one of the best-known lines of dialogue in movie history in the past century. In Taxi Driver, the protagonist Travis Bickle is alone in his room, looking at himself in the mirror, imagines someone else is there, and starts imagining a dialogue. It is also well known that what was to be the most iconic line of an extremely iconic film was improvised by Robert De Niro as the director Martin Scorsese kept the camera rolling.
A great actor, especially one that is so immersed in their character as the heavily Method Robert De Niro, will be able to come up with such dialogue on the spot. Nevertheless, a film’s dialogue remains first and foremost the province of the screenwriter. Great dialogue will roll off the tongue of actors and fly off the silver screen. It is however far less easy to make happen for a screenwriter.
“You Talkin’ to Me?” and the true purpose of dialogue
The widely-respected script consultant, screenwriting guru and best-selling writer Linda Seger, the author of How to Make a Script Great, Writing Subtext (which was reviewed on this site here) and Creating Unforgettable Characters, among many others, has teamed up with script consultant and screenwriter John Rainey to write a compendium on the topic of dialogue entitled You Talkin’ to Me? How to write great dialogue. If anyone knows the subject, it should be them.
Combining the expertise of both authors, this insightful and thorough book quickly becomes a terrific resource for writers of any and all stripes. Great dialogue comes from character, always, reflects their psyche, their social settings, and also advances the story and conflict. In the popular imagination, good dialogue is essentially witty zingers thrown back and forth, but it rarely is just that. Quotability is merely a bonus. Therefore, it takes a lot of work and art for the screenwriter or writers to write something that is truthful to the character and the story and also has a narrative purpose.
The authors dive deeply into what dialogue is and isn’t, what it should be and what it can’t, and have put together a precise and insightful guide on how to write dialogue that accomplishes its mission. The great insight of this book is that it relates its central subject matter, dialogue, to all the other building blocks that need to be in your screenplay. Chapter after chapter, the reader will be taken through how a character’s lines should tie in with their world, their social background, their intention, as well as, of course, the central conflict that drives the character.
Going deeper with the dialogue
A screenplay is built on structure, intention and obstacle (as Aristotle theorised, back in the day), story and plot. Dialogue serves those elements, but should also reflect components that sit in between and around those, for instance, theme. In one especially illuminating chapter, the authors outline keys to making sure that theme is used to state the theme of the story (incidentally, statement of the theme is a major beat for any movie, as outlined in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat). Perhaps your theme will be revealed to you as you write your dialogue, or perhaps you’ve figured it out earlier on and are using it to underpin your dialogue.
Seger and Rainley, in the latter half of their outstanding book, also explore devices that will enable you to shade your dialogue. These devices, such as dialects, accents, sensory images, are where hard work and craft will meet art and will empower you to create dialogue that will advance the story while still being poetic, quotable, and ultimately truthful.
Art is a lie that tells the truth, said Picasso. Extrapolating on his words, dialogue is a lie within a bigger lie of a movie, that tells the truth, and sounds true. This compact, 250-page packs a great deal of wisdom, experience, and tools that will help any writer up their game by a couple of notches when it comes to dialogue. The book is quite a feat: insightful, practical, enjoyable, immense in scope. It is everything that a screenwriting book, and great dialogue, should be.
You Talkin’ to Me? How to Write Great Dialogue, by Dr. Linda Seger and John Rainly, is available from Michael Weise Productions here.