Dialogue is one aspect of screenwriting that so many screenwriters struggle with – even the most experienced of screenwriters often get it wrong. Poorly written dialogue is a big reason why scripts often get rejected because it’s so immediately obvious and jarring to a reader or audience when words are coming out of characters’ mouths that just sound wrong.
Dialogue isn’t rocket science – we all say things every day, so surely it can’t be too hard to give your characters things to say that don’t sound completely out of place.
1. Give your characters a voice
A test of good dialogue is: can you omit the character’s name heading and still know who’s speaking? If so, you have found your character’s unique voice. In one screenplay I had a character who, for purposes of maintaining control, couched his dialogue in questions. It was easy to spot his dialogue on the page. But, more than that, the rhythms of a character’s speech and, most importantly, their world-view/backstory, should inform how they speak. Do they interrupt? Finish someone else’s dialogue? Are they an extrovert or an introvert? What’s their status? Do they seek power? Are they submissive? Know your characters and they’ll start talking to you.
When it comes to expository dialogue – use an eye dropper, not a ladle. Exposition works best when it’s dramatised; that is, when it’s revealed while the character is in danger. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman only realises that Redford can’t swim when they are trapped on the edge of a cliff, being chased down by the super posse. Also, use creative ways to leaven the exposition; for example (continuing the swimming theme) Martin Brody’s inability to swim is highlighted with humour in act one – a New York cop on an island!
3. Be familiar with your characters
You must really know them before you start writing their dialogue. So, before you write a word of dialogue, write a backstory. Lajos Egri, in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing, has a great template for covering the three main aspects of a character (Psychology/Physiology/Sociology).
Don’t be afraid of being colloquial. While writing my second feature film, Frettin’, I revelled in the local dialect of this Nuneaton/Midlands set comedy-drama.
As for stories in general, by being local, quirky and specific you can also be universal.
Interesting story about dialect. Ken Loach’s Kes is based on Barry Hines’ Barnsley based novel, where the dialogue was written in dialect form. For the screenplay, the South Yorkshire dialect was replaced with formal dialogue. When the Yorkshire actors were cast, they naturally put the formal written dialogue back into colloquial speech.
The received wisdom on voice-overs is that they’re bad screenwriting. We should show not tell. However, some of my favourite films have great voice-overs. How about Apocalypse Now? The original theatrical release of Blade Runner has one of my favourite lines of all time, “We didn’t know how long we had together. Who does?” And how about Kevin Spacey in the opening of American Beauty? Talk about building intrigue, “In less than a year, I’ll be dead.”
Also, what if your character is an unreliable witness? You could be clever with your voice-over to wrong-foot the audience and lead them down the wrong path because, of course, as an audience, we do tend to believe everything we’re told.
Just like visual foreshadowing, you can foreshadow within dialogue. This can be to set something up for much later in the narrative or to bookend an individual scene. An example of the latter is what Tarantino does in True Romance (directed by Tony Scott). Christopher Walken’s gangster is threatening Dennis Hopper’s father in the classic ‘Sicilian scene.’ It ends with the line, “Now, tell me if I’m lying.” The dialogue serves many functions: it’s funny, it reveals character, it creates tension, it’s foreshadowing within-a-scene. Dialogue foreshadowing for much later on in the film is something we’re more familiar within (remember the know-it-all security guard in Wayne’s World?); it either needs to be subtle or scattering with red herrings to misdirect the audience.
7. Rubber duckies
Sydney Lumet in his fantastic filmmaking book ‘Making Movies’ says don’t write rubber ducky dialogue!
Rubber ducky dialogue is a monologue where a character explains why they are the way they are because of a past trauma.
In reality, how consciously self-aware are we as human beings, aware of our triggers and the experiences that have shaped us?
If you have to have rubber ducky monologues, and some genres like closed mysteries or melodramas may include them as a convention, best if they are written with a character under duress, under pressure.
The best rubber ducky is probably one word (on a deathbed), in a classic film, and it was set up visually within the story, too. Got it, yet? It involves a sledge.
Don’t be afraid to just let your characters have some banter.
Of course, this depends on the genre to one degree or the other. An action film will have less time to develop character, whereas a drama will have more time. Nevertheless, I think this idea still applies:
Particularly at the start of a film (regardless of genre) we usually want to build some sympathy for our characters. In other words, get to know them. Letting your characters converse and make jokes is a good way to get the audience onboard. Within this banter, you can start to foreshadow themes or specific pieces of information.
In Alien, through the crew’s banter, you learn some of the group dynamics: Brett and Parker’s antipathy towards Ripley; Kane’s laziness (which gets him into some trouble later on).
There’s another reason to let character’s just banter on – creating suspense. One rule of dramatic writing is: make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.
Having characters talk, when you’ve planted a seed of jeopardy, can work really well. In Pulp Fiction, Jules and Vincent ‘hang back’ in the hallway outside of the boys’ apartment, before barging in and getting all medieval. Their banter about foot massages serves many purposes: it’s funny, it sets up the character’s perspectives on life, it tells us Marsellus Walsh is someone not to be messed with and it creates tension. Why? Because Tarantino makes us wait for the confrontation in the apartment.
So, banter can work well, to help us like and understand the characters, to slip exposition under the radar, to create tension when it’s needed.
Of course, in a comedy, banter (alongside visual gags) may be your main focus.
9. Write too much, then strip it back
Just know, in early drafts, you will write too much dialogue, then strip it back, either at the final draft or when the rehearsal/shooting begins. Usually, when writing a screenplay, we write too much dialogue, because at this stage we’re dealing with the written word on the page; we’re not yet in a visual environment. So, character’s will describe things they’re seeing (which we will eventually see on the screen), will say how they’re feeling (which can be replaced with a look or a gesture).
In Road to Perdition, there were three directors involved (Mendes, Newman and Hanks). The story goes that they were so focused on stripping away dialogue and replacing it with visuals and gestures that they had to put some dialogue back in.
10) Do your research
This is a personal rule but it works for me. Write dialogue quickly. However, there’s a stipulation: start writing quickly when you’re ready to fire. William Goldman said do your research, build your characters’ backstories and, when you feel you’re ready to write or you’ll just burst, write. And write quickly. Once you’ve put in the research legwork, hopefully, your characters will start talking to you. I believe writing quickly short-circuits your critical brain and helps the characters to come forth and appear on the page. Works for me.
Right. Enough yabber. Go and write some dialogue.
Words by Lee Price
Lee has written for children’s television (including episodes of Sooty and Bob the Builder) and has made numerous short films, on digital and 16mm film. His first self-funded feature film Neville Rumble (made with Richard Miller) is available now in the US on Google Play and Microsoft Stores. His second micro-budget feature film Frettin has been completed. His third feature film Killing With Alice is in pre-production with Bradgate Films. His fourth feature film Slasher is in the final stages of principal photography.
The trailer for Lee’s second feature film Frettin’, where these dialogue techniques were employed, can be found here.