15 Movies Screenwriters Should Watch to Study Dialogue
Welcome to the inaugural installment of our series 15 Movies Screenwriters Should Watch where we explore different subjects of screenwriting and feature some of the best cinematic examples that screenwriters can study and learn from.
Here we feature the subject of dialogue.
The best dialogue is lightning in a bottle. There's no real formula. It's not a paint-by-the-numbers process that everyone can follow.
We've explored the "secrets" of writing great dialogue.
Read ScreenCraft's The Single Secret of Writing Great Dialogue!
Lack of dialogue is where you start — that's the first key to unlocking the mysteries of memorable movie dialogue. The best practice is less about injecting those great one-liners and speeches and more about cutting and cutting and cutting every line of dialogue that you can until you find that great one-liner, fragment, or phrase hiding amidst the noise — that diamond in the rough that encapsulates the moment at the core.
Learn how to write great movie dialogue with this free guide.
The second and final key to unlocking the secret of writing great dialogue is to understand that there is no secret. There is no single final secret. And the moment you realize that will be the moment that you’ll feel a heavy weight lifted from your shoulders.
There are no dialogue rules that can apply to each and every screenplay.
Some scripts require expositional dialogue — others would suffer from it.
Some scripts require the added touch of stylistic dialogue — others don’t need it.
Some scripts require no dialogue, letting actions speak louder than words (Dunkirk, The Road) — others would benefit from it.
But that doesn't mean you can't learn from the best cinematic dialogue that has graced the big and small screens. Part of the learning process of writing is seeking out the best inspiration you can find. Then you can build on that inspiration and apply your own style and choices.
Here we offer fifteen movies — in no specific order — that screenwriters should watch to study cinematic dialogue. We'll also briefly break down what you can learn from each.
1. Annie Hall
Woody Allen is a master of neurotic and eccentric banter. If you have characters that match those characteristics, Annie Hall is the first movie you should watch to get a sense of the rhythm that those types of characters utilize in their speech patterns and exchanges.
Dismiss the controversy surrounding Woody Allen's personal life and just embrace the work, which is masterful.
2. Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino's films are known for their dialogue. This is because he writes words that aren't wasted. Each and every line of dialogue serves a purpose. He creates humor without making jokes. He builds tension with quietness and calm before unleashing any rage of intimidation.
But even more memorable is the fact that many of his lines are cool, sly, and slick. If you have a script that is populated with characters that have those traits, Pulp Fiction is the must-see film to study.
3. No Country For Old Men
If you have a screenplay that requires tension, silence is often the best place to start. This Coen Brothers movie exudes tension. And it does so by holding back dialogue to the point where the moment a character does speak, you're completely on the edge of your seat to hear what they do have to say.
If one of the keys to great dialogue is lack of dialogue, this film is one to study.
The protagonist and antagonist don't say much. But when they do talk, it matters.
4. The Social Network
Aaron Sorkin is the master of rapid-fire dialogue — and it's not just about characters talking fast. It's a marriage of fast-paced lines and narrative information, both of which combine to create a medley of cinematic dialogue that plays like an action movie for the ears.
If you have characters that are smart and can spar with words, Aaron Sorkin's work is a must-watch list of rapid-fire dialogue. But The Social Network is special because the characters spouting the lines are smart and savvy. There is a melody to their exchanges. And the way Sorkin crafts each line of dialogue with misdirection and ulterior motive is nothing short of brilliant.
5. The Man From Earth
A goodbye party for Professor John Oldman becomes a mysterious and intriguing debate between colleagues after he poses a strange scenario.
This is a talking heads film. It could very well have been a stage play. One location. Multiple characters. All offering their own take on a single question posed to them.
The film offers screenwriters the perfect example of how to handle a cinematic debate or discussion where characters try to solve a mystery through intellect. If your script has a full story like this, look no further for the best example of how to pull off that dialogue. If it's only a single scene, you can still use this example in a condensed fashion.
6. The Big Chill
Another talking heads movie, but with a different dynamic. The film follows old college friends reuniting after the suicide of one of their own.
Each character is going through their own stages of grief, reconciliation, and midlife crisis. The dialogue exchanges affect each of them in different ways. And that dialogue is equal parts philosophy and humor.
If you have a script with old friends talking their way through life and their personal struggles, The Big Chill is where you should start.
7. Silence of the Lambs
The intensity of every scene that Clarice and Lector share is built through each line of dialogue. Hannibal Lecter is one of cinema's greatest and most horrific villains, yet he hardly ever speaks above a calm noise level.
If your script has a character that hides their lethal true self behind charm, intellect, and persuasion, this suspense thriller classic is a must-watch.
8. Reservoir Dogs
You can't have a dialogue-related list without Quentin Tarantino (and other greats) appearing more than once.
