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The Heart and Soul of Great Dialogue

By Film Slate Magazine  |  18-Feb-2010

The main sticking point with dialogue in a screenplay, and something that tortures most beginning writers is how to make the words sound believable, even realistic, without sounding forced or too perfect. It's a fine line to walk between what real world speech sounds like as opposed to what movie dialogue sounds like, and how to blend the two.

Most scripted dialogue, of course, is an edited, idealized form of speech. The stammering, the "uh," the "like" that many people stick in front of their words searching for either emphasis or time to figure out what they're going to say next is virtually nonexistent in movies, except when put in by a screenwriter on purpose to highlight a character trait.

Dialogue works best when it's short and straight to the point. There is a time and place for speeches and/or monologues, but understand early on when that is. Movies are filled with memorable speeches, but remember the context of those moments. These moments work best when interspersed with visuals or other characters' reactions. Take Johnny Depp's characterization of Hunter S. Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (screenplay by Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies and Alex Cox) for example. He is given to long, rambling speeches, but there is always something going on in the background, even if it is a hallucination. The dialogue plays off the images, alternating between comic and harrowing but reinforcing the impact for both.

Making dialogue conversational and believable can be difficult. Characters shouldn't constantly use the names of the person they're talking to; it has to flow and help the movie along. A writer should always be listening for good dialogue. Don't be afraid to edit and re-edit. If a section of dialogue isn't working out, come back to it later.

The writer has to have a good command of the subtext - how it's being said versus what is being said, which is the actual text. Using subtext goes hand in hand with writing realistic dialogue. It can't be too obvious, too ham-fisted. The subtext is happening below the surface, and along with the actor's cues, the audience gets to go along for the journey as they figure out what characters mean by what they say and how they say it. At the end of "Rushmore" (written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson), while Jason Schwartzman as Max and Olivia Williams as Miss Cross dance, they have the following exchange:

Max: Yeah, it went okay. At least nobody got hurt.
Miss Cross: Except you.
Max: No, I didn't get hurt that bad.

During the play which serves as the climax of the movie, Max is injured physically. Of course, with subtext, the audience understands his reference to emotional pain.

There is usually a through line (the driving force, both with plots and characters) for an entire movie, and each scene builds along that. Using the subtext in dialogue from scene to scene helps push the character along and how he or she relates to the larger issues of the plot.

Dialogue can help with the exposition of a movie. While the medium's greatest asset are the visuals, using dialogue to help point out key points in the plot (without devolving into a talk-fest which will eliminate all suspense), when done well, is an effective device. This means that it can't be Dick and Jane conversation: "We're going to do this, and then this will happen, and a result, this will happen." In "The Screenwriter's Bible," by David Trottier, he says, "Let your characters keep their secrets as long as they can."

Always read dialogue out loud. Read it back, have others (preferably in a workshop with other writers or actors) read it aloud as well. Remember that all characters should have their own rhythm, their own style of speech. A common mistake that beginning writers make is that they all have the same voice, and most often it's the voice of the author.

It's in this process that things can be eliminated, such as overly labored exchanges and small talk. As Trottier says, "Dialogue should also move the story forward, just as scenes do, and reveal something about the character's attitudes, perceptions, traits, and values."

Conflict should be part of scenes with dialogue. There has to be a push and pull, something that each character wants out of the conversation, just like real life.

Great dialogue is something that not only reverberates with an audience well after the movie is over but it's something that elevates certain films from mundane to memorable. In a visual medium, the words are what give it staying power, something that can have people quoting certain lines of dialogue years later.

More great articles on filmmaking can be found at the Film Slate Magazine web site.

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