Writing Effective Dialogue

By Michael Daniels, posted 1 February 2006

In a visually driven media the importance of good written dialogue is often ignored or at best underestimated. Good dialogue adds depth and meaning to a film, whereas thin, poorly written dialogue can detract from the overall mis-en scene, and burden your actors with a performance lacking in verisimilitude. As a writer or filmmaker, you should to be aware of the need for good, effective dialogue. No matter how sparse, superior dialogue can really make a piece of film. Learning to write quality dialogue will reward the writer or filmmaker with strong characters, within dynamic and engaging scenes. A few hours invested in watching some acclaimed and successful films should convince you of the value of good dialogue. Great movies are always remembered, as are classic lines. A short article such as this can only offer you a few pointers to writing successful scripts, however what is discussed here can be developed further, and should enable a writer to develop strong characters and quality dialogue.

Often actors will complain of poor dialogue. Usually this takes the form of the actor in character unable to feel or believe the line as originating from their character. Often such complaints are dismissed by directors or writers, but good actors should, and do see into the deeper levels of the character. Bland or "hammy" performances are often the fault of poor dialogue. Well written lines encourage good acting and structure an actor's performance.

Character driven dialogue
In order to write good dialogue you must be true to your character. Your dialogue must be character driven. This may sound somewhat obvious, but it is often found lacking in scripts. Often lines are imposed upon the character, rather than originating from the character. The only way to avoid this pitfall is to thoroughly know and understand your character on all levels, regardless whether or not all of these levels will be revealed to the audience. You must empathise with your character and derive your lines organically form within the character. This is "method writing". Often what might appear as "writer's block" may in reality be a struggle to find the character's voice. Again, strong, clearly defined characters will produce well developed character rooted dialogue. If you find yourself struggling to write lines for your character, then you should perhaps question your understanding of the character. What drives or motivates your character? What gives your character meaning and purpose? Do you know your character's past? Try and keep your dialogue in tempo with your character. Try and maintain that delicate link or relationship between yourself and your character. Try and allow the character to have his or her voice. It is that subtle yet crucial relationship between writer and character that makes good dialogue. Be careful not to fall into the trap of writing what you think your character should say. Allow your character surprise you. Even on paper your character should come alive and appear in every respect as a real person. Remember, although you are their creator, you are not their ruler! They took a vote and gained independence. From now let them speak. Listen!

Reflecting the Mis-en-scene
Your characters are part of the mis-en-scene. The same can be said for their dialogue which must be true to the mis-en-scene, and reflect the character's reactions and thoughts. Unless for some special artistic or creative purpose, your dialogue should always engage your character within the mis-en-scene, moving the character forward. Failure in this respect will result in "cut out" two dimensional characters superimposed or pasted on the scene.

In the film, "The Shining", Jack's dialogue is always in pace with the mis-en-scene, and mirrors both the remoteness of the location and the confinement of Jack's situation. His dialogue is unsettling, and continually mirrors his unnerving and desperate situation, and his final slip into madness. Often the dialogue is sparse. Yet a few carefully chosen words clearly add to the overall feelings of fear, danger and the loss of control. The dialogue should never be over written and here is another useful piece of advice. Never allow your characters to be bogged down with endless lines of dialogue. Economy of words is the best policy. Whenever at all possible use the camera to tell the story and move forward. Remember film is a visual medium, and unless your characters are confined in a lift for the duration of the film, as in "Abwärts", keep the dialogue short and sweet. Avoid long drawn out speeches – even if your script calls for a speech! Even courtroom dramas are highly edited versions of the real thing. Often a few carefully chosen words will express your characters feelings far more than countless lines. As with Jack Torrance, it is what he doesn't say which reveals most about his state of mind.

To cliché or not to cliché
If you are trying to achieve naturalistic dialogue then you will have to make use of clichés in your scripts. Virtually everyone makes use of clichés in their day to day speech, and if you are after a dialogue which reflects these speech patterns then you will need to consider using them as part of your scripts. The danger here of course is that they will seem dull, boring and lacking in originality. However, if you are after a more creativity or your scripts are more experimental in form, then you will want to avoid clichés at all cost. How many "God damns", "At the end of the day", or "Oh my gods", you include in your script may come down to a hard choice between reflecting society, or challenging it. One thing you must be sure of however. Do not fall into the trap of preconceptions or your own prejudices. If you are going to use clichés then make sure they really do reflect the society you are seeking to represent, and are not a figment of your own deep seated convictions about how a particular group of people converse. Stereotypical dialogue and characters will not go down well with an audience and will most likely come back to haunt you. Write about people and cultures that you have experience of and not from what you think you know about. This is a real pitfall for any writer and can lead to a script that resembles a poorly written soap opera.

Layers of Dialogue
Characters have layers. As a film progresses these layers are uncovered to the audience revealing aspects of the character. This gives the character depth and interest. The audience gets to know the character through his or her actions and through their thoughts, and thus their dialogue. This means that you must structure or layer your dialogue. You should aim to reveal the deeper aspects of your character as the film progresses. Often the true nature of your character will not be revealed until much later in the film. Just as when you meet someone for the fist time, your first impressions may not be correct, and it only comes through an understanding of the person over a period of time. It is then that you come to understand the person and gain a rounded experience of all aspects of their character. This process when applied to your dialogue will produce fully rounded characters with depth.

Transformation
Your hero or heroine must undergo a transformation. Your character must grow, and it is though the challenges and confrontations that your character is transformed. This growth and final conversion in your character is not only shown through his or her actions and reactions, but also through their dialogue. A simple example would be a coming of age drama in which your character has little confidence from being bullied by his or her peers. This lack of confidence is clearly reflected through their dialogue. Through challenges which your protagonist overcomes, he or she goes through a transformation, and by the end of the film is able to face up to, and confront the tormentor. Reflect on how your character's dialogue would now echo their transformation, and new found confidence. Your character is still the same person, yet their dialogue must reflect their new found growth and assurance.

Summary

  • Make your dialogue character driven. Allow your character freedom with a unique and individual voice.

  • Organically root your dialogue rather than try and impose your dialogue on your character. Avoid being a dictator!

  • Ensure that your dialogue reflects, and is in sympathy with the mis-en-scene.

  • Use clichés to give your character naturalistic dialogue, but avoid falling into the trap of reinforcing and recycling preconceptions about cultures or specific groups of people. Stick to groups and cultures that you are familiar with.

  • Layer your dialogue to reveal and uncover your character as the film progresses. Use dialogue to give your character depth and reveal the deeper thought levels of your character.

  • Ensure that your dialogue clearly reflects the transformation and growth in your hero or heroine. Allow your character to cross boundaries and challenge preconceptions that may or may not be true for that character or social group. Strengthen, mellow, or edit your dialogue as need be to show the change in your character.

  • Finally, enjoy your characters and get to know them! Try to understand their viewpoint and see from within them. Allow your character to grow and develop and gain independence from your voice. Following these simple guidelines will result in dialogue which is vital, organic, and true, giving your characters roundness and depth, with their own voice.

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