This film was revolutionary when it came to dialogue. Martin Scorsese's early gangster films of Mean Streets and Goodfellas certainly stood out as outstanding examples of machismo character dynamics at their best, but Reservoir Dogs really displayed how Alpha Males could co-exist in the same space.
And that's an interesting question. How can you write scenes that contain characters that all command the room? Look no further than Tarantino's debut feature.
The dialogue behind the character of Juno, written beautifully by Diablo Cody, is lightning in a bottle. You're not going to be able to replicate it without coming off as a copycat or wannabe.
However, you can study it to learn how Cody formulated a different style of speaking. A style that was unique to her own voice. And in screenwriting, a unique voice goes a long way.
When you watch the film, imagine how the scene would have been handled with more rudimentary and average dialogue. Then analyze how Cody pushed the envelope. After that, imagine how you can push the envelope yourself.
10. Good Will Hunting
What happens when you pair brilliance with brutality? Enter Good Will Hunting, the story about a brutal Southie band of brothers, one of whom happens to have a brilliant mind. He's wicked smart, but he lacks the ability to connect emotionally with anyone. And that fact is tested when he falls for a girl while being forced to undergo therapy with an intrigued therapist.
The dialogue is a course in character exploration. Will and Sean learn from one another. They weren't ready to do so. They are two intellectuals from the same brutal streets of Southie and are constantly sparring. Sean wants Will to open up. Will wants to do nothing of the sort.
And on a side note, if you want to learn how to craft a brilliant monologue, this movie is the place to learn.
11. Glengarry Glen Ross
There are so many dialogue lessons to be learned from this David Mamet script, which was adapted from his own stage play of the same name.
You learn how a character can control the room. You learn how to handle many different versions of what would otherwise be a stereotypical character — in this case, a salesman. Each of these salesmen has a different philosophy and confidence-level. And all of that is communicated by the way they speak. What they say and how they say it.
12. Before Sunrise
This was the first installment of a trilogy of films that focused on the interactions between the same two characters. It's a perfect example of how to handle a talking heads script — or how to handle a scene that explores two characters getting a feel for one another.
The dialogue feels natural, although it's cinema-natural. They interrupt each other. Their trains of thought go down different paths through different tangents.
If you need to learn how to handle two characters having an otherwise uneventful — plot-wise — moment together, Before Sunrise can lead you down the right path. And its sequels do the same.
And if you want to learn creative ways to drop inner feelings — the no-nos of screenwriting — check out this scene in particular.
If we have two Tarantino scripts, we need to have two Aaron Sorkin ones, right?
Aaron Sorkin once said, “Anytime you get two people in a room who disagree about anything, the time of day, there is a scene to be written. That’s what I’m looking for.”
The best dialogue comes from two or more characters in one scene that want different things. It’s as simple as that. If you have that present in almost every scene of your script, the dialogue will pop off of that page and eventual audiences will be engaged by the back and forth, waiting to see who is going to win the argument.
We go to Moneyball for a perfect example of characters wanting different things.
You have the GM of a poor team that is sick of playing the same game each and every season pitted up against a room of veteran scouts set in their traditional ways that clearly don’t work anymore.
And that conflict is enhanced at the climax of this storyline.
14. The Big Lebowski
If we're going to double-up with Tarantino and Sorkin, we have to go back to the Coen Brothers as well. While Fargo is a tempting and worthy selection, it would cause an uproar if we didn't feature The Big Lebowski. His Dude-ness deserves a mention.
This film thrives with its one-liners that are embedded with the DNA of characterization. Each line from each character fits that character perfectly. And The Dude gets the cream of the crop.
If you're writing unique and "out there" characters, this is a must-see flick.
There is no single formula for creating a quotable line. You just have to do what the Coen Brothers did, write lines that only those particular characters could say.
15. The Shawshank Redemption
Don't believe what you've heard or read — narration can be an effective cinematic tool.
Sure, it can be a cheat. Screenwriters can use it as a crutch.
However, when used right, it can offer the audience an elevated cinematic experience. And The Shawshank Redemption is perhaps the finest example of how to properly use narration.
It's not excessive. It's not a crutch. It's not a cheat. The narration is used as a way to create a more intimate story.
So if you're tempted to use narration without your script, here's the perfect example of how to do it right.
Wild Card — Exorcist III
While this may leave some readers scratching their heads, the script for this severely underrated sequel to The Exorcist — adapted from the direct sequel novel of the original's source material — has outstanding dialogue.
The scenes between old friend Detective Kindermann and Father Dyer contain dialogue that is rich and funny, without being overly self-aware. And it offers a perfect example of how to lighten up an otherwise dark and moody atmosphere.
Sadly, no clips of said dialogue are available online. You'll have to watch the whole movie. But it's well worth it.
Our selections are based solely on their merit of the subject at hand with the full knowledge that many other movies are worthy to be featured — we're just selecting our own fifteen. If you have additional suggestions, please share in the comments and retweets to spread the word.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies